Serendipity Thrives In Joe Swick’s Wines

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STORY BY MIKE ALLEN
PHOTO COURTESY OF SWICK WINES

Joe Swick makes so-called “natural” wine, bottled under his eponymous label — Swick Wines. However, sitting at St. Jack’s bar on Northwest 23rd, we agree that wine is artificial — it can’t happen without human intervention.

“What naturally wants to happen to grapes is that a bird wants to eat them once they change color, and then poop them out for the cycle to start over again,” says Joe. “The juice oxidizes and wants to turn to vinegar. That’s naturally what’s going to happen.”

Naturally, wine requires human intervention, but the degree of intervention makes the difference, and natural wine falls on the minimalist extreme of that scale.

It starts in the vineyard with organic or biodynamic grapes. Swick chooses that fruit wisely because, as he says, if “you’re trying to make a living wine, you start with living fruit.”

Swick says that, standing in a vineyard, he can envision what the finished wine will taste like. There’s an “X factor” that defines the fruit that will work well, and that quality comes from grapes grown with a minimum of inputs and a maximum of respect for biodiversity.

After harvest, there’s no commercial yeast, no additives, no filtration, no modern techno-wizardry like centrifuging or micro-oxygenation, and just a bare minimum of sulfur or climate control.

This might sound like a lazy approach to the craft, but Swick argues that it takes an uncommon attention to detail in every step of the process. The grapes must be hand harvested so they aren’t damaged going into the fermentation. Without hyper-vigorous yeast selected in a laboratory, or sulfur dioxide added to control naturally occurring microorganisms, sanitization is paramount.

Grapes are trodden by ethanol-sanitized feet, not pressed with aggressive equipment. The fermenting fruit needs to be frequently beaten down to keep it submerged in the must. Aging barrels must be carefully managed to avoid oxidation from contact with the air. For all this manipulation, the flavor of wildness lives on in Swick’s wines.

The wildness, the vigor, and sometimes the flaws, mean that natural wines can be challenging to conventional aesthetic standards. But when they work, they make you want to pour convention into the spit jar.

For example: “The Melon de Bourgogne that you’re tasting right there,” Swick says, as I wash down a platter of oysters with a glass of his buttercup-yellow take on the grape. “Most people who are tasting that probably wouldn’t identify it as Melon de Bourgogne, but in my opinion, it’s the purest expression of an Oregon Melon de Bourgogne that you can have. This is just grapes. That’s it. It’s fermented grapes. There’s nothing that’s been added to it, there’s nothing that’s been taken away.”

Indeed, unlike the crisp, fruity Melon de Bourgogne from France’s Loire Valley, this wine is more rounded — and subtly funky. Earthiness reminiscent of fresh straw gives way to the brightness of nectarines. It was fermented on the skins, which in itself is unusual, and which causes the deep coloration. Without sulfur, the “secondary fermentation” — in which lactic acid bacteria convert extremely tart malic acid into creamier, smoother lactic acid — naturally occurs, subduing the acidity.

It’s an unusual approach that results in an unusual wine. It still complements the oysters that traditionally pair with the grape, but in a different way. Rather than cut right through the tidal shell-fishiness like most “oyster wines,” it gets down into that oyster creaminess and lifts it up, brightening the bivalve’s fruitiness. It’s odd, but subtly so.

Like most Oregon winemakers, terroir stands at the center of Swick’s philosophy. But to him, terroir is the expression not only of climate and soil, but also of the native microbiota, the ineffable vibrancy of life, and even the character of the winemaker himself.

“The person who’s making the wine may or may not show through in their wine. I try to think of myself as an expressive person, but I’m also really shy, and that’s in my wines too. I’m not jumping out there trying to show everyone who I am, but I have something to say.”

