Sonoma County gaining attention for natural wines as popularity grows
Within the domestic wine sector, in which Sonoma County is a major player, there is perhaps no greater heated discussion topic than natural wine.
Even the definition is subject to debate. Let's call it wine made from organically grown grapes that get processed as minimally as possible. That means no added items such as lab yeast, enzymes, wood chips or refining to improve color or filtering to remove particles. Maybe a little sulfur is added at bottling for stabilization.
No two vintages of it are the same, and the bottles can be cloudy and a little fizzy and may have cidery notes. Some can taste like conventional wines and some can have more of a barnyard smell.
The idea seems simple, yet in the $71 ?billion U.S. retail wine market the matter remains obscure. After all, the traditionally hidebound wine sector has for decades marketed how certain wines should taste, smell and look - from buttery chardonnays to the dark fruit flavors of a cabernet sauvignon.
“Natural wine is a marketing shtick,” said David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg. “We make natural wine. We use native yeast. We use native bacteria and we do not own a filter.”
Yet the product has caught on, especially with millennial consumers who value the transparency from the winemakers about their natural production process and are enamored with the different tastes and unique varietals. And what was once mostly the focus of hipster foodies from Oakland and Brooklyn has increasingly spread throughout the country and has taken root in Wine Country - where many small natural wine producers have honed their craft.
“These wines belong in Sonoma County. They belong in Napa,” said Hardy Wallace, partner and winemaker at Dirty and Rowdy Family Wines of Santa Rosa.
The winery, which operates out of a space at the Sugarloaf Crush facility, is typically noted as one of the leading purveyors of this natural winemaking style. It is entering its 10th year of business, though its caseload is still relatively small at about 4,000 cases annually.
“It is no longer a dirty word,” said Wallace, a former information technology worker from Atlanta who came to Sonoma County and worked previously for Murphy-Goode in Geyserville and Corison Winery in St. Helena. “Five or six years ago, it was like talking about heroin on the street.”
The popularity of natural wine has grown. In Santa Rosa, for example, it's been helped by Miracle Plum, a Railroad Square purveyor of specialty goods that stocks only items made by local producers, including such natural wine labels as Raft Wines, Scribe Winery in Sonoma, County Line Vineyards of Sebastopol and Las Jaras Wines in Calistoga.
“If you are thinking about the food you are eating, the farming practices, the people who are making it, how it's crafted, you should also be thinking about the wines you are drinking. How it is farmed and how it is made?” said Gwen Gunheim, co-owner of Miracle Plum.
The natural wines are also appearing on more wine lists in restaurants such as Cadet Wine and Beer Bar in Napa and Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa. In fact, Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa will create a section for them, including organic and biodynamic wines as well, as the popular wine store has seen interest grow with both domestic and imports in the natural style.
“I would say it's definitely in full-growth mode,” said Barry Herbst, wine director for Bottle Barn. “We get a large amount of industry people here and they are trying to figure out the direction they want to go.”
Rich history in area
The natural or organic wine sector, however, is still a blip on the market. “I can't figure out a way to track it,” said Jon Moramarco, a wine industry consultant.
Interest is certainly there, which isn't surprising with the heritage of such winemaking in Northern California even in the modern era as enology practices became more technologically enhanced. Author and wine expert Alice Feiring notes in her new book - “Natural Wine for the People” - that our region has a rich history in practices that fall under the rubric of natural wine, from Martin Ray never adding sulfur to his wines to Glen Ellen's Tony Coturri still fermenting his wine in redwood tanks.
“I think what's important is that it's not something new to be feared. It's just a return to old- fashioned values,” Feiring said in an interview.
Taking trend seriously
One major wine company that has taken the trend seriously is Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, which is now owned by Vina Concha y Toro of Chile. The winery has 1,000 acres of estate vineyards that are organic certified and about a third of the vines are also biodynamic. That means the farm's ecosystem has to be balanced and self- sustaining. Its Bonterra organic wine brand has experienced growth in the marketplace since being introduced in 1987.