Finding myself locked in living room purgatory, following an almost ten year run of being out-and-about at concerts and around town nightly as a promoter and artist manager, I decided to use my newfound free time indoors picking up most quarantine hobbies. These included, but were not limited to: buying a Peloton, getting a NYT Cooking subscription, going on far too many Zoom dates, investing in new sweatpants and diving deeper into something I’ve been passionate about in the past few years — natural wine.
While I’ll never hold my nose up to an $8 buttery, liquor store chardonnay to share on a hot summer afternoon, I’ve had a hard time finding a real joy in putting a $90 reserve wine from some of Napa’s more well-known wineries on my dinner tab. Sure, the wine and presentation was smooth, paired with an order of steak frites, but it never seemed to stand out to the point where I would take a pic of the bottle or go chase the vintage online to grab more.
Maybe it’s my background working with up-and-coming bands in small clubs, but every time I walk into a local, natural wine shop, I get the same giddy feelings I had the first time I walked into Amoeba on Haight. There is always something new bubbling up with a slick label that reminds me of glitzy vinyl covers fighting for attention. Regardless of the shop, the staff are always ready to talk at length about varietals, skin contact, if the red I’ve been eyeing is chillable, or if that particular juice has that funk to it.
Over the past few months I began following local wine shops on Instagram, as they increasingly rely on the platform to sell and promote wines — and to share bottle lists — without direct customer interactions. Going down the rabbit hole of clicking each and every tagged bottle I started to discover a vibrant community of DIY winemakers around the Bay Area. Unlike the established brands tied to large wineries, these upstart winemakers typically don’t own land and rely on buying grapes direct from off-the-beaten-path vineyards to get the fruit they need to mash down and fill their barrels. Hell, they’re even going live on the gram picking the grapes they’re about to squash with their own bare feet, and posting when they’re looking to trade help for fresh bottles of last year’s juice.
Looking more into the economy of burgeoning winemakers, there is so much community and care involved. Local visual artists get contracted to design labels that on their own could be sold at local makers faires. Focusing back on the fruit commodity, these third-party vineyard picked grapes are turned into limited batches that are made and sold seasonally based on growing conditions, weather and the dreaded fire seasons — which have led to an uptick in early picked grapes to make low ABV piquette style wines. Once bottled by hand, neighborly wine distributors — who fill the role as talent agents — sample their clients’ wines to shop owners and buyers, much like a band trying to get their demos into the hands of a record label in hopes of getting some shelf space among the major seasonal releases all at a price point between $20–$45.
I spoke with Brent Mayeaux of Stagiaire Wine, who started his one man Bay Area operation in 2018 after bouncing around the Jura region of France and time in Australia. “I processed almost 17 tons of grapes in 2020… with lots of help from the community and friends,” he says. “My brother Luke helped out a lot in past harvests and was here for most of the 2020 growing season helping me. I had an amazing guy named Alex save me this past harvest when he showed up offering to help right when I needed it most. Bottling is usually done by a group of friends. It’s pretty mellow.” While throughout the year Brent works with friends and a few hired guns to help with picking, he does all barrel topping and did all the vineyard scouting up until 2020, when he purchased parcels of his own to farm. We touched on the difficulties of being a small scale artisanal producer in such a popular wine region, but he capped off our conversation on a positive note, “I just want to make good wines and have cool people to nerd out with about wines and farming. I also really want there to be more good California natural wines for me to drink.” While most of Stagiaire’s past release is sold out we should see more wines from Brent come late spring.
Sharing my passion for California wines is almost the same joy I get from sharing a new band discovery with close friends. Although I have no formal education, or training in the wine space, I find myself a socially-distant wine drinker whose wine knowledge has become a go-to party trick when popping bottles on my patio or suggesting new wines to friends in need. Given this unique qualification, it’s my pleasure to suggest these DIY winemakers to check out.
Pinot Gris + Apple 2020
Buddy/Buddy is a personal project from winemaker Cassidy Miller. Working alongside Berkeley’s Vinca Minor, Miller blended fresh wines with picked apples for the perfect refreshing combination. The result feels like cider’s cooler cousin that went to arts school and started experimenting with psychedelics. Tasting notes include cherry with strawberry Hi-Chew candy.
Fizzy Red 2020 Blend
Farmed from a blend of Petit Syrah from Hidden Hawk Ranch, Grenache Blanc from Madera, and Marsanne from Santa Ynez, California, this sparkling red wine from wine newcomer Booker Riley hails from Richmond, California. It’s a zero/zero wine, which by definition means nothing was added and nothing was taken out from the grapes, leading to a fruit-forward taste with a fun fizz.
Sultana of Swat 2019
Made from the grapes of eighty-year-old vines, this carignan is best served slightly chilled while watching a sunset. Winemaker Brent Mayeaux hit the nail on the head when he laid out tasting notes of blackberry brambles and watermelon Jolly Rancher laser beams. If this gem is sold out be on the lookout for a new batch coming this late spring.
California Piquette 2020
Although the winemakers are L.A.-based, this wine cooler is bottled right in Sonoma. It’ll take you back to the halcyon days when your cool aunt handed you a wine cooler from her ice chest on the beach. It’s refreshing and fun, with flavor profiles of a ‘90s Push Pop, and pairs great with comfort classics like pizza, pasta and burgers.
Here are a few more local wineries to check out:
How to help:
Consider supporting one of these local nonprofits that urgently need support during the pandemic.
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