By Fred Swan
July 15, 2022
Many wines are simple. The world of wine is not. A seemingly endless list of factors creates the individual character of any wine. From microbes to mesoclimate, from variety to vintage.
If you scratch the surface of most any wine topic, you’ll find greater depth, and more connections with other topics, than you’d imagine. Living Wine, a new film being released Friday, July 15, does more than just scratch the surface of “natural wine.” Nearly every one of its 85 minutes raises an idea or question that would be fascinating to explore in depth.
But producer/director Lori Miller doesn’t pursue any particular idea beyond a level easily accessible to most anyone, understanding her film doesn’t hinge on knowledge of the wine industry or its jargon. Nor are there boring scenes with people in suits authoritatively calling out flavors as they taste a wine.
Instead, we watch and hear from three passionate natural winemakers as they work through the 2020 growing season. Each got into natural winemaking for reasons very different from the others. There is some overlap in what they believe and do, but we see obvious differences too.
It becomes clear while watching Living Wine that not even the three featured winemakers fully agree on what natural winemaking is or why it’s important. All three have compelling stories and are completely devoted to what they do. But their backgrounds and personal philosophies drive them to take different approaches and play by different rules. The result will be very different wines.
Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron is, like all natural winemakers, a minimalist when it comes to winegrowing and winemaking. He refers to his approach as “ground up,” meaning that he starts with the land and the vines, then does only what’s necessary to make the best possible wine from them.
He developed his palate while a successful artist living in Paris in the 1970s, drinking the finest wines of France and receiving guidance from Steven Spurrier. Spurrier was a British expat who owned a Paris wine shop, did wine education, and eventually became a wine critic and writer for Decanter magazine. He’s best known as the instigator and organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976, a competition between wines from France and California.
Beinstock’s standards are high and he’s not inclined to accept some artifacts that are commonly accepted in natural wines, but considered flaws in conventional wine, such as volatile acidity which creates aromas and flavors of vinegar. Now 67, Beinstock is both an old-hand at making high-quality natural wine and a respected mentor for young winemakers.
Darek Trowbridge of Old World Winery grew up around winegrowing. He spent time working in his grandfather’s Sonoma County vineyard. Trowbridge is driven by his view of tradition, a desire for his wine to express only what comes from the vineyard, and a metaphysical view of the world. “Everything has a vibration,” including grapes and wine, which can be disturbed by any manipulation or the electromagnetism generated by motors.
Like the other winemakers, Trowbridge tends the vineyards as carefully and sustainably as possible. But he takes a more rigid approach to natural winemaking than they do. He refuses to add anything at all to the juice and embraces any bacterial notes as natural and representative of the vineyard. Trowbridge says “we can create offensive wines,” because he’s not trying to please or sell to everyone.
Megan Bell of Margins Wine is in her late 20s. She has a degree in enology from U.C. Davis and has worked at conventional wineries around the world, from Napa to New Zealand to France. She came to natural winemaking through an interest in sustainable winegrowing and as a rejection of commercial winemaking, which she sees as making manipulated wines without character. At least as important to her, though, was to have her own winery where she could create a work-life environment in which she and like-minded people—particularly women—could thrive.
Starting the winery from nothing and working six part-time jobs to fund it, part of her hands-off winemaking style is a matter of practicality. “I feel like I am a minimalist with winemaking. I’m much more efficiency focused and less, like, art focused.”
The other day, I happened upon two serious wine folk engaged in animated conversation. They immediately asked me, “Do you like natural wine?”
“Yes, some,” I said. “It’s case-by-case. It depends upon the producer and particular bottling.”
The two wine guys shook their heads in unison. One said, “I just don’t.” The other said he’d tried too many that he didn’t like, due to perceived flaws, such as volatile acidity or funkiness.
Their reactions to natural wine are very common. It is usually talked about as if it’s one thing. You must either like it or hate it. It’s all legitimately good or it’s all an abomination.
Not everyone reacts that way though. I recently spent three days pouring wine at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. A couple of the wines I was assigned were natural and one of them was particularly edgy. Many people found it intriguing, delicious, and refreshing. Some weren’t enchanted and a couple pointed out “flaws.”
For one woman, it was a revelation. “Oh, my God. I’ve never tasted anything like this before. This is amazing. What am I tasting?” She left, then brought back a crowd of friends.
There is no universally accepted definition for what natural wine is or rules governing how it is made. Living Wine lets us see how natural wines may differ not only due to the grape varieties and vineyards used, but also because even “hands-off” winemaking means different things to different winemakers. We shouldn’t be quick to generalize or dismiss natural wine out of hand.
The phrase “living wine” is often used in reference to natural wine, because eschewing the use of additives, including antimicrobials, can result in wine that contains living organisms. These microorganisms will also lead the wine to change more over time than would conventional wine, which is intended to taste nearly the same whether it’s opened one week or several months after bottling.
“Living wine” is also an apt name for this film, because it spends a lot of its time on sustainability in agriculture, the life of the vines, and the life of the soil. We learn how vulnerable the ecosystem is to chemical manipulation and how, with proper stewardship, a dying vineyard can be brought back to life.
“You have to face the fact that any type of agriculture, on any scale, is harmful to the environment, even a garden,” Beinstock says. “But I try to minimize the footprint. I cannot use artificial fertilizers here. I cannot use poisons here. The water we use here is well water. If I start putting shit in the soil, I’ll be drinking it—or my kids will.”
