Odysseus’s Sea: Natural Wine’s Potential Impact on the Future of Food

Odysseus’s Sea: Natural Wine’s Potential Impact on the Future of Food

This is a guest post from Ned Swain, owner and operator of Devenish Wines. Devenish Wines is a small, dedicated distributor of fine wines in the Greater Portland area. Devenish believes that wines should taste like where they come from –wines that in some way embody the unique climate and environment from which their grapes were produced. The folks at Devenish seek out smaller, family-owned wineries that take pride in the wines they produce. They grow grapes more naturally and have a real relationship with the land they work on. Ned is a Mainer, runner, and lives in Portland with his two little ones.

I can probably take it for granted that everyone reading this blog agrees that farming and the act of food production is a foundational act of civilization. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of food to civilization; I believe one of the reasons civilization exists is to facilitate humanity’s organized production of food. In light of serious thoughts like these it’s easy to write natural wine off as a frou-frou novelty that doesn’t particularly matter in the face of nightmare problems such as climate change and mass extinctions!

But I disagree. Natural wine can play a valuable role in addressing some of these global threats to our environment and food system.

First a definition. I define natural wine as wine that at a minimum is made from organic grapes that were fermented with yeast that was naturally present on the grape skins and then not corrected in the winery with any of the various enzymes, colorings, acidifiers, etc that are conventional wine additions. Natural wine is supposed to be made in a way that’s more harmonious with the natural environment and therefore should be a more honest expression of the environment that produced it (thanks to the absence of those additives).

That sounds nice and romantic but I admit: wine is not something any of us truly need to survive. Wine is not a necessity. Wine is not a staple food like maize or wheat. But, this is where it gets interesting. For good or ill people tend to romanticize wine in a way that is unique among agricultural products. Homer wrote about Odysseus sailing on “the wine dark sea”, not the beet juice dark sea despite beet juice being in fact very dark.

Wine has been capturing humanity’s imagination and inspiring poetry since before recorded history! This unique place that wine occupies in the pantheon of agricultural produce gives it an outsized influence on society. Different carrot varieties and how their taste is impacted by various soil types should be cool, but I have yet to meet a doctor who has a climate controlled root cellar and collects carrots. On the other hand the internet groans under the weight of wine blogs dissecting the impact of northern exposure vs southern exposure on Syrah and the various clones of Pinot Noir and which is best suited to the cool Willamette valley of Oregon.

Natural wine is defined by its production and relationship to the natural environment where it was produced. That is explicitly what natural wine is. Natural wine makes people who have never been on a farm care about natural farming and the holistic relationship between insects, microorganisms, soil health, and the resulting health or sickness of the plants that grow in that ecosystem. I love the cultural and historical aspects of wine but it’s also this ability to be a standard bearer for environmentally responsible agriculture that draws me to natural wine.

On top of that natural wine also helps serve as a proof of concept. Grapes are some of the most sugar rich and fragile agricultural fruits. If it’s possible to produce them in a way that is more friendly to the environment then we must be able to use these techniques on other agricultural produce as well.

Ned is hosting Maine’s first dedicated Natural Wine Fest at the Mallet Barn on May 21st.  The Fest will bring together 40 different importers and wine makers to highlight the natural wine movement. To buy tickets, click here.
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