Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: Natural wine is in its infancy in Texas, if you’re going by the generally accepted definition of it. And winemakers who might follow some of the principles of natural wine tend not to like that term, anyway.
My first real exploration of what natural wine is came this time last year, when going to festivals was still a regular weekend activity for Austinites. I talked to the founder of Wild World Natural Wine Festival, held at Jester King Brewery in mid-May, and noticed immediately that he hesitated to give a strict definition for this niche concept of wine. He didn’t want to pin down a category that’s still being figured out.
Still, this is what I got out of him: It’s wine created organically, without preservatives or pesticides, and with as little winemaker intervention as possible.
Others say that natural wine doesn’t have to be organic, but it does have to be made through spontaneous fermentation via native yeast, with little to no chemical additives. In essence, natural winemakers like to create wines that, as much as possible, showcase the terroir (or sense of place) of the region where the grapes are grown.
Going by the idea that natural wine must be organic, you’d have to say this type of wine is not a thing in Texas yet. There are very few organic vineyards in the state, and many of the winemakers interested in the natural wine philosophy don’t have estate grapes to grow however they like. Vineyards take time and money to cultivate. Instead, these winemakers are sourcing from either Hill Country or High Plains growers.
But this would be a very short story if I left it at that. If you follow the definition of natural wine espoused by Wine Enthusiast and other experts, that it has to be derived from native yeast, then there are a handful of Texas winemakers — rising stars in the industry — who believe in what you might call a minimalist approach to their craft.
Henry Crowson of Crowson Wines doesn’t like the term "natural wine" because it suggests all the other wines, made through conventional, perfectly acceptable methods, are somehow unnatural. He likes to say he makes "non-interventionist" or "zero-zero" wines — nothing added, nothing taken away.
Randy Hester of C.L. Butaud prefers to say that he makes "sustainably produced" wine.
"I want to know what's pure," he said. "I want a beautiful steak without a bunch of crap on it. If I make a bad steak, I can hide it with butter and seasoning. But the real skill is to find that raw material and treat it with finesse. That's the best interpretation. That's the kind of wine I drink, and the kind of wine I strive to make."
Regan Meador of Southold Farm + Cellar keeps clear of boundary-marking terminology. Hailing from New York, where he and his wife had tried to build their winery first, he is also hands-off when it comes to farming and winemaking so the grapes can best express themselves. But he doesn’t like talking in absolutes, or saying that he must stick with this philosophy or that.
Dogma is dangerous when applied to making wine, he said, because it could mean you’re overlooking the needs of the grape.
"I just don’t think you can approach winemaking with a specific set of things you have to do and don't do. ... It means you're not paying attention to what's going on in the vineyard, in the cellar," he said. "You're just making wine in a certain style."
Featuring a mix of High Plains and Hill Country fruit, Southold’s wines (with whimsical names like Sing Sweet Things, a 2019 albariño) tend to be fresh, light and lively — very different from the bold, heavily oaked wines that California popularized and Texas continues to make.
’The ultimate slow food’
Even Meador has key practices he follows pretty faithfully. He doesn’t inoculate his grapes with purchased yeast, filter his wine or add acidity to them — otherwise common habits in a winery that are generally spurned by the natural wine movement. Like most conventional winemakers, he does add sulfites to the wines, albeit in lower levels than is typical.
Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, act as preservatives in the bottle, preventing the wine from getting oxidized or spoiled by bad bacteria and also maintaining its freshness.
Crowson is the only one of the three not to use sulfites in any way. He cleans his equipment obsessively in the winery, making it "damn near sterile," so that there’s less of a chance of the wine getting infected with the bacteria that can make a wine taste like it’s turning into vinegar. He’s also careful about the equipment he uses, avoiding pumps, which can agitate and add oxygen to the wine.
"I tasted my wines, one with sulfites and one without, side by side" to determine the plausibility of going without the sulfur dioxide preservative during the winery’s early days, he said. "The sulfite-free one tasted better. It seemed more alive, had more of a story to tell. It seemed bright."
His Johnson City operation is tiny for now, just him and his dad working behind the scenes to create wines they think express the character of the vineyards they came from. (Crowson Wines lacks estate grapes for now and sources its fruit from the Texas High Plains.) Crowson was inspired to pursue his non-interventionist approach because of longtime California natural winemaker Tony Coturri.
Coturri has been using indigenous yeast and zero pesticides for 40 harvests and, as something of a godfather for the growing natural wine movement, has consulted with winemakers like Crowson. He has been a mentor for Lewis Dickson of La Cruz de Comal Wines in Canyon Lake, another leading local face of natural wine who relies on 100% estate-grown grapes.
Both Dickson and Hester will cite Old World methods of winemaking as a guide of sorts. One thing Hester believes in doing is a pre-fermentation cold soak, leaving the grapes once they arrive in Fredericksburg from the Lubbock area to steep on dry ice in a temperature-controlled room for anywhere from five to eight days.
With the cold soak, "I'm building aroma and texture and that native funk, that wild kind of thing you get when you can spend more time with your wine," he said. "Not everyone does the cold soak because it takes a lot of work. I don't think it’s something that's practiced a lot in Texas, taking that kind of time and maintaining that sort of longer effort. But my goal is to string it out. Wine is the ultimate slow food."
Working now out of a new wine incubator called the Slate Mill Wine Collective, Hester agrees it’s important to follow sustainable methods but to control them carefully — otherwise, the fermentation can run away from you and produce faulty wines.
If done right, he said, wines produced this way are unlike any you've had before.
"If I can control certain variables and still maintain that wild sensibility, the wines just sing," he said. "They're fresh and beastly and gorgeous and all these things wrapped up into one."
'Embracing the rough edges’
Hester is about to release something new that he’s not sure has been replicated in Texas before — the Italian-style ramato. Originating from the northern province of Friuli Venezia Giulia, ramato wines come from pinot grigio grapes that have been macerated with their skins. White wine grapes typically aren’t fermented with their skins, which are discarded. So the ramato is a white wine with a red wine beginning that falls somewhere in between orange wine and rosé, Hester said.
Did you get all that? The result is an amalgam of flavors that is hard to peg, especially because the wine remains alive in the bottle.
"Right now, it's bright and crisp and juicy, like a white wine would be, but then you get some savory elements like tomato leaf, maybe walnut, candied fruit," he said. "It's bone-dry, so that lends then to more spicy characters, more earthy characters. It's evolving still, so I hesitate to nail down a description."
For his part, Meador has debuted some of the 2019 Southold vintage, all with Hill Country grapes, in 375-milliliter bottles — a smaller size than the typical 750-milliliter wine bottle. These were in the works before the coronavirus but released at a good time, when people might not want to down an entire bottle in one night while they’re stuck at home.
He likens what he’s doing at the quaint Southold winery — including the use of neutral barrels, because, in his opinion, heavily oaked wines lose their terroir — to the current surge in popularity of craft beer.
"If you look back at the craft beer revolution, it was almost a mirror of what happened with natural wine, in some ways," he said. "It wasn't predicated on chemicals being added or not or how things were being farmed. But it was about beer going back to how beer had always been made. In small batches. With care. Going traditional. Which is what I'm doing. I’m going back to the old way of how things were made and embracing the rough edges of things that make them so unique and special."