Califermenters: Laura Brennan Bissell INCONNU, Martha Stoumen, Elizia
Last week I met Laura Brennan Bissell of INCONNU and Martha Stoumen of Elizia at The Punchdown, to chat about their journeys and thoughts on natural wine in California at the moment. Both of these women are among a group of rising stars, not just in natural wine and nor only in California. I have no doubt that you’ll read about them and see their wines for years to come.
PSB: Why did you become a winemaker?
Laura Brennan Bissell: I like to joke I became a winemaker is because I like to cook so much that being a chef would ruin it for me. Wine was the most comparable thing as far as being able to enjoy my other pleasures but the real reason has more to do with a complete obsession with smell and wine being a very expansive way of engaging in that pleasure.
Martha Stoumen: After my undergrad when I was 22, I went to work on a farm in Italy and they put me in the vineyard and olive orchard. I got to climb trees and be outside all day, and then I got to go into the winery and get totally messy like when I was a little kid. I felt like I was playing in the mud again except there were all these amazing sensations that you could smell and taste. I thought here’s a career where I could play and be happy the rest of my life. It’s taken a more serious bend since then but those were the initial reasons.
PSB: Why did you decide to go down the natural wine path specifically?
MS: I grew up in Sebastopol, which is pretty hippie and Green Party, and my mom worked in the natural food business. It was already a part of me. As I started to drink natural wines…the first couple I had were incredibly tasty and far more interesting than anything else I had to drink. As I got more into it, it just reinforced the fact that this was the right way for me to make wine. Once you take that leap of faith it’s liberating. You say, “I’m not going to manipulate therefore certain things are off the table for me and I can really focus in on the subtleties of the winemaking.”
LB: On the contrary, I grew up eating box macaroni and cheese and frozen Salisbury steaks. I had a child when I was in high school and when I became pregnant with her I became really concerned with the type of food I was putting into my body and got really into organic food. That’s when I got really into cooking. It seemed right that I would make wine with the same principles. The way I look at it is, “What would I want to put into my body?”
PSB: You don’t find a lot of vineyards that are certified organic in California yet many growers claim to be. What are the challenges of sourcing organic fruit? How do you figure out who is legit?
MS: The way I initially went about it was the way I did my graduate research where I had spreadsheets set up and I’d comb through any information I could find online about who was farming organically. Certain people say they’re organic and then you ask, “What do you do for ground cover control and they say, “I say spray round up.”
I think asking very detailed questions is incredibly important. Then, the people whose farming does resonate with you, you ask them, “Who else is farming that way in the area?” It slowly builds this network. It’s becoming more popular but there are still so few people who want to farm organically in California. I’ve stuck with farmers who’ve been doing it for multiple generations or their whole life. They’re not going to probably change. And then leasing vineyards my own and be able to control that 100%.
PSB: It seems as in the California natural wine scene more winemakers are moving in the direction of leasing vineyards.
MS: That also has its pitfalls. We don’t have the European system. We don’t walk out our door and have a vineyard. It involves more driving. How much are you sacrificing if you’re not there? That hybrid system is a great way to go. Sourcing fruit and then finding vineyards you can take over.
LB: Early on, I was taking the same idea of finding vineyards where I was not quite leasing but where I could work with farming them myself. For the model of winery I would like to have long-term, I don’t think that’s necessarily the most sustainable idea in California. I’d like to be producing a wine that’s affordable and have a good bit of it that’s accessible. I think leasing vineyards and doing all the farming seems very romantic but at the same time, it doesn’t lie in the practical here.
Again, in France, if I could walk out the door and have a vineyard that would be great. I feel for a lot of these people who are getting into five-year leases that they are going to do the hard work to convert vineyards over to organic and then not be farming those vineyards after that. I like finding multi-generational farmers that have good ethics, that are either organic or are very close to it, and building relationships with them to have the vineyards farmed the way I want. It can kind of be a collaboration of people with the same idea but then not overextending myself and being able to keep my wines affordable.
PSB: Are your growers open to that?
LB: It’s been a mixed bag. Some people had very old ideas and wanted to stick with them. Now, the vineyards I’m working with absolutely. You can walk through one of the vineyards and see all the rows that look like they’ve been bikini waxed and then there was this crazy bushy section which is mine and the grower was excited to have a client who wanted to do that because then he got to see what the fruit was like, too, and he was happy as well.
I think organic farming is important but there are some good arguments for why it isn’t perfect in California right now with the drought. The main argument is water usage. You can use as much water as you want in Cal and still be an organic vineyard and I think that’s insane. There’re ways people can use pesticides and herbicides in a controlled way where they would not have to take a tractor through, which could arguably be worse for the footprint of the winery long term. I’m no expert on this but its something I’ve been reading about recently that I find interesting.
