Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine


If at any point during the harvest one finds oneself in the unlikely situation of having nothing to do, there are always containers to be cleaned, loose grapes to be swept up, floors to be hosed, or, most importantly, caps to be punched down. For the uninitiated, let me explain.

Red grapes, unlike whites, sit on their skins in fermenters for several days until the fermentation process stops. While the grapes are fermenting, the CO2 in the juice is pushing the grapes up to the surface and out of the juice, forming a “cap.” The grapes on the surface have to be pushed, or punched, back down into the liquid, thus rehydrating the surface grapes as well as releasing the CO2. This also helps to intensify the color of the final product.

Some winegrowers use large flat paddles to push it down, some use their feet, and some just their hands. The Coturri method is the latter. On punching days, you return home with your entire body the color of merlot, but it’s a tremendously satisfying and sensual experience. Imagine being up to your armpits in warm, bubbly liquid, knowing that this somewhat primitive process is so very critical to the end product. After each punchdown you test the sugar levels. When the levels show that fermentation has stopped, it’s time to press and then transfer the juice to the barrels.

I originally thought I would only put in few days at the winery. But I found myself heading back up Highway 101 to Glen Ellen day after day. There’s an incredible sense of accomplishment that comes from helping crush eight half-ton containers of grapes, or walking through a vineyard that has no more hanging fruit, thanks to you. The exhaustion that hits at the end of the day feels well earned. Then there’s the education. Nothing like having daylong access to people you respect, who have been making wonderful wines for a very long time and who are more than willing to share their knowledge with a neophyte city slicker.

hardesty arrives

I wanted to know everything. But what struck me most was the camaraderie that develops from working side by side with a small team over long hours every day. The process works beautifully, without the shouting of orders or a meticulous game plan. If you’ve finished what you’re doing, you unhesitatingly jump in and help someone who needs help, and that’s how it all gets done. I had the pleasure of being part of a group of the nicest, most hard-working people around. Oh, and did I mention the awesome lunches?

Then, near the end of my stay, two tons of choice syrah dropped in my lap. A vineyard had just been sold and the grapes were mine if I wanted them. No sooner had I said yes than they were picked and delivered to us for crushing. These grapes were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever laid eyes on. Stay tuned for a rosé next spring, and a red in 2016. Now that’s what I call a bonus for a job well — or at least enthusiastically — done.

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que syrah

Ever since I changed careers and got into the wine business, I’ve wanted to do a harvest. Over the years I had gotten to know a number of winegrowers, many of whom offered me the opportunity to help out, even though they already had plenty of help, and probably thought I’d screw things up or slow things down. Harvesters are usually very experienced, and very fast. When the time comes and the grapes are ready, it’s like a fire alarm has gone off, and bang — the fruit must be picked. Nature isn’t exact, so it’s hard to predict when that alarm will sound. So, if I were going to get in on the action, when and where would I go?

This year I finally decided to just jump in. I called my friend Tony Coturri, the pioneer biodynamic/organic winegrower in Glen Ellen, California. I got the “job,” and reported for duty the third week in September. The timing was perfect, as the alarm had just sounded.

I was handed a pair of shears, and before I knew it we’d loaded fifty empty boxes onto a truck and were headed off toward the Zinfandel. It didn’t seem like a huge vineyard, so I decided we could, and would, get it all done quickly.

I was so wrong.

It was hot, and there were a lot of clusters on those vines. After about four solid hours without enough water breaks, I was completely shot. We had only done about one quarter of the vineyard, far below my predictions. But apparently, seeing as how there were only three of us, it was considered a good start. I returned home that evening barely able to move. What had I been thinking?


Nevertheless, I returned the next day for more punishment. This time, however, I came armed with a large container of water. Chad Hardesty, another organic winegrower (Hardesty Cellars), showed up with four tons of chardonnay grapes, so the lesson for the day was to be on crushing and pressing. This is a long, arduous process of filling small baskets from half-ton containers, and then feeding the grapes — one basket at a time — into a portable crusher. Since we were working with whites, the crushed grapes were immediately fed, bucket by small bucket, into the press. At least there were six of us working at this point, but it still took all day, and the pressing wasn’t finished until evening.

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Cà de Noci Tre Dame 2013

A few days ago I had the chance to meet up with a good friend at Maialino, a terrific restaurant and wine bar on Gramercy Park. I got there first, and had just ordered a glass of a Valle d’Oste rosé when he blew in and said, “Let’s do bubbles.” That sounded good, so he chose one that was new to me, the Cà de Noci Tre Dame from Emilio-Romagna. The choice was genius.

