Living Wine: New Documentary Follows Four Innovators in the Natural Wine Movement in California

Wandering through most grocery stores, it‘s easy to find organic products. As science revealed the negative consequences harsh chemicals used in agriculture can have on the body and environment, consumer demand shifted toward organic, sustainably farmed products, including wine. Though still relatively niche, natural wine is steadily gaining popularity. In Sacramento, where I live, several wine bars and urban wineries that sell and produce natural wine have opened. Personally, I have had a difficult time fully embracing natural wine. We are taught that a varietal wine should have clear, defining characteristics; but inherent to natural wine is an unpredictable variance in flavor and quality from one producer to the next. As Darek Trowbridge of Old World Winery in Sonoma says in Lori Miller’s new film, Living Wine, this is what natural winemakers are aiming for: what one sees as consistency, he considers “homogenization”—desirable in your milk… but not your wine.

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Darek Trowbridge, an innovator in restorative farming and owner of Old World Winery in Sonoma (Photo still from Living Wine film)

Living Wine highlights the challenges and victories of four winemakers and farmers in California who are eschewing conventional farming and winemaking techniques in favor of something more natural. Along with Trowbridge, an innovator in restorative farming, there is Gideon Beinstock, owner of Clos Saron and a pioneer of natural wine in California. Beinstock mentors up-and-coming winemakers like Dani Rozman of La Onda, who splits his time between Chile and the Sierra Foothills, where he grows the Mission (a.k.a. País) grape. Margins Wine owner Megan Bell works several part-time jobs to keep her in the vineyard, while creating her own winery at the same time.

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Megan Bell, owner of Margins Wine (Photo still from Living Wine film)

Though natural wine may seem like a new fad, it’s been around for centuries—that’s how wine was made. Afterall, it’s not like the Romans were selecting cultured yeast from a catalog. But it wasn’t until the end of WWII, the film explains, when munitions factories switched to manufacturing fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, that using these products became a widespread practice in agriculture. Turned off from this, a small number of producers in Europe started making wine the way their ancestors did. However, only in relatively recent years has it gained traction in other parts of the world. Home to UC Davis and nearly 150 AVAs, California is arguably the hub of American winemaking and viticulture, yet less than 1% of wine made in California is natural, the film asserts.

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Gideon Beinstock, a pioneer of natural wine in California who began life as an artist (Photo still from Living Wine film)

While there is no universally agreed upon definition, standard, or style, natural wine has come to be synonymous with limited to zero-intervention winemaking crafted from grapes grown in, at minimal, organic and sustainable vineyards that are often also biodynamic; farming and winemaking work hand-in-hand. Grapes are typically hand-harvested, with multiple passes needed to retrieve clusters at the right ripeness. Winemaking uses native yeasts, no added sulfites or additives, limited use of machinery, filtering, etc. At Beinstock’s winery, crushing is done the old-fashioned way: by foot. There are no post-harvest corrective measures conventional winemakers employ to deal with faults or other hazards such as smoke taint. Manipulations, additives, or scientific interventions to “correct” what they see as the best qualities of natural wine are avoided, allowing the grape to express itself in as original a form as possible and letting the terroir speak for itself, working with the land as it is. As Beinstock says, “Why would I want to add anything? It will not improve the wine.” 

Whatever your opinion of natural wine, I suggest you give this film a watch. It encapsulates the spirit and philosophy of natural winemaking. I truly felt inspired by the community, joy, dedication and utter passion these winemakers and farmers have for crafting natural wine. It is intoxicating, pun intended. Now, please excuse me while I go try some natural wine.

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