On forays to your neighborhood wine shop, or while perusing your favorite restaurant’s wine list, you’ve probably noticed ‘Natural,’ ‘Biodynamic,’ and ‘Organic’ wines showing up more and more frequently. We’ve wondered more than a few times about what exactly what all those labels mean. And it begs the question – what exactly is the deal with all those other wines we’ve been sipping for so long that don’t fall into those categories? (No sneering, wine snobs!)
Ross Bingham manages the wine selection at Williamsburg’s month-old shop The Natural Wine Company. We visited him at the store to learn more about what all those labels really mean, and to find out how a guy who grew up on potato farm in rural England discovered wine, became obsessed, and opened a shop that features only natural, biodynamic and organic wines right here in Brooklyn.
So Ross – tell us where you’re from and how you came to open a wine shop.
I grew up in England – in North Lincolnshire on a four hundred acre potato farm. It was the middle of nowhere, at least by English standards. There was certainly no wine being served at the table there. I think I first had wine when I was probably sixteen years old maybe, out in the bicycle shed or some such place – and God knows what it was.
I’ve been a truck driver, I’ve worked on an oil rig, I’ve raced motorcycles for a living – I’ve had a lot of jobs. Eventually I ended up in Italy. The Italians taught me about food. Taught me about ingredients. Taught me about what I’m tasting and why I’m tasting it. I remember being amazed by the fact that they change their recipes based on the weather. Fa freddo oggi – it’s cold today – so let’s use a little bit more fat, a little bit more butter. They’re just so completely in tune with what they’re eating. Completely the opposite of England where it was all processed food at that time.
When I first moved to Italy I actually worked with a cabinet maker. To be honest with you I never much liked working with wood – I find it a little boring. I had become fascinated with the food there, so I started working in a restaurant. I started as a prep cook and that’s really when people started pounding into me the importance of wine.
The big point in Italy was always that ‘It comes from right here.’ You’d hear it all the time – My grandfather made this wine in this ground, in this weather. My father made it the same way. I make it the same way they did… Sometimes it actually tasted horrible but to them it didn’t matter because it’s from HERE.
I got really interested in that belief that wine is meant to come from a certain place – that it should reflect the true characteristics of the climate and the soil and the vines that produce it.
I ended up moving to New York from Italy. I cooked here for a quite a while…a long while. I worked in restaurants first, then as I got older worked more in catering because it was a little more pay and a little easier. About five years ago I decided to make the transition into wine. I worked retail because everyone said that’s the best way to taste as much wine as you can. I did that, and tasted and tasted.
One thing I found early on was that many reps that would come into the more conventional wine stores and say, well this is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina and this is one from Napa.
I’d ask, well, what’s the difference? And they’d say, well, they’re from different places.
I’d say, I know that, but what’s the difference in taste? And they’d often say, well there’s not much difference in the taste. And I’d think that’s just weird. They’re from different hemispheres, different continents…how could the taste of the wine not reflect that?
So I found myself being drawn to wines that hit me as different or unique. And it just so happened that a lot of those wines were from natural or biodynamic or organic wineries. They just tended to be more interesting. So I started getting the hang of it – those sorts of wines were different, unique. They weren’t all the same.
So what’s up with those boring wines? Are lots of producers trying to tailor their wines to suit the tastes of the mass market? What’s the story there?
That’s exactly what they’re doing. I went to wine school, so I had some idea of what the wine should taste like. It seemed to me like they were just marketing easy, palatable, fruity, low tannins and low acid wines – things that really lacked uniqueness in order to please the most people.
Those wines just didn’t interest me. I want wines that taste unique and different because of the soil and the climate and the wine making process. There’s a lot of human input into wine making. It’s not all terroir, it’s not all weather and vines. Obviously people make the wine so it depends on the maker as well. You can have organically grown grapes which end up in a completely dull wine. It all depends on the philosophy of the wine maker. You just have to constantly taste and research and learn in order to find those great unique wines.
Tell us a little more about those different philosophies that winemakers bring to the craft.
Some are trying to cater to the tastes of the market and sell as much as they can whereas others are just trying to make a wine which is as un-messed with as possible – wines that capture the character of the climate, the terroir, the vines, the natural yeasts. Grow grapes, ferment them with the natural yeast that’s on the grape…don’t add anything but maybe a tiny tiny bit of sulphur for transport, if that. Whether it always turns out well or not is something I have to decipher – that’s where personal opinion comes in.
