As any eco-conscious oenophile knows, natural wines are officially thing. But what many of us may not know, perhaps, is that the Bay Area is an unofficial capital in the production of natural wine.
This shouldn't come as a shock given our rep for progressive environmental policies (hello, bans on plastic bags and disposable coffee cups), but what is surprising is the nexus of this local boom... Bet you didn't guess that much of this forward-thinking winemaking was happening in Berkeley!
As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the city that gave us Chez Panisse is also leading the way in a winemaking movement that prizes organic grapes, biodynamic farming methods, and minimal intervention, meaning little to nothing has been added or removed; wild yeast is welcomed in the fermentation process; and many forgo the use of sulfur, a common preservative (and allergen) used in wine.
The natural wine scene in Berkeley got started in 2008 with Broc Cellars and their nimble, light vintages like the cinnamon-and-clove 2018 Amore Rosso Sangiovese ($28). By the time Broc moved to Fifth and Gilman streets in 2013, another natural winemaker, Donkey & Goat Winery, was underway there, producing adventurous whites like the earthy, umami-rich 2018 Ramato Pinot Gris ($28) and complex reds like the 2017 The Bear ($42), a balanced, drinkable vintage with a scent of black plum, soil and apple blossom. In the years since, natural wine has begun to flow in West Berkeley where the neighborhood's empty warehouses have been converted by the urban winemakers at Lusu Cellars and Whistler Vineyards, Windchaser Wine Co, Vinca Minor, and Blue Ox Wine Co.
But while the natural wine movement has found friends in Berkeley, there are also a handful of wineries in Napa and Sonoma that are producing natural wines; and at wine bars and shops in San Francisco and Oakland, these wines are beginning to find their way onto shelves.
For those in search of natural wines, here's where to start.
Old World Winery: Raw & Biodynamic Wines in Fulton, CA
At Old World Winery, winemaker Darek Trowbridge invites nature into the bottle, blending century-old vines and natural, native yeast to produce rustic and provocative varietals like the 2013 Luminous, a refreshing vintage of 100 percent abouriou grapes with a crisp apple finish, and the full-bodied 2013 Impulse syrah with notes of blackberry, raspberry, clove, and allspice. Have a sip in their quaint Sonoma tasting room or at a picnic table in the sunny, cactus-lined garden. // 11am-5pm weekends, 850 River Rd. (Fulton), oldworldwinery.com
Coturri Winery: Dry Farmed Wines from Sonoma Mountain
Founded by Harry "Red" Coturri and his sons in 1979, Coturri is the granddaddy of natural wines in Northern California. To craft their wines, Coturri starts and ends with organic, dry-farmed, estate-grown zinfandel grapes and biodynamically grown fruit from other local vineyards. They add only indigenous yeast, do not filter their wines, and never use sulfites, resulting in pure vintages like the 2018 Albarello Red drenched in cherry-cola and berry aromas with notes of earthy flint and slate. The winery is open for tasting by appointment, but be sure to do your homework in advance: The winemaker here prefers to cater to serious wine aficionados. // Tastings by appointment, 6725 Enterprise Rd (Glen Ellen), coturriwinery.com
Horse & Plow Winery: Organic + Family-Owned in Sebastopol
This family-owned organic winery in Sebastopol is putting out some of Sonoma's juiciest natural wines. Visit their tasting barn, set on two acres of orchards and gardens near the coast, for pours of biodynamic wines such as the 2016 Grenache Napa Valley, whose notes of cherry, vanilla, and herbs were made by crushing, cold-soaking, and then fermenting and punching down the fruit in open-top tanks. Not in the mood for wine? Try a taste of the winery's cider, made with Gravenstein apples from local orchards. // 11am to 5pm daily, 1272 Gravenstein Hwy. N. (Sebastopol), horseandplow.com
Unturned Stone Wine: A Couple's Non-Interventionist Labor of Love
Ten years after producing their first vintage in a barn near the mouth of the Russian River, Erin Mitchell and Randy Czech's label, Unturned Stone, is still committed to non-interventionist winemaking. Using organic grapes and natural methods, their wines are fun, ultra-drinkable, and pleasantly affordable. Lovers of sauvignon blanc will be tickled by the 2018 The Hatchling Sauvignon Blanc, a sophisticated little ditty with aromas of lemon, vanilla, and a hint of mustard. For something darker and more brooding, open a bottle of The Stowaway 2017, a blend of organic zinfandel and carignane anchored with aromas of plum and black cherry. // Tastings offered 12-5pm on the first Saturday of the month or by appointment at Two Shepherds Winery Tasting Room, 7763 Bell Rd (Windsor), unturnedstonewine.com
Cain Vineyard & Winery:
Cain is a sophisticated winery high on the ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains, and one of several in Napa Valley that has embraced organic and biodynamic farming. But unlike most of their competitors, Cain's natural winemaking strategy doesn't stop at the vineyard. Instead of filtering their wines and loading them with sulfites, Cain fines their wines with egg-whites and ferments them with wild yeast to produce big, bold red blends like the 2015 Cain Concept The Benchland, a ripe, fruity elixir of cabernet, petit verdot, and merlot with a toast-and-bitter-chocolate finish. // Tastings Thursday through Tuesday by appointment only; 3800 Langtry Rd (St. Helena), cainfive.com
Minimo: A Beloved Natural Wine Shop in Oakland
This Jack London Square wine shop is a true authority, deeply committed to providing an outlet for small-batch wineries, organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards, and vintages produced without unnecessary additives. Twice a week—on Wednesday evenings (5-7pm) and Saturday afternoons (noon to 7pm)—Minimo hosts intimate tastings, often with winemakers in the house, no reservation required. Of course, there's always someone on hand to uncork any bottle of your choosing to enjoy at the 12-foot communal table in back. You can also join Minimo's wine club to receive two bottles each month. // Noon to 8pm Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7pm Sunday; 420 Third Sts (Oakland), minimowine.com
Verjus: Organic Meets Old World at SF's Well-Stocked Wine Store and Bar
The wine selection at La Cave, the bottle shop at Verjus, is full of natural options.
(Photography by Christopher Stark)
One-year-old Verjus, the European-style wine bar from Quince's Michael and Lindsay Tusk, is well-stocked with an eclectic selection of natural wines from France, Italy, and beyond. The focus in the wine bar and in the adjoining shop, La Cave, is on small-scale organic producers whose wines are low in additives and fermented with native yeasts. Grab a glass or a bottle along with bites from a shifting menu of Old World–inspired delights—think pate en croute and Dungeness crab tartine. Hell, better yet, grab several bottles—La Cave offers two wine club options for exploring three ($95) or four ($210) bottles of their favorites each month. // 11:30am to 10pm Tuesday through Friday, noon to late Saturday; 528 Washington St (Jackson Square), verjuscave.com