I was on a mission. I was spending a week in Sonoma and Napa in search on natural, biodynamic and organic wines. There were to be no trolley tours, no limo tours, and, as one of my favourite Montreal wine import companies proclaims: “No shit in my wine.”
My next stop? Coturri. If anyone ever believed in no bullshit, this is the guy.
The drive to Tony Coturri’s winery in Glen Ellen, California is a bit like wandering down the rabbit hole, but with rolling hillsides leading to wine barrels rather than a plummet to a tea party. It’s win-win, really. The rolling landscape is picturesque and lush, and when you hit the rougher roads and your GPS shrugs its shoulders and tells you you’re no longer on an actual street, you know you’re in the right place.
Tony Coturri has been making natural wine since his very first bottle in 1963. His father bought the land in 1961, and with no alternative to organic grapes at the time, that’s what he grew. But over the decades, he became the odd-man-out in California winemaking. While his neighbours started spraying pesticides, producing bigger yields, adding chemicals to the fermenting juice to make it taste like they wanted, Coturri eschewed the new practices in favour of careful vine maintenance, letting the fruit ripen just enough before picking, fermenting just long enough in two- or three-year-old barrels, and aging the fermented juice just enough for a concentrated balance of fruit flavour, sweetness, acidity and tannins. The grapes are hand-harvested, fermented with indigenous yeasts, there are no added sulphites, no filtering or fining, meaning the wines are clean – and safe for vegetarians and vegans.
2015 Rosé $30 – Blend of Carignan, Syrah and Zinfandel. From Mendocino. 14.2%
Really rich, sweet wine.
Carignane $27 – Mendocino County
This is my favourite. Gorgeous nose. Fruit (blackberry, cherry?) balanced with acidity with enough tannins to keep it balanced and not overly sweet. I bought a bottle of this and ate it with Thanksgiving dinner. It was big for turkey, but great with the tomato and pepper pepperonata I made with it. Also the un-sweetened grilled plums.
2015 Pinot Noir $23
So much fruit! Blackberry. Doesn’t need a lot of years. Drink now or up to five years.
2014 Estate Zinfandel $45 – Sonoma Mountain
Acid with some bite. Could age five to ten years. Big red wine with lots of ripe cherry and plum. Vines more than 30-years-old. Dry farmed. Red clay and volcanic soils. 750 feet above sea level.
2013 Zinfandel $35
“Old-school Zinfandel,” says Coturri. Most vineyards are never ripe all at the same time, so it takes six weeks to pick the fruit for this wine, waiting for the next sections to ripen. And Zinfandel is really famous for having clusters of grapes that are half green and half raisins on a bunch, so you’re trying to get an average flavour to it, he says.
These are not European wines; they’re not all lightness and low alcohol with a mile to go before they reach their full potential – at least not the wet years like 2015, which brought riper fruit and bigger sugar. Because clocking it on average at more than 14% alcohol, his bottles are infused with strong memories of each year’s harvest, with nothing – no preservatives, no filters, no sugar, no chemicals at all – to hide behind.
Instead, the flavours are bold. A year of good rains following three years of drought renders a very accessible Pinot Noir that Coturri feels doesn’t need a lot of aging. “There’s nowhere to go,” he says. “I’d imagine three to five years would probably do it on that one.” I nod, trying to look as though I know even an inch as much about wine as this fermentation veteran while visualizing a bottle full of blackberries bursting from its glassy prison come year six.
But it’s easy to see why Coturri’s Sonoma Valley colleagues up their use what he calls poison. When you have a drought year and start to lose a lot of your yield, your grapes don’t get as sweet as you need them to be to sell wines to consumers who expect each year’s vintage to taste the same as the last.
“A part of the problem is in California we don’t look at wine as food,” he says. “This is food. The bag that sulfite comes in has a big skull and crossbones on it. People have died cleaning tanks with sulfites without any proper venting. It’s one thing to be adding yeasts, but it’s another to be adding poison.”
Coturri buys most of his grapes from people he trusts instead of growing his own – all he plants himself is Zinfandel, which is the vineyard you see on his gorgeous property at the end of mile after mile of winding tree-lined road.