So one of your goals of The Natural Wine Company is to focus on those types of ‘unique’ naturally-produced wines?
Absolutely. Every wine here is different. Every one tastes different. Not just different labels. They’re unique. I spent years tasting and researching and picking these wines. I spent those years working retail filling tasting books with notes – tracking the wines I liked and those I didn’t.
What we’ve tried to do is to have only natural, biodynamic and organic wines in our store. Business-wise it’s risky. People come in wanting a brand. They might say ‘Oh I don’t recognize any brands.’ We don’t sell brands, we sell wines. If anyone tells me what they’re looking for in a wine, I can find one in the store that will be just what they want. That’s my hope, anyway.
Tell us more about ‘natural,’ ‘biodynamic’ and ‘organic’ wines. What do those labels actually mean? What are the differences?
Well the thing is, you can make organic wine, and put that label on the bottle by using organically grown grapes, which is great, fantastic – they don’t spray anything on the grapes. The problem is that the minute it gets into the winery, they can do anything they want with it. They can add up to 200 different additives to the wine, and some people do just that. Some people don’t, some people do. So if you’re looking for really naturally produced wines, the organic label doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get that. You need to do your research with wines labeled as ‘organic’ to be sure of what you’re getting.
Biodynamic farming is a level up, if you will. Biodynamic producers use an approach that requires everything used in the growing of the grapes to come from the same ground as the grapes. Any manure they use for fertilizer has to come from cows that live there and walk the grounds. They do integrated pest management – using certain flowers native to their regions around the grapes that repel or kill certain pests that would try to eat the grapes and that sort of thing. It’s like a holistic form of farming. Any they tend to…if they go to that much trouble at the vineyard, they’ll more than likely not use any kind of additives or that sort of thing in the winery – it’s just a whole kind of philosophy. They tend not to use any sort of chemicals or additives at all.
Biodynamics was a whole type of farming set up by Rudolph Steiner. It involves moon phases, doing certain kinds of work in the winery under certain moons. It involves a bit of mysticism as well, but basically is just really good old school farming. My dad was a farmer and he certainly wasn’t into organic farming, trust me. But even he would do certain things under certain moon phases. So Rudolph Steiner just kind of said, right, ok, this is the old way of farming and this is my philosophy…he mixed it up and created biodynamics.
Natural wine is where they just grow the grapes, obviously organically. They don’t put anything on them at all – just let them go wild. Then in the winery they actually just use the native yeast that occurs naturally on the outside of the grapes…every grape has a bit of yeast on it. So they won’t add any non-native or chemical yeast whatsoever. Most winemakers do add yeast, and when they add outside yeast it usually kills off the native yeasts. So your natural winemakers just grow the grapes organically, crush them, use the native yeasts, ferment it and bottle it. That’s it. It’s really pure winemaking.
Those are the types of wines we like, and so that’s what we carry in the store. I’ve tasted and picked every one of them.
In terms of those bigger production mass market wines – the ones you don’t carry here…what do they do differently than the organic, biodynamic and natural producers?
Well they’re certainly spraying the grapes. They often add chemical yeast to add flavor to the wines. They can add flavorings and colorings. They can micro-oxygenate which artificially ages the wine by pushing oxygen through the it. That basically gets rid of tannins. People supposedly don’t like tannins, so that’s used quite frequently. Reverse osmosis is another technique that’s often used. In that process they spin the wine down to break it down into separate components to remove certain aspects of the wine, then they put it all together again. They can do a lot, and they do do a lot because they’re trying to make a consistent product that will appeal to a lot of people.
There has always been an aspect of that in some respects in winemaking. Not to the extent that there is now, but makers of Champagne and Bordeaux, for example, have always manipulated the wine. Champagne is often blended – it’s a process called l’assemblage – you can blend different amounts of different grapes to create a consistent product. With Bordeaux wines, you can blend up to five different grapes to create fairly consistent product from year to year. So hence in a bad vintage you can use more Merlot if you need more fruit. In a good vintage you might use more Cabernet Sauvignon for more gaminess. Cabernet Franc adds a bit of greenness. it’s not such an obscure modern idea to manipulate the wine to create a consistent product. In Bordeaux and Champagne they’ve been doing it forever.
