One of the newest things in wine also happens to be the oldest: Doing nothing.
There's a growing backward-is-forward movement afoot to simply let grapes do their thing when it comes to making wine. Defined as "natural wines," they're the kicked-back kin to biodynamic and organic wines (sustainably grown, minimal intervention) with one major difference -- they're fermented with only the wild yeasts in the air around them.
Like creating a bread starter without commercial yeast, it can be a dicey but exciting proposition that in the right hands makes for a truly of-this-place wine that never turns out the same way twice. These are the wines of 100, even 1,000 years ago.
Here in Sonoma County, the Natural Process Alliance's Kevin Kelley and his small winemaking crew are at the leading edge of the trend, garnering serious attention for their hyper-local wines that are grown and drunk all within 100 miles. Their explanation of natural wines goes even further: No additions or subtractions in the winemaking.
Unfiltered and unmanipulated, they're unlike most traditional wines in that the goal is to smell and taste like the grapes they come from.
"They're alive and have soul," said Kelley. Lower in alcohol and high in drinkability, these are everyday sippers that our ancestors would have recognized.
"We strive to allow the character of the location and vintage to shine. Our annual goal is to have a label that reads, 'Ingredients: grapes,' " says Kelley.
If that sounds like a given, consider the fact that government regulators denied Kelley's petition to have a label with exactly those words. In an industry that regularly relies on a combination of commercial yeast, enzymes, animal byproducts, filtration and/or specialized bacteria to produce viable wines, Kelley's natural approach didn't sound feasible.
"It got killed because they said you just couldn't do that," said Hardy Wallace, who's serving as the public champion, cellar rat and delivery man for the fledgling NPA. Wallace won a six-month dream job at Murphy-Goode winery in Healdsburg as their social-media guru. When that job ended, he practically tripped over himself to join up with the NPA, whose trajectory he'd been following for months. "I'm here chasing a dream."
Wallace compares the NPA wines to sashimi. Freshness is critical and it's meant to be consumed quickly.
"With sashimi, it's all about just being a cut of fish. The best thing is that it hasn't really been touched," he said. "Like sashimi, this wine is meant to be drunk right now. Tonight," he said.
Immediate drinking means there's no need for corks and glass bottles. Instead, the NPA is using refillable stainless-steel canteens, much like you'd take to the gym. The bottles are delivered to restaurants or filled at their tasting room in tap form -- kind of like beer.
"It's the jug experience with wine that no one else is having anywhere else in the country," Wallace said. The NPA limits its distribution to the Bay Area, with most of its restaurant clients in San Francisco and the East Bay. Only one Sonoma County restaurant, Scopa in Healdsburg, currently stocks the wines.
As winemaker to traditional (and coveted) labels like Lioco and his own brand, Salinia, Kelley's already got a following, but this new style of wines at the NPA has a rabid fan base of sommeliers and chefs. What's surprising is that the wines -- which admittedly need a bit of explanation -- are still a hard sell in Sonoma County. Wallace just shrugs when it comes to local restaurants accepting the wines.