Natural Process Alliance part of 'natural' wine, winemaking movement

  • Natural Processes Alliance

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.

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