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Sonoma County gaining attention for natural wines as popularity grows

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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.

Fetzer winemaker Bob Blue said much of the philosophy driving the natural wine movement is familiar to him and Bonterra utilizes such techniques to produce its wine.

“I have found these limitations to be liberating, in the end, because you don’t have to consider the universe,” Blue said in an email. “The array of additions and adjustments available to conventional farmers and winemakers isn’t available to us, so we have grown to be extremely adaptable and to know our estate vineyards and our farm partners’ vineyards very, very well.”

Wallace agreed and noted the natural winemaking style has also prompted new discovery, specifically for grape varieties uncommon on the market shelf. They are lower priced, too. For example, Dirty and Rowdy Wines has received praise for its mourvèdre wine varietal, made from grapes that can grow in hot and dry climates and have soft fruit flavors with earth notes to them.

“Those wines for the quality are extremely affordable,” said Wallace, who sells a 2018 mourvèdre for $33 a bottle on his website. “I’m not paying Napa cabernet prices for Mendocino County mourvèdre.”

Abandoning old ideas

Obstacles remain for bigger brands. The natural wine style is difficult to scale up for larger production in terms of tank capacity, and there is no consistency in taste year after year.

“It’s sort of abandoning the idea that wine is supposed to taste a certain way. It’s really letting the fruit speak for itself,” said Gunheim of Miracle Plum market.

Things also can go awry. That was the case in 2017 when Wallace went to his winery after the North Bay wildfires and discovered a so-called stuck fermentation, meaning something had gone wrong with the process in the tanks. He was forced to resort to some traditional techniques such as using commercial yeast and reverse osmosis filtration to save the vintage, though he could not label the wine as natural. In the end, the discounted caseloads sold out and reached some customers that he probably wouldn’t have.

“What our customer wants from us is honesty and transparency,” Wallace said.

That notion has carried over more in recent years to the wine world, which previously was a sector in which wine critics traditionally held great sway through such publications as Wine Spectator and Robert Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate. They have much less power now. Younger consumers are also asking for information about the products they consume, which has led to more discussion about production practices.

“Wine has diversified and I think that is a good thing for us,” Sebastopol winemaker Martha Stoumen said.

There’s a market for it

Stoumen knows that firsthand. She’s gone from apprenticeships in Germany and earning a master’s degree from UC Davis, to a growing number of fans for her wines made with under-the-radar grape varieties such as colombard, carignan and nero d’avola and with much of the fruit sourced from Mendocino County.

She was introduced to her natural winemaking style while working in Europe, and was initially worried there would not be a market in the United States. But she has been pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness — her first release sold out in a few months — even with wine wholesalers and retailers. Stoumen has yearly production of around 7,000 cases and said 85% of her bottles are sold through traditional distributors in 23 states.

“I think wine buyers are getting less conservative in their purchasing. ... Everyone’s margin is so small,” Stoumen said. “I think people are understanding that this is something that people like.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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