Natural wines. Perhaps you’ve heard of them, and maybe you’ve even tasted some. Popularly known as natty wines, they are the hottest thing in wine right now.
There’s no exact definition or certification for natural wines. Strictly speaking, they’re made with grapes that come from organic vineyards, are harvested by hand, then fermented with their own yeast and produced in a low-to-no intervention style. The winemaker neither adds nor subtracts elements in order to impact the end result. Thought all wines were natural? Reality check: There are more than 60 government-approved wine additives. We’re talking wood chips, acids, preservatives, egg whites, defoaming agents and a list of chemical compounds you’d be hard-pressed to properly pronounce.
Proponents of natural wines tout the honesty of the end result in the bottle. The idea is that by skipping manipulation in the cellar (manipulation that’s common with commercial wines), the grapes can show themselves in an authentic, unadulterated and hopefully delicious form.
Addam Reagan, the wine buyer for the de Vere White restaurant group, is a big fan of natural wine. “It’s approachable,” he explains. “Unlike the wine of our parents or grandparents, it’s not a luxury product to be drunk only by the elite. It’s for everyone.” Young people who love craft beer, he notes, are just as likely to be seduced by natural wine—and for the same reasons. It can be funky or even a bit cloudy, but natural wine is also fun, modern and artisanal.
Sacramento has always lived in the shadow of its wine–country neighbors. When it comes to big, expensive, flashy wines from heritage vineyards, Napa and Sonoma reign supreme. Meanwhile, much of the trendiest, most coveted natural wines in the state are getting lovingly foot-stomped in warehouses throughout Oakland and Berkeley.
But Sacramento is poised to have its own natural wine moment. Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, there were rumors of no fewer than five natural wine bars in the early stages of development. Natural wines are infiltrating restaurant drinks lists. Hell, natural wines have even snuck into a dive bar or two.
Here’s a look at four local winemakers who are bringing thoughtful, delicious, sustainable natural wines to our town’s curious drinkers.
The Sustainability Junkie
If the name Craig Haarmeyer doesn’t ring a bell, then a glance at one of his wine bottles almost certainly would. Haarmeyer Wine Cellars seems to be everywhere—bottle shops, of course, but also grocery stores, restaurants and bars, not just in the Sacramento region but all over the state. The St. Rey label, drawn in eye-catching black letter or swirling script, is unmistakable, as is the wine inside.
The concept of terroir—of wine reflecting the time and place in which it is grown and made—is maybe no clearer among local winemakers than with Haarmeyer Wine Cellars. Haarmeyer himself likes to refer to his wine as “Sacramento terroir” because of the way his wines highlight hyperlocal vineyards. “Not a lot of people consider this a wine region, and most certainly wouldn’t think this is a source of high-quality wine,” he says. “But we have so many vineyards in and near Sacramento. I feel like we should source as close to home as possible to emphasize the existence of this good fruit right here in our backyard.”
Before launching his own label, Haarmeyer worked in IT consulting but left the field because he felt unfulfilled. With a background in studio art and not a single wine class under his belt, he took a leap of faith and started working a harvest at the now-defunct Harbor Winery in West Sacramento. From there, he moved to Revolution Wines, where he worked his way up from harvest intern to winemaker. For several years, he made his own wine under the ownership of Revolution before he decided to break off and start his own wine cellar with his family. (His son, Alex, is his business partner and the company winemaker.)
From day one, Haarmeyer shaped his wine label to focus on natural, organic, sustainable farming and production. “The best way to show what can be done with this great local fruit is to not meddle with it,” he says. “Our goal is to have the fruit express its vineyard.”
To see his idea of Sacramento terroir, look no further than his series of chenin blanc varietal wines. In California, where cab, chard and zin reign supreme, to become a chenin house—six different chenins every vintage from six or seven different vineyards—is an unexpected choice. Haarmeyer was called to highlight this particular white grape because of its interesting ability to uniquely reflect its source site while also retaining its distinctive acidity, aromatics and funk. “There are many faces of chenin, but they’re all recognizable,” he says. “My wines are an exercise in the terroir of California through the lens of this one grape.”
