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Meet the ‘new guard’ of natural winemakers in Sonoma Valley

Natural wine encapsulates wine made from organically and biodynamically grown grapes – by winemakers working with naturally occurring native yeast – adding and taking away little throughout the winemaking process.

All natural wine begins in the vineyard with sustainably farmed fruit. Some winemakers dogmatically believe in an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to producing wine “naturally,” taking what is known as a zero/zero approach, meaning absolutely nothing is added nor subtracted throughout the winemaking process. Other winemakers are more loosely inspired by the natural wine movement, choosing to cherry pick practices like biodynamic and regenerative farming, spontaneous fermentation instead of inoculation, and very few additions in the cellar besides sulfur.

Over the past decade or so, natural wine has begun to catch on in a big way, with a growing portion of the wine drinking world falling for the liveliness and unique characteristics of natural bottles and new and exciting wine projects popping up throughout California and the rest of the world. Despite a relative dearth of winemakers working in a natural style in Sonoma Valley, this region happens to be home to some of the most renowned and longest-operating natural winemakers in the country.

You can’t talk about natural wine and Sonoma Valley without talking about the Coturri family. Long before natural wine fever hit, the Coturris were quietly making traditional, organic, low-fi wines by hand with natural yeast and zero additions in the hills of Sonoma Mountain. Tony Coturri, widely considered the godfather of natural wine in California and his brother, Phil, an organic viticulturist, got their start making wine with their father in the early 1960s, with grapes they grew organically on their property in Glen Ellen.

Tony and Phil’s father, Harry “Red” Coturri, learned how to make wine from his own father, an Italian immigrant from the village of Farneta in Emilia-Romagna. As Tony recounts, throughout the ‘60s, “all we did was crush, press and put it in bottles.” A set of the wine drinking public have finally caught up with the Coturris and their unadulterated winemaking style. The Coturris’ defiant approach has inspired a new generation of winemakers in the area to farm sustainably and experiment, innovate and honor their pure winemaking style.

In addition to a group of talented winemakers who collaborated with the Coturris before setting off on their own projects out of Coturri Winery, Magnolia Wine Services, a newly opened custom crush facility on Sonoma’s Eighth Street, is a natural wine collective where local winemakers can collaborate and experiment.

Owned and operated by Jack Sporer, Magnolia Wine Services is on a mission to foster a growing community of sustainable farmers and natural winemakers. Sporer, Dan Marioni and a handful of other young winemakers are busy making wine with no inoculation and low intervention and they are hopeful that more winemakers will join them. For all involved with Magnolia, sustainable and regenerative farming is a must, while their winemaking practices run the gamut from zero intervention to the use of some sulfur before bottling. If you’re interested in learning more about Magnolia Wine Services and how to get involved, reach out to Sporer at 415-202-3984.

Fres.co Wines, 21481 Eighth St. E., Suite 1

Jack Sporer’s wine label, Fres.co, or Fresh Wines, which he makes out of his custom crush facility, Magnolia Wine Services, is focused on supporting regenerative viticulture in Sonoma Valley and producing wines with minimal input. Sporer refers to Fres.co as “wines for the people” that aim to highlight the Sonoma Valley. He uses grapes sourced from dry-farmed vineyards managed by farmers Ross Cannard and David Rothschild, who both take a hands-off approach to farming and work diligently to transition vineyards around Sonoma from Roundup to regenerative. Sporer is also inspired by his uncle, Will Bucklin. Bucklin is a longtime dry-farming advocate who owns and farms Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma, one of California's oldest continuously operating vineyards.

