Imagine hunky Chippendale dancers in beige loincloths, faces smeared in Masai war paint, beating their chests in time to thumping African-techno music. Going native! To quote the ubiquitous Paris Hilton, "That's hot." I wish "going native" were that sexy; we'd increase our female readership tenfold, especially with video footage. But in the wacky world of wine, going native is as mundane as - yeast, as in the nasty stuff infesting your bathroom grout (well, almost). When fermenting grapes, a vintner may select a pedigreed, perfectly qualified, tried and tested yeast strain from a scientific supply company. One "inoculates" with a measured dose of fungus, sprinkles it over the grapes, and after a specified amount of time, fermentation begins. Alternatively, she can hold those grapes at room temperature and wait, and wait, and wait, fingers crossed, for those first bubbles to percolate to the surface, letting the "native" yeast on the berries' surface transform juice to wine. Going native is considered a point of pride, a badge of enology honor. Vintners love to boast about their "resident yeast," as if they've adopted and coddled these single celled critters like a well loved Chia pet. Using native yeast inspires passionate sentiments like "we're all natural," "we prefer minimal intervention," or "we never, ever consider using canned, sterile, store bought yeast." And this is repeated again and again- without irony. While wine yeast microbiologists stress that yeast strain has minimal effect on finished wine flavors, (perhaps very young wines excepted), fervent, native yeast proponents insist otherwise.
Now cue the French guy in a striped boat shirt and black beret standing next to his pocket-sized parcel in Beaune. Crinkling his nose in distain at us new fangled, American winemakers, he chides, "Mon Dieu! We onleeee uzzzeeeh nateeeev yeast." With French Bourgogne considered a yard stick by which the world's pinots are measured, French winemaking techniques are co-opted by just about everyone. So long live French fries and French toast! For our Anderson Valley pinot noir we plan to go native, too.**
The flip side of this favored fungus is nail-biting anxiety that "native yeast" can be unpredictable, less hearty, and sporadically die off before their job is done. For instance, too much heat or too much alcohol, both natural by products of fermentation, can kill them. Or sometimes they're extra sensitive to the sulfur dioxide required to hold spoilage bacteria at bay- not good. On the other hand, commercial yeast is bred to withstand the rising alcohol concentrations and temperatures that accompany brisk fermentation. Less glamorous, perhaps, but at least surviving the arc of fermentation is assured. Like reliable old Hondas, commercial strains promise a vigorous, reproducible, predictable fermentation- every time.
The reality is that nearly all winemaking yeast is the same genus, Saccharomyces. The great majority are even the same species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This is the very same stuff you use to make beer or bread (you know those paper packets of Fleishman's activated yeast from Vons?). The gunk lives on grape berries naturally, along with their other microbial buddies, in greater and lesser percentages. "Going native" just presupposes that Mother Nature's S. cerevisiae out compete their microscopic neighbors. And after press, when all of those "natural" winemakers dump the mucky, grape leftovers back into their fields as compost and fertilizer, that yeast just gets recycled next season, until the "native" yeast is pretty similar to the stuff right out of the can.
At Bruliam, our yeast choices are simply a reflection of two very different wines made in two very different styles. Anderson Valley: refined, elegant, earthy, and subdued, fermented with natural yeast. And Santa Lucia Highlands: wild child, super fruity, hedonistic and heady, fermented as hot as our commercial yeast can withstand. Same grape, different personalities, fraternal twins.
**We mean no disrespect to our Santa Lucia Highlands baby that was fed the finest commercial yeast science and technology has to offer.