Three Santa Cruz County winemakers bring youthful energy to the natural wine movement
Brave new winemakers: from left, Brad Friedman, Ryan Stirm and Megan Bell
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIE CAHILL
They’re young and enthusiastic, with around-the-world experience that has taught them both historic and modern methods of winemaking. But they’ve chosen a different path. Call it natural, minimalist, real or low-intervention winemaking, this is a path that has been well trodden in other countries for centuries. Yet here in California, there’s a revival underway and it’s all the rage. Like teenagers today discovering bell bottoms, hot pants and disco, the natural wine movement is the trendy darling of sommeliers eager for something that departs significantly from the mainstream offerings on most wine lists. In reality, it’s pretty much another word for “organic,” a type of wine that may be a bit tarnished by age or bad experiences.
Whatever you call it, natural (aka “natty”) is also catching on with wine drinkers who are concerned about the use of chemicals in all forms of agriculture, including grape growing, and with the pervasive dosage of additives that seem to make their way into everything we consume.
A search for little-known varieties, biodynamically farmed grapes and historic vineyards brought together three young Santa Cruz County winemakers, all of whom share the desire to make low-impact wines in as natural a way possible.
Following their singular north stars, the three converged in what seems a storybook setting for their back-to-natural intentions: a humble, old-school winery on the outskirts of Aromas, surrounded by strawberry fields, orchards and ancient redwood fermentation tanks.
CRADLE OF NATURAL WINE
Here at River Run Winery, Megan Bell of Margins Wine, Brad Friedman of Subject to Change and Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine and Companion Wine, are practicing a form of alchemy that seeks to showcase pure, unadulterated Garden of Eden virginal winemaking. They couldn’t have chosen a more bucolic spot, or a more congenial soulmate for a landlord.
River Run Winery has been the domain of self-described hippie winemaker J.P. Pawloski for 40 years. He’s one of the originals on the Santa Cruz Mountains winemaking scene and you can still find his wines on store shelves. These days, instead of punching down and hustling wine, he’s farming his all-organic front yard, teasing lettuce, kale, asparagus, potatoes and cilantro from the black tilth and plucking sweet juicy grapefruits and oranges from his orchard. And he’s cheering on this trio of youth as they chase their collective dreams.
If something tells you this isn’t a typical winery setup, your instincts are spot on. None of the three wants to have a conventional tasting room, though they all sell online. But most of their production is already spoken for by restaurants and somm friends keen to carry natural wines with intriguing stories.
“It’s like the Wild West of wine. People are not afraid to try crazy things.”
Their wines and their approaches are anything but typical, and they’re just fine with that. Bell seeks to highlight marginalized varietals, hence the Margins name, using minimal intervention in the Chenin Blanc and Sangiovese she’s currently producing. Friedman seeks preferably organic or biodynamic sources of oddball grapes, like Carignane, even making a field blend of all the grapes from an old Hopland vineyard in Mendocino that includes both reds and whites. Stirm embraces the old with one hand, showcasing Riesling and Zinfandel from vineyards over a century old, while with the other he embraces the ultra-modern, putting Malvasia and Riesling into cans.
Why do they do it? It’s rather akin to trying to divine the unique shape of a particular snowflake when drinking snowmelt.
Bell, 27, was born in Livermore and got her B.S. in viticulture and enology from UC Davis, then apprenticed in Napa, the Livermore Valley, the Willamette Valley, Central Otago (New Zealand) and the Loire Valley before settling in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Until last fall, she was the assistant winemaker at Beauregard Vineyards, where she brought her insight and phenomenally light touch to bear on a series of lively, acid-driven, oak-free Chardonnays from three different vineyards. She also made méthode Champenoise sparkling with Ryan Beauregard there, perhaps the last time she will work with mainstream varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Instead, for Margins Wine, Bell chooses what she calls “outcast” vineyards growing varieties outside the normal comfort zone of typical wine drinkers. Think of the “comfort zone” as a narrow box with four sides labeled Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Apparently, there are at least a few adventurous souls out there who drink outside the box, some of whom supported her in her crowdfunding effort to launch the Margins brand, when she was just 25.