To stay true to the ethos of natural winemaking, Haarmeyer leans into a hands-off approach to the wines. We’re talking organic vineyards, native yeasts, neutral oak, minimal sulfur, no stirring of the wines on their lees, no filtering, no fining. Almost all the whites are foot-stomped, and the reds are all fermented whole cluster, meaning the grapes aren’t taken off their stems. “When you break the chemistry down and build it back up, you can produce something that is clean and correct, but I’m more interested in the specific site,” Haarmeyer says. His wines are bracing crisp and clean and correct themselves.
As for why natural wines haven’t taken Sacramento by storm yet, Haarmeyer has a few guesses. “I think it comes down to expendable dollars. This is a government town,” he says. “And older people are collecting expensive Napa cabs and Central Coast pinots, while young people are into craft beer.”
With accessibility an issue, Haarmeyer Wine Cellars is looking to invite in those who are not yet sure about natural wine, starting with affordable prices and a laid–back attitude. “Wine is a magical, transformative beverage,” says Haarmeyer. “It does more than taste good. It nourishes not just our bodies but our minds—and that should be accessible to everybody.”
Who’s it for: Farm-to-fork foodies who love Sacramento and sustainability
Wine to try: St. Rey Vineyard Clarksburg Chenin Blanc
Natural wine has definitely taken on an alternative, cool-kid reputation, standing in opposition to the establishment that is commercial wine production. And maybe no local wine producer adheres to that stereotype more than La Clarine Farm.
“Natural wine is punk rock,” says Hank Beckmeyer, who has been making natural wine just outside Placerville with his wife, Caroline Hoël, since 2007. “My attitude is: If somebody doesn’t like it, whatever. If somebody doesn’t like it, let’s not think about it too much and just strap on our guitars and rock.”
Beckmeyer is no poseur. Before becoming a winemaker, he was kicking around Germany in a punk band, then later worked at a record company. Hoël, whom he met while abroad, was also working in music. When the two burnt out on the scene, wine wasn’t the obvious next step—after all, neither had any background in making the stuff—but Beckmeyer didn’t care. He’d picked up a love for wine while traveling through Europe and was willing to take the plunge. “It was sheer American determination that got me into winemaking.”
Back stateside, he got a job at a winery in the foothills, worked vineyard management, then got promoted to winemaker at another winery. Back then, natural wine wasn’t a thing in California. Beckmeyer got tired of working in a house style, tweaking his wine through additives and industrial processes to make a juice that tasted the same year to year. That’s why he and his wife decided to plant their own vines and start making wine that expressed their grapes and their land, rather than wine that was wrangled into a mold.
“Our philosophy was this: Let’s take it all back to zero and see what you really have to do to make wine,” he explains. They stripped back the punchdowns and the sulfur. They allowed for native fermentation, avoided oak and skipped any filtering or fining. What they found in their first vintage was wonderfully pleasing wines. “I was surprised at how little you have to do.”
Their farm became their little haven. Hoël raised goats and made goat cheese on the property, and Beckmeyer oversaw much of the winemaking. But with such a small property, the couple turned to nearby organic producers to source more grapes. “Organics is a must,” Beckmeyer says. His vineyard is organic, and all of the grapes he sources are, too. “There’s really no excuse not to grow organically. It’s easy.”
Beckmeyer isn’t didactic about natural wine; he doesn’t even use the label for his wine all that willingly. To him, natural is just wine the way it was historically made. In fact, to him, to make wine naturally is to make wine traditionally. As for the sometimes odd flavors found in natural wines, he has a sanguine attitude. “One of the interesting things about working in a very much hands–off way is that there are flavors and textures that will appear in a wine that you’re just not used to. I think it’s because winemaking became so formulaic and so much of a recipe-driven thing, so much about a sellable product, that a lot of the idiosyncrasies that make wine an individual kinda got lost.”
