Foreign vineyards

American natural wines

How mind can change
How mind can change
USA > California, Oregon & Vermont

Their names are Martha Stoumen, Donkey & Goat, Oeno, La Garagista, Joe Swick...they are some unique representants of the natural wine movement in the USA. We have met some of them and tasted some samples that they kindly sent for us in Paris.

Truly we would not have expected this.

Especially not from the USA, a country from which we had often seen a predominant taste for monolithic wines, aseptic aromas, for industrial food, for total-controlled processes. A country where the unknown part of the total has been regularly reduced and swallowed by large- scale production, certainty, calculation and logic.

It has been a surprise to discover that some US wineries could produce natural wines that could even grab the attention of our local French organic defenders, even those of the ‘sulfur-free’ camp. From this perspective, there is really first a learning that in the country of the politically correct, this kind of product could just see the light. First off, it’s quite amazing and second, promises discovery.

Then, we have to admit that some of the wines were beyond our reach and understanding. Whether expressing too much reduction, too much residual sugar,  too much need of air/oxygen to become just something sniffable or palatable in the glass. That must be due to our adapted taste, we had never imagined that this country could go this far. There must be a growing public for this style wine on the other side of the Atlantic?!

With the notion that there is still a road ahead and a ways to go to improve quality, let’s suppose that these wines could become a bit more civilized (admitting it’s in his genes) and that we could return to it in 2 or 5 years being a bit more convinced. We are not a fan of the result, necessarily, we are fans of the concept.

But there are a few notable exceptions from our tasting panel that we must talk about. And this is the second major learning of the workshop dedicated to the US natural wines. Actually, a few wines showed some original character, different expressions of some grapes we had stereotyped thus far. For example, under the signature of some brilliant US producers, we rediscover the pleasure of sipping a Viognier.

Overall, if there wasn’t an outstanding wine, a decent number of bottles were surprisingly good. We have to follow this up in the years to come, no doubt.

The tasting itself, Paris 2018

Our tasting group met in September 2018 in Paris, at headquarters, to sift through the samples sent from America. The samples bottles were put in upright standing positions the previous week and just prior to the tasting, the wines were put in a carafe for a few minutes, in efforts to ameliorate ‘bottle-shock’. All of them were served blind. 

 

Oeno Wines Chardonnay 2017 Russian River

The nose expresses pretty apple fragrance, white flowers, peaches, and exudes creamy impressions. The mouth is quite well structured, balanced, somehow massive, with the impression of some residual sugar. This does not recall anything from the New World, there is some reduction. It’s correct and well made, although it’s difficult to perceive an identity there. A bit neutral in the approach. The finish is a bit dry and lacks consistency.  12/20

 

Donkey & Goat Linda Vista Vineyard, Chardonnay Napa Valley 2017

Interesting nose with a fine reduction, white flower sensation showing through. The body is creamy and buttery, greasy, fat, but not lacking in tension, and an expression of salty terroir comes in. The finish is long and accurate, with the sensation of candied green lemons. There is definitely personality here, it’s mature with a hint of alcohol. Fine!  13/20

 

Donkey & Goat El Dorado 2016, Barsotti Vineyard

This wine is made by a strange association of mainly southern French grape varieties: Clairette, Picpoul, Vermentino, Roussanne, White Grenache.  The nose is composed of citrus skins, bitter scents of orange peels, mountain dry herbs (garrigue), rhubarb and honey, definitely some complexity here. The mouth expresses some rectitude, tannic sensation, with a positive and stressed bitterness on the herbal finish. A kind of strange positivity on the iodine terroir side. We really like this.  14/20

 

Martha Stoumen Viognier 2017

The wines of Martha Stoumen did impress by their strong reduction and residual gas. It was even necessary to shake the carafe several times! This one needs to breathe before being enjoyed!

