New Victoria wine festival opts for a natural approach

Matt Cooke may not be an official sommelier, but the distinction suits him.The operator of this year’s Barnyard Natural Wine Festival knows a lot about wine—the way it’s made, and the BC farmers who grow the grapes. And between 2016 and 2020, the former general manager at OLO Restaurant on Fisgard Street said he was able to flex his sommelier muscles and bring a fascinating menu of natural wines to Victoria residents. “I certainly pushed to the extremes of natural wines,” he told Tasting Victoria. “There was definitely some weird and funky stuff, but the staff and I were able to educate people on it—and they loved it.”When OLO Restaurant closed in 2020, Cooke took a break from the service industry. He returned this year, as the food and beverage program coordinator at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.In that capacity, he’s been able to start Victoria’s first all-natural wine festival, Barnyard Natural Wine Festival, which will take place on March 24 at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.The first goal of the festival, he said, is to expand the palate of Victoria residents.“[Natural wine] is relatively new to British Columbians, and most of the grapes historically in BC have been grown in a conventional way,” Cooke said. “This is a great chance for people to see and enjoy the other side.”Cooke said the festival is also appealing to those in the business—international importers, BC farmers, world travellers, and wine connoisseurs. At Barnyard, they can network, watch panel discussions, debate, and taste natural wine, while building its community. 

If you’re still unsure what the difference is between natural wine and regular wine—you’re not alone—and Cooke said that’s part of the fun.“The majority of wine produced in the world is kind of made in a conventional way,” he said.  “And some might even argue that it’s made in an industrial way … [natural wine] is about taking old approaches and trying to revitalize them.”

(Image provided)

Natural wine is made how you would expect: with organically grown grapes free of pesticides, then fermented without additives. Natural winemakers handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them, and when they’re turned to juice, they rely on native yeast, the stuff that’s whizzing around in the air and will land on grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation.

“Instead of using fertilizers, you’re planting crops that promote the right nutrients in your soil so that the grapes get what they need from these other crops,” Cooke said.“Or you’re planting plants that detract and deter pests—rather than using pesticides … natural wine farmers use the environment to control things that most people would use chemicals to control.”A lot of brand-name wine, Cooke said, is produced in such a high quantity, there often isn’t enough natural grape juice to make it; so, farmers use pesticides and GMOs to keep up with the supply. It’s a common practice. 

“There are no restrictions on what ingredients [producers] put on a bottle. Whereas in food production, you do,” he said. “So, there can be all sorts of things in a bottle of wine that aren’t necessarily good for you, but nobody has to tell you any of that.Producing natural wine is not easy, though: it’s a much more expensive, intensive, and laborious process. And if a farmer is hoping to make the switch, converting a conventional vineyard into a more organic or biodynamic vineyard takes time, dedication, and a concerted effort to undo all of the pesticides farmers are used to working with. Cooke said it can take up to three years.While natural wine vineyards are much more common in Europe, wine-making in North America is still relatively new. The point of Barnyard, Cooke said, is to educate people on these old approaches to wine-making and revitalize them for a new audience, with experts from around the world. “Lowering your impact and tasting something that’s a little bit more true to itself, well then, some might argue that natural wine is the way to go,” Cooke said. “That’s kind of why we want to bring these people together and have them talking about how they make their wines in a more environmentally sustainable way.”

Cooke said Barnyard will hold a panel discussion with natural wine-makers, connoisseurs, and farmers to field any further questions before the tasting that evening.

Buy your tickets to Barnyard Natural Wine Festival on March 24 at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre here, and see its website here for any additional information before the festival.