Despite his relaxed attitude toward these idiosyncrasies, his wines are consistent from year to year, often not very fruity and almost always low alcohol. “I think our wines are very, very honest,” he says. Each bottle is a love song to vineyard, grape and year.
Seemingly effortlessly, Beckmeyer and Hoël got the natural wine world on the La Clarine Farm bandwagon. They’ve been featured in Bon Appétit and in a book by Alice Feiring, the world’s pre–eminent natural wine critic and booster. Their bottles are easily found at some of the hottest bars and restaurants in the Bay Area. They regularly sell out of the stock.
Not that Beckmeyer cares all that much. He was a punk first. He just happens to make great wine, too.
Who’s it for: Laid–back drinkers who are tired of the stuffiness of the traditional wine world.
Wine to try: Cedarville Vineyard Mourvedre
The Hometown Hero
Until very recently, Amador County was devoid of natural wine. This burgeoning wine region of only 3,700 planted acres is home to just more than 40 wineries for whom big, juicy zins and classic Italian red grapes are the name of the game. Sommelier Chris Walsh, himself born and raised in Amador, looked around and saw a need for something different.
“Some people treat making wine like following a recipe,” he says. “There’s a lot of additives and manipulation.” For instance, take watering back, a process common in mainstream winemaking in which water is added to the grape juice in order to dilute it. “There’s good fruit here raised carefully by farmers, but then you’re toying with it to the point that it loses its essence. It seems disrespectful to the farmer.”
Walsh formed his wine labels, Little John Lane and the End of Nowhere, to combat what he sees as excessive meddling in the natural charm of Amador’s soils and vegetation. His mission statement? “To do as little as possible to screw up what the farmer has given me and to stay out of the way of the wine and let it be what it wants to be.”
His natural wine story began in New York City, where he got a job as a runner-busser at a natural wine bar after his career as an architectural lighting designer got put on hold in 2009. It started as a way to pay the bills—with an undergraduate degree in theater and a master’s in teaching, he didn’t plan on the restaurant industry being his bread and butter. But two years later, he was in love with wine and had just gotten his certified sommelier title. By 2014, he was moving back to California, ready to see if he could cut it in the world of wine production.
While working at several high–profile wineries, including natural wine behemoth Donkey & Goat and local favorite Shake Ridge, he planted vineyards of his own at his parents’ property in Pioneer, naming it Little John Lane Vineyard. He pursued organic, sustainable farming and production right off the bat.
“Commercial wines are impressive, but they’re not what I’m looking for,” he says. “A great wine should be a wine, not the cellar, talking to you. Sometimes, commercial wines, with all the additions and corrections, feel like a pastry chef just spent all day making a Twinkie.”
While pulling from his own vineyard, Walsh also brings in grapes from organic vineyards around Amador, Lodi and Clarksburg, which are then released under his The End of Nowhere label. In his winery (a two-car garage), he has a light hand with sulphur, and he employs no added yeast, new oak, acidity adjustments, enzymes, filtering or fining. The end result is a clean, approachable wine often lighter in style and alcohol than is typical for Amador. “I work really hard to make sure that they’re easy to drink, fruit-forward, dry. It’s just an enjoyable glass of wine,” he says.
Although 2015 was his first vintage, wine buyers across the country have already taken notice. His wines have found themselves on wine lists at restaurants and bars from San Francisco to New York City. In Sacramento, Pizza Supreme Being pours his skin-contact pinot gris, and Majka Pizzeria & Bakery is slinging his partial–skin-contact albariño.
Walsh is excited to be able to show off another side of Amador. “This is my home, so I like to work with zinfandel, show what it can do, challenge the known style,” he notes. “I want people to drink it and think it’s good wine first, natural wine second.” He points to his carbonic maceration zin, so light that you could drink it chilled. “I want to shine a spotlight on this region. I can’t think of another place I’d rather be.” Amador may not be one of the big dogs yet, but it looks like things are changing.