It’s very interesting that none of the tasters seems to identify Viognier here, the grape parameters are just off the radar, except maybe in the apricot notes. This wine is very crystalline in style. The mouth shows some fatty character, all iodine and acid. Almost all the participants acknowledge that this is more moving than most of the French Viognier you can find here. There is salty sensation that sings of it’s terroir and bright minerality. 13.5/20

 

Donkey & Goat Pinot Gris 2017

The color is orange and candy pink, like the light at sunrise. The nose is delicately set up, with fresh fruits, candies, crushed strawberries. The mouth has natural energy with a presence of gas, orange peels, offering some invitation to drink once the reduction has been erased and the evervescence diminished. There is some character in it, it’s really drinkable with a little monolithic and natural approach. Some of us regret that there was maybe too much nature orientation here that makes the result uncertain. 12.5/20

 

Martha Stoumen Nero D’avola 2017, Mendocino country

Too much gas here, and very strong reduction. One must shake the carafe intensely to get something drinkable. After this shock treatment, there is still some animal reduction, but the nose then expresses some flowers, cacao style scents. The mouth is still gaseous, juicy, still gourmand, fresh with little acid red berries notes, blood-oranges, grenadine, and original definition. Resembling Pinot Noir in the delicate character. We are convinced, but this wine requires a cautious approach before being palatable. Some of us dislike the presence of sugar here.  13/20

 

Oeno 2017 Pinot noir Sonoma Russian Valley

The nose recalls easily those of Pinot Noir with well-defined fruit, fresh flowers and some hint of green vegetal. In the mouth, we like this freshness, with some sugar impression, some interesting length. Sure this is not a Grand Cru from the Côtes-de-Nuits, but who cares? It’s very honorable, with some kind of strong reduction, some power, and alcohol. It’s a Pinot that could be taken for a Shiraz in some aspects, smoky and full-bodied. 13/20

 

Oeno 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma

Candied nose, but it still offers a solid definition, with a recurrence of black fruits scents (blackcurrant). From a south style expression, sunny, the wine shows extracted, fleshy character, with some granular expression, tight in tannins. It’s still juicy and deep nevertheless. The aromatic expression is around elderberry, and flowers in the finish. We like this nice expression of the grape, compact, serious, balanced, almost earthy and this offers what we expect from a well made Cabernet, without the boring aspect. It should mellow with a few more years. 13.5/20

A conversation with Martha Stoumen, Jared & Tracey Brandt (Donkey & Goat), Amy Atwood (Oeno), Deirdre Heekin (La Garagista), Joe Swick

R&B What is the ambition that inspired you to produce “different” (in comparison to conventional, mass-produced wines) ; more natural-driven, more drinkable, more approachable, wines?

Martha Stoumen: I worked for an organic farm in Tuscany that happened to make wine, though wine was not the focal point of this particular farm. It was a full-farming system.

Coming back to the US after that one experience, was like night and day. The small farm in Italy wasn’t producing wine commercially. I then saw firsthand how wineries in the US make a living from it. Throughout my internships abroad, I came to realize that it is possible to be a small family-owned business and make wines that are minimal intervention.

After a few apprenticeships in Europe I started at UC Davis, where I was exposed to a very technical approach to winemaking. At this time I started drinking and focusing on natural wines. It was through tasting naturally produced wines that I became spellbound, “taste and feeling trumps most things.” Natural wines are in my opinion, spellbinding, beautiful and heartfelt.

I didn’t want to be an expat my whole life (though I definitely considered it!) just in order to be able to make wines in the style and way that I wanted to as I saw overseas. So, I deduced that the best way to go about this back in the States was to start my own business. The naturally-driven wineries that I wanted to work at were so small that they couldn’t hire me, so I decided to forge ahead and start out on my own instead of totally change careers. There was no way I was going to make conventional wines.

I saw a “hole to fill” in my native state of California, and I enjoy drinking natural wines from California so much, so I thought, perhaps some others will! It is harder to make wine (economically) in California than in most parts of Europe, but I wanted to embrace and show pride for my ‘home dirt.’

I was born and raised in Northern California, in Sebastopol. I grew up in a small community which was very agricultural-driven. Though my family practiced organic farming for their own vegetable and fruit consumption, this was not the norm at farms in California in the 1980’s. Today, more fruit, vegetable and livestock farms are organic but we still have a long way to go with viticulture.

Jared Brandt (Donkey & Goat): We (Tracey and I) weren’t seeking it out in particular, we travelled to France, worked at a winery, and came back to California having no desire to make conventional wines. We decided to go to France to discover how Eric Texier was making wines. We found him, learned, and brought those tools with us back to California. It was very hard to sell our wines in California in the start (2005). People were not in the mindset at that time. Either people wanted big, bold wines, or if they did want natural, they sought out French wines. It was a bit of the Wild West. We started small and have stayed small, (no investor = no pressure). We have been able to do what we wanted from the start. We didn’t have the pressure in the beginning, to make or break it. I kept my job in tech. Whether or not that was a good thing or not.

