Califermentation Recap

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California’s natural winemakers tend to be an adventurous lot, and with good reason.  They take great risks foregoing the pesticides and chemical manipulations that have become a benchmark of most of the large well known California wineries, but it’s a risk they think is worth taking in order to produce something that’s honest.  Apparently so do several hundred San Franciscans.

Califermentation filled both of the rooms in Soma’s pioneering natural wine bar Terroir this past Saturday, with crowds turning out to drink local wines and meet the people making them.  It’s a testament to the ethos of natural wine in California, really, the marked difference this event had to the sedated atmosphere of bigger, more traditional wine industry gatherings.  There were no airs of pretention, just a lot of people happy to be drinking natural wine, and proud winemakers eager to share what they do.  There’s a lot of talk about “Farm to table” in California, but this was vine to table at it’s most raucous.  The mountain of empty bottles towering over the recycling bins at the end of the night was a testament to that.

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Surveying the room, it was hard to miss the general enthusiasm for what was happening, and the lineup of participating winemakers was reason enough.  California’s natural wine movement isn’t as old as it’s European counterparts, but some of the region’s early pioneers were pouring interesting bottles that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.  Gideon Beinstock from Clos Saron held court at the end of the bar, perched atop a stool to pour some of his older reds, including a rare magnum of his 1999 Pinot Noir.  Only 6 cases of these were ever bottled, so it was a hell of a gesture to bring out something that’s undoubtedly one of the last of its kind.  This presence wasn’t lost on the other winemakers, many of whom spent a great deal of the event crowded around one of the elder statesmen of California natural wine.

The afternoon was also an opportunity to meet a lot of small producers that aren’t yet on many people’s radar, and it was nice to see a wide diversity of styles (not to mention some grapes that don’t make many appearances in California).  A Pét-Nat made with Grenache isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think about San Diego, but Los Pilares are having a go at it, taking their inspiration from a deep love of Lambrusco.  Much closer to home are the wines of Noel Diaz, who turns out some interesting things under the Purity Wine label on Treasure Island from grapes grown in the Santa Ynez Valley.  His skin fermented Marsanne isn’t typical of what you’d find anywhere in California, and he even managed to sneak in a single bottle of the pleasantly dry Pét-Nat he makes with the leftover grapes.

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Old bottles and Pet-Nat experiments aside, there was something wonderfully buzzy in the air at Terroir, the sort of warm Dionysian glow given off from a large group of people enjoying themselves in a shared pursuit.  Wine is often categorized as an insider’s industry that’s closed off and secretive about its inner workings, so any opportunity to bring drinkers and producers together does a lot towards dispelling notions of exclusivity.  When asked why they don’t drink more wine, many people respond that they “…don’t know anything about it”.  Hopefully more events like Califermentation will pop up in the future to make sure that they get the opportunity to change that.  The nice thing about wine is that the best way to learn is by drinking it.

Not forgetting a quick shoutout to the two women who made Califermentation possible and wrangled together several dozen winemakers from across the state , Tala Drzewiecki and Pamela Busch!

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Local Natural Wine: The Living Wines Collective

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Wine elicits dictatorial feelings of taste in some people, which helps to explain the manipulative scoring schemes that have done so much damage to individual taste over the past few decades in California.  On the other end of the scale are the people for whom wine awakens something very different, a desire to share something honest for it’s own sake.  A wine collective is about as pure an expression of this feeling as there is, and It seems somehow appropriate that this winery would be dug into a hill beneath the home of one of the founder’s parents.  

The Living Wines Collective puts out a number of different labels between their four members, all of whom work under the principle that less is better when it comes to what goes into the bottle.  They sum it up very nicely: “Our goal is to grow wines that pay respect to the great wines of California’s past, before money, ego and points got in the way”.  By the time the grapes come off of the vine, most of the work should be done.  No added commercial yeast, no chemicals to change the color or flavor of the wine.  Just grape juice.

It helps that the fruit that they work with comes from what could rightly be called California’s version of vieilles vignes: Carignan from 1948, Chardonnay from 1972, Nero D’Avola from 1975.  Old vines that have been well cared for have a lot of interesting things to say for themselves when overseen by a light hand in the cellar, and all of the labels from the collective show this in their own way.

One of the most satisfying parts of drinking these wines is that they’re unmistakably Californian.  Having plied their trade in vineyards across France and Italy before pursuing things at home, it would seem reasonable that the wines of the collective would reflect the styles of regions further afield.  Instead, what comes out of the bottle are wines that are firmly reflective of where the grapes actually come from.

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The 2014 Nero D’Avola is a great example of this, and is the wine that could perhaps be most forgiven for tasting like the style of somewhere else.  Luckily, that’s not the case.  Martha Stoumen and Diego Roig are the two producers behind the Elizia label and both spent time working in Vittoria, the region in Southern Sicily that’s most often associated with Nero D’Avola. Instead of the initial blast of dark cherry that seems to be present in even the most structured Sicilian examples, this is more subtle, and comes with a nice bit of acidity.  It’s what happens when a grape adapts to a different part of the world, and having been planted back in the 70’s these vines have had plenty of time to become Californian   

The other pair that make up the collective put out wines under the Les Lunes label, and the four collaborate together on the style of the Populis wines, although it seems like everyone has a hand in each other’s wines to one degree or another.  Shaunt Oungoulian and Sam Baron both spent time in Burgundy, and promptly came home and managed to find 43 year old Chardonnay vines being grown at the foot of Mt.  Lassen.  Wines grown in volcanic soil have a special minerality to them, and finding a California Chardonnay that lets this come through without having to fight against the flavors of oak or chemicals is a wonderful surprise.  It’s pretty easy to see the influence of their time spent in Burgundy in this wine, but it’s in the background, and you have to look for it.  This is unmistakably a California Chardonnay, but in a way that makes you realize that people are using old techniques to make something new here.  It’s pretty rad.

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Why do you drink natural wine? I drink it because I want wine to tell me something about where it came from.  I don’t care if it comes from a picturesque winery, and in fact, I’m not that concerned with what the winery looks like at all.  I want to know about the grapes. I want to taste the soil, the sun, find out how the grapes lived and what they have to say for it.  The Living Wines Collective seems to feel the same way, and their wines are a very honest expression of California’s new wave of natural producers who are, for lack of a better term, doing their own thing.  But they’re doing it with techniques from some of the world’s oldest wine regions, using old California vines, and producing something that’s worth attention.