But if you’re going to trust anyone to source quality grapes, it’s the man calling out winemakers who are cutting corners. So, relieved that the Carignane I was tasting wouldn’t kill me, I stood around an old wine barrel with a man who may very well be the most passionate natural winemaker in California to talk biodynamic and organic certification, the bad reputation of California wines, how wineries lie about sulfites, his favourite years and the secrets to his expressive wines.
AW: Are you biodynamic certified?
TC: “It’s expensive to be certified and you don’t get anything for it. There’s no incentive to be organic or biodynamic. The other problem is that the FDA in 2000 set the standards for the US in terms of using the word “organic.” So we have on one level ‘Made with organic grapes’ where the wine can be produced however they want. But if you use the words ‘organic wine,’ there can be no chemicals added to it in the process or in the bottling. Whereas in biodynamics, you’re allowed 100 parts per million for a red wine, 125 ppm for a white wine and 150 ppm for a sweet wine, which to me was another reason why I thought I didn’t need to belong to this [biodynamic] club, because it would seem that the highest level would be nothing added.
AW: And you could still do organic and biodynamic. But did you find that the process of farming biodynamically made better grapes?
TC: Definitely. They came to inspect us the first time. Usually it’s a three year waiting period but they immediately certified us because we were doing it right from the very beginning. So it’s not a question using the principles and the methods, but it’s the bureaucracy that’s built up around organic and biodynamic, because you can have Bonterra, which produces 2 million cases a year on the shelf made with organic grapes. Most consumers would read that and say this is an organic wine. And it’s a misnomer. I mean it’s not true. And then the other side of it is that some of the greatest wines in the world – Domaine Saint Romain, Conti, Chateau Petrus are certified biodynamic and don’t put it on the label, because it’s not something that should be on the label. It should be in the taste of the wine. It should be obvious that that’s what they’re doing.
AW: Natural wines are becoming more and more popular in places like Montreal, Boston, New York. Can we trust them all to be made well? Or are they taking advantage of the hype a little too much and cutting corners?
TC: I have a woman who buys wine from me who’s extremely allergic to sulfites, I mean she’s really extreme. So she went to a winery I won’t name that sold her a wine that they said was sulfite-free. She was in bed for two days with a sulfite reaction. So she went to a neighbouring winery and told them and they said, “Oh you’re just allergic to whatever.” So anyway, long story, that other winery bought a bottle of the wine, sent it into a lab and got it tested and it was over 40 parts per million. And that’s not natural. That’s added sulfite. And that’s the other part. Part of California’s problem is we’re mistrusted in the international market.
AW: What would you like to change among California winemakers?
TC: We don’t taste enough wines from the world to understand that there’s a lot more going on. Not just big, oaky Chardonnay.
AW: What’s an exciting region in natural wine right now?
TC: The hottest area now is Georgia, Russia. I have an assistant that’s working with me who’s in London now at the Raw Wine Fair. And he’s going to Georgia next week and we’re looking into doing Cuverra, bringing in pots to do fermentation storage in, with the idea – and I don’t know if I’m going to live long enough to do all this – to get clay from our own soils and then make wine vessels out of it so you really can get that super local terroir flavour. Because barrels are a commodity, they’re a resource that eventually there’s going to end. Some wines are not going to be able to be made in terracotta. They need to be made in wood. But it just gives us more choices in terms of what we’re doing.
AW: What will that do to the flavour?
TC: Well if you have a chance to go to The Punchdown, they have a Georgia red wine that was made in 2007 in Cuvera that is just unbelievable. It was never in wood. But the thing about the pots is they breathe like barrels, so you get that development of flavours. I was just blown away at how good it was.
AW: It was a Georgian red?
TC: Yeah, and I couldn’t even begin to pronounce the name.
TC: You got to go there and you got to go to Ordinaire [natural wine bar in Oakland]. And then there’s an interesting restaurant called Millennium, which is supposedly a west coast vegan/vegetarian restaurant.
AW: I just came from the Scholium Project where they sell a carbonated sparkling wine. It’s inexpensive and very drinkable. It tasted really clean, without any bitter aftertaste and it was made with Gruner Veltliner, Verdelho and Lourreiro instead of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier or other more traditional sparkling wine or Champagne varietals. What do you think about that kind of wine?
