Santa Barbara’s Natural Wine Leaders
Can Santa Barbara County Become a Global Leader in Sustainable Wine?
by Ninette Paloma | Published September 25, 2019
David de Laski reaches into his ice bucket and fishes out a no-label bottle of misty pink wine, holding it up to a small crowd that has gathered around his tasting table. “We don’t have a name for this pét-nat yet,” he shrugs, pouring the effervescent rosé into Mathieu and Antoine Kochen’s glasses, “but we’re really happy with the results.”
The Kochen brothers, who own Odessa Comptoir wine bar in Lyon, France, widen their eyes as they take their first sip, nodding at one another approvingly and patting their jeans pockets in search of a business card. “We would really like to keep in touch,” says Mathieu, polishing off his glass before sliding over to the next table.
Grinning broadly, deLaski tips back his baseball cap. “Could you imagine our wines in France?” he muses, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
Last fall, a Central Coast delegation — including deLaski’s Solminer Wine Co. as well as Domaine de la Côte, Roark Wine Co., Coquelicot Estate Vineyard, and Lo-Fi Wines — headed south for the Los Angeles edition of Raw Wine, the world’s largest fair highlighting low- to no-intervention, biodynamic, and/or organically produced wines. Over the course of two days, nearly 2,000 attendees sampled wines from more than 100 producers across the globe, including sips of Santa Barbara County’s diverse portfolio of boutique wines, from skin-fermented grüner veltliner to peppery cabernet franc and fruit-forward gamay. A secondary army of Santa Barbarans followed them down: restaurateurs and wine directors, retailers and enthusiasts, all eager to support their allies and experience the widespread implications of a burgeoning movement.
“I did not expect this,” said Lompoc winemaker Sashi Moorman as he poured a selection of elegantly aromatic Domaine de la Côte pinot noirs for a group of young women. Waving his arm around the near-capacity warehouse in downtown L.A., he shook his head in disbelief. “Where are all of these people coming from?”
The Raw Wine fair was a tipping point of sorts for the Santa Barbara County wine industry during a time that’s been riddled with discord over how best to expand the region’s share of the industry pie. As the Santa Barbara Vintners pondered whether to create a Business Improvement District (BID) that would charge an additional 2 percent per bottle sold and wondered whether the region should be more strongly marketed as a two-trick pony (a k a pinot noir and chardonnay), here was a group of winemakers embracing diversity and unified by an objective that went beyond swelling their bottom lines. Openly promoting sustainability from farm to bottle, these vintners were commanding attention among the French and Italian contingents while introducing a broad, new audience to the virtues of a region with six federally sanctioned American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
“The conversation used to revolve around Europe,” said Raw Wine founder Isabelle Legeron, “but we had European visitors for the first time come to Los Angeles to try the wines. It shows how dynamic the producing scene is in the States.”
An accredited Master of Wine, Legeron draws from a vast network of farmers, winemakers, and distributors to curate a six-city festival tour each year (with more to come), fostering notable connections with sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs, and wine devotees interested in learning more about the natural wine movement. For her, each city represents a unique opportunity for attendees to take stock of the region’s sustainability practices in a relaxed, festive environment.
For Santa Barbara County, the fair presented a timely opportunity to flex its quality-over-quantity ethos and show the broader wine community what makes the area so unique. Legeron sees this as a win-win for all.
“I want this to be a dialogue that creates a chain reaction,” she explained. “I’d like to see our industry be less driven by numbers and more driven to promote sustainability and transparency.”
A Wine by Any Other Name
If the term “natural wine” seems elusive or idiosyncratic, it’s because the categorization is more of a concept than a rigid construct. It’s a set of philosophical principles that begin with a golden ideal — say, no chemical additives during the farming and winemaking process — but might end with modest concessions in the name of life and livelihood, such as a pinch of sulfur dioxide for stabilization. When compared to what’s allowed in conventional winemaking — where polyvinylpolypyrrolidone and more than 70 other chemical additives as well as dozens of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are given the nod of approval — it’s not hard to see the appeal of aligning with a term that distinguishes itself from current standards.
“Natural wine is nothing new; it’s merely the wisdom that keeps on being forgotten.”
— Alice Feiring
“We’re by no means dogmatic, but observing a high-standard approach directly reflects our integrity and values,” said Solminer’s co-winemaker Anna deLaski. “Could you imagine telling a toddler not to touch anything in their own backyard because it’s poison?” added her husband, David. “We just couldn’t live like that.”
To most proponents, natural wine is more of a hark back to the traditional ways of winemaking — long before the days of industrialization or wine criticism or a points system, when small-batch, minimal-intervention wine was made at home and shared among neighbors, more food source and less commodity. But its modern-day incarnation, which began in the mid-1970s in a tiny town in France, has mushroomed into what some are calling one of the most impactful wine movements of the 21st century.
“Natural wine is nothing new; it’s merely the wisdom that keeps on being forgotten,” explains author Alice Feiring in her new book, Natural Wine for the People. “The genre is a cycle — a plotline like love found, love lost, love found.”
It Starts with the Soil
Currently, the only regulation that shows a vineyard is adhering to natural wine principles is through biodynamic or organic farming certification. The former, certified by the Germany-based Demeter International, takes measured steps to include considerations for nature’s cyclical patterns and rhythms. The latter, certified by state agencies, relies on composts and additives derived strictly from nature, among other standards. The road to certification is not easy, usually requiring years of preparation, a third-party analysis, site visits, and annual reviews. (There’s a smattering of less rigorous certifications as well, including Sustainability in Practice, or SIP, Certified, which is popular across the Central Coast, and a statewide designation called Certified Sustainable.)
Many Santa Barbara County vineyards are already moving in these sustainable directions, with Alma Rosa, Ampelos, Beckmen, Coquelicot, Martian Ranch, Duvarita, Sea Smoke, Grimm’s Bluff, and Solminer heading up the charge. Following closely are vineyards such as Larner and Sunstone, which are either pending or in the process of renewing certification, as well as pioneers such as Demetria, Bien Nacido, and Ibarra-Young Vineyards, which have been practicing biodynamic and organic farming, respectively, for years without pursuing certification or annual renewal.
Then there are those that Jeff Newton, founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates and one of the county’s foremost advisors on sustainable vineyard practices, refers to as being “a step or two away from being biodynamic or organic,” citing mental and financial obstacles as reasons why vineyards may not make the formal leap.
“When you tell someone that right off the bat, they’re probably looking at a 15 percent cost increase; that can seem like a fortune,” he explained. “But the long-term benefits are in the form of soil health and resistance to insects …,” he trailed off. “Intuition plays a big part of it.”
For Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards, the choice was born out of sheer pragmatism. “At first, I didn’t think I needed to be certified, but as people began using the term ‘biodynamic’ loosely, I wanted something official to back up what we were saying and doing,” he explained.
Felicia Dalzell, manager at Martian Ranch, agreed. “We have our certificate posted proudly in our tasting room, where all of our customers can see it,” she said. “Without formal certification, companies can say just about whatever they want about their product — true or not.”
Certification aside, some of the most compelling benefits of a naturally driven, biodiverse vineyard lies in the landscape itself: tufts of yarrow and nettle lining bucolic paths where sheep roam freely, or rows of olive trees keeping head-trained vines company atop an ancient riverbed.
“I remember the first time I walked onto a biodynamic farm,” recalled Newton. “It smelled so good and rich, I got the real sense that something was going on there.”
Jeff Chaney, manager at Grimm’s Bluff, said the mystical element is unmistakable. “It’s hard to quantify, so you reserve a few minutes each day to stand in the center of it all and take it in,” he said. “Doing right by the land is the right way to begin.”
An Evolution of Taste
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the bar at Bibi Ji is two deep with thirsty patrons who’ve surrendered their outdoor activities to tuck into a few glasses of wine at the Raj Parr Wine Club launch. Bowls of chana masala and chili-spiked cauliflower shuffle across the restaurant as Parr weaves his way around a sea of glimmering stemware, pouring from unlabeled bottles and introducing himself to guests with signature modesty.
“Try this blend next, just for shits and giggles,” he offers to one, and then to another: “This is just some juice I’ve been experimenting with; let me know what you think.”
As a celebrated sommelier, author, winemaker, and now restaurateur — he co-owns Bibi Ji with Alejandro Medina — there’s no mistaking Parr’s encyclopedic knowledge of old-world grape lore. But these days, Parr is far less interested in the pomp-and-status-fueled side of the wine industry than he is in making and drinking “fresh, delicious, zero-zero wines.” Zero-zero is the golden unicorn of natural winemaking, meaning no additions, removals, or intervention from start to finish. That includes the use of sulfur, a common preservative found in winemaking since the 1400s.
“We have a fun and playful by-the-glass program here that’s very approachable, encouraging guests to maybe try a grape they’ve never heard of,” explained Parr. “But we’re also not here to tell someone what to do.”
Bibi Ji’s unpretentious approach to food-and-wine pairings is an appealing blueprint gaining traction across the globe, and for both Parr and Medina, a direct reflection of their personal sensibilities. For many next-generation wine drinkers, the culture of inclusivity associated with the natural wine movement has encouraged them to explore methods and varietals with a sense of freedom never afforded to their parents.
“The vibe is very laid-back,” added Medina, “and the character of the wine reflects the ambience we’re known for. We serve rock-and-roll wine here; there’s no smooth jazz.”
A few blocks up State Street at Satellite S.B., Drew Cuddy and business partner Emma West have created a concept that revolves around the virtues of farm-to-table and farm-to-bottle, serving up veggie-forward dishes with a side of low-intervention wines. “Santa Barbara’s healthy lifestyle falls right into step with wanting to consume fresh wines from small producers who practice responsible farming,” West explained. “It’s a pretty painless sell, even when people come in not really knowing what natural wines are. They’re really open about the educational process.”
Lenka Davis, wine director for Barbareño and the first sommelier to curate a comprehensive natural wine program in Santa Barbara, believes that the kinds of wines you’re seeing on Santa Barbara’s menus these days aren’t the only changes happening. “Our preferences are evolving,” she emphasized. “Our brain changes with every taste, even here in Santa Barbara, where people tend to lean on the traditional.”
For a generation that reveres sour beer and hard kombucha, exploring the vibrant and earthy characteristics that some natural wines possess may feel like a seamless journey into the next. For others, the unfamiliar flavor profiles may take a bit more getting used to.
“Guiding people around an unfamiliar list and holding their hand through the process is one of my favorite aspects of the job,” said Davis. “Most people respond to it so well, and the risk really is so low. Nobody gets hurt.”
To Market, To Market
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the natural wine movement — its strong emphasis on relationships with small-production farmers and winemakers — is one of the most challenging experiences for everyday consumers to come by. How many Manhattanites can hop on a red-eye to Paris, catch a train to the Loire Valley, and hitch a ride to the tiny town of Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay to personally thank Agnès and René Mosse for the brilliant pét-nat they enjoyed at Frenchette the night before?
For Santa Barbara residents, however, that same impulse would only set you back about 40 minutes — the time it takes to drive to Los Olivos to check out Solminer’s ancestral method sparklers, which they may even show you how to disgorge if you ask nicely. What’s more, as natural wine’s popularity grows, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the traditional wine distribution model simply isn’t capable of meeting the demands of the movement. Instead, direct-to-consumer sales will be the next big trend in natural wine, something that Santa Barbara County producers have been doing effectively for decades now.
“Eighty to 85 percent of all of our wine sales come directly from our wine club,” said Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards, reflecting what many of the county’s winemakers report. “Not being a faceless winemaker definitely has its benefits.”
Twelve years ago, certified sommelier Bryan Hope recognized the appeal of highlighting Santa Barbara County’s low-intervention winemakers when he launched Sustainable Vine Wine Tours, intimately encouraging a direct dialogue between vigneron and enthusiast. More than a decade later, after changing the name to simply Sustainable Wine Tours, owner and tour operator Scott Bull has sat down with dozens of farmers, winemakers, and estate managers, cataloging their personalities and preferences to curate some of the most thoughtfully executed wine experiences currently available anywhere.
A classic excursion with Bull might include being picked up in the company’s signature Tesla Model X full-size SUV before being whisked off to the Buellton Bodegas for a fabulous geology geek-out session with Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars over his 2016 Seven syrah. Then head east to Ballard Canyon, where Larner’s guava-forward 2017 malvasia bianca is served up with fresh mozzarella sandwiches on his tranquil estate, before looping around to Happy Canyon, where Chaney leads a golf cart tour of the breathtaking Grimm’s Bluff estate to get a firsthand view of their biodynamic preparations, before settling into a deep and spicy 2015 Cliffhanger cabernet.
“Wine is a time capsule that represents a real sense of place,” emphasized Bull. “There’s no better way to communicate that than to let a winemaker tell their own story, in their own words, and on their own land.”
Building a Manifesto
Rebecca Work pops open a bottle of her Ampelos Cellars 2016 Blanc de Noir as her husband, Peter Work, snaps his fingers in delight. “I think what we need is a manifesto,” he declares.
As a former corporate executive from Denmark, Peter paid close attention to his native country’s New Nordic Cuisine food movement, noting the benefits that a unified declaration of standards had on Denmark’s culinary scene. Now that his life’s work had turned to winemaking in the Sta. Rita Hills, he wondered, why not use the same formula to create a Santa Barbara County wine manifesto that focused on solid environmental ethics?
“It’s really easy to say you’re going to regulate yourself, abide by ethical practices, but either you can prove it or you can’t,” he emphasized. “Why not do something to actively participate?” Many winemakers in the region have shared Work’s assertion that one of the most significant common denominators in the region — this embracing of sustainability — could be one of the most impactful environmental shifts Santa Barbara County has seen in this generation.
“Losing the region’s diversity isn’t the way to brand ourselves,” argued Larner. “But I’ll bet if we polled everyone in the valley, a good portion would say that they’re either already practicing sustainability or very interested in it.”
Others, like Beckmen, are encouraged by Sonoma County’s sustainability program, which is aiming to get 100 percent participation by the end of the year. (At this point, they’re dealing mainly with old-school holdouts.) The contents of any manifesto, many agreed, would need to include language that also encompassed social ethics and workers’ rights.
“People talk about the natural wine movement being too cool for school,” said Medina. “But you know what’s not cool? Driving up to the valley and seeing men in hazmat suits working in the vineyards.”
Jessica Gasca of Story of Soil in Los Olivos sees the move toward responsible wine practices as all upside. “The Santa Barbara wine industry is only about 50 years old,” she explained. “I feel a wave of change coming on. We have generational shifts pulling us forward, where people care about sustainability and they don’t care about scores, and this is no longer just a white old man’s beverage.”
Join this article’s author, Ninette Paloma, as she leads a panel about natural wine at Satellite S.B. (1117 State St.) on Thursday, October 3, 5:30 p.m., with guests Peter Work of Ampelos Cellars, Drew Cuddy of Satellite, Anna deLaski of Solminer Wine Co., and sommelier/winemaker Rajat Parr of Domaine de la Côte. The event is part of the Independent’s Pints for Press series, with $1 of each drink sold going to directly to supporting our journalism. RSVP here.