Celebrities seem to have an affinity for buying vineyards and “making” wine. Some, I’m sure, are passionate wine-lovers, but I suspect that others just like to see their names on pretty labels or to associate themselves with a prestigious world or to dispose of their income in some way that provides serious business losses for tax purposes. (I’m sure you’ve heard the joke: “If you want to make a small fortune in wine, start with a big one”)
These folks do, of course, sometimes hire good winemakers but most resultant wines are, from my own limited tastings of them, mediocre. You know, California fruit-and-oak bombs enhanced by association with fame and fortune.
Two celebrities (though I’d never heard of either before I came across their wines) have decided to upend the wine world about which they recently discovered terrible things: wine comes from pesticide-laden grapes; wines have all manner of additives — some quite nasty.
Hence the “clean wine” movement, starring (among others) celeb-based Aveline. You can read all about it on the Aveline website and what said celebrities are doing to counter the dirty wine world. They’re all about organic grapes and wine without “unnecessary” additives (“necessary” being the ones they choose to add) and transparency, though their labels don’t mention grape varieties or their winemakers or just what those additives are.
Nor is there any acknowledgment of the decades-old natural-wine movement which, however unregulated, does insist at minimum on organically grown grapes, indigenous yeast, and no additives besides a very small amount of sulfur, maybe. Aveline makes no such claims, as indeed, it cannot since there are such additions in their wines (which you can discover only by following several links on their website), which include yeast.
I don’t mention this to disparage the wine, which I haven’t tried (though the reviews aren’t enthusiastic), and the additives they do use seem relatively harmless. But their claims of innovation seem ignorant at best and calculating at worst. For the $20 a bottle they charge (available at your your local supermarket, they boast — you don’t have to go into a snobby wine shop), I can buy a favorite wine from Folk Machine (like the cab franc) or Broc Cellars (like the Brea Pinot Noir) or Matthiessen (like Tendu Red) or numerous other natural winemakers both here and abroad.
And snobby wine shops? I’ve actually been in a couple with snobby staff (and have run across very snobby supermarket wine staff, too) but for the most part they’re dedicated to supporting good wine and helping customers find something they’ll really enjoy.
And then there’s the matter of “clean.” Well, OK, “clean” in the sense of not filled with chemicals, but wine’s not really a clean thing: the main ingredient grows in dirt; tradition was (and in some wineries still is or is again) grapes crushed by human feet. And wine is a living, fermenting thing filled with bacteria.
I’ve always loved Dirty and Rowdy Winery, whose name and labels acknowledges that neither wine itself nor the process of making it is entirely a “clean” thing. (They make great wine, too. though most of it is a bit out of my price range; their website is delightfully irreverent — check it out.)
Another “dirty” characteristic of most “natural” wines is that they’re unfiltered, which means sediment in the bottom of the bottle. How dirty is that? I actually love it when I drink an unfiltered bottle; sometimes I even shake it up to make sure the sediment gets into my glass.
One absolutely stellar “dirty” gem I’ve tried recently is the Andert Pamhogna Weiss, which comes from Austria (by way of The Pip Wine Shop), just a few hundred yards from the Hungarian border. Michael and Erich Andert are the farmers and winemakers. Visitors report that the the whole operation (Demeter Certified for two decades) is brimming with life — from large glass jars filled with fermenting vegetables to meats smoking and curing to herbs drying. And, of course, open-vat fermenting wine — made from biodynamic grapes grown on acres shared with (and fertilized by) chicken, geese, ducks and sheep.
Sounds pretty dirty to me.
The Weiss is a blend of local grapes that changes every year but is mostly Ruländer, Neuburger and Weissburgunder. This 2019 vintage has a bit of chardonnay from their good friend’s biodynamic vineyard nearby. “Weiss,” of course means “white,” but a few days’ skin contact has produced a decidedly orange-hued wine. Fermented in old Hungarian oak, this bottle was wonderful with a butterfish filet from Farmers Market, cooked quickly with sauteed leeks and lots of lemon. At $30 it’s a splurge but definitely worth it.
A dirty blend that’s much more local — grapes grown in the limestone-rich Rorick Heritage Vineyard in Calaveras County — is Queen of the Sierra Red (it comes in other colors, too) from Forlorn Hope. Mostly zin, barbera, tempranillo, trousseau noir, and mondeuse, this tart, complex, delightful bottle has lots of fruit tempered by good tannins and acidity. A really versatile red, it’s light on its feet but stood up nicely to a putanesca sauce. It’s also terrifically fun all on its own–and striking enough to re-route the conversation. Chill it a bit for spring and summer drinking.
As with all of Matt Rorick’s creations, this is a nothing-added wine—that is, clean as well as dirty. It’s also a great, inexpensive ($20 at the Co-op) introduction to Forlorn Hope wines, which generally run $30-40 (like their terrific Zinny Man “Nonna” zinfandel, which I wrote about in a recent column).
In these days when our poor masked and distanced bodies are perhaps dirt-starved, these clearly alive bottles might help restore our gut microbiome as well as our sanity.
— Susana Leonardi is a Davis resident; reach her at email@example.com. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com.