Who’s it for: Environmentally conscious wine lovers burnt out on huge, off-dry reds.
Wine to try: Phantom Limb Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel
Kevin Luther is a rule breaker. “Some people tell me I’m not making natural wine at all,” he says with a laugh.
From a tiny warehouse off Power Inn Road, Luther makes two wine labels, Lucid and Voluptuary, that manage to hew to many of the tent poles of natural winemaking while still pushing boundaries.
Take his DaVinci’s Wings zinfandel, for example. Like all of the wines on his Voluptuary label, it’s sulfite free, vegan, inoculated using native yeasts and made from 100 percent organically grown grapes. But unlike virtually any other wine on the market, natural or not, this zin is aged on maple wood. Then there are his picpoul wines—a trio of sparkling, traditional and skin-contact—that are aged on lemon wood. For many natural winemakers, using new wood to flavor wine is a big no-no. For Luther, it’s the secret spice rack.
The man behind these out-there wines wasn’t always so unconventional. He started his career by chance, while studying conservation biology during a semester abroad in Australia. A sudden realization that he cared about the environment but not so much about research led to him dropping out of college and finding a job in a nearby vineyard. Being among the vines brought back memories of time spent in the orchards as a child with his father, himself a farmworker. Luther was smitten.
That experience in Australia launched a career that took him to wineries in New Zealand, Oregon, Paso Robles, Sonoma and finally Sacramento. He eventually settled into a lengthy gig as winemaker for acclaimed Sierra foothills winery Wise Villa, where he had the opportunity to hone his skills while also getting to experiment. Still, his wildest wines—odd varietal combinations, beer-wine hybrids—never got to see the light of day. In 2017, he felt ready to set off on his own and founded Voluptuary, followed by Lucid, his second label that used low-intervention winemaking techniques to make approachable, consumer-friendly wines.
“I’m obsessed with variety and change,” he says. “I want my wines to reflect a place and time, so I’m not concerned with them tasting the same from year to year.” He’s staunchly opposed to stuffiness and dogma in wine, as evidenced by his laid–back, come-as-you-are attitude toward both the natural wine scene and wine drinkers at large. You need only one look at his online tastings to get the picture. Each tasting has a theme, be it food, music, literary or lifestyle. One tasting provides suggestions for weed pairings. Another offers Kama Sutra pairings. (“Not as raunchy as it sounds,” he reports.)
Luther acknowledges that natural wines can get a bad rap, largely due to the number of faulty wines that result from poor cellar hygiene or inattentive winemakers. Despite the irreverence of his wines, he continuously makes every effort to keep them tasting clean. To him, natural wine is not about having the stereotypical funk that separates it from more commercial wines. “It’s more of an ethic. It’s about redefining the standards of quality to allow for more weird, experiment elements,” he explains. Luther’s wines evoke the idea of wabi-sabi: Their strangeness is their strength.
In just the past year, both his labels have taken off, landing on menus at places as varied as The Kitchen, SacYard, The Rind and Benny’s. “Natural wine shouldn’t be exclusionary. It can be at a dive bar just as easily as it can be at a high–end restaurant,” he says. “And while it may be a trend at the moment, what it embodies—sustainability, health, commitment to experimentation and open–mindedness—that is here to stay.”
Who it’s for: Hard–core wine geeks, craft beer and cocktail aficionados looking for something new.
Wine to try: The Drinking Tree Santa Clara Valley Pinot Noir
Talking Natural Wine
We sat down for a chat with Tyler Stacy, a sommelier and co-owner of Jeune, which was briefly run as a pop-up natural wine bar but has transitioned now to an online natural wine subscription service and bottle shop.
Why the interest in natural wine?
The whole point of wine is that it’s a communal beverage that allows people the opportunity to come together, but also it’s the translation of place and time through the lens of a given person. When you eliminate as many variables as you possibly can during the winemaking process, you get the purest expression of a place and time. Not to mention that when you see someone dumping water into perfectly good grapes, it really takes away the romance.
