How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption

In 2010, Dani Rozman was a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin. His friends said that it was inevitable he would end up as a history teacher with a closet filled with cardigans. Rozman ended up in Mendoza instead, which is the center of Argentina’s wine industry, where he worked at a startup helping wealthy people achieve their wine dreams. You could buy a winery from afar and have someone else manage it. They would also design the labels and send you cases of your “own” wine.

Rozman worked the grape harvest in a local winery one summer. He was at Itata at the southernmost tip of Chile’s wine-producing region. He thought that the winemakers in Napa were the same as the guys with the family money and the fleece vests. Itata was different. The winery consisted of a shipping container, a mesh tent, and non-stop work. Rozman grew up in a health-conscious family but still “had to remind them that food is farmed,” he said. Being in contact with plants every day felt like a revelation. Conquistadores, missionaries, and others had planted some of the vines centuries ago. The grapes used were Pais. This was a variety that fell out of favor as winemakers opted for more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. The method was also traditional–the fruit had to be picked by hand and destemmed using a Zaranda. It then fermented inside clay pots. The final product was astonishing but in a positive way. Rozman said that Malbec ruled Argentina at the time. Rozman noted that the country produced a lot of high-alcohol, homogeneous wines aged in oak barrels to cater to international tastes. He thought they were heavy and lacked expression, while Itata wines were stripped down and elemental. He said, “It was as if night and day had changed.”

The artisanal wine movement had gained a large following in European cities and Japan and was now gaining traction in the United States. The novelty of these wines was in their reverence for tradition and rejection of high-tech techniques that many traditional vintners used. These wines are made from organic grapes and do not contain any added yeasts, chemical additives, or new oak barrels. The wines were described in various ways, including as “naked,” “raw,” or low-intervention. However, the term “natural” eventually became popular.

Natural wines have become hipster in the last few years. There are now raw wine bars from Seattle to Kansas City and Helena, Montana. Kasimir Bujak told me that the Wine Source in Baltimore is a good example of this. “It has a trickle-down effect from Brooklyn, and people in Columbus will be drinking it soon.”

Rozman stated, “Ten years ago, young people didn’t frequent wine bars. During the Napa boom in the 1990s, consumers coveted wines that were rich and perfect. They’re looking for wines that are more expressive, not just correct. Wines that are earthy with visible sediment. Wines that taste live.

Rozman agreed to be an apprentice under Gideon Beinstock, a sixty-four-year-old French-Israeli who was philosophical and wiry. Beinstock, along with his wife Saron Rice, farmed eight acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Clos Saron was a two-person operation that had proven natural wines could please even the most discerning palates. At one point, Beinstock said, their bottles appeared on the wine lists in a quarter of the San Francisco Chronicle’s top hundred restaurants.

Beinstock studied to become a painter. But when his paintings began to sell in his 20s, he was horrified at how even a small amount of success triggered his ego. He was a discipline-loving seeker with a temperament of ‘the seeker.’ He was attracted to the Fourth Way, a form of mysticism founded by George Gurdjieff early in the twentieth century. The Fourth Way was a blend of Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and the occult. Its followers sought to achieve unceasing awareness and self-mastery. Beinstock found a bookmark in 1978 advertising the Fellowship of Friends Fourth Way Study Group, which had been founded in the Bay Area just a few short years before. The Fellowship of Friends recruited members by strategically placing bookmarks within New Age texts at bookstores. Beinstock joined the group after attending a meeting. He told me that the Fellowship “was bursting with writers, poets, artists, musicians and actors” and was vibrating with a powerful energy. Robert Earl Burton claimed to have been in contact with 44 angelic beings, including Plato, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln. The Fellowship held that people spend their lives in a state of hypnosis, as they are lulled by their mental, emotional, and physical habits.

Beinstock started spending time at the group’s headquarters in Oregon House, a rural community located in the Sierra foothills. The Fellowship created a cultivated atmosphere in one of California’s poorest counties by planting rose gardens and building a central structure in the style of a French Chateau. The Fellowship, with nearly 3000 members in the world, also had an orchestra and opera company that performed at a classical amphitheater named Theatron. The Fellowship had amassed a large collection of Ming dynasty furnishings, later sold by Christie’s, for over 11 million dollars.

The group’s commitment was to high culture and spiritual work. Beinstock, along with other Fellowship members, planted rows of Cabernet Sauvignons, Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs, and Old World varietals. These are the so-called Noble Grapes. Although the work was difficult–removing granite rocks and planting vines manually–the Fellowship valued the clarity and camaraderie brought about by collective physical labor. The members eventually planted 365 acres of vine. The spiritual leader then said: “That’s an amazing number. Beinstock remembered. He said that the Fellowship’s Renaissance Winery soon produced 35 thousand cases of wine a year. James Halliday, the author of the “Wine Atlas of California,” wrote that he had not seen a vineyard more impressive in California. “Renaissance Winery” is only open by appointment. You will be able to see the two when you visit. Make an appointment. In 1991, Beinstock returned to California, where he later became the Fellowship winemaker.

Beinstock said that the Fellowship produced wine at the time “with a great deal of technology and scientific attention to details.” After the Second World War, the wine industry was transformed by industrialization, which was also transforming all types of farming. Now, there are technical solutions to every ecological problem. The soil at Renaissance was sprayed down with herbicides. After harvest, crushed grapes are spun in centrifuges until the desired percentage of solids is achieved. The liquid was fermented in temperature-controlled tanks, its sugar content was measured and plotted on a graph twice a day, and during bottling, the wine underwent sterile filtration. Beinstock said, “It was a time of science and technology in winemaking.” It gave people the impression that they could control everything and make perfect wine.

Men, mostly, were “wine geeks” who discussed wines using chemical compounds and quantitative metrics: pH, total acids, and months of barrel aging. The modernization of a notoriously finicky process allowed for more consistency and precision. The bad weather of a year no longer meant a bad harvest. Wines that are shipped across oceans can have a longer shelf life and a more predictable taste. Consolidation in the wine industry has accelerated this trend. Mass-produced wines can’t afford a bad year.

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Beinstock thought that these methods suffocated terroir – the grapes’ expression of the soil – and disapproved of those who regarded themselves as vineyard managers. Beinstock viewed himself as a “midwife” who encouraged the birth of beautiful things by remaining out of the way. After he became the head of the Renaissance, Beinstock stopped filtering and demolished the

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