TC: Why would you do that? Are you making Coca Cola? Unless you made it very clear that it was carbonated, and it wasn’t obviously clear to you that it was. I’ve only had their Petite Sirah, though. The hot ticket now is Pet Nat [sparkling wine], where you’re bottling it before it’s completely finished fermentation so you have naturally occurring effervescence.
AW: So you pick at full ripeness. You don’t pick earlier?
TC: No. Part of the process of ripening is making sugar, but the other part is working with the acidity and maturing the acids. So there are lesser acids in terms of what winemakers want and then they ripen out and you get to your acids that are actually for longevity. So a green acid is very sharp, like what you’d see in olives. And it doesn’t have aging potential. It just gets to a certain point and kind of collapses. If you let it ripen, even though it’s almost not common sense, you’ll get more alcohol but you’ll also get better acidity for the wine.
AW: Do you ever adjust at the end?
TC: I don’t do anything.
AW: Even with anything naturally left over naturally.
TC: Oh you’re talking about free-run press wine. We use a press that gives us a lot less wine than commercial presses. I had it made. So this press produces 150 gallons per ton. The kind of pressing you’re talking about would be up to 200 [gallons per ton]. The last fifty gallons is wine that you could never have by itself. It needs to be blended back into…if you’re doing that, whereas the press of this is essentially free-run. It’s not something that you have to keep separate.
AW: Do you use all metal barrels?
TC: We use all wood. These are just when there’s not enough to fill a barrel we have to put it into glass carboys or stainless steel.
AW: Are they all old wood?
TC: Yeah two or three years old.
AW: Because you don’t taste the oak.
TC: Right but you get the benefit of the tannins that are still at the bottom of the barrel.
AW: And a bit of evaporation, I guess?
TC: A lot of evaporation. That’s part of the winemaker process.
AW: So you intentionally want to concentrate a little?
[TASTES THE 2014 ESTATE ZINFANDEL]
TC: This is from another drought year.
AW: I like the acid on that. It’s got some bite.
TC: So there’s a wine that’s agreeable. That can go 5, 6, 10 years. You’re probably tasting 80-85% of what’s there. So the basic qualities of the wine are always going to be there but other things start coming forward, more nuanced flavours. And then also aging of wine takes on its own flavour in a bottle, there’s a bottle decay, which we’re not used to because we don’t usually drink wines that have ten years on them, but there’s a different flavour from letting them sit for that long.
AW: Did you have a favourite year?
TC: Sure. I still have some bottles of the 1964 Petite Sirah that I made with my dad. 1980 was a really good year. ’87. ’97. 2007. 2001. 2015 has turned into a really good year.
AW: Have you changed what you’re growing over the years?
TC: Well we have Zinfandel planted here, and I buy most of the fruit that we make into wine, so it just depends on what’s available and working with growers.
AW: What’s the terroir like here in terms of soil?
TC: In general, Sonoma is high in magnesium, low in calcium, so with little clay soils. It’s a really tricky question because then you have hillside vineyards with lots of stone, one of the things you’re doing is encouraging bacteria to work in the soil, because it’s the bacteria that make the nutrients accessible for the plant. So the waste product of the bacteria is carbolic acid that etches the stone and puts more minerals into the soil. So instead of just having straight fruitiness, you have a certain mineral, earthy quality to these wines, and that’s what you’re really looking for. And that’s the other thing that sulfite does – it takes the terroir out of the wine. Many times, it just leaves you with some of the fruit.
AW: When your dad got here, what did he do to prepare the vineyards?
TC: Well with the vineyard in 1975, the interesting thing is if you do your soil [pH] tests, it would take a lifetime to just budge it, because it’s a very, very soil process. But on the other side, when you do nutrient analysis, you see big changes in the uptake of the vine. So one of the things we do is extensive cover cropping to bring nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, also the use of ground up oyster shells to put calcium in the soil, so besides breaking the clay down – because one of the things you need to do with clay is get roots in to it so you start breaking it up – the calcium balances the magnesium. So you start getting a better acidity, a more balanced acidity of those two, green acidities that are hard to work with in terms of aging.
AW: Where do you buy ground up oyster shells?
TC: San Francisco Bay is loaded with oyster shells. There used to be oyster beds out there, so they dredge ‘em up and they fire ‘em and then grind them up and we put them on the soil. Jack London the famous author used his first economic endeavor was he was an oyster pirate. He used to go to the beds and steal the oysters and sell them to restaurants and stuff. There’s a long history of that. And there are a lot of oysters still in the bay.