MS: I am fully a proponent of organic farming. It’s part of the reason that I started leasing vineyards, and I have passed on some growers that have great sites and interesting fruit because they weren’t organic. Within the organic framework, I also think we need to look at water usage in California. The two still wines I’m bringing to Califermentation are dry farmed. I’m very selective about where I lease vineyards. It will be in a place where it’s a dry farmed vineyard…it’s not just what’s the organic branding but what are people actually doing in the details and finding vineyards where its easy to farm organically. That’s a big thing. I think it’s looking at the whole picture. What places are easy to farm organic? What places would you be silly to not farm organic?
PSB: OK, where?
MS: I think the Ukiah Valley up in Mendocino is definitely one of those places. You have very little mildew pressure, which is our biggest thing here. Your dry season starts fairly early so if you have proper rootstock on a site you don’t have to worry. You can do one pass with a tractor mower or even a weed wacker if you don’t have livestock, which eventually I’d love to have, but I’m not there yet. I think areas up in the Foothills.
LB: Contra Costa.
MS: The drier areas. The places where there’s a lot of fog rolling in are actually more difficult to farm organically.
PSB: Where do you see your winemaking heading?
LB: My personal mission is to have a brand that I’m ethically sound with but where I can make really quality delicious wine that’s affordable for everybody. A lot of small wineries are trying to raise their prices each vintage and becoming more and more of a cult. Who knows what’s going to happen long term – I’m a young winery – but if I could have my dream it would be to make my wine less expensive over time. I want people to buy it and put it in their bicycle rack or drink it out of a bottle at a punk show. It’s a big dream to have here and I’m trying to figure out how to do it. I am doing it but there’s many cases.
PSB: So you’d like to do it on a larger scale than what you’re doing right now.
LB: Absolutely. I’m making 750 cases now. I think if something is on a small scale it’s not accessible. I don’t want to compete with small wineries. I want them all to do well. I want to compete with breweries. I want younger people to drink wine not just beer. Everybody’s drinking beer and beer’s so cool and that should be wine.
MS: I thought about this a lot. I feel like I grew up in a time when wine was barely drunk at the table. It was during holidays, special events. Living in Europe, living abroad for a while (I saw) this is how things should be…wine, good food…these are almost basic rights in my mind and I’d love to see more of that but that means bringing down the price for people so I’d love to be able to compete with the cheaper European bottles. But that’s a really big problem to solve because everything is more expensive here. Our vineyards are not subsidized. Agriculture in the US is subsidized but not necessarily small vignerons whereas they are in France, and labor is cheaper.
I’ve gone through all of the things we can do and it just means getting very creative and a combination of leasing properties that are in areas not as expensive as Napa and Sonoma. It means doing less, being really smart about the way you work. That goes into the natural winemaking philosophy which is ‘less is more,’ making educated decisions at appropriate times and being hands off at other times. Maybe you can streamline things enough so you can pass the savings on to the consumer.
To hit another point, I’d love to make wines that have a traditional feel about them.
PSB: What do you mean by traditional?
MS: I love having a light bodied red wine that’s not been aged very long that is fruity and delicious but I don’t want those to be the only options on the natural wine menu from California.
LB: Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people associate the term natural wine with flawed wine. People don’t realize that there’s really amazing wine that’s natural wine. It just doesn’t have a lot of things wrong with it so they’re not registering it that it’s a natural wine.
As people become more educated wine drinkers their palates may start to gravitate towards well-made wines and I think there’s room for winemakers who are making wine naturally to rise up. It’s just going to pyramid to people who can make a natural wine and do it well. It’s going to happen in California just like it happens in Europe. There’s a lot of natural wine producers in Europe who aren’t necessarily recognized as natural, they’re just amazing wines like Gonon or Lapierre. You don’t say, “This is an epic natural wine producer.” You say, “This is a beautiful wine.”
PSB: How was it to be part of Califermentation last year?
LB: It was cool to be part of the beginning of something that is raising the dialog here. It was wonderful to see everybody come together and you know there’s a common goal. Even though there’s a lot of different types of wines and different personalities you know that everybody’s looking to make honest, beautiful wines and that’s awesome and I’m happy to be part of it again in particular because it’s just wines from California.
MS: I’m glad you guys took a leap of faith to do it. I had no idea what the turnout was going to be. It was something I believed in and I have lots of friends who love it but sometimes I wonder, “Is my circle really small and I don’t know what the rest of the people want and appreciate and enjoy?”
People were enthusiastic. I got to meet not only a lot of the people who love natural wine in the community but also a lot of the winemakers I hadn’t met before who are also doing it and there was this really good energy among everybody. It was this feeling like the rising tide floats all boats.
Martha Stoumen is pouring her Elizia at Califermentation on Saturday, November 12. Laura Brennan Bissell is pouring INCONNU on Sunday, November 13. The tasting runs from 12 – 4 pm on both days. Both women are participating on a panel at a seminar Sunday, November 13, at 10:30 a.m. on the challenges of sourcing organic grapes in California. The seminar is open to Sunday’s ticket holders. Space is very limited. First come first serve. $10
For more information go to www.Califermentation.com. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2594678.