In recent years, a lot of sound and fury has enveloped the notion of "natural wine," primarily on both coasts. What is it? How do we know if it's really "natural"?
Meanwhile, in our pocket of Flyover Land, wine suppliers have brought in — and consumers have enjoyed — wines that probably fit any and all "natural" parameters. Steadily, and with typical Upper Midwest understatement, local imbibers have embraced more and more of these wines.
So what makes a wine "natural"? Well, there is no labeling to help us, but the consensus is that it should possess these attributes: great care in the soil where the grapes grow (sustainable and often biodynamic practices); indigenous rather than inoculated yeasts, and little or no intervention in the winery.
"The best sound bite that I've been able to come up with," said Gretchen Skedsvold, owner of Henry & Son store in Minneapolis, "is that it's like the difference between sourdough bread and Wonder Bread. It's a more artisanal product that is transparent. The influence needs to be pure."
Henry & Son, along with restaurants such as the Bachelor Farmer, Heyday and Wise Acres, are among local purveyors with a strong emphasis on wines that fit this mold. At those farm-to-table eateries, as well as at the Kowalski's chain, natural wines mesh perfectly with the food being offered.
Which means they coalesce with the philosophical direction so many Twin Citians are taking with their buying decisions.
"A lot of people care about where their food came from, and it's starting to happen with wine, too," said Erin Rolek, general manager and wine buyer at the Bachelor Farmer. "Our kitchen is really dedicated to healthy, clean and as local as possible food. We always have an eye toward general care for the Earth with our food and wine."
Rolek added that her guests aren't necessarily inquiring about natural wine when ordering, but are seeking something that complements the food.
"And it is really cool to sort of mention at the end, 'Hey, [that winery has] been biodynamic for several generations.' "
Another Minneapolis restaurant where these wines are an optimum match is Gyst, where all the food is fermented.
"Everything we do, a requirement to be on the menu is an indigenous yeast fermentation," said owner Mel Guse. "Those practices and a hands-off approach in cellar are what we're looking for in our wines."
OK, but what's really in the bottle? The word "alive" comes up a lot. Guse talked about "that living sense that people aren't used to experiencing." For Rolek, "there's an unmistakable wild aliveness to the wines."
One offshoot of those properties can be bottle variation. As Rolek puts it, "People need to know the wines are alive and can be temperamental like you and I." Skedsvold admitted, "This is not for everybody. The segment we target is very accepting of bottle variation."
In any case, there might be major variation from vintage to vintage because the wines more strongly reflect what happens in the vineyard in a given year than do more manipulated products.
That's simply part of the deal, as it is with another increasingly popular category, grower Champagne. Basically, these wines evoke the ground they came from more than most other bottles of fermented grape juice.
"These producers are not trying to make a uniform product," Skedsvold said. "They have a je ne sais quoi, a charm that your average wine doesn't. They're made by individuals or families rather than massive corporations, and small producers do use more responsible practices."
Others have noticed. The Vatican recently decreed, 'The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. … It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance.' "
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.