Meet the makers of natural wine, a movement gaining momentum in Sonoma County

Today, Herbst is selling roughly 30 brands of natural wines, largely crafted by millennials, compared to fewer than 10 two years ago.|

The Natural Wine Movement in Sonoma County is gaining momentum with an uptick in millennials producing these wines while their generation is clamoring to buy them.

Natural wine is generally understood to be made from organically grown grapes with few or no additives.

Barry Herbst, wine buyer of Bottle Barn, has watched a microcosm of the natural wine movement on the rise in his Santa Rosa store. Today, Herbst is selling roughly 30 brands of natural wines, largely crafted by millennials, compared to fewer than 10 two years ago. And if you add natural wine imports and those made throughout California to the mix, Bottle Barn is selling close to 150 brands, up from 30 two years ago.

Natural wines versus conventional wines

Natural Wines

1) Natural wines are expected to be bottled with grapes grown in vineyards free of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.

2) In the cellar, natural winemakers practice low intervention winemaking, with few if any additives.

3) Natural winemakers rely on airborne yeasts, whether from the grapes or in the cellar, in fermentations, rather than adding commercial yeasts which are more predictable.

4) Natural wines can be murky with some particles in them because they typically forgo fining and filtering.

Conventional Wines

1) Farming allows the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.

2) Commercial yeasts are typically used in fermentations because they’re more predictable and more efficient.

3) Winemaking can use 70-plus additives. These additives, which are legal, can be used to standardize and process wine more quickly.

4) Winemaking typically uses additives to fine and filter wines, removing particles to give the finished product more clarity.

“Millennials want to feel good about what they’re drinking and know they’re not damaging the earth with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers,” Herbst said.

Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials range in age from 27 to 42, according to the Pew Research Center.

Other industry insiders are witnessing this local groundswell of millennials crafting these low intervention wines. They include Luke Stanko, a production manager at Windsor’s Grand Cru Custom Crush; Kaz Khosrowmanesh, the beverage manager of Sonoma’s Valley Bar & Bottle; and Ryan Miller, co-owner of Sebastopol’s The Redwood, a natural wine bar. Stanko, Khosrowmanesh and Miller all say they expect the market for these wines to grow, with millennials driving the traffic.

Here’s a glimpse into this burgeoning movement from the inside by introducing you to a trio of winemakers — two millennials and a Gen Xer — who are making natural wines in Sonoma County.

Derek Trowbridge, Fulton’s Old World Winery

At 53, Trowbridge is a lanky Gen Xer who said he wants to make wine like his late grandfather, Giuseppe Martinelli, did. The Italian immigrant, who began his odyssey in Sonoma County in 1889, made wine free of pesticides and chemical additives.

“I grew up drinking my grandfather’s wine,” Trowbridge said. “We had a rich heritage here in California before Prohibition. Everything was absolutely natural.”

Founded in 1998, Old World Winery has long-term leases for about 12 acres of vineyards and Trowbridge said these vineyards are biodynamic and regenerative. The winemaker said he’s opposed to conventional farming, which allows the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. He also objects to the use of many of the additives in conventional winemaking. While legal, he said these additives have spiraled to more than 70.

Chemical additives, Trowbridge said, began to multiply after World War II, many of which are used to process wine more quickly.

“If you have an 80,000 gallon tank and you have to turn it over, you can’t have grapes in it for more than seven days,” Trowbridge explained.

Old World Winery, in contrast, operates on a smaller scale, producing 3,500 cases a year. He makes a range of 12-plus varietals, all natural wines. He adds small amounts of sulfur to kill unwanted bacteria and yeast and to stabilize his wines, holding to his philosophy of minimum intervention.

Trowbridge said most producers of natural wine in Sonoma County don’t own their own land. Like himself, they develop relationships with their growers and monitor the land to make sure it’s chemical free, even if these growers don’t have certifications.

