No matter what you think of so-called natural wine—the loose and loaded term for wine made without legal additives and with minimal technical intervention—there is no denying Tony Coturri’s trailblazing status within the movement here in the U.S. The outspoken and bushy-bearded Coturri, a third-generation winemaker, helped open Coturri Winery in 1979 in Glen Ellen, California, and for years he and his vino were considered odd outliers within the wine world. But in the last decade, as organic produce and farmstead food have firmly taken hold, dozens of wine producers both old and new, are jumping on the natural bandwagon Coturri has been driving for decades. Yes, Coturri thinks his practices and his wines are great—and isn’t bashful in saying so. In that respect, he’s not unlike many passionate winemakers. Writer Nils Bernstein chats with the 63-year-old about his no-frills methods, true terroir and the idea that taste—not tactics or philosophy—is how wine is ultimately judged.
Wine Enthusiast: How do you characterize what you do?
Tony Coturri: It’s a very traditional style of winemaking, we use organic grapes, natural yeast fermentation, no chemicals, no sulfites, nothing added to the wine. If there was truth in labeling it would say just grapes. It’s real simple.
W.E.: Why would this traditional method be controversial?
TC: Our teaching universities say you gotta add sulfites, chemicals, get these ‘balances.’ Historically grapes were the fruit you did this with ’cause of the natural acidity, sugars, all the other goodies, it’s all there. I’m considered a radical, that my wines are unstable, if you buy them they’ll blow up, all that is just a lack of basic education.
W.E.: The interest in natural wine seems to reflect similar concerns about what we eat.
TC: Wine is part of your diet. Especially in my generation, we gotta have organic this and that, but the wine can have all kinds of chemicals in it? It’s just common-sense farmstead mentality—you produce wine and sell off the excess. I’ve had young producers tell me, ‘you’re not a winemaker ‘cause you don’t do anything,’ and to me that’s a compliment.
W.E.: So it’s more about making wine you want to drink.
TC: You can’t sell wine on philosophy. If you get into this health food as medicine thing, you won’t drink alcohol. I just want to make as pure a product as possible, and be able to say it came from some place and it’s real. The environmental and health benefits are a bonus.
W.E.: Can you talk about terroir?
TC: The wine business took terroir away from the farmer. Carrots grown organically two miles apart are going to taste different. Once you put in yeast, sulfites, nutrients, you’re going to change the basic character of the wine. Terroir is very strong but it’s also elusive. California winemakers are afraid of terroir, they want fruit, they want varietal character, they want consistency.
W.E.: Are there generalizations that can be made about well-made natural wines?
TC: If there’s a thread that runs through good natural wines, it’s the complexity of the nose. They’re not pretty wines; they’ve got earth in them, barnyard; they’re not cleaned up. They’re intense, they can be contradictory, controversial, but if you get it, you’re gonna be in heaven. Once you taste the real thing, it’s hard to go back.