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Natural wine is the best wine

In a winemaking career that spans 17 years and some 150 wines produced, I long ago decided that “no-tech” wines taste better. And, I now believe, so do no-sulfite wines.

Sulfites are sulfur-based additives used in minute quantities that act as the cheapest insurance policy imaginable — they inhibit vinegar bacteria present in all fruit-based food products. In wine, sulfites also ensure microbial “stability,” usually along with mechanical “sterile filtration.” This process eliminates the bacterial agent that can cause re-fermentation in the bottle (with cork-popping, meaning disastrous consequences). Typically, wine is sulfited and filtered at bottling.

Certain, modern styles of fruity white wines require filtering but most of the time, especially with reds, the goal of filtering is simply expediency. In 98 of 100 such wines, the same result is achieved with patience — letting all heavy particles fall out by gravity and all bacterial processes finish naturally before bottling. (The other 2 percent must be blended with a perfectly clarified wine, discarded or released with light sediment in the bottle.)

I filtered my first commercial wine in 1998, rendering a delicately flavored wine nearly tasteless. I sold the filter immediately.

I have just defined about half of what making “natural” wine means (the other low-tech, low-input part occurs in the vineyard). Humans created a lot of great wine before our technical era, so, clearly, it’s doable. Yet, so prevalent are the industrial techniques, even at very small wineries — especially in America but less so in Europe, though I don’t have the knowledge to generalize about southern hemisphere wines — that very few visitors to our tasting room have experienced such wines.

My sulfite revelation occurred over the last three years, since my New York City distributor urged me to experiment. Controlled “studies” — bottling and tasting samples with and without sulfites over time before final release — led to the conclusion that sulfites diminish ephemeral flavors and textures. Of the seven wines I am selling now, three contain no sulfites. There may be a time ahead that I cannot release a wine without sulfites but that’s my goal by 2015.

My New York distributor is feeling the effects right now: the subtle, no-sulfite red I sell there, in some of the country’s best stores and restaurants, I normally ship to her in July. But this year, the wine is still not ready.

We have to wait.

Biz Buzz Best Buy White — Guenoc 2012 Culinary Reserve Chardonnay (North Coast, California) defies all of the above. In near-desert conditions, cool-climate varieties such as Chardonnay reach dizzying levels of ripeness, so that when, say, one-fourth of their subtleties are lost to industrial processing, admirably apple-flavored, rich, delicious wines still result. This distinctly, not-overly-oaky California Chard is found discounted right now for around $9.

Biz Buzz Best Buy Red — Chateau d’Oupia 2012 Les Heretiques (Herault, France) holds a special place in my heart for the painterly splash of purple it applies in the glass, with a minty, direct, somehow intimate appeal from old-vine Carignan that d’Oupia doesn’t let become ponderously ripe or alcoholic. Fleshy but lively and subtle, it’s built for summer cook-outs. $7.