“Not everyone gets natural wines that have no preservatives and are not meant to age,” she says. “Most people who come into a tasting room wouldn’t understand or appreciate what we’re doing. Folks who are devotees of natural wine, though, are looking for exactly the kind of wines we are making here.”
Bell was thrilled to discover Chenin Blanc grapes in Clarksburg (an AVA on the Sacramento Delta known for whites), which became her first effort under the fledgling Margins label. Truly made in the natural style, with no sulfites added, such a wine will not be for everyone. Somms, however, cannot get enough of it. Likewise, her sparkling, which is allocated mostly to shops in Los Angeles, is a “pet nat,” (pétillant naturel—a style of sparkling made by bottling wine that is still actively fermenting, which traps the bubbles), made from Chenin Blanc.
Made to be consumed in the freshness of its youth, Bell’s 2017 Sangiovese from Mesa del Sol is a screaming fruit-forward dead ringer for the most interesting Beaujolais Nouveau you’ve never had.
WILD WEST WINEMAKING
Friedman, 30, is a Maryland native who was most recently the assistant winemaker at Big Basin Vineyards, where he made some outstanding wines from Coast Grade, Ben Lomond Mountain and Coastview Vineyards. He got his degree in chemistry from Indiana University, then interned at a local winery before stints at Honig, Benziger and Imagery. This was followed by a two-year sojourn abroad in Europe, New Zealand and South Africa. Friedman then went to Napa, where he worked at the famed Stagecoach Vineyard before landing in the Santa Cruz Mountains to work with Bradley Brown at Big Basin.
Subject to Change is his current gig—a joint venture with partners Alex Pomerantz, CEO of the operation, and Joe and Kim Rosenberg, COO and CFO, respectively. Santa Cruz has proven a Goldilocks fit for Friedman, ideal for his avant-garde techniques.
“Here, being a winemaker is still something cool,” he says. “It’s like the Wild West of wine. People are not afraid to try crazy things.” The brand’s current offerings reflect his love of experimentation.
“On the Sauvignon Blanc from Feliz Creek Vineyards (Hopland), which is all organic and has every single disease and soil issue known to man, we did 30% carbonic maceration (fermentation done without oxygen). We did zero adds—no sulfur, no nothing. Extended skin contact really amped the aromatics,” he says, adding, “With carbonic maceration, instead of adding sulfur to the fermentation, you can keep it clean in an anaerobic environment.”
On reds, he goes for extended maceration and some percentage of carbonic maceration, but this is vineyard dependent. SunHawk, a biodynamic farm in Hopland, is essentially a field blend of 10 varieties, both white and red. “We co-fermented them, with a short maceration and 24 hours on the skins. Pretty dark!” he says.
“Except for a tiny bit of SO2 at bottling, we add nothing to the wines,” says Friedman. “In keeping with our natural approach, we use Nomacorc corks made from sugar cane.”
Subject to Change will soon bottle three single-vineyard Syrahs, along with Coastview Vineyard Grenache, a co-ferment of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as a Chardonnay. The Coastview Grenache, which was fermented on skins for 65 days with 50% stem inclusion, is so intense with baking spice, it jumps like a cinnamon pogo stick across your tongue. The Pinot is a subtle powerhouse, while the Coastview Chardonnay is close to lemon meringue pie perfection.
WILD YEASTS FROM GNARLY VINEYARDS
Ryan Stirm, 30, is among a handful of young winemakers committed to Riesling in a major way. He’s been sourcing this energetic grape from Kick-On Ranch Vineyard in Santa Barbara and Wirz Vineyard in the Cienega Valley since he started in 2013, to considerable acclaim. After earning a degree in viticulture and enology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he worked at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard and then at Tyler Winery. He’s also studied under Riesling masters in Austria and Germany, where he learned many old tricks to deliver the intense aromatics and flavors that make this grape so beloved by wine aficionados the world over.
“My goal is to transparently tell the tale of each vineyard and vintage, and make wines that are vibrant and alive. I want to translate the experience of the vineyard into the glass in the most authentic way possible,” he says.
