If you are even casually interested in wine, you have surely read articles or blog posts extolling the virtues (or highlighting the downsides) of “natural” wines. For every wine enthusiast that champions natural wine, there is a wine spectator that thinks it is undrinkable swill. For those of us that are lucky enough to live close to cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco, natural wines are sort of the “it” thing right now. Influenced by hipster sommeliers, natural wine is now all the rage with hipster wine drinkers of all experience levels, down to wine newbies. But natural wine isn’t just for hipster somms, or non-accredited hipsters who just like to sound smart and cool. Natural wine can be downright fantastic and just as sophisticated, structured, elegant and balanced as conventional wine. A case in point is Two Shepherds Winery in Sonoma County where we recently had the privilege of an extended tasting with winemaker William Allen, who is also the founder of the winery (along with his wife Karen).
Before we tell the Two Shepherds story, let’s quickly define “natural wine” just to make sure everyone is on the same page. There are multiple (and sometimes conflicting) definitions of the term, but the following in my opinion pretty much captures it: Natural Wine is usually farmed organically and made without adding or removing anything in the cellar. Fermentation occurs naturally with “native” yeasts that live in the vineyard, on the grape skins, in the air, etc., rather than the addition of commercially purchased cultured yeast. Natural wine is generally not filtered or “fined” to remove particles. Natural winemakers often refer to their approach as one of “non-intervention” and champion the use of more old-world, traditional, non-mechanized wine making processes.
So who wouldn’t want that? What could possibly be wrong with wine being made with traditional processes, native yeast, minimal intervention, using organically grown grapes. Candidly, some natural wine sucks. I mean, really sucks. I’m not going to name names, but there is a winery we visited recently that is about as committed to natural wine as it is possible to be. To me, their wine is undrinkable; flawed; sour; smelly; unpleasant. Should I go on? But natural wine does not have to be flawed. And when it is, it should be discarded, not bottled and sold.
This is in fact the philosophy of William at Two Shepherds, something that he and Karen put in black and white on their website: “Flawed wine is flawed, not ‘natural.’ ALL wineries have wines go astray on occasion, we dump those, not release them.” Amen to that.
When I reached out to the winery to ask if they could accommodate us on a recent Friday afternoon, William replied back almost immediately with some screening questions: “Have you had our wines before or how did you hear about us? We make an array of rare, non CA style wines.” I understood right away that this set of questions had been developed over time to weed out visitors who would only be disappointed later when they arrive at the winery expecting to taste their way through the traditional Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir offerings you might expect from a Sonoma winery. Given that Two Shepherds does not make wine from any of the top 7 most common California varieties, this type of pre-screening does make sense!
Karen was out of town the day we visited and tasted, but William took great care of us and let us taste through many of their more “unusual” wines. We recently posted about our love for skin contact (aka: orange) wines and were ecstatic that William shared two terrific examples of skin contact. We enjoyed both the 2020 Pinot Gris Skin Ferment as well as the 2019 Trousseau Gris Skin Ferment. From the photo below, you can see how different the colors are between these two “orange” wines.
While different in color, both were exquisite wines with none of the funky or flawed aromatic or flavor qualities you sometimes find in skin contact wines. The Pinot Gris grapes are sourced from the Clarbec Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Grapes are destemmed and left on the skins for 5 days, undergoing a native yeast fermentation, and subsequently are pressed to finish fermentation and aged in neutral French barrels. The resulting color – more copper than orange – is reminiscent of the “Ramato” style of Italian wines commonly made in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Like all of William’s wines, this is a lower-alcohol wine: 12.5% abv. This gem is $26.00 a bottle (less if you buy a case). The New York Times’ famed wine writer Eric Asimov included this wine in a 2019 article on skin contact (“orange”) wines. The Polarizing Power of Orange Wine – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
While I enjoyed the Pinot Gris, the standout skin contact wine for me was the 2019 Trousseau Gris. Those of you that follow my blog or Instagram posts know that I’m a sucker for rare varieties – and this grape certainly qualifies as rare. There is only one planting of Trousseau Gris in all of California – a 40 year old vineyard in Russian River Valley. Originally from the Jura region in France, Trousseau Gris can present wonderfully colorful bunches in the vineyard, Some grapes will be grey (“gris” means grey in French), while others will be more green, and others closer in color to a red variety. Like the Pinot Gris, the Trousseau Gris grapes are fermented with native yeast on the skins and subsequently aged in neutral barrels for 6 months. The aroma and flavor are delightful and the fruit really stands out with this wine. $30.00 a bottle.
Just for kicks and giggles William also poured us some non-skin-contact white wines as well, including the 2019 Picpoul Blanc, a high-acid, lower-alcohol (11.3%) white wine of great structure and texture. $26.00 a bottle.
Moving away from the whites and orange wines, William cracked open a few red wines for us to try as well. The first was a 2020 Carignan made using carbonic maceration: grapes were sealed in tank for 2.5 weeks, then pressed back to stainless to finish fermenting and aged 4 months. William served this red wine slightly chilled which we also did with one of the several bottles of the carbonic Carignan we purchased and took home with us – and that seems to be an absolute must. This wine was simply delicious – bursting with fresh berry aroma and flavor with firm tannins and acid. The grapes for this wine come from 80+ year old vines in Mendocino in a vineyard Two Shepherds shares with Sonoma winery Porter Creek. The carbonic Carignan is $26.00 a bottle.
In addition to the carbonic Carignan, William also makes a more conventional version as well which we also tasted (and purchased). Well, when I say “conventional” I should qualify that to be “conventional . . . for William.” This is a 12.2% alcohol wine and a more subtle example of this wine than others we have tried. The vineyard in Mendocino that produces the carbonic Carignan is the same source for this fruit. I should mention that this 80+ year old vineyard is head-trained, dry-farmed and certified organic. Another $26.00 wine. These prices are pretty darn low for wine of this quality made in Sonoma County. I’m just sayin’.
For our final wine, William poured perhaps one of the more rare wines among all of the rare wines that he produces: the 2018 Pinot Meunier. As many of you know, the three most common grapes in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (probably in that order). I heard of anyone making a Pinot Meunier as a still wine, let alone had the opportunity to taste one. I enjoyed every wine William poured, hands down. But without a question the still Pinot Meunier was the wine of the day. A few bottles of these were also purchased and taken home (and maybe even one opened that weekend). Such a delicate beauty. $44.00 a bottle and worth every penny.
We may or may not have left with a case of wine, who’s counting? And we have to get back later this month because William is releasing sparkling wines . . . in a can!! I’m not gonna lie, I have not jumped on the canned wine bandwagon. I’ve tried several and most of them have been terrible. The best one might have merited a “meh.” But William swears by the can as an ideal delivery vehicle for sparkling wine and his track record with everything we tasted is good enough for me. We’ll be loading up on cans in a few days.
When you come to Sonoma Valley to taste wine, by all means hit your favorite Chardonnay and Pinot Noir houses. Make the most of your Russian River experience. There are so many great wineries to choose from. But make sure you make room for this natural wine gem of a winery and experience some varietals and winemaking approaches that will make you a believer in natural wine. You might even become a fan of orange wine!
In case you are interested in diving into the natural wine debate a bit more deeply, I’ve included a few links to articles below. They are all relatively quick reads and have some good information.
May 18, 2021