Califermenters: Les Lunes/Populis
Les Lunes and Populis, formerly known as the Living Wine Collective, started out in 2014 as a four-person “band” of UC Davis enology grads Sam Baron, Shaunt Oungoulian, Diego Roig and Martha Stoumen working out of Shaunt’s parent’s basement in Orinda. Pretty much from the get-go, the collective’s wines made a splash, finding homes at Ruby, Ordinaire, Winelandia and on some of the most eclectic wine lists in the Bay Area.
Stoumen recently left to focus on her solo project, Elizia, but the others have continued to play on, making a number of small production wines. Last week I sat down on a stack of cases with Shaunt and Diego, tasted some wines they just bottled – literally, the day before – and chatted about their way of doing things and what it is like for them to be at forefront of a new chapter in California winemaking.
PSB: How did it all come together?
Diego Roig: Shaunt and Sam were making wine together in 2013. Martha and I were living in New Zealand and living in France at Barral[i] and we had talked about making wine when we came back. We started talking about stuff and Shaunt was like, “We have this basement and might be able to make wine there.”
Shaunt Oungoulian: Sam and I had made wine at Broc Cellars when he was an assistant there and we were going to make some wine and he was like, “Chris’s place is pretty crowded,” and we didn’t want to step on his toes. So I cleared out a bunch of stuff and that’s when you guys were looking to rent a space.
DR: We realized if we just came together we could share resources. There’s a lot of effort and a big capital investment required to start a winery and so if we’re sharing equipment and helping make each other’s wine then maybe we can do this. We started looking at vineyards together and ultimately as we kept going further down this road we realized we’d be better off if we just made wine together. It was great because it helped us get to the place where we are right now – having so many hands involved in – because we all have day jobs, so if the fruit was available on any particular day at least one of us would be available to get it.
PSB: How do you differentiate Les Lunes from Populis?
SO: Populis is our early release. It’s very forward, very expressive, very fresh. We price them hopefully by the glass or to be $20 retail. We want them to be very accessible. Whereas the Les Lunes wines, I hate to say this, are a little more serious where we do longer maceration or longer aging. We want these to be a more classic style. The focus isn’t maybe natural wine but they’re made like that.
PSB: With the price of land being what it is in California, the idea of ever being able to own your own vineyard is a pipe dream for a lot of aspiring winemakers. Do you see where more young vintners are heading in the direction where you’ve gone, of leasing land and farming it themselves?
Diego Roig: We think that’s the way you have to go. We both do some vineyard management for other clients and with any of those vineyards we look at it and say would it make sense for us to lease this vineyard if the owner was willing to do so because we understand how expensive land is, especially in Sonoma and Napa. If you know how to farm, which we do, we know how to farm efficiently, it actually makes sense financially to lease the vineyards yourself and then to have that value added when you make the wine.
Whether the year is good or not, the cost to farm is essentially the same if you’re a vineyard manager and you’re charging the client. The problem is when the client gets their money back through the sale of the grapes and they’re getting 50% of what they expected to get and the farming costs didn’t change at all. Then it’s a losing proposition. Especially for these vineyards that are less than 10 acres, it’s really hard for them to be profitable unless you’re doing all the work yourself. Then you’re going out to the market and brokering your own deals. It’s really challenging to make money so a lot of these people are saying, “I just want to get a steady bit of cash flow every year off this vineyard and not have it become my profession.”
That’s a great opportunity for us and when we’re farming organically, we’re improving the environment where the grapes are growing. Leaving the land in a better place than how we found it is our number one objective. We think that by farming organically, putting in cover crops, attracting beneficial insects and doing all these things to enhance the ecosystem, the owner gets a benefit as well. And they don’t have the stress of worrying if the year is good or not. We assume the risk.
PSB: How did you learn about farming?
DR: I learned the bulk of what I’m doing by going to France.
DR: I worked for Charles Joguet. I was there for six months. Being in the Loire, I went there specifically to learn about farming and natural winemaking. Shaunt was there at the same time working for Pithon Paillé. We had an opportunity to hook up with many different farmers, guys like Jerome Lenoir[ii].