Cà de Noci, named after an adjacent walnut forest, is run by brothers Alberto and Giovani Masini. They started in 1993 with Lambrusco, the region’s traditional grape, then decided to plant other native varietals, that had long been abandoned by the region, in 2001. Around that time they also started to farm organically, with very low yields, and to make the wines with minimal intervention. In the cellar there is no fining or filtration, and no sulfites are added.

The Tre Dame is a blend of Sgavetti and Termamira. It’s an extremely vivacious frizzante, thanks to a second fermentation in the bottle, a technique that is unusual in a region of mass-produced wines. Don’t look for any hint of sweetness in this savory fizz, though the cherry and currant fruit is amazingly lively and fresh. Because of the acidity and bubbles it works great with fatty foods, dry sausages and fancy pizzas. You can also enjoy a glass or three thanks to the 11.5% alcohol. Break the budget for this one because it’ll cost you around $35, but it’s worth every cent. Just give it a little chill and you’re good to go.

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Roagna Langhe Blanco 2012

Rogana Langhe Blanco

The Roagna family has been growing grapes organically and making wines traditionally in the Piedmont region of Italy for four generations. The family’s principle holdings are in Barbaresco (6½ hectares), but in 1989 they expanded into Barolo. The wines are known for their classic style. Never filtered or fined, they’re made with minimal amounts of sulfur and are aged from three to five years in large, old Slavonian oak. The Roagna’s have been known to bottle and then hold back the wines for a couple of more years before release. What they end up with is complex, well structured and made to age for a very long time.

All that being said about their spectacular reds, they also make one white that I completely forgot about until recently, when I was having lunch at Locanda Verde in Tribeca with some friends and saw it on the wine list. It was a hot day and the wine called to me. One of my hosts only drinks white wines, with the exception of Chardonnay, which she finds repulsive and undrinkable. I thought I was safe ordering the Roagna, thinking that it was probably Arneis or Cortese.

When the wine came and I was given the chance to sample before pouring, something wasn’t quite right. Don’t get me wrong, the wine was fantastic, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It tasted eerily like a wine from the Macon or even a Meursault, and that meant Chardonnay. Too late. The bottle was open, everyone was ready to drink and celebrate (her kids had just graduated from high school), so I gave the go ahead to pour away.

Now, I have tried to slip a great Chardonnay past her many times, and I have always failed. She’d take one sip, wrinkle her nose, smack her lips in a disgusted way and ask for something else. Maybe it was the spirit of the celebration, or just the fact that this is a beautifully made white (90% Chardonnay/10% Nebbiolo), but there was a huge smile on everyone’s face at the first sip that lasted all the way through the second bottle.

The Roagna Langhe Blanco is medium-full bodied, crisp and minerally, with the taste of hazelnuts, pear and honey. It’s fermented in old oak casks and is then aged for 1 ½ years longer in a large oak cask. The 2012 is just out, and it’s priced at retail at $20. You have to buy one for that friend of yours who hates all Chardonnays.

P. S. I may never tell my friend what she loved so much that afternoon.

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Fattorie Cerreto Libri Canestrino Bianco

Back in the dark ages of my early wine life, I used to be one of those clowns who thought Italian white wines were something to be tolerated, if not out and out ignored. Isn’t it just innocuous pinot grigio from massive cooperatives or insipid and watery Orviettos? That may have been the case 30 years ago, but thank goodness much has changed since then.

It wasn’t until I did the wine thing full time (15 years ago) that I came to learn of the amazing whites from Friuli and Campagna and Piedmont and the Valle D’Aosta and Sicily and so on and so on. You get the idea – I’m a convert. Now I actually go and seek them out, and that was the case when I visited my friend Philippe Essome’s Brooklyn wine shop Passage de la Fleur. It was there that I took a chance and picked up a bottle of the Canestrino Bianco, and I was handsomely rewarded.

Andrea and Valentina Zanfei own 80 hectares in the Chianti Rufina region of Tuscany. The husband and wife team decided to work together in 1997. The first thing they did was convert all of their agricultural practices to biodynamics, and they’ve been farming that way ever since. At first Andrea had to balance his winegrowing with his day job, that of a high school history and philosophy professor, but now he’s a full time vintner making a Chianti Rufina as well as the white.

The Canestrino Bianco is a blend of 80% Trebbiano and 20% Malvasia (both 30 year-old vines). He describes it, off-handedly, as a typical, dry Tuscan white.

If this is typical, I’m moving to Italy.

