Friday, November 22, 2019

Healthier, lab-tested, lower in alcohol: the appeal of Dry Farm Wines

You will know immediately if you are the kind of person who would like Dry Farm Wines.

The wine club, founded by a real estate investor who lives in the heart of Napa Valley, is the largest buyer of natural wines in the world. It's ironic because these wines are the antithesis of everything Napa Valley stands for. They're recommended on the website by a who's-who list of biohackers and people who espouse keto and paleo type diets, because they're healthier than most commercial wine. It hasn't made Dry Farm Wines founder Todd White popular with his neighbors in Yountville.

"In 2009 I founded a street festival in St. Helena that became the largest gathering in Napa Valley," Todd White told me. "In 2009 I was named citizen of the year in St. Helena. Today I barely get my calls returned by anybody. My social calendar in the Napa Valley has run dry. It's OK, it's a price I'm willing to pay for helping people live a healthier life."

These are not just natural wines. The company has a very specific aesthetic: low alcohol (12.5% or less), clean wines (despite minimal sulfur) and no residual sugar.

The special feature is that it lab tests all of its wines, so they are what they claim to be. I'm a rather well-known skeptic, but I believe in Dry Farm Wines.

I have no desire to argue about this story with people who like high-alcohol wines. These wines are not for you; you don't have to drink them. I also know the term "natural wine" puts some people into a frenzy. But I tasted nine of these wines and all were fine: the lab-testing program seems to assure it. They are similar to each other, especially the reds: they are lean, fresh and juicy, without oak flavors. I enjoyed all of them.

"These wines aren't for everybody," White says. "They're not big enough, they're not bold enough. They're for people like me."

As for them being healthier than most (not all) commercial wines, I think that's a fair statement. I'll let White elaborate.

Todd White
"I have a tenuous relationship with alcohol," White told me. "I spent most of my adult life drinking too much. I think most regular wine drinkers think they drink too much. Most of them believe they should drink less. But they don't want to. That's my customer. My customers are people who want to drink healthier. This is really about brain health."

White said he discovered the kind of wines he now sells completely by accident, and not before tasting a bunch of truly terrible natural wines.

"I was drinking 15% alcohol wines in Napa," White says. "I don't want to poopoo on Napa. The same thing is happening in Bordeaux. I quit drinking for a while, in 2014, in a period I recall as suffering through sobriety. Didn't enjoy that. I thought it was just the alcohol. I didn't know about the additives or anything like this. I started mixing tea and wine, in the winter. I'd put an ounce or so of wine in the teacup, and have a cup of tea with it. You know what? I felt a lot better. I'm not drinking as much alcohol, and I feel a lot better."

A friend recommended that he try some low-alcohol wines produced in Europe, so he went to a wine shop and bought a case.

"Most of them were undrinkable and I poured them down the sink," White said.

White, left, at Domaine Arsace in France
"They just tasted bad," White said. "I happened upon a podcast with a guy named Josh Adler, who owns a company called the Paris Wine Company. He was formerly the wine buyer for Bi Rite Market (in San Francisco.) He was talking about these natural wines. Bi Rite is an amazing store. So much integrity. I go over there and I buy another case and it's an entirely different experience. I'm in a different world. They're ethereal and they're wonderful."

White sought out Adler in Paris and asked for help in finding wines he liked.

"Because I'm a biohacker, I started testing these wines that I like and started establishing quantified criteria to the wines I like," White said. "Most of my friends are health fanatics. I started sharing these wines with them and they said, 'These are amazing. I can drink a whole bottle and feel great the next day.' My friends were like, 'Where do you get these wines?' Well, you can't."

White established criteria for the wines he wanted. They are:

* 12.5% alcohol or less
* No residual sugar (less than 1 g/l)
* Organic or biodynamic farming
* Dry farmed
* Hand harvested
* Natural yeast
* Less than 75 ppm of sulfur ("Most of our wines don't have any sulfur added, and most are under 20 ppm," White says.)
* No flaws like microbial problems
* None of the 76 additives approved by the FDA for use in winemaking

"Four of these additives are known to be toxic," White says. "Dimethyl dicarbonate (Velcorin) is so toxic it needs to be applied by special contractors who come in in Hazmat suits. It's used to treat the single most common bacterial fault in wine, which is brettanomyces. It's used to treats tens of millions of gallons of California wine. This is not only a US problem; it's a global problem. There are 56 additives approved by the EU. Just drinking European wine won't get you free from these toxins."

At first, White had difficulty sourcing enough wines. He hasn't yet been able to include a California wine.

"Less than 1% of California vines are unirrigated. That knocks most of them out," White says. "No. 2, they're too high in alcohol. We have a strict requirement of 12 1/2% and we test for it. We believe drinking lower alcohol is healthier. It tastes better. It's friendlier with food. And you feel better."

From Dry Farm Wines' Instagram feed. One of these vignerons doesn't seem completely sold on 12.5% alcohol.
But White's French isn't great and he had a hard time explaining it to the French vignerons who now supply the majority of his wines (he also has wines from Austria and South Africa).

"Our position on alcohol in the natural wine movement can be controversial," White says. "In the beginning, you ask, do you have any wines that are 12 1/2 or below? They want to argue with you. 'My wines are balanced! Why do you care about alcohol?' They don't understand about the health aspect. Now they know and they still don't understand but they know we buy a lot of wine."

White is also against new oak.

"We believe new oak is also a health concern, with methanol from the wood," White says. "They taste different. They make me feel different. I get an immediate headache from the wines." One of his biggest goals is to sell wines that don't give headaches.

