It's the year 2053, and the quintessential California wine isn't Napa Cabernet. It's skin-fermented Roussanne from the Sierra Foothills. Or Alvarelhão from Lodi. Or maybe it's Refosco that won out in the Napa Valley.
Far-fetched? Maybe. Impossible? Certainly not, thanks to an emerging cohort of Northern California winemakers re-approaching this industry and land with an experimental spirit similar to that of Napa in the 1960s and '70s. Half a century ago, Napa was a veritable wild west — a hotbed of untapped potential, untouched vineyard sites, and brand-new technological developments (with few, if any, day spas). Winemaking was trial and error, spurred on by a thrilling inkling that anything was possible here.
You could call today's movement the second coming. These "renegade" winemakers are turning out tiny batches of exploratory wines using offbeat methods, esoteric varieties, or both. They tend to be hands-off and low-fi, conducting research with insatiable curiosity: "I wonder what would happen if ..." The goal isn't novelty for its own sake; it's a better understanding of what's possible and an enthusiastic embrace of California's beautiful diversity.
Production in the following instances is often minuscule; just a couple hundred cases is typical. Which makes us extra-lucky in the Bay Area: Many of these wines won't make it out of the state, but they're enthusiastically supported by and stocked at great local shops and restaurants.
Because these wines are produced in such small quantities, we recommend checking the winery websites for availability — many do not have tasting rooms that offer tastings even by appointment, though they all have mailing lists where you can sign up to be among the first to know of any new batches.
Chris Brockway makes your "classic" Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, but his esoteric Valdiguié and Counoise are equally worth seeking out. Brockaway sources his fruit from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards throughout Northern California, then he makes his wines out of a low-tech facility in Berkeley. He plays with all native yeasts, minimal sulfur, and techniques like carbonic maceration, where fermentation begins inside the grape itself before crushing. broccellars.com.
Donkey and Goat
Just around the corner from Broc, Berkeley's Donkey and Goat Winery belongs to husband-and-wife team Jared and Tracey Brandt. The two are steadfast supporters of "natural" winemaking: They use only native yeasts for fermentation, no additives, little or no sulfur, no machines for crushing the grapes, and no new oak. Ever. Their lineup includes a classic Anderson Valley Pinot Noir juxtaposed with a gorgeously golden, skin-fermented "Stone Crusher" Roussanne whose texture packs an incredible, chalky grip. donkeyandgoat.com.
Every label of Forlorn Hope wine is baptized with the designation, "Another rare creature." It's an apt description: Winemaker Matthew Rorick works with some of the most unusual grape varieties you could dream of finding in California: things like Alvarelhão (a Portuguese variety), St. Laurent (typically Austrian) or Torrontes (Argentinian). He likes to ask them, "What do you want to become?" Then he lets the fermentations go their own way. The results tend to be exotic and very rare. forlornhopewines.com.
La Clarine Farm
Settled 2,600 feet into the Sierra Foothills, Hank Beckmeyer lives in harmony with his vines — and birds, bees, goats, and weeds. Inspired by the Japanese rice farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, Beckmeyer promotes a total ecosystem with his "don't do anything unnecessary" approach. In the winery, he lets the fermentations and aging go at their own pace, believing that even "faults" can work themselves into natural beauty with patience. Wines like his "Piedi Grandi" (Nebbiolo with Syrah and Mourvèdre) or "Home Vineyard" red (Tempranillo with Grenache and Tannat) help make his point. laclarinefarm.com.
Steve Matthiasson is one of the most sought-after vineyard managers in Napa, a viticultural whiz kid working with a roster of elite Napa Valley clients. But in his backyard, Matthiasson minds the quirky likes of Ribolla Gialla and the only Refosco grapes you'll find in Northern California. (They make roughly 30 cases worth of wine a year.) He tends to pick earlier than his neighbors deem wise, then he lets his two young sons stomp the grapes that he and his wife make into agile, savory wines perfect for the dinner table. matthiasson.com.
Salinia and the Natural Process Alliance
What do Klean Kanteens, you, and Sonoma Pinot Gris have in common? Winemaker Kevin Kelley considers all of you an integral part of the Natural Process Alliance, his line of biodynamic wines. The NPA mimics the milkman concept, delivering wine bottled in reusable, refillable Klean Kanteens. For special occasions, Kelley's tiny batches of Salinia Syrah are worth a splurge, and anyone into sour beers will flip for his "25 Reasons" sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. salinia.com, naturalprocessalliance.com.
The Scholium Project
Abe Schoener used to be a Greek philosophy professor (Scholium comes from the Greek word for "scholar"). Knowing this helps you better understand his winemaking approach, which is full of wonder and lots of questions. Schoener has been crafting experimental wines like his wildly textural, skin-fermented "Prince in His Caves" Sauvignon Blanc and fiercely powerful "Gardens of Babylon" red blend from underdog vineyards for the last decade. Take note: Knowing that you liked one vintage of a wine does not guarantee you will recognize the next, only that it will be a great adventure. scholiumwines.com