How One Woman Went from Making Wine in Her Bathtub to Producing Some of the Best Natural Wine in America
La Garagista's Deirdre Heekin is a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer. You can now buy her hard-to-find wines on the vineyard's online shop.
Deirdre Heekin is an author, sommelier and restaurateur, but she never thought she'd add winemaker to her resume—and especially not natural winemaker. But one day, it all made sense.
Before becoming a key player in the natural wine movement, Heekin and her husband, Caleb Barber, shared a restaurant in Vermont where she curated the wine list. Her specialty was Italian wine—particularly lesser-known indigenous varieties. The producers of these wines were farming organically or biodynamically, but Heekin says those farming practices weren't advertised because that was just how they'd always grown their grapes.
Heekin said she had an aha moment one day after noticing the restaurant's wine list was almost exclusively made up of biodynamic farmers making natural wine.
"There was something that drew me to these wines, something I could only define as an energy, an 'alive' quality in the taste and experience," Heekin says. "Shortly after, I began to notice the conversation around natural wine and that this discussion was about all the things that I was interested in or believe in."
What Is Natural Wine?
"The reality is that because we have no labeling laws for wine, wine can be a very unnatural product," Heekin says. She adds that over 72 chemical additions are allowed into wine by the U.S. federal government, and wineries are not obligated to share what goes into their products.
Heekin says that the definition has always been pretty clear to her. "I believe natural wines must be farmed regeneratively, rely on the indigenous yeast in the vineyard and winery and use no sulfur to minimal amounts only at bottling—with no additional additives. The old saying is 'nothing added, nothing taken away.'" Heekin says her definition has expanded in recent years: "They also must have that inexplicable energy, an equilibrium and emotion."
Separating natural wine from organic wine can be confusing, as natural wine often isn't labeled "organic," simply because natural winemakers are actually going above and beyond standards to produce the most natural wine possible. This may not align with "organic" standards, but doesn't mean it's not a great option for those seeking wholesome, natural wines. Natural wines can be organic and biodynamic, but organic and biodynamic wines aren't always natural (more on that here).
Terroir is also quite the buzzword among the natural wine community. Basically this is just a pretty word for how a specific region's terrain affects the taste of its wine. This is why a bottle of the same brand and varietal of natural wine can vary in taste each time you drink it—an important thing to understand if you decide to dabble in the natural wine world.
The natural wine movement began in France, but Heekin says that as it's expanded across the globe, there are different reasons for producing wine this way. While for some it's all about the expression of one's terroir, it could also be about social and cultural issues—like fighting climate change and promoting gender and racial equality.
"I think there is a misconception that there is a natural wine 'style,'" Heekin says. "No natural winegrower or maker should be shooting for a type or a style. It's important to know that natural wine is a living thing and will evolve and change over time. You may open a bottle one day of a certain wine and have your life changed, and you can open that same bottle and vintage two weeks later and again have your life changed or conversely be underwhelmed. Like people, wines can have an off day!"
Just like how your favorite local bakery's loaf of sourdough could taste completely different than the sourdough you'll find on a trip to San Francisco, such is the same with natural wine. Since none of those additives are present in these wines, they can vary in color, mouthfeel and flavor.
"Natural wine is not manipulated within an inch of its life in order to be homogeneous," Heekin says. "That is the beauty and excitement of wine, or should be. It should tell a story of the vintage, the place, the person who made it."
The Bathtub Days
Heekin's interest in natural wine turned into a dream to make it herself—but she didn't exactly live in an ideal climate for winemaking. Vermont may produce some of the country's best apples, but it's not exactly known for its wine grapes.
In 2009, Alice Feiring, a pioneer of the natural wine movement, had just released her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love, and Heekin was seeking to get a better understanding about the fermentation and development of wine. She began buying grapes from the market in Boston and tried her hand at winemaking in her bathtub. (Seriously!)
"It was like a perfect storm for me," Heekin says. "The natural wine conversation was heating up in the industry. I was seeking to become a better wine educator and a better representative for the wines on my wine list, and I was now interested in how wine becomes wine."
While Heekin enjoyed experimenting with wine fermentation in her bathtub, she soon began to believe that wine should be made in the field. She wanted to understand the act of photosynthesis and how the art of farming paves the way to fermentation. Then she discovered her home state of Vermont actually had a burgeoning wine region. A visit to Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven changed her life forever.
"I was so inspired by the possibilities of growing wine in Vermont that I left the winery with 100 vines from their then-nursery in the trunk of my car," Heekin says. "The moment I planted that first vine, it all came together for me. I realized this is what I wanted to do—grow wine and grow it in the way the producers I admired worked. It became my vocation from that moment forward."
