With wine ingredient labeling hitting the market this year in the EU, I find myself considering how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve not been thinking about physical ingredients but rather people as parts. A huge pillar on which the study and appreciation of wine rests is the concept that it is heavily influenced by terroir. If environmental factors can have such a powerful effect on wine, would it be wild to imagine that the human hands it passes through and the community it’s made within could have a similar effect?
Wine can be made from one singular thing, the grape. This isn’t always the case but with “zero zero” wines (zero added yeasts and zero added sulfur) it’s as close as it gets. If the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s only one physical part, it’s only logical to start looking beyond what’s in the glass and considering the other external forces that breathe life into it. I recently learned that nearly 30 people are involved in scouting a block location before a single vine is planted. When I pick up a bottle of wine, I love thinking about how many human hands, hearts, and minds it has passed through before making its way to my lips. At times it feels like hundreds, and as we were reminded of in the cult classic wine film “Sideways” – some of these people may no longer be living. On the contrary, at times we have intimate connections with these people. The cashier at your market, the bartender at your favorite local, and if you’re lucky – the people whose sweat and skill went into picking the grapes or crushing the juice.
A West County Welcome
Sebastopol, situated in West Sonoma County may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of “California Wine Country”. Historically an apple-growing region where grapevines have taken over as the predominant crop, I came for the wine but the rustic charm and open-armed people left a heart-shaped bite mark at my very core. Like many small wine epicenters, it’s an evolving intersection between old-school conservative farmers and new-school bohemians. Within a week of hanging around town I met a trucker who formerly transported grapes during the late night hours of harvest, the local tattoo artist, the farmer’s wife who runs a cafe of the same name, and countless other kind souls who are the heartbeat of this vibrant town. There was a clear juxtaposition of traditional rural values bumping up against the influx of neoliberalism which only added to its character. Just like great wine, a little tension makes things interesting. This is something we’re seeing more frequently throughout America as urbanites head beyond city lines in record numbers seeking a bit more space to breathe.
Sebastopol first dropped onto my radar when Eric Asimov started writing about The Barlow (formerly an apple processing plant, now a 12-acre production and retail development) in The New York Times. I realized that some of the best California wines I had recently come across were being made right here at the Pax Mahle Winery, a shared space for indie producers. I’ve always favored boutique wineries focusing on low-intervention, agriculture-driven juice with a deep understanding and mutual respect for their consumers. Brands that are vocal advocates for inclusion and equity, and fiercely dedicated to a sense of community. Martha Stoumen, who puts out electric Cal-Ital love children in a bottle has always been a beacon of this ethos in my eyes. I bought my first bottle of ‘Post Flirtation’ on the way to a picnic in London. The previous night consisted of a soul-less online hookup and the comforting label on this bottle filled a fracture the night before had left in my heart. What was inside the bottle proved to be even more special and filled our collective souls as it splashed into our paper cups. I felt something different when I drank this wine, a visceral connection not only to the place, but to the people who made it. This wine took a physical hold on me and its alluring, fruity core began to pull my soul towards its origin like a magnet.
Many of Stoumen’s wines are autobiographical, her now husband Jon drew what became the Patatino Nouveau label as a sketch on the back of a piece of paper shortly after they met. Patatino is a term of endearment that means “little potato”. This trademark label is emblematic of the winemaker’s generosity, sharing this personal story with the world is soul baring art.
Stoumen didn’t come from a winemaking family which can be rare in this industry, that compounded with being a woman in a male-dominated field could have felt like barriers to entry for some. “The biggest challenge (and biggest freedom) of being a first-generation winemaker is that you are building everything from scratch. Every decision, big or small, is in your hands.” It’s in these moments when the path isn’t clearly defined for us that we’re presented with the opportunity to swerve, to take the next exit onto an unmarked road to prove we can make like Stevie Nicks and go our own way. When we succeed, it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world and validates we’re moving in the right direction. As an expat I can confirm that uprooting your life and moving to a different country is a wonderful way to experience this. It’s also exactly what Stoumen did when she left her home in Sebastopol to study wine and agriculture in Italy. The interesting thing about swerving is that there’s always this lo-fi, deeply rooted desire stemming from our most primitive human nature calling us back home. Stoumen eventually felt this pull and moved back to California to master her craft on home soil. Similarly to how we’re drawn to our sense of home, we’re also drawn to people who share our desires and passions, and feel like home. For me, that has manifested in my desire to spend time with the artists who make, market, and sell wine. Without labels, tech sheets, and tantalizing Instagram reels that make our mouths water, wine wouldn’t be a viable product. This group of humans become even more critical as consumers crave more information about the ethics, sustainability, and an understanding of exactly what is going into their wine. It’s an incredible privilege to sit down with a winemaker you admire, but to be presented with the opportunity to sit within the entire community that brought those wines to life can be transcending.
