Sonoma County is home to more than 400 wineries, but if you’re seeking natural wines — those made in a low-intervention style — you have to know where to look.
Natural wines are growing in popularity among winemakers and wine drinkers alike, but most natural winemakers are one-man or one-woman shows.
“Natural wineries often operate on much smaller budgets when compared to older, more entrenched conventional wineries,” said Jack Sporer of Fresh Wine Co. in Sonoma. “This means it’s harder for them to afford the startup, compliance and employee costs of a brick-and-mortar tasting room.”
But Sporer believes this will not always be the case. “As these wineries gain followings though, I’d expect the number of natural wine tasting rooms to increase,” he said.
Challenges aside, a group of local winemakers have figured out how to make excellent natural wines while also operating tasting rooms. Here are six to visit.
Horse & Plow
This small, family-owned winery produces natural wines and ciders from organic grapes and apples grown in and around Sonoma County.
Husband-and-wife team Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins employ a hands-off approach to cider- and winemaking; they add no synthetic ingredients or additives to the drinks they produce.
Condos started his winemaking career at Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa and launched Vinum Cellars in Oakville in 1997. Hagins became interested in wine while working in the restaurant industry in Charleston, South Carolina. She then worked a harvest in France before stints in the cellars at DeLoach, David Bruce and Goldeneye wineries and eventually launched her own small pinot noir label, Lutea.
Idlewild winemaker Sam Bilbro uses natural winemaking practices and Italian grape varieties grown in Northern California to craft wines inspired by those made in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
“Natural winemaking is a process of respecting nature’s processes,” Bilbro said. “It begins with a relationship with the vineyard in which organic and holistic farming practices are in place, to ensure a healthy ecosystem for years to come.”
The Healdsburg winemaker sources grapes from three regenerative vineyards in Mendocino County (regenerative vineyards use a holistic approach to land management that includes composting, carbon sequestration and other measures). He only uses native yeast and naturally occurring products in a “judicious and minimal fashion” when crafting his wines.
Like other natural winemakers, he adds just a small amount of sulfur dioxide to his wines. (Sulfur is a naturally occurring compound winemakers use to prevent flaws and spoilage in their wine.)
Bilbro shares a tasting room on the Healdsburg Plaza with Evan Lewandowski, another natural winemaker. The tasting room has flights for $40 (per person) of Idlewild’s current-release single varietal wines, paired with prosciutto, salumi and Italian cheeses, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. 132 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707-385-9410
Pax and Pamela Mahle established Pax Wines in 2000 with the goal of making wines with as little intervention as possible. They soon became pioneers of natural winemaking in Sonoma County.
Winemaker Pax Mahle uses syrah and gamay noir grapes from cool coastal vineyards, as well as more unusual grapes, such as mission and trousseau gris, to create a lineup of refined and distinctive wines. The grapes come from vineyards that use organic, sustainable and biodynamic practices.
Pax Mahle uses only the native yeast present on the grapes or in the winery to start fermentation and applies sulfur in limited quantities when necessary (for stabilization). This holistic approach to winemaking leads to clean natural wines with distinct expressions of terroir.
The Pax Wines tasting room, in The Barlow in downtown Sebastopol, is a charming and lively place to sip wine. It has cozy couches and lounge furniture inside and outside, bar seating, records spinning on an LP player and the occasional live music act. Choose from several flights ($25-$40 per person) or a glass of wine on tap with cheese and charcuterie. 6780 McKinley St., Suite 170, Sebastopol, 707-331-1393
Ruth Lewandowski is a small, natural wine project from Evan Lewandowski, a relative newcomer to the Sonoma County wine scene. Lewandowski cut his teeth at Domaine Binner in the Alsace region in northeastern France before returning home to Salt Lake City to make wine.
Now Lewandowski is in Sonoma County, and he sources fruit from vineyards in Mendocino County, which he manages in partnership with Sam Bilbro from Idlewild Wines. The two make up Wild Ruth Farming, a collaboration that focuses on holistic farming practices that reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides.
Ruth Lewandowski shares a tasting room with Idlewild Wines, just off the Healdsburg Plaza. The tasting space includes a light-filled indoor area and a small parklet for winery visitors to taste through Lewandowski’s stellar lineup of five current wines. Tasting appointments are available Friday through Sunday for $25 (per person). The wines often sell out in wine shops across the state, so a visit to the tasting room is a rare opportunity to sample them. 132 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707-385-1797, ruthlewandowskiwines.com
Megan and Ryan Glaab established Ryme, a portmanteau of their first names, in 2007 to make the kind of wines they like to drink.