Trowbridge draws the link between agricultural techniques and what winds up in your body. “It’s important to me to do things that are life supportive options, rather than life limiting options [meaning not using pesticides, etc.]
You wash a pepper before eating it. But if you use pesticides on grapes, it’ll be in the wine.”
There’s another reason “Living Wine” is the right name for this film. And it refers to something I found more affecting than any of the discussions about natural wine. All three of the protagonists are truly living their wine.
Their work in the vineyards and winery, the philosophies they apply to that, their personal lives, and their futures are tightly interwoven. Winegrowing and production is what they do pretty much all day, every day. This level of personal involvement and commitment is compelling. All three clearly see what they do as a calling. It’s certainly not something they do for the financial rewards.
Beinstock frequently remarks on the daily stress involved in the business, given how tight money is and how subject to the whims of a vintage natural winemakers are. At one point, standing with his wife he says, “there will be no retirement for us.”
Living Wine was filmed in 2020, a year when fires raged through Sonoma County. We see Darek Trowbridge live through uncertainty as the flames approach his vineyard and winery. Would they survive?
Megan Bell says she doesn’t understand the concept of work-life balance. To her, the work is entwined with life, day-to-day, hour-to-hour. She doesn’t want a separate personal life and, during harvest, she essentially lives at the winery.
Saron Rice, Gideon Beinstock’s wife speaks to this lifestyle as well. “I know people who, in a way, have very separate lives from their work lives. And I can’t wrap my head around that.”
For Bell, this detachment from the world outside of the vineyards and winery led to even more uncertainty in 2020. That year, fires also raged through rural Santa Cruz County, where her house is. That being a considerable distance from the winery, she had no idea during filming whether the home was still standing, or would be when she eventually returned. But, totally immersed in her work, she didn’t appear especially concerned.
This level of immersion and commitment can also lead to blind spots. Though the film doesn’t directly express particular views—there is no narration—the conventional wine industry, its procedures, and equipment are sometimes painted with a broad brush by the winemakers and the supporting cast of experts. It’s suggested that conventional wine is essentially all manipulated and lacking in character. The equipment is developed for making wine more efficiently, not making it better. Chemicals are used to control and accelerate the winemaking process, not to improve the wine.
Darek Trowbridge says, “There are several ways to get the juices out of the skins. And one is ways is to run it through the machinery and have a crusher-destemmer. But the best way is by human feet. That’s been done for about 8,000 years. It’s probably going to work for us today.”
It’s definitely true sometimes, more often at some wineries, that conventional wines are made to a recipe with undisclosed ingredients and that the land is treated badly. But it’s certainly not true everywhere. There are many conventional wineries which are dedicated to sustainability, that limit manipulation and additives, and which try to let the vineyard show through in their wines.
There are also strong arguments for foot-treading not always being the best way to extract juice. It’s slow and done in open air, which means the juice is more prone to oxidize. And the pressure exerted on the grapes is very inconsistent. This can result in over-extraction from some grapes, leading to bitterness or excessive texture. Neither oxidation nor bitterness represent the sense of place so many winemakers try to communicate through their wines.
Living Wine is an engaging, thought-provoking film. It goes beyond stereotypical definitions of natural wine. It takes us into vineyards and drives home the importance of responsible agriculture. It lets us into the lives of three fascinating winemakers. And it will probably make you want to try a few bottles of their wine.
Produced and directed by Lori Miller
85 minutes, English
Living Wine Website has info about the winemakers, film team, press notes and more.
Living Wine opens in theaters starting on Friday, July 15 and across the US and Canada throughout July and August. New theaters will be added to this list.
Filmmaker Lori Miller and winemaker Darek Trowbridge will appear at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on Sunday, July 17 at 4pm for a Q&A and wine tasting. Tickets and details here.
Photos by Brian O’Connell, courtesy of Living Wine and Abramorama.
DocLands Film Festival 2022 presents a conversation with Director Lori Miller and Gideon Beinstock, Megan Bell and Darek Trowbridge moderated by DocLands Programmer Kelly Clement.
Jan Price interviews Lori Miller on her podcast.
Fred Swan is a sought-after wine and spirits educator, writer, sommelier, panelist/moderator, judge, and event producer. A longtime executive in Silicon Valley, his love of wine eventually drove him to leave tech and pursue wine full time (well, more than full time).
His many certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Sud France Wine Master, Italian Wine Professional, and WSET Level 3 Sake. He’s an inductee of the Echansonnerie des Papes, the honorary organization of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
For more than a decade, he’s taught certification courses such as Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, and WSET. He created the country’s most comprehensive credential course on wine regions of the Pacific Northwest. He also leads courses on blind tasting, wine program management, and does consumer education events, winemaker events (in-person and virtual), and winery staff education.
Fred’s freelance writing and wine reviews have appeared in many print and online publications for consumers and the trade. He was twice awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley.
Fred is the founder and operator of Wine Writers’ Educational Tours, an annual educational conference for professional wine writers. Those events are 3-day, deep dives into important wine regions. Each is packed with seminars and panel-tastings with content delivered by subject matter experts, typically winemakers and growers.
His website is NorCal Wine.
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