Pulling Back the Curtain
Photo Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee
Stoumen is a winemaker I’ve long admired for her generous transparency in farming and cellar practices. In her words “We’re in a really beautiful place in our moment of time where consumers are very interested in how things are done and whether they’re environmentally friendly. There’s no ingredient labeling on wine, so there are bigger forces that are trying to push back against some of that transparency. But I think if we continue to push it forward, transparency is empowering.”
When I made the ~5300-mile journey from London to Sebastopol, I stayed within walking distance to The Barlow tucked up a windy road surrounded by goats and sheep. Stoumen had invited me to her team tasting of their 2023 Spring/Summer release, “we’ve never done this before” her reply started, “it would be a peek behind the curtain”. Initially, I was shocked to be invited to this innermost circle, but remembered this warm sense of community and hospitality was exactly what drew me here in the first place.
I walked down to the Pax facility and ran into Stoumen as I weaved through the towering tanks playfully bouncing around the early afternoon sun. She was off to buy snacks for the team tasting, “Bread is a must” her Marketing Director Nina later commented via her Instagram story, and with that it was confirmed I was amidst my wine tribe. We tucked into a picnic table parallel to the loading dock and the team warmly introduced themselves as they joined both physically and virtually. I’ve been involved in many conversations debating the topic of whether hybrid work environments can truly succeed. This was a first-hand observation demonstrating that even the most tactile of experiences can be shared across the internet. Stoumen’s small team is based throughout California and she shipped wines to every member who couldn’t be there in person. This spoke volumes to how much she values her team’s collective opinions, confirming that the best leaders know they’re only as successful as the people they surround themselves with.
Taste Like A Kid In A Fro-Yo Shop
The 2023 release lit up the table like an ethereal rainbow and assistant winemaker Tim Lyons brought out his PH testing kit which pulled me right back down to earth. Great wine should always be a balance of magic and math. Stoumen’s engaging leadership style was apparent from the first cork pop, she had a clear outline of how she wanted to taste these wines for the first time since their bottling just a mere 3 weeks prior. Her team jumped in with some heady questions about the release which we soaked up like thirsty soil. Stoumen had affecting memories and feelings about the vintage which she vividly described as a double humped camel. You can read more about this beautiful creature of a vintage via her blog, “Field Notes”. In listening to her speak I was reminded that there’s nothing more satisfying than hearing someone speak passionately about what they love. Stoumen and Lyons frequently taste the wines throughout their journey so they have a keen understanding of what’s going on in the bottles, “We’re not collating with commercial yeast, we’re not adding commercial bacteria cultures, we’re being fully transparent in our cellar practices. We’re tasting more”.
Stoumen and Lyons had given their marketing team some initial impressions upon bottling but the purpose of this session would be solidifying the tech sheets and bringing these wines to life. A notable thing about Martha Stoumen wines is how they’re presented in such an approachable way. There’s never anything forceful about the presentation, something consumers are acutely aware of and inherently attracted to. The team shares inspiration about how the wines could potentially fit into your life, at your table, surrounded by the people you love. They’re not trying to tell you how to drink the wine, just like they’re not telling the wine how to taste. Their go-to-market efforts are simply a glimpse into how Stoumen makes and shares her wines with her own community. A beautiful portrayal of this can be seen via the award winning documentary short-film, California Natural.
Photo credit: Andrew Thomas Lee
“You know, when I first started out, I was much more diligent about taking tasting notes and really creating a kind of a memory map to understand how to taste and smell wine. Now there’s something a little bit more animalistic to the way I drink wine.”
In Time, All Shall Be Revealed
Releasing wine into the world is an extremely vulnerable thing to do especially when working with native yeasts and taking a minimal intervention approach. You’re creating an environment for the wine to become the best version of itself, without meddling or interfering in that process.
