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.
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.
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!