Dan Marioni & Sonoma Mtn. Winery, 21481 Eighth St. E., Suite 1

Nic Coturri, son of Tony Coturri, grew up on the family vineyard learning how to make wine. In 2009, Nic launched Sonoma Mtn. Winery, a project out of Coturri Winery where he was able to express his own winemake ethos and style. Like father, like son, Nic worked with natural yeast, no intervention, no additives, no water and no sulfites in his winemaking. His wines showcase the inherent acidity and freshness of grapes grown sustainably, with the belief that more in the vineyard leads to less in the cellar. In 2016, Sonoma-native Dan Marioni, working at Tesla at the time, helped out for a harvest at Coturri Winery and essentially never left. In 2019, he took over winemaking responsibilities from Nic and continues to prioritize the simple philosophy of “farming first — just grapes.” Marioni still manages everything related to Sonoma Mtn. Winery and now makes wine out of Magnolia Wine Services under the label D. Marioni.

Coturri Winery, PO Box 396, Glen Ellen

Anyone who has spent time at Coturri Winery seems to be under a collective spell, enamored by the romantic simplicity of the winemaking that happens there. The winery site, perched on Sonoma Mountain in the Valley of the Moon, is scattered with defunct cars, low-fi equipment and, of course, organically farmed grapes. Unlike some winemakers simply getting in on the “natural” action, Tony Coturri is a dedicated and true natural winemaker, making wine with no sulfur additions, no filtering, no fining that are hand bottled, hand corked and hand labeled for the past 40 years.

Caleb Leisure wines.
Caleb Leisure wines.

Caleb Leisure Winery, 6725 Enterprise Road, Glen Ellen

Another Coturri acolyte, Caleb Leisure heads up a small natural wine project out of Coturri Winery in Glen Ellen. Following a career in academia and cheese, Caleb found himself in Sonoma Valley inspired to make wine guided by ancient Georgian traditions using organic and biodynamic fruit. In 2017 at Coturri Winery, Leisure buried 10 authentic Georgian qvevri, large-scale, earthenware amphora for aging wine. Like Tony Coturri, he believes in no additions or subtraction at any point of the winemaking process. This approach, in addition to the qvevri aging, results in brilliant wines full of texture.

Côte Des Cailloux, 565 Mountain Ave.

When Jacques Mathieu first tasted a Coturri wine, it was a total revelation and he knew right away that he wanted to work with the family to produce his own wine. Mathieu, a French expat and former architect, established his Côte de Cailloux vineyard in the hills of Sonoma in 1996. He planted a field blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, counoise, cinsault, grenache blanc, roussanne, viognier and chasselas on volcanic bedrock with the help of Phil, and later, Nic Coturri. Mathieu vinifies his wine at Coturri Winery using native yeast and co-fermenting the blend in old oak casks.

Ashanta Wines, Glen Ellen

Oakland native and third generation grape farmer, Chenoa Ashton-Lewis, and cinematographer, Will Basanta, caught the winemaking bug in 2019 after an impromptu trip from Los Angeles to Sonoma Mountain to do something with the unpicked grapes on Chenoa's family vineyard. Chenoa and Will made an experimental, late-harvest Syrah and Pinot Noir co-ferment that year inside a tent on the family's vineyard.

The couple relocated to Sonoma once quarantine began and connected with their neighbor, Tony Coturri, who knew Chenoa's grandfather: they both had planted vines on Sonoma Mountain around the same time in the '70s.

Inspired by Tony's approach and the natural world surrounding them, Chenoa and Will just recently embarked on a new winemaking journey at Coturri Winery with Ashanta Wines. They've just wrapped up their first full vintage of wines made with wild yeast and organic and sustainably grown grapes, no fining, no filtering and no addition of sulfites. In their words, “Our wines are terroir driven expressions of pachamama and her seasons." Find Ashanta Wines at Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa.

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Natural wine in Sonoma Valley is just getting started. It will be exciting to watch this movement grow locally as more and more farmers and winemakers commit to working sustainably and naturally.

Want to taste some of the wines mentioned here? While Coturri Winery has put a hold on tastings due to COVID, the other winemakers listed here offer tasting by appointment. Click through to their websites to get in touch about arranging a tasting or buying wine. Also, check out Jack’s Filling Station for a wide selection of local, natural bottles.

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