The couple sources grapes from organic and sustainable vineyards and implements natural and Old World winemaking practices. They shy away from varietals that tend to saturate the California wine market, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and instead produce wines like a cabernet franc aged in amphora (the clay vessels used since ancient times to ferment and age wine) and a pétillant-naturel (a sparkler generally produced via a single fermentation) of vermentino. They age most of their wines in used French oak barrels.
The Glaabs like to keep things simple when making wine. For the Ryme team, that means no cultured yeast, no temperature control and no added enzymes and other additives in the winemaking process.
“We take a minimalist, hands-off approach to our winemaking. Ryme wines are made in very small lots and are fermented using yeasts present in the environment and on the grapes,” Megan Glaab said. “We believe in highlighting the fruit, site and vintage in the wine and therefore do not implement the use of any new oak. We do use small amounts of sulfur where needed.”
The Ryme tasting room, tucked away in a sun-dappled grove just outside the town of Forestville, recently made headlines when actress Elizabeth Olsen mentioned it was one of her favorite spots to visit when vacationing in Wine Country. Spend a morning or an afternoon here, tasting through a flight ($25) of natural wines under the shade of trees. On weekends, pair your tasting with a picnic brunch or lunch from nearby Pascaline Patisserie. 6450 First St., Forestville, 707-820-8121
The Drink in Healdsburg is a sweet spot where coffee and natural wine come together. Monday through Saturday, you can order an espresso or iced latte from the coffee cart and book tastings with one of two local wine labels, Rootdown Cellars and Leo Steen Wines.
Rootdown Wine Cellars is a natural wine project from winemaker Mike Lucia. Lucia has an impressive resume that includes wine cellar stints as a teenager in the ’90s and launching several wine brands, including Es OK and Cole Ranch.
As the name of his latest wine label implies, the winemaker is inspired by the positive influence that healthy, organic soils can have on wine. He favors varietal-specific wines over blends, like his 100% trousseau or chenin blanc, and tends to source the grapes for each cuvée from single vineyard sites. In his wines, the influences of the earth and soil take the lead while the fruit follows.
Leo Hansen, the man behind Leo Steen Wines, grew up in Denmark, where he worked in his father’s restaurant from the age of 12. Hansen’s career then took a winding path from a degree in sales and marketing to an apprenticeship at Kolding Hotel and Restaurant School, where he studied under renowned Danish sommelier Orla Farmann. After traveling the world, Hansen became wine director at Kong Hans, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen. His job brought him to California, where he immediately fell for the land, the people and the wine and eventually launched his own wine label.
Both Lucia and Hansen have adopted a hands-off approach to winemaking, working with natural yeasts, reducing or eliminating the use of new oak and favoring lower alcohol levels. Lucia uses rare grape varietals to craft his wines — he hopes to one day use grapes from the Jura region in eastern France. Hansen uses chenin blanc, chardonnay and grenache grapes for his wines. Tastings of their wines ($25) are available at The Drink noon to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. 53 Front St., Healdsburg
Two Shepherds Wine
William Allen and Karen Daenen, the team behind Two Shepherds, believe winemaking is an art, not a science. They also believe that wine doesn’t need much manipulation to taste good. The two work with uncommon grapes like trousseau gris from small, organic lots in Lodi, Mendocino, Russian River Valley and Yolo to make Old World-inspired natural wines.
The passionate couple ferment all their wines at their Windsor winemaking facility with native yeasts and no additions besides minimal amounts of sulfur. They never use new oak in their wine production and they typically do not filter their wines either.
What started out as a hobby for Allen in 2010 eventually grew into a full-fledged winery project, which Daenen joined in 2015, assisting with winemaking, marketing and accounting while Allen manages the day-to-day cellar responsibilities.
Taste Two Shepherds wines at the warehouse winery in Windsor noon to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tastings are $20 (per person); that fee is waived with the purchase of one bottle (per person). You can also book a vineyard tasting and farm tour by appointment for $35 Monday through Saturday. 7763 Bell Road, Windsor, 415-613-5731
Written by Emily Weber