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.
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.
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.