It’s just been taken far beyond that by mass producers now. There are companies like Yellow Tail who can sell six million bottles a year in the U.S. If they need another million they can just make another million – it’s more like making beer than a traditional natural wine.
Lots of the winemakers now in California are making Pinot Noirs that taste like Burgandies, by adding acid to the wine. That’s just not right in my book. If I’m having a California Pinot Noir I want something with some fruit – something that reflects the climate, soil and vines of that region. That’s why I’ve picked it.
What are some of your favorite discoveries? Any favorite wines you’ve found through all that tasting and research?
There’s a wine called Mas Foulaquier from just outside Avignon – a place called Pic St. Loup.
I stumbled across that one when a wine rep came into the store I was working at. We never really let reps just walk in and pour wines, but it was quiet at the store so he poured some and it was amazing. I thought, goodness this is really amazing, bizarre, interesting. I’d never heard of it! I made a note of it right away – it’s an amazing wine. One of the first ones I ordered for our store was that wine.
There was basically no information available on them here in the U.S. Later I read in the French press that they’re one of the up and coming newer wineries. They’ve only been around for about ten years and the wines are just amazing right now – and just about no one here has heard of it. Alice Feiring, the natural wine journalist, hadn’t even heard of it. That was a great find. I think it’s fantastic.
It’s made by a Swiss guy who was an architect in Geneva. He got sick of the rat race, moved to the South of France and started making wine. Biodynamic, natural wine, natural yeast..just really well made. You know, sometimes the best way to describe great wines is just ‘well made.’ It’s $23 on the shelf and it’s great.
Alice Feiring found a wine here in the store – a Ca’ Viola Langhe Nebbiolo from Piedmont- that she said she’s been looking for for ten years in America and she’s never found. She came to the press opening and said ‘I can’t believe this is here.’ She even tweeted about it.
Those are just a couple of discoveries I’ve come across. I think I know what’s good wine now. Part of that is because I’ve been a cook and a chef for so long that I can understand the flavors, but much of it’s just from endlessly tasting, researching, and studying what goes into good wines.
How hard is it for you to find all the natural and unique tasting wines that you’ve got in the shop? Is it a challenge? How much of that sort of wine is being produced out there?
In New York, we live in a bit of a bubble. We can get French wines here that you can’t even get in France. My distributors bring me the most amazing wines and they’ve grown to understand what we’re looking for here. But in many parts of America you won’t find the types of wines we carry – you’ll find big brands like Mondavi and Yellow Tail and not much else.
There are people whose families have been growing grapes on a few acres in Italy and making wine the same way for a hundred years – there’s a lot of it out there, but the whole distribution and marketing aspects of the business really affect what’s available. There are over 1,000 different indigenous grapes in Italy alone. Every single week it seems like I try another grape which I’ve never even heard of, and I’ve been doing this for years.
Most people don’t even know many of the varietals out there even exist. People often don’t want to gamble with wines, which is understandable – they don’t want to spend $30 on a bottle of wine that they may not like. That’s why tastings are so important – we aim to do a lot of tastings to open up unusual wines people might not be familiar with. On Saturday we opened a Ruche – a pretty obscure little grape from the Piedmont. No one had heard of it. It’s kind of unusual – very floral and perfumed with roses and violets, it has tannins and acidity – all sort of characteristics you don’t often find in mainstream wines because the marketers have decided that people don’t like them. We sold seven bottles – people thought it was unusual and interesting and many of them liked it.
You can never actually presume what customers will like. They’re often really willing to try different wines and they often like unusual and different and unique tasting wines. If you give them access to different wines and can explain why the wine is the way it is, they often like it.
That’s something I learned working in retail. Someone might taste an unusually acidic wine and might balk at it at first. But when you explain that it’s a Malbec from the Loire valley, and that that’s as far North as you can get a Malbec to ripen, and that that grape in that climate results in a bright wine with really good acidity and it’s fruity and crisp, and you can even chill it if you like… Often if you can explain why they’re tasting what they’re tasting, they find themselves liking something they were hesitant about at first. You just have to explain it.
So you’ve only been open for a few weeks. How’s it going so far?
We’ve been here for about a month. I like it here – I find that the customers are really open-minded, which is just great. The farmers market is just a block away, so we’ve gotten good traffic on market days. It’s just a matter of getting the word out.
You can find Ross and his wines at The Natural Wine Company, 211 N. 11th St, between Driggs and Roebling, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn