Natty and Bratty: Natural Coast Wine Fest
Satellite Santa Barbara Christens New Haley Street Location with a Natural Wine Fest of Its Own
It would be too glib to say the qualifications for hosting a table at the first Natural Coast Wine Fest on a gorgeous Saturday, April 22, was that you had to pour an orange wine or a pét-nat. Then again, there sure were a lot of them, many delicious, if often funky in the friendliest of ways. Given this was the actual Earth Day, and one of the first weekends after our surprisingly sodden winter, the fest seemed like an open-armed embrace of sunnier seasons. Especially since so many of the wines, even the reds, tasted best with a slight chill, eager to help us lubricate summer afternoons with friends on the porch.
“Natural,” of course, is a term that too easily gets jammed between the unkind gears of good intentions and marketing malarkey. That the fest was sponsored by Satellite S.B., which has been pouring natural wines for years, meant things very much leaned to the former, as event organizers Drew Cuddy and Lindsey Reed know their stuff. Producers ranged the Central Coast in its biggest sense, from Los Angeles to Contra Costa, and their wines had to be farmed organically at a minimum, had to be fermented natively, had to skip “techno-wizard winemaking tricks” (I think that was a course in one of the later Harry Potter books), had to avoid fining, and sterile filtering.
As with most revolutions, there has to be dogma and a threat of beheadings. That said, a lot of tastiness got poured, and isn’t that the ultimate goal? Take a 2020 Outward Presqu’ile Vineyard gamay that tasted like an x-ray of a pinot noir — you got to lick all of its visible bones. Or a Stirm 2021 benitoite. Named in honor of one of San Benito’s rare gems, this odd duck blend brings together négrette, zinfandel, and cabernet pfeffer (there’s only 10 acres of that in the world) to create something that’s like zin’s sweet little sister. And to pick just one of the pétillant naturel, let’s go with the luscious 2020 Lo-Fi mondeuse, sourced from Tres Hermañas Vineyard. Offering a lovely musk from its unusual fruit, it’s fresh and bright, even if they warn you have to drink it before it goes too funky. That probably is never an issue.
Taking place over a long-for-a-festival six hours, the fest even gave attendees in-and-out privileges, so some might have had a smash burger ballast break down the street at Third Window, say, before attacking the almost 50 producers once again. (Buena Onda was on-site selling their scrumptious empanadas.) The fest was the debut of Satellite’s new second location at 616 East Haley Street, surprisingly large, if sort of warren-like, although you have to hand it to planners who put Amplify in the garage-like room where everything was too amplified.
Here I might risk getting “okay-boomered” a bit, but Natural Fest, as with much of the natural wine movement, is a younger consumer’s game, especially with wines meant for NOW and not for the cellar. I almost felt someone was intentionally feeding me article material when a classic California blond babe asked Kyle Knapp of Press Gang Cellars, “Weren’t you pouring at Outside Lands?” There was also a plethora of often artful bottle labels, rightfully earning artist credits, but at the same time you couldn’t tell what a wine was from the front label.
Fortunately, the disc jockey booth pulsed without pummeling, spinning LPs, of course, as everything new is analog again (perhaps that’s a fine parallel to the natural wine movement). It was kind of a chill nightclub-during-the-day vibe, a scene to see and be seen. Fun is part of the package, and how nice it was to have the High Seas table next to Sea Creatures, say, just for the maritime mirth.
Not every pour was perfect, of course, and I won’t name names. But for those who argue natural wines can seem a bit blah, I have to admit some of these seemed like wine without the strength of its own convictions, getting to the edge of committing and backing away from full flavor and length, leaving you wanting more. And not always in a seductive way.
Winemaker James Sparks of Kings Carey exemplified a dilemma with the rigorous rules of the fest. He was able to pour an elegant 2021 Spear Vineyard chardonnay, but its sister wine, a 2021 MarFarm Vineyard chard, he couldn’t pour. It got stuck during fermentation, so he had to add yeast. Otherwise the winemaking was the same. How fun it might have been to be able to sample them side by side, to sense not only the Sta. Rita Hills versus Edna Valley difference, but also what native yeast really adds to a wine. For that, Spear danced that big yet restrained knife-edge that gives a good chardonnay its necessary drama. Of course, Sparks played by the rules to avoid banishment from the fest for three years, so that taste comparison couldn’t happen. (See beheadings, above.)
To be sure I don’t end curmudgeonly about what was overall a lovely afternoon, it was good to see a few wine industry vets present, too. Take Dave Potter, the man behind Muni, Potek, and Nowadays, the latter his reason to pour at Natural Coast. Potter, far from old yet rich in experience, was perceptive enough to plant Muni’s flag in the Funk Zone well before it rocketed into Santa Barbara hotspot status, so he’s certainly wise enough to ride the trendiest wave. Even if that comes from older vines, like Nowadays 2021 alicante bouschet, pre-Prohibition planted, delish, juicy fruit clocking in at a mere 11 percent ABV (most imperial stouts punch higher). Or the 2021 Nowadays Purple Lightning, a syrah from Demetria Vineyard that left me scribbling, “You want it!” And what’s more natural than that?
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