"When I began to segue into winegrowing and production, I was considered the 'crazy lady' by many people in my small region," Heekin says. "I was hellbent on working organically and biodynamically in a region that believed growing grapes in this way was logistically and technically impossible."
Heekin says that by the time she started making wine professionally in 2010—and people were still questioning her ability to do so—the natural wine dialogue was in full force. The best restaurants in New York City were now curating their wine lists with the same criteria they used to choose the ingredients for their menus. Natural wine bars began to pop up around Manhattan as people began caring about what went into their bottle of wine as much as what was on the plate served with it. Heekin and her husband opened La Garagista Farm and Winery that same year with the first vintage. Today, the winery makes 25 different wines and ciders.
In her more recent book, Natural Wine for the People (Ten Speed Press, 2019), Feiring credits Heekin for proving that it's possible to grow world-classic biodynamic wine in cold climates like Vermont. Feiring describes a winter evening when she was gathered with a group of French and Italian winemakers in New York City. She initiated a blind tasting with La Garagista wine made from Marquette, a hybrid grape developed for cold climates by the University of Minnesota in 2006. When she revealed the label, they were stunned. "The jaws dropped. They didn't even know wine could be made in frosty Vermont, let alone have such a sense of somewhereness."
That taste of place, or terroir, is part of what makes Heekin's wines so special and so sought-after. "I love all the wines because they tell different stories about our four distinct landscapes we grow on," she says. "We are on the frontier—there are no set ways to make wine from our region—so it is important to research different approaches in technique. However, I am a firm believer that the fruit will give you the signs of which technique will best express what the wine wants to say."
La Garagista is made up of a small team—with just Heekin, her husband and assistant winegrower Camila Carrillo handling the majority of farming and winemaking. They've recently had to forgo any part-time help they would normally rely on, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Heekin, credits their streamlined crew for helping them stay on course. "We have not had to modify really any of our active farming, though some jobs have been delayed," she says.
The pandemic did expedite their decision to open up an online shop in the spring, making it possible for more people all over the country to access La Garagista's coveted, hard-to-find wines (they currently ship to 38 states). Heekin says the vineyard's sparkling wines are about half of what they make and are a great way to enter into the world of natural wine—and La Garagista. "They are bright, lively and full of heart—just like the kinds of people with whom I like to spend an evening around the table," she says.
Natural Wine Today
Heekin says the natural wine community has evolved significantly since she joined the conversation, and continues to do so today. She says this is a natural progression, but it's not always positive.
"The advent of social media has been a boon and detriment," Heekin says. "On the plus side, it fosters the ability for small producers to connect directly with a larger world and share their stories." This has proven even more true since the coronavirus pandemic brought much of the restaurant world to a screeching halt earlier this year. Sitting down together over a glass of wine is crucial to wine culture, Heekin says, and social media allows us to do that virtually when we can't be together in person. "Wine is about connection with people around the table, about experiencing a narrative of people and place, so people who live together can continue face-to-face, but the larger community gathers online. Already, the proliferation of live chats on Instagram and Facebook has exploded exponentially. Every minute of the day you can find a live wine chat to participate in, whether that is a tasting, or a winery talking about their wines and process, or sommeliers or journalists talking to producers. It is the new way to connect over wine."
Still, as natural wines become more popular and the industry more commercial, there's a risk that the essence of the original movement could get lost. Heekin says, "On the negative side, [social media] encourages an industry based on celebrity. Natural wine, a conversation that began in France, was initially grassroots and by the bootstraps. It was a radical philosophical conversation. Some of that initial revolutionary feeling has been lost as natural wine enters the mainstream."
She says the wonderful thing about natural wine hitting the mainstream is that the conversation is touching more people, making them think about how their wine is farmed and made in the cellar. Heekin and her wines have been featured in major publications, like The New York Times and Food & Wine. In 2018, 2019, and again this year, she was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for "Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer."
"Some have argued that natural wine is fading, that it is a trend, that it has lost its moxie, but I think it is a fascinating time to be involved in this sector of wine," Heekin says. "While there are sometimes confrontational aspects both in and outside our community, my feeling is that this only means that there is still so much energy behind the movement and what it stands for—it only proves that it is alive and well and kicking."
What does the future of wine look like post-coronavirus? Heekin and her team have a positive outlook. "We think farms will become increasingly human in scale," she says. "Consumers will only become more aware of where there food comes from and where they can access it, and as industrial food paths become less traveled, people will need to look more locally. We think there will be some of this effect in wine also. Wine is more shelf-stable, but we hope consumers will start to connect more of the dots to understanding that wine is also food and should be held to the same farming criteria as healthy and nutritious food."
We say cheers to that!
Some additional reporting by Penelope Wall.