AW: It’s getting warmer and warmer. What’s changing now with the world heating up here?
TC: We’re losing the consistency of weather that makes the wine-growing region have an appellation that you know. So when you buy a Napa wine or you buy a wine from the Loire, you know certain attributes that that soil and that weather give to that wine. And while we can still make good wines, they’re not indicative of what it used to be. Sonoma used to have long hang times. So you get the grapes to a sugar level that at most times you would pick, but you’d still let it hang for another week or a few days to metabolize the acids because we’d have hot days, cool nights. But then with the changing of the weather, like especially the drought years, it didn’t cool off as much at night, so we lost the acidity. And we couldn’t have hang time. We had to pick them like the day they were ready or they would start to raisin because there’s not enough moisture in the soil to hold on.
AW: In terms of picking, how many days do you pick at this vineyard?
[Tastes the 2013 Zinfandel from Freiberg Vineyards, Sonoma Valley]
TC: Well this is a 2013 Zinfandel, kind of old-school Zinfandel. Most vineyards are never ripe all at the same time. There’s always a pattern of picking. Zinfandel is really famous for being even on a bunch, raisins to green berries, so you’re really trying to get an average flavour to it. So we may take six weeks to pick out the vineyard, but it’s like taking out sections then waiting for the next section to get ripe.
AW: You’re talking about it not being consistent, but could that be a good thing in terms of, “Well this was a great year, so prices are way higher”?
TC: Yeah to some degree, but you’re kind of constrained by what people know of your appellation. So 2010 was a great year for making lighter alcohol, more acidic wines because it was cooler. So you have Sonoma Valley on the lable, that’s not really indicative of the wine.
AW: Was your Pinot awesome that year?
TC: 2010…what really came out the best were the ones that hung the longest, which would be Cabs and Merlots and Zin because they benefitted from a longer, cooler harvest, whereas the early ones didn’t get the heat that they needed to have a completeness of ripening, but you can’t hang them out there for two months waiting for them to get ripe either. At a certain point you have get out there and pick.
AW: What do you hate about winemaking?
TC: Marketing. You end up having to go over the same ground that I’ve been going over for more than 30 years. The bag says poison, it’s poison. It doesn’t mean that you can add a little bit of it and say really it’s better for you to have poison. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the natural winebars, but there’s one called The Punchdown in Oakland that’s very supportive of what we’re doing. And then there was a conventional winemaker there who said, “Ugh, you don’t add sulfites. What do you do about bacteria?” And you go “Hey come on, we don’t do anything about bacteria. They’re our friends. We’re not antibiotics.” I think part of the problem is the people who have been drinking wine with sulfites their whole life, all of a sudden they get to 50, 60 years old and they say they can’t drink alcohol anymore because it affects me. It’s not the alcohol. It’s the chemicals. But the thing to think about in the US, there’s 200 legal additives we put into wine. Only one has to be put on the lable. Sulfite. So especially with someone who already has sensitives, it’s the interplay of the chemicals, besides sulfuric acid, beside SO2, beside all these other things, is how they start to reaction chemically with each other.
There’s a pretty popular winery in Sonoma that brought me a bottle of their Reisling. It’s beyond adding sulfites to wine. This thing was a concoction. It didn’t taste like Reisling, it didn’t have the acidity of Reisling. And it really made me feel uncomfortable – more than a sulfite reaction, a chemical reaction. There’s other things going on and they’re calling themselves a natural wine. They’re really popular. They have one wine that sometimes they don’t add sulfites to out of their whole line of wines. Then the women working in that tasting room came up and tried my wine and they were blown away. They didn’t know that wine could taste like this. And here they’re working at the hottest young winery in the county.
AW: How has Sonoma changed over the years?
TC: Well that’s part of the problem. We started in 1979, there were 13 wineries in Sonoma Valley. There’s 180 now. And now we make these lower alcohol wines, lower acid. You can drink bottles of it. But no, you can’t drink bottles of it. It’s not good to drink a half a bottle of wine a day. You should drink a glass a day with food. It’s powerful stuff.
To read more about carbonated sparkling wine, foot yeast, and Budweiser, check out Part 1 of the Wine Whisperers.