It’s unfiltered (slightly cloudy) with a beautiful light amber color, not quite “orange”. It’s fermented in cement and aged in steel and fiberglass. The nose is surprisingly floral given its slightly oxidized nuttiness and citrus on the palate. Its medium body begs for hard, aged cheeses and salamis of all kinds. The price is right (mid teens), so get yourself a bottle and get yourself to your own version of an Italian piazza immediately, preferably on a hot summer night. Enjoy.

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I recently sat down at Bin 71 (my favorite neighborhood wine bar) with Sam Coturri to taste through his father Phil’s new vintages. Just as background, Phil Coturri is the premier organic/biodynamic viticulturist in Northern California and has been farming this way for over 35 years. Through his vineyard management company, Enterprise Vineyards, he works with a number of major organic wineries such as Oakville Ranch, Kamen Estate, and Amapola Creek. He is also the brother of Tony Coturri, the legendary biodynamic Sonoma winegrower.

The winery name is a combination of its street address and the fact that this specific vineyard was once a citrus grove. In 1978, a hard frost wiped out the lemon trees, except for two which Phil tried to save. I mention this because it’s known by viticulturists that if a place is good for growing citrus, it’s also good for growing Syrah, so that’s what Phil did. The vines for this wine were planted in 2002, and the vineyard is certified biodynamic. It’s also a part of one of California’s newest AVAs — The Moon Mountain District.

The 2010 crop was relatively small because of the cool year, but the grapes were very ripe and bold. The wine went through a long slow fermentation and then aged for 22 months in neutral oak. The result is quite simply one damn good red wine. Its bacon and pancetta nose is reminiscent of the Northern Rhone. It’s full-bodied and round, but in no way jammy. The minerals in it are alive and well, giving the wine a beautiful lift. You’ll like the finish, too — long and soft.

I’m breaking the under $20 rule here (it’s usually more like $40), but it’s well worth treating yourself. You’ll also have to do some hunting around because only 65 cases were made, but the search is part of the fun.

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While selling my wine shop, I came across a number of wines that I just couldn’t let myself hand over to the new owner. They were simply too good to be left behind, so they came home with me. One of them was Philippe Tessier’s Cheverny Blanc. It had been another “love at first taste” for me, and one that I turned a lot of folks onto over the years. It’s one of the fabulous wines from the Cheverny appellation of the Loire Valley, a region I love. The Cheverny white is always a cepage dominated by sauvignon blanc and rounded off by a small percentage of chardonnay.

Domaine Tessier was started in 1961 by Roger Tessier and his son Philippe. In 1981 Philippe took over, and has been overseeing the 23 hectares ever since. The wines have been certified organic (ECOCERT) since 1998. Philippe’s winegrowing practices epitomize the natural wine philosophy. “We practice and promote small farm viticulture. A wine should be the expression of the place from which it comes. It should reflect the climactic conditions of the year, as well as a little of the vigneron who produces it, while respecting the life of the soil and the environment. It must give pleasure, but it must also be sound and healthy, alive and digestible… should be natural wine.” That pretty much covers it.

The Cheverny Blanc is 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Chardonnay and 5% Arbois. It’s neither filtered nor fined, and is fermented with natural yeasts. No sulfites are added, and it’s vegan and vegetarian friendly. It has all of the wonderful qualities of a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, but slightly rounded off with a touch of chardonnay. I’m thinking mussels, sole or a creamy chicken dish. At around $14, this is one of the great wine values. If your wine shop doesn’t know it or carry it, go find another wine shop. Or stop by my house.

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I have always been a believer in the versatility of rosés, and while they are not wines for the ages (with the exception of the serious ones from appellations like Tavel) they shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous summer quaffs. I enjoy them all year — they’re especially good with Thanksgiving dinner — and I especially like them with a couple of years aging. That said, I discovered this Sicilian rosé a couple of years ago, and immediately added it to the 40 others that I sold.

The Di Giovannas have been making wine since 1860 (newcomers) and all five of their vineyards have been certified organic since 1997 (Suolo e Salute srl). The brothers Di Giovanna, Gunther and Klaus, oversee all the winemaking and winegrowing. This rosato is 100% Nerello Mascalese. The juice is macerated for about 12 hours — this is no light, pink, watery rosé — and then fermented on the lees in stainless steel for three months. It’s then filtered and fined, giving it some softness without taking away from its relatively full body.

Try this with grilled fish or even a lamb burger, because its reasonable 13.5% alcohol level belies its heft. About $15 will get you a bottle. Even in a world of a gazillion rosés, this one should make your cut.

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