If you can taste the uniqueness of each site, he’s done his job. Stirm believes in spontaneous fermentation, which scares most conventional winemakers, but he wouldn’t do it any other way. No sulfur is added during the ferment; in fact, when fermenting the Wirz Riesling, which is foot trodden and left on skins for only a few hours, the juice turns black. After fermentation and racking, the dark solids drop out, leaving a powerful expression that tastes like no other Riesling.
Stirm delights in working with old, often own-rooted vineyards in gnarly places, like Enz and Wirz, both in San Benito County. There’s no place he’d rather be than in a vineyard. Except maybe Hawaii. Stirm recently married his Hawaii-born sweetheart there, which may explain the island girl theme on Companion Wines’ can of Malvasia Bianca. From a vineyard in Suisun and fermented in concrete, it was made in partnership with Jolie-Laide. It’s rad, juicy and fun, with notes of bubble gum. The guys who farm the vineyard probably wouldn’t drink the stuff. Says Stirm, “They’re two tough-looking brothers who drive around their ranch in an old F-250.”
Beyond Riesling, he has a firm handle on Pinot Noir, sourced from the Glenwood Oaks vineyard he farms in Scotts Valley. In a nod to the early days of California winemaking, it was fermented in Pawloski’s old redwood tanks.
“I was making wine at Stockwell Cellars (in Santa Cruz) and running out of room,” says Stirm. “J.P. was selling these redwood fermenters, which I thought looked really cool. We got to talking, and I decided to move my operation here.”
The redwood-fermented wine tastes like pure Pinot, unamped by oak, an acoustic solo in a world of overamplified din.
Stirm’s 2015 Kick-On Riesling, from a vineyard near Vandenberg Air Force Base that he’s slowly converting to organic farming practices, is close to California perfection, with its driving floral bouquet, orange peel and distinctive petrol aromatics, and its flowing flavors of fresh tangerine, succulent nectarine and a tingle of lime.
Next he trots out a prancing Zinfandel from the Wirz Vineyard, planted in 1965 and own-rooted. “Pat Wirz is one of the best guys in the industry to work with,” says Stirm. Pawloski introduced them. Stirm’s understated approach here reveals the intensity of the fruit, and you can truly taste the desiccation of the powdery white soil in which the Zin is grown. Stirm sources Cabernet Pfeffer from the Enz Vineyard in Lime Kiln Valley. Says Stirm, “It’s scorching hot, even hotter than Wirz.” The searing, sinus-clearing white and black pepperiness fuses with ginger and clove to create a wine that burns itself into your taste buds. “The grapes taste just like that,” Stirm confirms. Objective achieved.
While Bell, Friedman and Stirm all aim for expressive wines that are as natural as possible, their different approaches quietly and fittingly reflect their personalities. Think of it as Old World ways meeting the Wild West of the new, where things are just naturally subject to change.
Editor’s note: Everything in life is indeed subject to change, and as this issue was going to press, Brad Friedman was moving on from Subject to Change to his next venture
NATURAL VS. ORGANIC WINE
This is essentially a war of synonyms. “It’s a confusing subject, and one that I typically stay out of,” says winemaker Ryan Stirm.
“In the USA, organic wines come from certified organic grapes, and are made without any added sulfites. That would absolutely qualify as ‘natural.’ But here’s where things get complicated. In Europe, organic wines can be made with added sulfites,” he says.
While natural wines are generally made with organically or biodynamically grown fruit, no certification is needed to use the word “natural.”
As for the addition of sulfites, which help keep wine from spoiling, Stirm believes it’s all about the threshold of tolerance on the part of the consumer.
“Sulfite limits are imposed by wine buyers who have come up with their own terms. Some are hardcore no sulfur added, some are as high as 70 ppm total (still not very high compared with conventionally made wines). The ballpark figure I use, that many people have come to see as the defining line, is 25 ppm total added for reds and 35 ppm total added for whites. Again, very low. From a winemaker’s perspective, I’ve added 70 ppm to a wine that showed about 5 ppm free sulfur a week later. Most winemakers want to bottle their wines with about 15–30 ppm free SO2.”
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.