Gary Venturi Vineyard, situated on the fertile loams of California’s Mendocino County, is the largest grape provider for Las Jaras, the celebrity wine label from comedian Eric Wareheim and wine veteran Joel Burt that has become a common fixture at natural wine shops across North America. In taking over the vineyard to ensure organic production, the winemakers also inherited a yearly production of about 30 tons of old-vine petite sirah, a small percentage of which is incorporated into just about every wine they produce.
“Not my favorite variety,” Burt told me. “Petite sirah can be a bit of a bastard. It is a very tannic, very dark, really big fruit. It’s very difficult to make a light wine with petite sirah.” Las Jaras, after all, has made its name on fresh, juicy wines. (The brand’s most ubiquitous line is dubbed “Glou Glou,” after all.) Petite sirah’s small size and thin skin make typical fermentation techniques for the style, like carbonic maceration, a no-go.
“Trying to make a wine that fits within our sensibility with petite sirah really made me kind of think outside the box to [find] different ways to make a lighter wine,” Burt said.
He isn’t the only one. Fresh, low-tannin wines have become a preferred archetype for the modern wine drinker, and with that comes the challenge of producing new wines that manage to be both interesting and uncomplicated. A “juicy” wine creates an unshakable perception of fruit on the palate, aided by a balance of acid and just enough tannins for a touch of textural density akin to… well, juice.
“It’s kind of like juicy is the new jammy,” Burt said, referring to one of the dominant wine descriptors of the 1990s and early 2000s, used for big, bold wines made with extremely ripe grapes. It’s the inverse of the pursuit that has become wine’s new modus operandi, which is “all about how to express lightness and freshness and deliciousness,” Burt continued.
The people want their juice, which, for decades, has been slang for wine (for obvious reasons). “Juice” became customary bro code for the brash young somms and social strivers of the aughts and early 2010s, with whatever nonchalance it was meant to denote rapidly curdling, just as language did for the Beat Generation. (Time is a flat circle; plenty of beatniks were juiceheads.) The Brat Pack novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney published a collection of his wine columns, titled The Juice, in 2013, which either immortalized the term or put a nail in its coffin, depending on your perspective. Embarrassing or not, the edgeless, almost debonair branding of “juice” persisted. “I know ‘juice’ is a really popular term—honestly, I hate it,” Burt said. “Especially when people say, like, ‘Oh, that’s good juice.’ To me, it’s kind of cringey.”
The wine world comprises people whose lives have been subsumed by the details and processes of fermentation, and with that comes a certain narcissism of small differences. One letter can change context completely. There was a noticeable recoil when I asked about “juice” as a term, when what I was really considering was “juicy” as a descriptor—the former being a scourge of scenester language, the latter being a guiding principle for much of contemporary winemaking.
“For me, ‘juicy’ and ‘juice’ are two different things,” said Shaunt Oungoulian, another natural winemaker in California.
Oungoulian has, for the past decade, explored methods of making a juicier wine. How? With more juice. Before starting the Les Lunes and Populis labels in 2013, Oungoulian was interning with a winemaker in France when he met Olivier Cohen. The fellow neophyte was ready to make his own natural wines in Languedoc, which he now bottles under the label Les Vignes d’Olivier.
“We were interested in making a fresher style of wine, but I feel like oftentimes wines that are carbonic macerated are kind of overly marked by the technique. It very much has that kind of tutti-frutti thing. Outside of Beaujolais, it kind of all tastes the same,” Oungoulian said. “So the thought was, How do you do something similar? In a carbonic maceration, there’s whole clusters and then you blanket them with CO2. After some talking and theorizing, we thought, Well, what if we blanket it with juice instead of CO2?”
“It’s kind of like juicy is the new jammy.”
In France, the technique is known as flottaison, pioneered by the Northern Rhône winemaker Daniel Sage in the early 2010s. (“Like everything, [in wine] there’s no such thing as an original thought, so I’m sure that some Georgian dude was doing this 10,000 years ago,” Oungoulian said.) For Oungoulian and Burt, it’s been dubbed “reverse saignée,” a sort of inverse of the saignée method of making rosé, wherein red grape juice macerates with the skins for a short period of time to develop color, and is then siphoned off to ferment alone. In a reverse saignée, the juice is added to a vat of whole grapes, rather than removed, providing the anaerobic environment necessary for a clean ferment—and, perhaps most importantly, producing an exceptionally juicy, fruit-forward wine.
“There’s different ways to achieve a light wine,” Oungoulian said. “You can also do a shorter maceration, but the thought is we wanted to do kind of a full length of maceration because you get a little bit more deep and interesting tannin extraction and mouthfeel. By co-fermenting rosé juice, it’s almost like you’re turning the dial down. So you have that depth, but it’s not quite as loud.”
Such musings hold a level of consideration that almost seems unbefitting of a wine meant to be enjoyed simply. But simple ain’t easy. A juicy wine is, in a sense, a reconstruction of an ideal not unlike a tasting menu built around core sensory memories. It takes the aromatic potential of grapes to reanimate a sense of naiveté, both in the fruit and in the drinker. It’s no coincidence that the juiciest wines at a shop seem to produce surreally nostalgic tasting notes: Sour Patch Kids, Jolly Ranchers, Swedish Fish.
Perhaps it’s silly to quibble about pop nomenclature when there was a time in which wine and juice were truly synonymous. The juice from freshly pressed grapes is known as must, which derives from “mustum,” what the ancient Romans called young wine: sweet, unfermented grape juice that was kept in such a state by being poured into resin-coated amphorae and buried in cold, wet sand for up to months—protorefrigeration. At that time, there was no strong semantic delineation between fermented and unfermented grape juice. It was all wine, and thus, it was all juice. Culture and technology have cycled through numerous revolutions since then. Yet today, with the fundamentals of preservation down to a science, the impossible dance of maintaining the juicy essence of freshness persists.