2.5 days, 18 time zones, many bottles and zero sleep

ANCESTREL VISIT SONOMA 07.18

We’re taking G — our Gallic third and man in Europe — on his virgin voyage to Sonoma.

A crazy itinerary, but worth it for the people and for the wines behind us on the slow boat back to London; for the unforgettable sight of a region recovering from wildfires that turned the horizon black and erased many old vines and livelihoods.

Wildflowers blazing on the rim of the scorched land at Sky Winery: nature here is strong.

But for all the devastation, there’s a deep kind of acceptance here. After all, this is zerozero country — the extreme core of natural winemaking in CA — where nature holds sway and the winemakers don’t baulk at the cards they’re dealt. Wildfires are just a particularly extreme example of the precariousness of a livelihood which they know well. And if anyone could shrug off the loss of a home, vines and persevere on, it’s father/daughter winemakers like Lore and Skyla Olds of Sky winery, who have actively chosen to be mastered by nature. And us? Well, if we ever needed a reminder of what it means to partner with and invest in enterprises like this, this was it.

We’re barely out of Oakland and already climbing a very sharp north out of the Napa valley floor, up 2100ft on Mt. Veeder to Sky winery. Quite literally, this is a vineyard in the sky. Up here, across 14 acres carved out of dense native forest, Lore Olds and his daughter Skyla dry-farm organic Zinfandel and Syrah vines that date back half a century. Outside of harvest-time, they see more rattlesnakes than humans, living off the grid and powered by a single solar panel. Deep red igneous soil, sun tempered by low-level afternoon mist and bay breeze make for a unique terroir with large diurnal shifts, credited for some of the most elegant tannins in the region. One of Napas very highest points. The wines arrive in the UK for the first time this Autumn.
From vineyard to cellar everthing here is done by hand: three-times daily punchdown, ancient basket press, hand-bottling.
Lore has drawn the labels since the first vintage here.
Native forest covers 85% of the mountain, but today those redwoods, madrones, maples and ferns are largely charcoal. 2017’s wildfires took much of the mountain with them, including the Olds’ house and 30–40% of their vines. But by some crazy fortune, the winery was saved. The flames stopped 10 metres from the doors at the banks of a small stream.
The only fitting response to all of this? A BBQ party in the ashes of the old house.
Next day, underslept and over-hydrated we’re up Sonoma Mountain in the Valley of the Moon. If this is lunar landscape, its lush: more live oaks, more redwoods, lots of Spanish moss and these missed the wildfire course. This is Coturri winery domain. Today, Tony Coturri is rightly recognised as a pioneer of natural winemaking — long before it was even a movement. But in the early days out here he was a pariah, and his zerozero credo (add nothing, take nothing away) was…not exactly credited. Today, Tony’s here, but we’re here to meet the next generation: Nic and Caleb.
Nic is the prodigal Coturri son who runs his own Small Vineyard Project under the Sonoma Mtn Winery label — working out of a jeep and with a small set of his own vineyards on the Coturri estate. He works the vines himself, farming organically. His signature is co-ferments and field-blends in the tradition that arrived here with Italian immigrants (and his great-grandfather) back in the 1800s. Also single-varietals in the style almost extinguished by the Napa oak-bombs of the late 90s. But Nic wears tradition lightly and isn’t afraid to make it his own. We’re tasting a 2017 “CharMer” —Chardonnay fermented on Merlot skins that’s like a rosé with the nose and mouthfeel of an orange. And a single-varietal, dual vintage cider from old Gravenstein apple orchards. Only 150 cases of this and all are on their way to London.
Caleb Leisure is Tony’s apprentice-turned-assistant-turned winemaker who’s running his own micro-project on the Coturri estate: Rhone varietals in Georgian Kvevri. Caleb commissioned ten of these vessels — woven from giant clay ropes over an infinitesimally slow process — from one of the last remaining true kvevri master-craftsmen in Georgia. Buried in sand and volcanic stone in the Coturri cellar, just in time for the 2017 vintage, they’re the first step in a project which will one day extend to crafting kvevri from indigenous Californian clay. Single-vineyard wines aged and fermented in vessels made from their single-vineyard clay…that’s a whole new level of terroir wine.
Then we went for the best tamales in the region and G nearly went for a tattoo.
Last day and we’re looking into the future. We’re meeting Chad on the south side of Sonoma Mtn, to make choices about wines for kegs. Kegs, or large-format wines, are sold in disposable one-way kegs rather than bottles. Better for the small winemaker (massive saves on glass packaging) better for the wine (it won’t cork or oxidise) better for the restaurant (better wines at better prices and better by the glass listings) and better for the planet (replacing nearly 27 bottles of glass with a lightweight recyclable container, which massively reduces waste and our carbon footprint). Kegs are not just key to the future but key to why we’re doing this in the first place: make small-producer livelihood sustainable and share better wines with a bigger world. Keg wines are democratic wines. Chad’s are no sulphite, no nothing, and a direct line to a wine-driven terroir: super-clean, with no funk. Totally uncompromising winemaking available soon.
And then: San Fran, how could we resist?