Many of us who worry about the chemicals we put on our plates and into our soil don't think twice about the wine that we drink. But the natural wine movement is growing, spurred by winemakers' concerns about the long-term viability of their land, the quality of their wine, and the protection of the environment.
According to Michael Honig of Honig Vineyard and Winery, keeping his Rutherford, California property healthy results in better-tasting wine. "We're farmers," he told me, "and we don't grow bottles. We grow grapes." Honig compares winemakers to chefs choosing produce: just as a chef might find that local, organic tomatoes make for a tastier tomato salad, Honig believes that sustainable farming practices give his grapes more flavor and character.
Farming naturally isn't something new. "It's the way we all did it a hundred years ago," Honig says. Honig plants cover crops to provide nutrients to the soil, and installs owl, bluebird, and bat boxes for rodent and insect control. Sustainability is about more than just avoiding pesticides, though. "You can be certified organic and still be destroying the environment," Honig says.
Energy use is a primary concern for Honig. They've installed enough solar panels to power the winery and Honig's personal residence, and are considering adding a wind turbine to power the irrigation system. Currently, they save $42,000 a year in electric bills: solar power doesn't just cut carbon dioxide emissions, it saves serious money.
Water use is another concern: not too long ago, vineyards used flood irrigation, saturating the dirt around all the grapevines with water. A move to drip irrigation on a timer saved water but the system was improved further by a neutron-probe which monitored the moisture in the soil and watered only when the soil was dry. The latest advances make it possible to monitor moisture within individual vines and water only those plants that need it.
Honig is always looking at the company's routine behavior and thinking of ways to be more efficient and less environmentally harmful. He realized, for example, that trucks were bringing supplies to the winery but leaving empty. A system of backhauling increases efficiency and saves fuel.
Honig believes that the Napa winemaking community has become a leader in environmental stewardship, and hopes they can serve as a model for other communities and other industries. He's encouraged by programs like Napa Green, which encourages restoration of wildlife habitat and sustainable agriculture practices on vineyard lands, as well as certifying wineries that conserve energy and water and reduce pollution and solid waste.
A Few Great Natural Wines for Spring
Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008 sells for about $16, but we've seen it as low as $10. It's mellow and quite smooth, with a richness that would pair well with scallops. Don't expect a tangy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc here—this wine is rich with hints of cucumber, honeydew, and watermelon. It's beautifully balanced and slightly floral. (find this wine)
Quivira Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc 2009 This mouth-filling wine, which sells for about $18, has pearly mineral notes and puckering acidity. We tasted pineapple and starfruit, peach and lychee. The finish is soft and it's beautifully balanced. We'd like to try it with ceviche or raw oysters. (find this wine)
Domaine de L'Ecu Bossard Muscadet Expression d'Orthogneiss 2008 This pungent $19 Muscadet balances rich fruit with bright acidity. We smelled honeysuckle and chamomile. There's a briney minerality to this medium-bodied white, and flavors of Granny Smith apples, Anjou pears, tart lemon peel, and musky honey. It's puckeringly tart and would pair well with shrimp scampi or shrimp pad thai, or possibly a lemony roast chicken. (find this wine)
Cooper Mountain 2007 20th Anniversary Reserve Pinot Noir This delicate Oregon Pinot, which runs about $24, needs a little air to open up. We smelled lavender and violets on the nose. This wine reminded us of cassis and dusty cocoa, stream water, wet rocks, and earthy pine nuts. It's silky but taut, and light enough to drink into the summer. Serve this lovely wine with salmon or arctic char grilled rare. (find this wine)
Coturri Lost Creek Pinot Noir, 2002 This unusual Pinot Noir sells for about $22. This is a huge, tart wine with a robust bouquet of cherry, juniper, and raspberry jam. Don't be afraid of the cloudy sediment, but do decant and give it awhile to breathe. The high alcohol is balanced with tart berries and very subtle oak, with a hint of mossy old barn mustiness. While this won't be a wine that pleases everyone, we loved its sour cherry lemonade brightness and cinnamony plum compote flavors. This is a wine that demands your attention and unfolds as you drink it. Serve slightly chilled with grilled Italian sausages. (find this wine)
Disclosure: All wines except the Coturri were review samples.