Consumer tips for buying natural wine

There’s no certification for natural winemaking and this unregulated category has created some infighting in the wine industry, according to Pam Strayer, senior editor of the Slow Wine Guide USA.

“Organic and biodynamic producers are very dismayed by the natural wine movement because they know some of their vineyards are not organic and biodynamic in practice.”

Derek Trowbridge of Fulton’s Old World Winery crafts natural wine and said a certification would benefit transparency. But he said many new millennial producers are small enterprises that begin with roughly 2 tons of grapes. They simply can’t afford to buy and certify their own vineyards.

Trowbridge encourages consumers to research brands with producers and retailers carefully.

Martha Stoumen, winemaker of her namesake label Martha Stoumen Wines, said the California Department of Food & Agriculture won’t permit producers to use “organic” on their websites unless they’re certified. However, producers can detail their farming practices on their websites and that’s what she does. Stoumen encourages consumers to research websites carefully if they have any doubts a bottling isn’t produced from environmentally sound farming practices.

While some say uncertified vineyards pose a risk for consumers, Trowbridge is convinced self-regulation is sufficient.

“We’d lose our whole business if a wine is sold as natural and it’s not natural,” he said.

Trowbridge was featured in the Living Wine documentary, which said natural wine accounts for less than1% of the wine made in California. But that’s still a significant piece of the puzzle, Trowbridge said, considering the California wine industry generated more than $88 billion for the American economy in 2022, according to a National Impact Study by John Dunham & Associations.

Millennials, the winemaker said, are definitely driving the movement.

“Millennials want things natural,” Trowbridge said. “They know they’re already inheriting a planet that’s in peril.”

Martha Stoumen, Sebastopol’s Martha Stoumen Wines

Stoumen, 38, said she takes the farmers market approach to winemaking.

“You see what’s available at the farmers market and improvise a meal around that,” said winemaker of her namesake brand — Martha Stoumen Wines. “So, if your grapes have lower acidity, you make a wine that embraces it rather than adjusting the juice.”

The millennial founded her brand in 2014 so she could bottle grapes with a hands off approach.

The winemaker doesn’t own any of her own vineyards but has long-term contracts and lease agreements with roughly 48 acres farmed organically, with many certified. She has about 10 wines in her line-up and produces about 8,000 cases a year. Like her flagship Nero d’Avola, most of her wines are rare varietals.

Stoumen said she’s committed to being a steward of the land.

“For whatever reason, from wine buyers to consumers, something about the natural winemaking process is sexier than the grape growing process,” she said. “What gets the most air time is what goes on in the cellar, but that’s at the end of the time-line of making wine.”

The winemaker said her wines are most popular with millennials.

“I think it mostly stems from caring about the earth first practices and being conscious of what we consume,” Stoumen said. “The way I see it, the natural wine movement is not an isolated campaign led by rogue winemakers, counterculture somms and stylish consumers, although it does seem sexier that way. But I see it as a natural progression within a larger movement toward greater transparency and environmental responsibility in what we consume.”

Megan Glaab, Forestville’s Ryme Cellars

Glaab’s entree into wine begins with a love story. She and her now husband Ryan met in Australia and fell in love while working as seasonal cellar hands at Torbreck Winery. They founded Ryme Cellars in 2007 with one ton of Aglianico, a rare Italian varietal. Today the millennials in their early 40s produce 4,000 cases a year. While they have pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon in their line-up, they mostly focus on uncommon Italian varietals.

They don’t own any vineyards but work with 12 different growers who Glaab said follow organic and biodynamic farming practices.

“Land in California is expensive, and Sonoma is nearly priced out for new generations,” she said. “When we buy grapes, the grower and the winery is a partnership working toward the same goal.”

Glaab said more winemakers are producing natural wine.

“Natural wine has provided room for a lot of growth and exploration,” she said. “New producers are making their mark and moving the industry forward.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at or 707-521-5310.

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