Swick got his start at the Pearl District Whole Foods in the early aughts. Back then, he says, the Whole Foods wine department was less corporately micro-managed. “Not that there’s anything bad about it now,” he adds. But the buyers had a degree of freedom to purchase what they liked, and Oregon winemakers were a frequent presence on the dock, where Swick moved pallets with a forklift. He got to meet some of Oregon’s most lauded winemakers—Eric Hamacher of Hamacher Wines, David O’Reilly of Owen Roe, and Peter Rosback of Sineann—and started asking around about working a harvest. It was the forklift skills that helped him clinch a gig for O’Reilly.

Owen Roe had him as a harvest intern in 2003, and he went on to do 15 internships in 10 years. From Oregon to Sonoma Valley to New Zealand and Australia, then to Italy’s Piedmont region and Portugal’s Douro Valley.

As we taste from the aging barrels in his workspace — a weathered old barn that he shares with several other small winemakers at Medici vineyards in Newberg — Swick tells me about his early days learning the ropes at big, established wineries. He says that many were “points driven,” referring to a tendency to make wine in a style that consistently earns top ratings from influential magazines.

I initially think of that as an experimentalist’s rebuke of the conventionalist. After all, the wines we’re tasting are made from grapes uncommon for the Northwest — Mourvedre, Grenache, Touriga Nacional — to produce spacious wines bristling with unusual flavors and aromas like red currant and pencil shavings. However, Swick speaks of those times and places with reverent fondness, and has no sweeping critique of big, brand-oriented wineries.

“The higher-production wineries are just trying to make a good solid product,” he says.

But there’s a difference, in terms of both aspiration and approach. Swick and his cohorts are on one extreme of a scale of tolerance for deviation and risk. Consistency, according to this school of thought, hides terroir.

The Oregon wine culture tends to be artisan and terroir-driven, which is a result of geography as much as anything else. But even here, unconventional winemakers get pushback from traditionalists, for whom Oregon means pretty, ruby-colored Pinot Noir and crisp, angular Pinot Gris.

As Swick explains, “Some of the more established wineries here in Oregon see unconventional winemaking as doing something for the sake of being different or being cool. And they don’t see that as trying to make the best wine that you can, and that’s their argument.”

A fan of avant-garde rocker Captain Beefheart, Swick draws a parallel between experimental music and his avant-approach to wine. The oddity of Captain Beefheart is, for most listeners, initially disorienting. But repeated sips begin to dispel the confusion, and the listener/drinker becomes intrigued enough to come back for more.

“When you’re drinking my wines, or natural wines, you taste them once and you don’t really understand them. You taste them two or three more times, and you start to get what’s going on. And after the fifth or sixth time you taste it, it hits you, and you don’t go back to conventional music, conventional wines, anymore.”

After steeping himself in the classics of Oregon wine — Owen Roe, Penner-Ash, Domaine Serene — the first steps toward unconventional approaches came in small stages. First it was biodynamic vineyard management in the Central Otago, New Zealand’s coldest and most remote winemaking province. Learning to “take chances” came, counterintuitively, from working at a fifth-generation port house in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Finally, traveling and tasting natural wine in Southeastern France’s Jura and Beaujolais provided the aesthetic spark.

Swick describes “tasting with winemakers there and tasting these wines that I’d never tasted anything like that before. These were wines that were pure. They weren’t technically correct by scientist standards, but there was something that just struck a chord with me. They were wines that had a soul.”

So-called “flaws” can be part of the appeal of natural wines. Detractors might say they reflect a consumer ignorance, or a willing dance of deception between drinkers and vintners. Indeed, natural wines can be hopelessly faulty, one-note failures — wines that smell like an industrial dairy operation or reek of acetone. But in the right hands, they work in a way that expands the aesthetic milieu.

As technological sophistication increases, the winemaker, critic, and consumer can increasingly collude to predetermine how the final product will taste, which perhaps limits the opportunities to be delightfully surprised upon encountering the unexpected. In reaction, natural winemaking explores the rough edge between artifice and the “natural,” and in that slim margin, serendipity thrives.


Mike Allen has been slowly retiring from professional cooking and butchery for years. He can be found at the crossroads of food, craft, and the environment, and at arbiterofdistaste.com

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