Amy Atwood (Oeno): My ambition was born from being in the wine business, day-to-day, as a sales representative, coming home from a day of selling and realizing that there weren’t any wines opened from the day that I wanted to drink! These weren’t the wines that I enjoyed, that I believed in. Amy Atwood Selections was born from this mentality that started 8 years ago.

Back in the mid 2000’s, Beaujolais was (and is still) the entry point for natural wines, these were the natural wines that were the most available. I read Alice Feiring’s books. Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & Francois Selections was an inspiration, she was mainly based in NY and well-established on the East coast especially at that time. The California market was “ripe for the picking” in terms of representation and a need for natural wine distributors. I found most of the natural wines I drank at this time through word of mouth, as well as lots of research.

R&B What is your point of view as a winemaker/producer on the current state of wine production in the US. What did you not like in the current offering or way of making wines in the USA that triggered this desire to try something else?

Martha Stoumen: The US is an inspiring place to make wine. There is a true spirit of experimentation, and at the same time, a desire to balance that experimentation by entering the realm of serious, more classic winemaking. There is experimentation towards producing classic (in terms of being able to cellar) wines that have minimal intervention in regards to production but that are heartfelt and rooted in place, site, and vineyard. The profile of the wine drinker in the US is changing. Consumers are enjoying more pleasure in trusting their producer not to make a “flavor of the month” style.

We are just starting to step into the realm of natural wines that have tannin, structure and can age.

Jared Brandt: A lot of American drinkers start out drinking big wines, and then evolve to appreciating and looking for the subtleties in wine. Which then brings them to natural wines. I personally have no interest in making those “big wines.” I like the smell of oak, but I don’t want my wine to smell like a freshly sanded floor.”

Tracey Brandt: I think it is very exciting time for California and US wine. Long established methodology and process is being questioned, re-considered. When we started Donkey & Goat in 2004 there were only a handful of California wines that really excited us. Today there are more wineries than I can even keep up with!

Amy Atwood: My desire was triggered through my own personal wine consumption, which tends towards francophile. At this same time, there was a more widespread growth in domestic natural wine production, with producers such as Michael Cruse and Donkey & Goat, both located in California. Within a year or two, a lot changed. A shift occurred in California, and is still occurring, rapidly.

My own wine brand, OENO, was born mostly of a price-point issue. I noticed a need for more affordable, approachable style of natural wine on the market. Especially for on-trade, where a by the glass price point for naturally-driven wines was not available. We needed to provide the price point of table wines, a California ‘Vin de Table’. In my opinion, California is the most exciting wine region in the world. Such diversity in terroir and interesting wines are available.

Deirdre Heekin (La Garagista): US wine has longtime been dominated by California. The good, the bad, and the ugly, in all ways. My specialty was in Italian wines, and my education was during a time in domestic wine production when it was all about numbers, points, and big wines. When I started making wine professionally, I started to become aware of a gradual shift that was happening in California. Luckily it was around the same time that I started making wine, I was like “wow, California has a new story.” My own restaurant list grew to support some domestic producers because I wanted to support my co-patriots. I am so excited by what’s happening in California now, and in a lot of States. These producers, this new generation of producers are also embracing producers from other places. Before, there was quite a bit of tunnel-vision.That has really broadened.

People often ask me, “Why Vermont?” and the answer is simple ; it’s really tough to do what we’re doing, on the scale that we’re doing it, in a place like California, it would be too expensive there. Vermont is also where we live, it’s the landscape we love, and it’s exciting to be in a new, burgeoning region.

Joe Swick: I think we’re seeing the bigger corporate wine companies noticing that they are losing sales to smaller, family run wineries. In Oregon, for example, family run wineries are being bought out by bigger corporations. A lot of the times the winery will keep their names but behind the scenes they are run by the big corporations. The concept of ‘branding’ is happening more so in California than in Oregon. Being ‘score-driven,' making wine often becomes following a ‘recipe,' those aspects along with my first-hand knowledge of what went into most wines, were part of my dislike of the way I saw wines were being made. Another major deterrent for me what the additives, the manipulation of the wines. The thing that opened my eyes to the way that conventional wines tasted was when I first tasted natural wines. When I drink conventional wines, I don’t feel good. I get a headache, I don’t know if it’s the sulfites or the booze. Whatever it is doesn’t make me feel very good.

R&B What makes the natural wine movement original in the US and what kind of fuel can it benefit from its recent rise in popularity?

