Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Natural Wines of Terroir in San Francisco

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller at Terroir in San Francisco

The Terroir Wine Bar in San Francisco – like the Terroirs Wine Bar in London (but written with an “s”) and La Cremerie in Paris , which I both visited – serves only wines that are considered by the owners as natural wines. Terroir was inspired by wine bars like La Cremerie in Paris, where the natural wine movement started. Like La Cremerie, Terroir is a combined retail store and wine bar.

Terroir is currently owned and managed by founders Dagan Ministero and Luc Ertoran. When I visited Terroir, Luc Ertoran was there and I had a chance to talk to him.

The Natural Wines

All the wines that are served at Terroir belong to the group of natural wines. Natural wines are part of a larger group of wines that I would call “green” wines - wines made with an ecological concept in mind. There are several different concepts of “green” wines. I have provided a primer of “green” wines at the end of this posting.

Generally, the idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. “We certainly have the largest list of wines in the US with no added sulfur, but not all our wines are sulfur free. When they are not, we allow for only very small amounts” said Luc. Sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, meaning no wine is entirely sulfite free. And to prevent spoilage, winemakers for the past few hundred years have added small amounts of sulfur dioxide to their wines. Luc seems to put a lot focus the issue of sulfur, which I find a bit misguided. Most winemakers add additional sulfur as a preservative, to protect the wine from oxidizing or possibly re-fermenting in the bottle, and to kill off bacteria. If you do not do this, you have to revert to other means (that I would not call “natural”). As far as I can see all the French wines Terroir has in its portfolio have benefitted from adding sulfur.

Picture: The Wines by the Glass at Terroir

During vinification all kind of things can be added to and made with the wine: acids, tannins, sugar, water can be added; wood chips or wood powder can be used to add oak; wines are filtered and “fined” (adding substances that collect particulate matter) to make them less cloudy; there’s a process called “micro-oxygenation” that can soften harsh tannins, and another called “reverse osmosis” that can filter out unwanted flavors in a wine and bring down alcohol levels; natural-wine enthusiasts tout the virtues of using only the yeast already growing in the grower’s grapes or in the winery—on the walls, in the barrels themselves, wherever—to aid fermentation instead of laboratory-manufactured yeast to create a specific flavor profile. And then of course there’s sulfur. But sulfur is just one of many issues in making wine.

Ironically, the Americans are much stricter in terms of sulfur free wines, when it comes to organic wines. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

You cannot find any American wine or other new world wine on the list of Terroir. I found that a bit disappointing, not to be offered natural wines so close to slow food queen Alice Waters and others over in Berkeley and in the heart of the American wine country. There is definitely a natural wine movement in the US. And the Terroir owners are definitely overselling the natural wines that are produced in France and other European countries. There is lots of natural wine made in America. I also found a bit disturbing the complete neglect of Terroir of the carbon footprint of their wines. Why ship natural wines all over from Europe, when they are available locally? I prefer the idea of buying natural and local - to minimize the carbon footprint.

Terroir opened about in 2007 selling 70 wines. Now it has 600 to 700 available. Almost all the wines are European. Within Europe, France and Italy dominates.

The Owners/Managers

Terroir is the brainchild of two Frenchmen, Guilhaume Gerard and Luc Ertoran, and their American partner, Dagan Minestro; Guilhaume Gerard is no longer part of the team. Terroir is now being owned and managed by Dagan Minestro and Luc Ertoran. Luc told me that he moved from France to San Francisco in 2001. Initially, he worked as a waiter.

Picture: Terroir Owner/Manager Luc Ertoran

The Place

Terroir looks like a converted warehouse with exposed beams - modern and minimalistic. There is a large open space, a simple, minimal bar, bottles on rough wood shelves and a wine storage area in back. Terroir has a record player in the corner and an extensive collection of vinyl.

Pictures: Terroir in San Francisco

Behind the bar, which also serves as the retail center, there is a chalkboard list of wines by the glass. Stairs on the right ascend to a loft with a couch, tables, and a few cushy chairs.

The Food

As for food, “we have charcuterie and cheese’’ said Luc and we ordered a very nice cheese plate.

Picture: Cheese at Terroir

Natural and Other Green Concepts of Winemaking

What are natural wines? Natural wines are part of a group of wines that I would call “green wines”, wines made with an ecological concept in mind. There are several different concepts of “green wines”.

Organic: Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals.

Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

Biodynamic: Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.

Sustainable: Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.

Natural: The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.

Vegan: Vegan refers to the process of "finning" the wine. Proteins, spent yeasts and small organic matter in wines are sometimes eliminated from wines with fining agents made from animal products. Fish bladders, egg whites, milk proteins and even bull’s blood (not allowed in the US or France) are all used as fining agents. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines. It’s important to note that vegan or vegetarian wines may or may not be made from organic grapes.

Fair trade: Fair trade wines first came onto the market the US in 2007, following trends in coffee, tea and produce. Fair trade refers to the conditions and wages paid to employees of the winery; it guarantees employees a fair and "livable" wage for their product. Fair Trade certification of wine has been around since 2003 in Europe. The certification means that wineries met certain standards for living wages, environmental sustainability and community improvement. Oakland's TransFair USA just announced that it has begun certifying Fair Trade wines from Argentina, Chile and South Africa for the American market.

Carbon footprint: The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activites have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

A major aspect of carbon neutrality however is outside the control of wineries. It is the transport of the wine from the winery to the consumer. For example, the carbon dioxide emission of a Bordeaux send to New York City by ship is lower than that of a California wine transported on the road.

Water footprint: A new thing is water footprint, reflecting the concern that the planet is moving into a period where water becomes more and more scarce.

schiller-wine: Related Postings

The Natural Wines of La Cremerie in Paris

The Natural Wines of the Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley, California

Excellency and Ecology: The Wines of Gebrueder Dr. Becker in Rheinhessen, Germany

Wine Event: President Obama and the First Lady eat at the "Green" Restaurant Nora and have a "Green" Spottswoode Wine

The Millesime Bio 2010 in Montpellier, France: A Discovery of Organic and Biodynamic Wines at the one of a Kind Wine Trade Show

Benzinger Wines Served at the 2010 "Green" Annual White House Correspondents Dinner

Wine bar: Paris --- Le Petit Monceau, Willi's wine bar and Lavinia

Wine Bars in London: Vats Wine Bar, the Cork and Bottle, the Providores and Tapa Room

A Cult Paris Wine Bar - Juveniles

Focus on Natural Wines: The Terroirs Wine Bar in London

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