Kindred Spirits: Austin’s Wine Scene Embraces Low-Intervention Labels
Austin’s newest wine shops support small producers, sustainable agriculture and traditional production methods
By Laurel Miller
LoLo photographs by Julia Keim
My first “real job” was junior public relations executive for the Napa Valley wine industry in the early 1990s. While my brief stint solidified my belief that I wasn’t cut out for an office job, the experience did validate my passion in supporting small-scale agriculture.
At the time, the organic wine industry was in its infancy in the U.S. The term “natural” wine didn’t exist. Over the last decade, natural or “low-intervention” wines (which aren’t necessarily the same thing as organic or biodynamic wines; see glossary link at end of post) have become one of the fastest growing categories within a global industry that in 2020 was estimated at over $326 billion. Despite their increasing popularity however, natural wines are indisputably a labor of love, one borne of cultural heritage and traditional methodology.
“With natural wines, you’re not correcting anything by pitching yeast or adding things like DAP (Diammonium Phosphate, a nitrogen source used to feed yeast), tartaric acid, coloring, stabilizers, tannins or oak chips,” says Erika Widmann, wine director of four-month-old Salt & Time Wine Shop (sister to the acclaimed butcher shop). “Small winemakers take what the harvest has given them. There’s no filtering, refining, no post-production other than pressing the grapes.”
“These wines are largely coming from incredibly tiny plots, many the size of the average backyard,” says Adam Wills, co-owner of the East side’s LoLo with partners Christian Moses and Charles Ferraro, owners of Volstead and Hotel Vegas, and Matt Bowman, formerly of Uchi and Bufalina. “To me, that’s the most special aspect of these amazing wines, along with their increasing availability in Texas.”
LoLo, a tiny European-style natural wine shop and bar on East Sixth Street, opened February 7 of 2020, only to be forced to shutter on March 16 due to Covid-19. Fortunately, the business model allowed LoLo to reopen soon after as a retail and delivery/curbside pick-up business, and the patio reopened in November. The shop features 250 to 300 bottles of natural wines from both the Old and New World, including Texas. “France always seems to dominate on our shelf space,” says Wills, “but we’re always excited to see more wines from Spain, Eastern Europe, Chile and the U.S.”
Salt & Time, however, is Austin’s newest wine shop specializing in natural wines. “Austin has become more of a wine city in the last three to four years, as a result of the maturation of food scene and increase in disposable income,” says Widmann, who was the wine buyer for Whole Foods prior to her post at Salt & Time.
Widmann prefers the term “low intervention,” over natural wine. “While there’s no regulation on terminology at this time, I think the former is more straightforward and honest,” she says, noting that wines in this category are often made with no intervention. Conversely, the addition of sulfites – naturally occurring compounds used as a preservative – are allowed. “Personally, I define these wines as being made from 100 percent ambient or native yeasts, grown organically or biodynamically, with low to no sulfur (applied in the form of copper treatments, used to combat fungus and bacteria).” Adds Wills, who simply prefers the term “wine,” “What’s cool about the ambiguity is that the term elicits conversation.”
Salt & Time’s 100-bottle wine shop also carries a curated selection of accompaniments like imported tinned fish, crackers, chocolate and other specialty foods. There’s an emphasis on Italian wines (Widmann is half-Italian) and those from France’s Loire Valley, but there are also bottles from other regions. There’s also representation from Texas, including “a handful of small, low intervention producers growing their own fruit and selling bottles previously only available from their tasting rooms, like Southold Farm & Cellar, La Cruz de Comal Wines and Elliott Family Wines,” says Widmann.
While the pandemic has suspended the launch of public tastings, Salt & Time has newly installed patio seating and Widmann launched a Wine Club as way to engage with the community virtually. Members receive bottles not otherwise available, along with food pairing suggestions and recipes.
Widmann also has a background in wine production from when she worked for a prominent vineyard and custom press in California’s Sonoma County. “I saw the spectrum of no to low intervention to conventional winemaking and it was eye-opening,” she says. “I learned that the more you intervene, the harder it is to make wine. You also lose terroir [the characteristics imparted from the soil, climate and geographical region in which grapes are grown].”
Her experience in Sonoma County sparked Widmann’s interest in natural wines and education, as did The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass, a book by plant biologist Jamie Goode. “He very diplomatically broke down different farming methods and it got me thinking. I was already passionate about sustainable food production and transparency in our food supply. Why should wine be any different?”
Adds Wills, “I think people looked at [the agricultural] aspect of their beverage consumption more these days. Questioning how your food is grown or raised is now commonplace, so what’s in your glass should be the obvious next step.” Wills notes that the FDA allows “up to 300 ingredients in wine – the egregious gas station kind. At that point, you’re making a beverage product, not wine.”
Vineyard worker welfare is also generating increasingly focus, says Wills. “Poor pay and work conditions in the vineyard and in production are receiving major attention now, and violators are reported more frequently. We’ve been monitoring the progress, even removing some labels from our shelves. Our industry places so much attention on the wine, the farmer, the process, that we’ve collectively let labor conditions slip. That’s starting to change.”
For Widman and the LoLo team, it’s critical to have that kind of detailed knowledge about every bottle featured in their respective shops. “With these wines, someone’s hands were literally involved in every step of the production, from plowing, pruning and harvesting, to bottling,” says Wills. “There’s little to no machination (tractor harvesting is hard on fruit and hand-picking and sorting allows for greater quality control). We trust our winemakers to make the best product possible from their grapes. It’s really special to have something made with such care end up on your table.”
Many natural wines are certified biodynamic or organic or use those methods without being formally certified (a costly and rigorous process that also requires government intervention, which some makers don’t support). Inexpensive, mass-produced organic wines also permit certain practices that low intervention winemakers eschew, such as reverse osmosis to remove natural byproducts of fermentation. “You can still have a lot of intervention in an organic wine,” says Widmann.
LoLo’s owners credit Austin’s forerunners in natural wines with their success. “Sam Rozani of Sunrise Mini Mart, owner Steven Dilley and wine director Rania Zayat of Bufalina, Chris Kelly, formerly of Lenoir, Erika Widmann – they were instrumental in celebrating these wines before we came along,” says Wills. “Like them, we want to take away the pretense associated with wine and make them as affordable and accessible as possible by using the hybrid wine shop concept, which is a newer idea in Austin.”
Marketing natural wines, however, still proves confusing for Americans, and not just amongst consumers. One of the biggest frustrations with mass-produced wines, says Wills, is their affordability. “The small, sustainable, handmade [natural] wines are more expensive because of the way they’re made. You can’t speed up the process or increase production when you’re literally plowing with a donkey instead of a tractor. These are wines with soul, made with heart,” he says. “There’s always going to be places that specialize in their point of view with regard to wine. This is ours.”
The Organic Vineyard Alliance website has a glossary explaining the different wine production methods, including conventional, biodynamic, sustainable and natural, as well as more in-depth information.