Martha Stoumen: I see the natural wine movement as a ‘pushback’ against an existing factor or factors. There is an international pushback from conventional farming. The natural side of farming vs conventional farming.

In the US the movement is unique in that there is no friction with the AOP rules in winemaking as wineries face in Europe, there is thus not as much history to push back against.

There is however an economic pushback against the big money wines of California, not all consumers have a fat paycheck to spend on these bottles.

Natural wines help to fill the spot in between, for it is a wine that is not necessarily as precious so that only the elite can afford it, but it is affordable, and  displays a sense of place. The current natural wine movement is a sign that our natural winemaking culture is starting to trust itself. We are pulling back and taking examples from all over the world. Emulating the Old Wine style in sense of place.

Another important fact that helps make this movement unique in the US is the notion of “control” over farming. A lot of fruit in California natural winemaking is purchased from family farms, not every winemaker has their own farm to pull fruit from.

As natural winemakers begin to have more collective grape purchasing power, I think the natural wine movement in California can help incentivise more grape farmers to farm naturally/organically. I also think the natural wine movement is fueling small producers to enter the scene in CA because we have an alternative consumer base to sell to. We are almost competing “outside” of the traditional sales system. We couldn’t compete with the enormous CA wineries within the old distribution and sales system.

Tracey Brandt: The natural wine community in the US is still very young and honestly still a bit perplexing.

In other countries there are vigneron organizations that create a charter or something similar that specifies what members believe in, adhere to and promise to follow. Here in the US we have no such organization and the Natural Wine “members” seem to vary based on which importer or retailer is organizing a marketing event because each has different requirements. I have toyed with the idea of leading the creation of a grower/maker organization but we are very much participator in our small winery business (read we are swamped) and we have 2 daughters and between both I fear I would not have the time to see it through.

Jared Brandt: It has totally changed over the years. Wineries have gone through massive changes, whether or not it is in reaction to the market or their own desires.

For example, they used to make 17% alcohol pinot noir, now they are doing 12% alc. Or they were using every chemical treatment under the sun, and now they are trying not to.

The real difference now is that people are really seeking out natural wine. We’ve also found that we sell a lot of wine to chefs, more so that wine buyers. A lot of our wines have a savory component, I can’t tell you how or why...it’s a natural characteristic of our wines. Our “house style” if you will. It could be because we don’t cold stabilize, (when you cold stabilize you drop the tartrates out) so what you really drop out is tartaric acid, in a salty form. Perhaps because the tartaric acid in our wines remains intact we are able to have that savory component that appeals to those people in the food trade.

Amy Atwood: A major benefit exists in California, and in the US wine market in general, of not having to conform to AOP regulations and rules, as producers in Europe do. This freedom leads naturally to experimentation and an open mindset in winemaking. It opens the door and more easily allows the shift into natural wine production and awareness. Look at what is happening in France right now ; there is a kickback against the AOP regulations, especially in the making of natural wines.

There are other noticeable differences in the wine markets on both sides of the Atlantic.

In California, there are very few generational vineyards, unlike in France and Italy where the prevalence of vines being passed down from “father to son or daughter” is more common. This results in an automatic price differential, in that bank loans and overhead are generally lower for the established European wineries.

It takes years for California winemakers who have long-term lease agreements to have a substantial “say” or rarely, as in the case of Donkey & Goat, almost complete control of vineyard practices! But it has taken years and years for them to get to that point. It’s very rare to have someone start the process immediately and easily; walk in, buy the vineyards and the winery, farm.

In California, the majority of natural wines are made from winemakers who have built relationships with the vineyard owners over time, and with trust. It takes a lot of patience.

Joe Swick: I think it’s unique to see how open-minded Americans are becoming. The natural wines produced around the country taste so different. Not only are the wines made naturally, but they really show where they are made. When you taste a broad swath of conventional wines, a lot of them taste the same. I think that there’s a little bit more of a traditional wine drinking community on the East Coast, just because of location to the European sea ports. On the West Coast, people tend to be very free-thinking, that lends to the creativity and the artistic side of winemaking. In the US, we have more freedom. I have a winemaker friend in Portugal who told me about how they have to have all of their wines tested, and if their wines don’t taste like they’re “supposed to” the governing body will write on the back-label that these wines do not indicate or taste like the wine of the region, and could be considered flawed. If you seek out to make honest, true wines, how can it not taste like what it is?