It's Only Natural: Hands Off Local Winemaking

Here’s to demystifying a growing niche in terms of Hudson Valley viticulture.

It’s not uncommon to spot someone in the supermarket scanning the ingredient list on any item, be it a box of cereal, tater tots, or even dog food. Produce and fresh proteins are also scrutinized: Was that kale grown organically? A shopper might wonder. Was that chicken local? So it seems kind of funny — especially in the Hudson Valley, where farm-to-table is favored so highly — that this same mindset has not been applied often in selecting a bottle of wine.

Until recently. Natural wine, loosely defined as wine made with little-to-no human intervention, is an approach to viticulture that praises hands-off fermentation and eschews the use of additives, general control factors, or even filtration. Oftentimes, these are organic, sustainable, or else biodynamic, but this isn’t always the case, either. The designation is more of a philosophy than a set process, because there is no legal definition in place for these vintages.

Even those who produce the stuff can’t seem to agree. As Todd Cavallo of Wild Arc Farm, a practicing biodynamic vineyard in Pine Bush, explains, “natural wine is still being re-defined daily.” In fact, some discredit it entirely. “We believe there’s nothing unnatural about traditional winemaking; the term is a misnomer,” tells Tristan Migliore, the wine club and wholesale manager at Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery in Gardiner.

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Over 200 ingredients – like oak `essence’ and something called Mega Purple – are allowed in US wines.

The past few years have witnessed this foggy classification rise from cultish, wine-nerd-only-following, to professional-level fascination, to eventually reach the glasses of a casual-drinking population. Now,  it’s taking shape here, too. Bottle shops up and down our river feature ‘natural’ sections, and venues like Pour Cafe & Wine Bar in Mount Kisco, Backbar in Hudson, and Brunette in Kingston tout “minimal intervention” pour lists and elucidate this niche — all to high success.

But with so many vines populating the region, are Valley vintners making any so-called ‘natural’ beverages?

It turns out, yes, they are. But like the amount of manipulation involved in production, it’s limited. Within our 10 counties, Benmarl Winery, in Marlboro, claims to make just two or three of them (depending on the quality of fruit yield), and the aforementioned Wild Arc Farm has only recently planted vines and begun fermenting using grapes grown in other regions. The most key player here is actually one of the most staunch natural wine producers in the entire country: Stoutridge Vineyard.

Located in Marlboro, Stoutridge is owned and operated by Stephen Osborn and Kimberly Wagner, husband and wife biochemists who met while at Cornell University. Though Wagner continued to pursue science after graduating, Osborn’s interests were instead piqued by a friend’s venture into winemaking.

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He was intrigued by the concept of terroir and that, in theory, “one can back derive the genetics” of sun, soil, and cultivation from the wine’s flavor. As he learned more, however, Osborn discovered that conventional winemaking is not as pretty as it sounds: vintners often sulfite vines (to suppress bacteria), use synthetic yeasts, add enzymes, remove pectins and proteins, and then incorporate sugars, preservatives, and flavors to make up for the qualities that’ve been taken away. (In fact, the FDA lists more than 200 ingredients allowed in American winemaking!) Most of this is done in the interest of creating a uniform product stable enough for long-distance sales.

“It’s just as cynical as can be,” explains Osborn, “to tell the public that you’re giving them the taste of the hillside, then to sterilize and sweeten.” So he worked at assorted bottle shops and studied winemaking at UC Davis, all the while contemplating how to surpass these modifying methodologies.

When Wagner landed a job in NYC, the two sought to set down roots in the Valley. They came upon the Marlboro property in 1999, planted vines by the following year, and soon acquired neighboring acreage with intentions to build a modest winery. But as Osborn cleared the overgrown hillside, he learned the estate had operated as a vineyard in the 1700s. This discovery, combined with the realization that thousands swarmed the area yearly in search of “authentic” goods, led them to believe they may succeed producing wine that’s alteration-free. “You can be different here, which would get you in trouble elsewhere because of this idea that you should do what makes the most money, and if you’re not, you’re weird,” Osborn tells. “In the Valley we’re all weird, so it’s all right.”

They hired an architect to reconstruct the property, building an impressive operation that utilizes gravity to annul the need for pumps and filters, installing the cellar underground to make use of natural temperature controls, and lining the roof with solar panels, which, incidentally, produce more power than they use. While Osborn admits that “anybody not doing one particular step of processing can, to some extent, call their wine natural,” this facility allows them to produce vintages that adhere to their definition: “Untouched. No removal of anything, no addition of anything. No pumps, no filters.” And, according to Osborn, “Stoutridge is the only winery in America doing that.”

This — while ingeniously devised and incredibly precise — takes longer than conventional methods, relying on a combination of natural reactions and time to take the lead. “Any processing is going to deteriorate flavor complexity,” Osborn says. “It takes me five years to make a white. It’s like having a 10-hour stew, where the great thing about it is that you achieve all this subtle flavor-layering integration. Modern winemaking is a two-hour stew with lots of seasoning, so you don’t notice it didn’t take 10 hours.” And because bottles are sold on-site only, temperature or otherwise-stabilizing additives are unnecessary.

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The idea of it all is exceedingly romantic. But, the thing is, wine made in a natural manner, whether as steadfast as at Stoutridge or not, qualifies as a leap of faith: grow grapes, don’t go out of your way to protect them, gently coax into wine, and cross your fingers it comes out right.

“I’m not encouraging anyone to do this,” says Osborn, who believes the process won’t succeed in our area outside of their unique operation. Others, like Cavallo, place confidence in the region’s landscape and industrious spirit. “The market for it is out there,” he says. “I believe that the geology and the climate here can produce world -class wines, and I feel like letting the land speak by growing the best grapes I can and getting them into the bottle with minimal intervention is the way I want to try.”  Migliore, meanwhile, feels the technique will press on out of necessity: “I see this becoming more popular in general, which means we’ll see more of it here.”

Regardless of what camp you fall into — wine lover, ‘natural’ evangelist, or trend-follower — there’s no denying that this movement is welcoming more transparency and accountability to the wine conversation, a chatter that shows no signs of hushing in the Hudson Valley region.

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