Editor's note: This story was originally published shortly after the Californian wildfires of autumn 2017. The author, Victoria Chow, writes: "It was only five weeks after I had visited Napa and written this article that one of the deadliest wildfires in California history spread through wine country. A series of 250 wildfires, fuelled by the unlucky combination of low humidity and high winds, rampaged through the area in October 2017, destroying 2800 homes and over 245,000 acres of land. One of the casualties includes the stunning tasting room at Mayacamas, featured in this article. Luckily, the winery itself was spared. It was a time that truly demonstrated the resilience and community spirit of Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Rosa, and while it is easy for us to feel helpless on the sidelines, the best thing I can recommend now to indirectly help rebuild the industry is to plan your next trip there as soon as possible, and drink more California wines!"
It was a rough morning for Braiden Albrecht, the 30-year-old winemaker at Mayacamas, when we first met on the estate. A fancy dinner at The French Laundry the night before was taking its toll in the form of a red-wine hangover. His brother, Ian, was already armed with big bottles of pink coconut water and locally-made kombucha.
While it may be easy to write them off as stereotypical millennials, my trip to Napa Valley and the wider Northern California region showed me a new generation of producers with the drive to make the wine and spirits industry a more sustainable place—and embracing every bit of hard labour that comes with it. The move towards “organic everything” sounds faddish, but it was obvious to me that these young people were ready to get their hands dirty, literally, to bring us back to the earth.
As we drove around, exploring the mountainous terrain of Mayacamas, Braiden reminisced on his time at the University of California, Berkeley—he majored in environmental economics and, while I spent the weekends of my youth drinking wine, he would spend his harvesting grapes and actually making the wine. He joined Mayacamas a few years ago with a mission to reinvigorate the brand. This includes moving it towards organic farming to better nurture its mini-ecosystem, all the while embracing the classic aspects of its cellars—namely, ageing in historical casks.
“Creating food and beverages to sustain and enrich our existence is a tradition dating back millennia,” reflected Braiden, who then added, with a smile, “Except now, we have an app to help with that”—referring to the real-time monitoring of vine health and the apps that control fermentation tank temperatures from his smartphone.
We headed out for the harvest before daybreak the next morning, in the mist and drizzle. Despite the less-than-prime conditions, it was “the day”. After a spell of heatwaves had driven temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, it was time to act fast and pick the grapes while they still retained their natural acidity. The freakish temperature spike is a not-so-subtle reminder of the changes happening to our planet’s climate—and the fragility of all that relies on it.
As I knelt in the dirt and watched the first few clusters of grapes come off the vine, there was a sort of magic and romanticism about it all. Braiden pointed out some leaves with signs of disease or insect damage, but he acknowledged that it’s a small sacrifice to make for the long-term health of the terroir and the vines. Five hours in, and hundreds of 50-pound bins later, the back-breaking work felt a lot less glamorous. I learned not to underestimate the value of touch, as the march of time and the advancement of technology has done little to modernise Mayacamas’ choice to hand-harvest its crops—showing both a dedication to the craft and a respect for a land that cannot be tamed by machines.
The day after, I drove over the valley to Sonoma to find the Hanson brothers, Chris and Brandon, painstakingly hand-labelling, signing and numbering their newly bottled grape-based vodka at the aptly named Hanson of Sonoma.
Four years ago, Chris and Brandon set out to create a locally and socially conscious spirit while taking advantage of their proximity to one of the world’s greatest grape-growing regions. This may in and of itself sound quite “millennial”, but to them, it’s a throwback to the days when things were done simply, naturally and with integrity. Hanson of Sonoma is the first certified gluten-free, USDA-organic, non-GMO vodka in the world.
Though they’re from a generation often criticised for impatience and entitlement, the brothers knew that there could be no shortcuts when it came to meeting the labelling requirements. It took 155 different iterations to find the recipe they ultimately settled on for their classic vodka; they work closely with organisations including California Certified Organic Farmers, the Gluten Intolerance Group, the Non-GMO Project and 1% for the Planet to ensure the quality of their ingredients, their facility and their business practices. Chris and Brandon rent winemaking facilities to make the grape base for their spirit. However, as their host winemaker is not certified organic, they must endure long sessions of audited cleanings of the fermentation tanks each time they load them with grapes.
A walk around their facility made it clear the multiple touchpoints the Hansons have with their final product—from the hand-peeling and chopping of fresh cucumbers to the stirring of vats of California chilli peppers, you won’t find any lab-produced essences in their flavoured vodkas here. As Chris put the final label on a bottle, he joked that they’re like David going up against the corporate Goliath monopolies of vodka.
With a bottle of Hanson of Sonoma habanero vodka stashed securely in my backpack, I drove a little more and wandered into a warehouse in Sebastopol, following a tiny sign marked “Wind Gap Wines”. I wasn’t sure what to expect—all I knew was that I was set to meet Carlo Mondavi, the grandson of legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi.
There was rock music pumping and the space was buzzing with activity as forklifts zipped back and forth, and fermented grape must was shovelled from tanks to bins. I saw the back of a guy with his head inside a tank—and lo and behold, that turned out to be Carlo. Much like Hanson’s start-up model, he was renting facilities at Wind Gap Wines to produce RAEN. It’s a brand he recently started with his brother, Dante, which focuses on making cool-climate pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast—a far cry in flavour profile from the big, bold cabernet sauvignons his father (Tim) and grandfather (Robert) are known for.
With his ripped jean shorts and windswept blond hair, Carlo exuded the prototypical surfer dude much more than the frou-frou wine guy. Once he got around to waxing poetic about whole-cluster fermented grapes, though, there was no doubt that wine runs deep in him. “I think what the young makers—next-generation, young bloods or whatever you want to call us—are doing is in line with what we see in the best kitchens across the world, where less is more,” explained Carlo.
Carlo is outspoken in his stand against chemicals used in farming, on a crusade to draw attention to the proven damages to the environment and our bodies that’s caused by the blind use of GMOs and pesticides. He has chosen to go the route of making natural wines—something he doesn’t loudly market for fear of being misunderstood as something that “smells bad”.
Natural wines, made without chemicals, and using native yeast and minimal intervention, again sounds like media hype and a passing trend. In fact, some of the most highly regarded and most expensive wines in the world, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are made using this method, without publicising what they deem as the most ancestral of techniques.
“I used to think it was risky to go natural,” said Carlo. “In fact, in the first few years with RAEN, my brother and I second-guessed ourselves.” But the Mondavi family had always preached balance and harmony with nature, so his push for going “beyond organic” by using biodynamics, permaculture and organic practices is in some ways a natural extension of what he was taught as boy. “We are the resistance to bad farming,” he said. “We are waking up and making a change. My generation will be the global movement for this.”
I thought back on that early-morning harvest in the Mayacamas vineyard and of little Jimmy, the son of Mayacamas’ estate director, as he ran between the rows of vines. “Just a Napa kid getting a little harvest action in before school!” his dad hollered at me from across the hedge as I looked bemusedly at his son, diving into the dirt and getting progressively wetter from the rain. Jimmy put a cabernet grape between his teeth and proudly proclaimed, “I’m gonna make some grape juice later!” With what I’ve seen the new generation championing on my trip, I feel pretty comfortable that the future of sustainable farming and winemaking will be soon be in his hands. Indeed, the kids are all right.