Dry Farm Wines has grown so rapidly that it now buys most of its wines directly from farmers who make the wine to his specifications.

I asked if he ever gets wines that taste unripe, as if they were picked too early.

"No, the kind of wines we like, the austere style, it's all picked too early by California standards. That's a winemaking style," White says. "Also, irrigation leads to higher sugar. When a berry is full of water it has to reach higher sugar levels to develop full flavor. I don't know what an 'underripe' fruit tastes like. It just means a fruit that's lower in sugar. It's going to be higher in acid. It's going to have higher minerality because the root structure is participating in the wine. An irrigated vine is getting all of its water from within a foot of the surface. An unirrigated vine has to get its water from much deeper."

White enjoys going on buying trips. His vignerons live all over France -- Jura, Beaujolais, Loire, Alsace and some in the south.

"These aren't rich people. They're small family farms," White says. "You can't make very large volumes with native yeast fermentation. You don't see this in the US as you see in Europe -- where the grandfather and the grandmother and everybody lives on the farm. The whole family is involved in the enterprise. There's no tasting room. When you go see a natural farmer, they're almost always interested in talking about only one thing. And that's the soil. They want to go out to the vineyard and talk about farming, and about living soils. And talk about living in synergy with nature. When you see it, it's spiritual. The wines are still living because they haven't been sterilized.

"Wine is the only commercially available alcohol beverage where the grower touches the spirit of the beverage from earth to bottle," White says. "It's not true for beer, it's not true for spirits. Only in wine does the farmer has his unique fingerprint on the wine. This is really important for natural wines, that they haven't been mummified. They haven't been sterilized by sulfur dioxide."

Testing each wine is important because making wine without sulfur is risky.

"We don't buy the wines that are faulted," White says. "You can make precise, clean, elegant, beautiful wines without sulfur. It is done all the time. Not by everybody, and not with every wine. Some natural winemakers will have three wines that are precise and three that are fucked up. Every wine's different. We have a super-talented team of obsessed wine geeks who taste these wines. I don't sit in on these tastings much anymore. We reject 70% of the wines that we taste, either from an aesthetic point of view or they fail the lab."

As I said, I tasted nine of these wines: half a month's typical box, followed by a month's typical box. They were all of a type, especially the reds: light, pretty, juicy. The best I gave 92 points; the weakest, I gave 88 and called it a "simple and easy dinner wine." I'd give individual tasting notes but there isn't much point, as you can't choose the wines you order. But to give you some idea of what you might get, here's what I got:

Charles Frey "Harmonie" Alsace Pinot Noir 12.43% alcohol
Domaine de la Couvette Beaujolais NV 12.5%
Domaine Saint-Lys La Galoche Beaujolais 2018 12.5%
Frédéric Lorney Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2017 12.5%
Les Hexagonales Vin de Pays de Val de Loire Pinot Noir 2015 12.5%
Les Terres d'Ocre "inédi T" Vin de France Pinot Noir 2015 12.5%
Loimer "Lois" Niederösterreich Grüner Veltliner 2017 11.5%
Jacky Preys "Cuvée Princière" Touraine Côt-Malbec 2016 12%
(and one other Beaujolais for which I misplaced my tasting notes, but it was like the others)

What you get each month is a box: six wines for $159, shipping included. You can choose all red wines, all white, or a mix.

"We sell all our wine at the same price," White says. "We don't believe you have to pay more than about $25 for a bottle of high-quality, artisan wine. We've removed everybody between the drinker and the farmer."

As you can tell, I'm a big fan of Dry Farm Wines, and I am far from an ideologue. I drink conventional wine almost all the time. But I really enjoyed being able to drink these wines with dinner and if I ever retire from wine writing, I might sign up for a monthly six-pack.

If they sound like the kind of wines that you would like, I recommend that you give it a try.

Here's the Dry Farm Wines web page.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
To be clear, I received nine free wines to sample from Dry Farm Wines, but nothing else.


Winethropology said...

What a terrific idea. Earlier this week I visited a few local wine shops in search of <13% ABV red wines with some acidity and low tannins to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. Wouldn't you know that of the hundreds of bottles on the shelves at these stores, just 4 wines fit that criteria. Can't wait to sign up with Dry Farm!

Jack Everitt said...

"You will know immediately if you are the kind of person who would like Dry Farm Wines." I am, immediately, except I'm a wine geek and already seek these out 12.5%< natural wines that aren't messed up.

If I was in the wine business, this is exactly what I'd like to be doing, although focused on the next cost tier up.

I tip my hat to Todd White. (And the Loimer would be the first wine I'd taste, above.)

Bob Rossi said...

An interesting idea. I do have a problem with the alcohol part, though. While I prefer wines that are lower in alcohol, some areas don't lend themselves to that kind of wine. I'm thinking especially about the southern Rhone in France, but there are other areas. I'm not really sure that decent red wines can be made in the southern Rhone that are w/in 12.5% ABV. And although I'm not a huge fan of oak, I'm not sure about leaving out all oaked wines. But all in all, this operation intrigues me.

Tom said...

If alcohol isn't good for you, then these wines aren't, either -- they're just less bad. As for any of the toxic substances, it doesn't look like Dry Farm Wines tests for those. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides are present in organic and biodynamic wines even if they're not used on the vines. I'm all for this kind of winemaking, but let's not ascribe more to it than the science will bear.

Pam Strayer said...

What are they tested FOR?

Pam Strayer said...

The company confirmed that they do not test for pesticide residues. Some of the wines are described as "natural" farming as opposed to organic farming or certification. Natural farming can mean "sustainable"-i.e. with chemicals.