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The Pastoral Wines of Derek Trowbridge

100% is a lofty claim. In fact, it's perfection, something that can never be sustained for very long. The natural cycles of our world ensure that, eventually, everything changes form. The day morphs into night. The tranquil stream empties into the raging sea. Like our products, our claim to 100% is fluid. We're moving away from 100% as much as we're moving towards it.

To elaborate, this month we're celebrating the arrival of the newest American winemaker in our portfolio, a "pastoral winemaker" by the name of Derek Trowbridge who vinifies minimally handled wines from biodynamically grown grapes in Russian River Valley. His label Old World Winery takes us further from the claim of being 100% Italian wine, yet moves us closer to our goal of providing Nashville with a portfolio of wines that are 100% sustainably farmed and minimally processed, what the market has deemed "natural wine." That term, however, is one that many producers avoid, Derek included. 

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"The term Natural Winemaker is not to my liking. It begs an argument from others who may not be natural and don't want that known," Darek says. "So I chose 'pastoral' because that is the setting in which nature happens. There are many images of photos and artwork of a pastoral setting, and that is the unspoken nature that I invite into my wines by allowing the natural process to exist. It's a celebration rather than a term that brings adversarial feelings."

Derek notes that it's the market who uses the phrase "natural wine," meaning buyers not winemakers. It does beg the question, how is any wine unnatural when it's made from grapes? It's easy to point to the unnatural levels of inorganic arsenic and pesticide residue found in mass-produced, factory-farm wines sitting on your average grocery store shelf, but what about those producers who add just a touch of tartaric acid to give a ripe vintage a bit of balance? Are they unnatural?

Ultimately, it depends on how wide your definition of terroir is. Does terroir include only the grape and place? Or do the indigenous yeasts count? The ambient temperatures? If terroir is expanded to its widest definition, often the result is a wine with some pretty bizarre aromas and textures.

What I enjoy about Derek's wines, however, is how they're able to be the best of both worlds. His commitment to biodynamic farming ensures that the grapes are nurtured and pesticide free, but his winemaking style produces wines that have wide appeal. One sniff of his 2013 Flow Syrah lets you know that he's not masking the terroir either.

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As I lifted the glass to my nose, I was hit with the unmistakable scent of bay leaves, an aroma note that screams California to me. His wines present themselves with great balance, able to express the ripeness of the region while retaining the necessary acid. There's an amazing freshness, and never too many tannins weighing down the presentation. 

Also the grapes he tends are sometimes downright nerdy: Abouriou, Trousseau, Mondeuse. Although these grapes are currently in mode for those on the vanguard of wine consumption, Derek certainly didn't plant these to be trendy or contrarian. In fact, many of these vines have waited over 100 years to be trendy. They were planted by his grandfather, Lino Martinelli, whose son Lee built the Martinelli name to international fame with their highly rated wines. But even that took decades. It wasn't until the 1980s that Martinelli Zins blew away minds and palates. In the meantime, those vines were more like the family garden.

"Various family members have tended the blocks that I now farm, and they did so out of respect to the elders rather than a real money generating enterprise," Darek says. "It was about saving the old vines from death and passing them down to the next generation. It was about stewardship. You take care of something under your watch so that others may have it later."

If there could be a solid definition for "natural" wine, maybe it's found there, in the cycles of life. It's unnatural to strip the soil of nutrients and leave it barren for the next generation. It's unnatural to think only of oneself, removed from any connection to larger systems beyond our individual control.

Derek compares the budding natural wine market today to the emerging organic food movement of 20 years ago, and it's an apt comparison. Regardless of whether a consumer believes that organic food is better for their health (because you can find scientific support in either direction), the larger point of the movement is that consumers are starting to care more about the sources of their food and its larger effect on the environment.

Are these veggies local? Are the chickens free-range and happy? What chemicals were added? These are the questions asked by consumers who feel constricted by our noisy, light-polluted, 24/7 world of incessant distraction. Derek is finding that he has more and more interest every year from people who wish to live the pastoral life, if only temporarily, by helping him tend vines and work the harvest.

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"People, in my opinion, are seeking the natural order of life that they have been cut off from. Living in cars between a house in a neighborhood and a work space in an "urban" setting pulls you out of the pastoral, or the natural process. Even walking in an "urban" park doesn't really target this issue because it is a contrived existence, a combination of irrigation, fertilization and non-native species that creates a kind of beauty, but it is not in line with the growth cycle of the seasons necessarily.

You can literally view time on a seasonal basis when walking through a natural, non-disrupted ecosystem, and this is the process that occurs on the farm. So coming to a farm allows one to become intimate with this process to the level at which the farm mimics the natural process."

We already use that glass of wine to return our lives to a natural pace. Perhaps the buzz from a glass of natural wine can strike more profoundly, on a deeper level of our consciousness.

"The toast 'Salute' means 'to your health,'" Derek observes, "and perhaps we each get to decide what that means for ourselves."

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Brandon Chapplewine