Stoumen naturally fell into a mothering analogy and made references to how you don’t want to mold your children into someone they’re not, rather create a safe environment for them to continually thrive and evolve, while consistently checking in and providing support as needed. “They’re still really young, fresh wines. They all have their identity but it’s too early to call what their long-term personalities are going to be necessarily. You start to see things emerge, but you’re like yeah, they’re fruity and they’re joyous, but I’m curious to see where they go in a year, and also curious to see where they go in a month.” Lyons agreed fully that he’d love to see these wines come into their own over time. “If you can convince people to not drink everything immediately on release that would change the industry so much. I think honestly, my biggest frustration with our demographic or generation of drinkers is that people just drink everything on release”.
For over three hours we tasted through the wines in a beautifully unconventional way that reminded me of a French Salon. It was a roundtable dialogue where everyone’s voice was heard equally, and tasting notes composed of feelings, experiences, and stories floated together until we settled on a synchronized swim for each wine. I adored every wine for its uniquity and varying ways I could see it fitting into my life like a missing puzzle piece. The team did an incredible job turning this vibrant discussion into poetic tasting notes which you can indulge yourself in via their website. I won’t describe all of these wines but rather invite you to bring them into your home and experience them as we did, sitting at a table in community, sharing memories, aspirations, and everything in between. There were two specific wines that are emblematic of why I look forward to the Stoumen release each year – they keep me on my toes. When you let the terroir and vintage speak, there are bound to be pleasant surprises. This year it was two slightly richer whites, a 2021 Reserve Chardonnay, and the 2022 Out To The Meadow field blend.
“California is an amazing place to grow grapes, but over time we have lost our way. I only want to drink and make wine that respects the land, the craft of winemaking, and the consumer. In 2014 when I moved back to California, there were only a handful of wineries I would have considered working for. The California wine industry has lost its way. I couldn’t taste the terroir as it was masked with additives—a thick layer of makeup. There was a massive course correction needed and so, to fill this gap, I knew I needed to start my own business.”
Chardonnay Of Today
I find myself constantly contemplating what modern Chardonnay will mean for ours and future generations. I live in England where we make some stellar untraditional Chardonnay and I’m excited for more of the world to experience it. California has a long history of Chardonnay dating back to the infamous Judgment of Paris when a 1973 Chateau Montelena beat out Burgundy Chardonnays. In recent years, many of us who work in the wine industry feel we have an obligation to repair Chardonnay’s reputation which was damaged due to overly aggressive oak influence in the 80’s and 90’s. People have a pre-conceived notion of what California Chardonnay is and this expression blows that BS right out of the barrel. This dry-farmed Chardonnay from Mendocino County went through long, cool fermentations with a healthy ratio of wine to oxygen in large 500L barrels. It is everything a California Chardonnay can be in its purest state, a vehicle to express terroir, energy, and community. It sang a vibrant melody of apples, pears, and lemon, and due to natural malolactic fermentation and aging on the lees, it reminded me of one of my favorite British meals, mushrooms on crispy toast. I know I’ve found a wine I love when it transcends time and space to present me with a personal taste memory.
Out To The Meadow is a co-ferment built upon a Chenin Blanc base, with Vermentino, Trousseau Gris, Green Hungarian, and Chasselas Doré. This wine was so full of texture that it sparked strong synesthesia for me. I felt myself laying on a thick honeycomb blanket in a patch of long green grass, clutching yellow cotton candy between my fingers. It oozed with a palpable synergy of not only the cuvée, but of those behind it.
“We actually get into the fermentations and do foot treading which gives you a lot of information, like how far along the fermentation is and this little microscopic world coming to life. All of these interactions are like little ecosystems with yeast and bacteria and all sorts of different types of species and they’re making all of these complex flavors that we can’t recreate in a lab. Nature is complex and diverse and having consistency in a product over time is not the point of wine. It’s going to evolve, and then my energy is actually put into this wine and that wine now holds that energy in it, and then it’s going on to somebody that maybe I’ve never met”.
The Key Ingredient: Humanity
As the sun began to retract from our picnic table and we said our goodbyes it was vividly apparent that the less you add to the equation via farming and winemaking, the more space you leave for energy from the people behind those practices. As the industry begins to pull focus onto ingredients, let’s not forget to zoom out and consider the significance of the communities they come from and the hands they pass through.