What kinds of natural wine are available through Jeune?
While we offer wines from all over the world, the overall aim is to bring very clean wines, wines without the faults seen in many natural wines. People think natural wine is supposed to taste kind of weird or funky. That’s not a property of natural wine; it’s a tell into winemaking and farming and who is executing those things skillfully or not. We want to provide more transparency to the consumer.
What is the biggest barrier to growth for the natural wine scene?
A lot of people are very dogmatic about natural wine, though I think that approach is extremely impractical. In my opinion, you can end up with not-great–quality product that is then passed off as natural. There are things that taste too strange or are flawed in one way or another. You can’t appeal to a broader spectrum of people if you have such a strict attitude. It’s not about dogmatic purity. It’s just not possible to have great wine every single year that’s no-till and dry-farmed and no sulfur.
Why hasn’t the Sacramento natural wine scene taken off yet?
There has never been a voice for natural wine in Sacramento. There has been an attitude in the industry here that you need to just cater to what people say that they want without any effort to push people out of their comfort zone. Also, there aren’t enough wine shops here. Our wine shopping is done in grocery stores here in Sacramento. So there’s no place for people to learn or explore or try something new.
Is natural wine a flash in the pan?
There are fads in the wine world, but without question, natural wine is here to stay. A lot of commercial, industrial brands are now trying to emulate the style or branding of natural wine. It’s like organic food—that wasn’t a trend. People will start to understand what is unnatural about most wines in the grocery store. If you’re going to Whole Foods or the farmers market and getting food as close to the source as possible, then drinking natural, local, sustainable wine is the next step.
Natty Wine Glossary
Memorize these words and no one will ever accuse you of being a Cougar Juice* drinker again.
*Rombauer Chardonnay, which is definitely not considered natural
Terroir—The unique environment—soil, plant and animal life, weather, altitude, native yeasts, bacterial profile of the area and more—in which a wine is made, from vine to bottle. A hotly contested topic, as some winos say that terroir is a romantic myth used to sell more wine, while others swear that terroir is the hallmark of all great wines.
Glou-glou—The French term for a wine so eminently light and drinkable that you could glug-glug the whole bottle. The perfect poolside potable. Also called vin de soif, or thirst-quenching wine.
Wild fermentation—When wild or native (as opposed to industrial) yeasts, which are floating through the air all around us, are used to culture wine and start the transformation of grape sugars into alcohol. While it can put wines at greater risk of off flavors, wild fermentation is considered by natty-heads to be necessary to the expression of a wine’s terroir.
Oxidation—The process by which wine is exposed to oxygen. When done intentionally, oxidative qualities in a wine can read as nutty, like baked or cooked fruit, or as having an element of umami. If done unintentionally, the wines take on a brownish tint and lose much of their flavor, sometimes even tasting vinegary. Ever opened a bottle of wine, then left it in your fridge for a month before rediscovering it? It’s that.
Brett—Short for brettanomyces, a wild yeast that sometimes finds itself in a wine tank or barrel and, in small doses, can add a pleasant gaminess and funk to wine. A truly “bretty” wine, however, tastes like a sour beer gone very wrong: Think heavy barnyard flavors, like sweaty Band-Aids resting on a pile of cow pies.
Skin-contact wine—The more technical term for the increasingly popular “orange wine” category. Fermenting a wine on grape skins allows for greater color and tannin extraction. All red wines are made in this style, so it’s only notable when done with white grapes.
Whole–cluster fermentation—Instead of separating out the individual grapes from all their stems before vinification, the entire grape bunch gets tossed in. Stems add tannin and structure to the finished product, as well as green, vegetal or woodsy notes.
Carbonic maceration—When grapes are thrown into a sealed–off vessel, the lack of oxygen forces the grape juice to ferment within the grapes until the grapes burst open from pressure. This technique is the standard in Beaujolais but is popular among natural winemakers everywhere because of the bright, fruity aromas and zippy mouthfeel it produces.