SO: We lived 40 minutes from each other and on the weekends I’d drive to his place or he’d drive to my place and we’d have dinner and go and taste with people each day on the weekend. We’d meet with people we saw on Wine Terroirs or that we knew from before, predominantly small farmers that were leasing or owned a plot of land. They farmed and made the wine, and you’d get into these conversations about how they were managing the weeds, what kind of soils they have…more about what they’re doing in the vineyard than what they’re doing in the cellar. It resonated with me and I think it resonated with Diego.
DR: We were working in the industry before we went to UC Davis. I worked at a custom crush facility and then I worked at Williams Selyem for two years. Shaunt was in the Anderson Valley. I remember when I was making wine in the Russian River and the only time we went out into the vineyard – I was on the production team – was a week before harvest to go maturity sampling. Everyone talks about how to make wine you need to have great grapes. For me, there was this separation between the vineyard and winery.
When I went to Davis that was my number one goal, to learn more about viticulture. So my research was all viticulturally based but as we started drinking more wine and learning more about the world of wine, in general, it was like we need to go to France. Initially, I wasn’t working for a place that was working naturally or farming organically but it opened doors to then go work with other people so I ended up working with Didier Barral down in Faugères. Shaunt was at Valette[iii] and was able to get me a pruning internship. I also did an eight-month stint at Seresin[iv] in New Zealand. I only was doing vineyard work there and I worked at COS[v] for a short time in Sicily, also doing a small pruning internship so the focus of the two years after leaving UC Davis was how to farm better and meeting as many people as I could to discuss farming.
PSB: So you really do see where this is model is catching on.
DR: The number of organic vineyards in California is growing.
SO: But it’s still tough.
DR: It’s tough to find vineyards that we think are priced properly and again, farming the vineyards ourselves, we can price the wines so we think we are not gauging the consumer. All our wines are between $20 and $45, and we don’t plan to change that in the immediate future. That’s the price of the wines we’re drinking, too.
PSB: People who drink natural wine are usually in that price range. In the under $20 range, there’s not a lot but if you’re willing to spend $20 – $25 there is and then you can find stuff that’s really good that’s going to age for $40.
SO: I think more and more people are starting to realize that. I wouldn’t spend more than $50 on a bottle of wine unless it’s Chablis or Barolo or something like that. I understand that it’s different because the cost of making wine here is so much more (than Europe) but can I charge $60 if I don’t think its as good as a $30 Chinon?
PSB: How do you feel about being part of the burgeoning natural wine scene in California?
SO: I think it’s awesome. It’s blowing up.
DR: I don’t think this is a fad movement by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a place for it. In the way there’s a place for opulent Napa Cab there’s also a place for it in the market. I think what we’re going through right now is a phase where people are starting to realize these are serious wines that deserve to be put in the pantheon of respectable wines. Consumers who’ve had oaky, buttery Chardonnays or oaky Cabs can say this is really different but it’s still good. I think you going to see a swing back. We went through this whole Parkerization of wine in California and you’re seeing now the fallout from that.
SO: There’s less of a gatekeeper saying, “This is good wine.” That’s kind of weird for producers and consumers, and even press.
DR: The benefit of Parker is that he made it easier for people to drink wine. If anything, he inspired people to drink wine but he was essentially a tastemaker and now there are people who think that’s the only way a wine is good.
PSB: What was your experience like last year pouring at Califermentation?
DR: For me, the biggest part last year was walking into that room and being blown away by how many people were there; that we’re all aspiring to make wine with the same principles.
SO: And so many of the people were super small production and you don’t see those wines anywhere. I met so many new people there and tasted so many new wines.
DR: And being able to interact with them and trade wines with them, and start to really promote the California wine scene and to be proud of drinking California wine. We’re always opening French, Italian and Spanish wines and then I went to that event and I’m stoked to drink a bunch of these wines now.
Les Lunes/Populis is pouring at Califermentation on November 13, nooon – 4 pm. Tickets are available at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2594678
[i] Domaine Léon Barral, a highly respected biodynamic producer in the Languedoc.
[ii] Jerome Lenoir is an organic produce in Chinon known for aging his wines for an extensive time.
[iii] Philippe Valette in the Maconnais was one of the first organic producers in the Maconnais.
[iv] Seresin is a biodynamic producer in Marlborough.
[v] COS is a natural winery in Sicily.