Sommelier Byron Bates hesitates to define natural wine. The owner of a natural wine import business, he can toss out an explanation full of the buzzwords often used to describe that burgeoning category of wine, of course. He can say that the term "natural wine" describes wines created organically, without preservatives or pesticides, and with as little winemaker intervention as possible.
In his explanation, he'll also probably mention that natural winemakers seek to produce wines that express the terroir (or sense of place) of the region where the grapes are grown. But right now, while these not-exactly-mainstream makers are still finding converts and settling into their place in the wider wine industry, Bates thinks a hard-and-fast definition isn't a good idea.
"I don't like defining natural wine, because it's a place to catch you and pin you in and make you seem like a fanatic," he says.
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Instead, Bates wants to explore the science behind how natural wines are made and debunk the myths about them that linger, among other topics. To that end, he is one of the organizers of this weekend's Wild World Natural Wine Festival at Jester King Brewery, where more than 200 natural wines, beers, ciders and mead will be available to taste.
Although Wild World is Texas' first natural wine festival, our state is already home to some prominent natural wine producers that are helping to draw the concept of minimal-intervention winemaking into the spotlight, including La Cruz de Comal Wines, Southold Farm + Cellar and Crowson Wines. Each one is pouring at the fest, where they will be joined by more nationally recognized names such as Broc Cellars of California and Beaujolais master Jean Foillard.
In addition to tastings, Wild World will have panels and classroom discussions diving into all manner of related topics (and yes, one of them will go ahead and ask, "What the hell is natural wine?"). The panels aren't just about wine. It's equally as important to Bates — who came up with the idea of the festival after visiting the bucolic, similarly minded Jester King — to put a focus on wild-fermented ciders and beers, too.
In fact, he says, these beverages have a lot of similarities with natural wine, more than you might think.
Notable natural wine producer Brendan Tracey's sauvignon blanc "probably has more in common with a Jester King wild-fermented sour beer than it does with a conventional California sauvignon blanc," Bates says. "There's a racy wildness and certain flavor profiles that you don't get in conventional wines."
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Conventional wines, as Bates calls them, are created with technology, chemicals and specific, carefully chosen yeast strains. They are thus stripped of their terroir, natural wine proponents argue. On the other hand, natural wines can spoil or have too much volatile acidity that makes them undrinkable, the naysayers point out — conventional wine is made the way it is for a reason.
But if done well, natural wines can "tell the story of their origin on your palate," much as wild-fermented beer does, according to a Jester King blog post explaining the farmhouse brewery's wine program. Jester King owner Jeff Stuffings decided years ago to feature wines that are made similarly to Jester King's tart, funky and sometimes fruited ales.
"The parallels are apparent to me, both in terms of philosophy and process," he says. Natural winemakers take grapes from their vineyard or region, crush them, put them in barrels and see what happens; Stuffings says his brewery mashes grains, introduces wild organisms (either with a mixed culture or by inviting wild yeast and bacteria), puts it all in barrels and sees what happens.
"There's little intervention or manipulation to steer the wine or beer in a preconceived direction of what it 'should' taste like," he says. "To me, it's about creating a platform for nature to express itself."
Bates will highlight those parallels at the Wild World fest this weekend by making sure all the featured producers — which include the like-minded Shacksbury Cider, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales and Jester King inspiration Brasserie Cantillon — host their tastings together. Beers won't be sequestered on one side, with wine on the other, he says, in the hopes of inspiring new conclusions about natural wine.
Of course, there's no right or wrong conclusion to come to — Bates just wants people to be thinking about what they're drinking.
"We're putting a blindfold on what's beer, what's wine, what's cider," he says. "You'll know what it is you're drinking, but we have it set up for you to think, 'Oh, I would never think this is a gose' (a sour wheat beer). Or 'Wow, this gose tastes like the pét-nat (sparkling wine) in this way.'"
Oh, and those educational panels that will be held both days? The festival is spread out around the sprawling Jester King property, and the workshops are being held in a particularly appropriate place: the goat barn. The goats won't be moved to another temporary pen, either, which Bates says caps off the event by "bringing an agrarian authenticity to the whole thing."