That Napa winemaker Faith Armstrong-Foster harkens from Surge Narrows on the remote Inside Passage of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, should tell you something about her winemaking philosophy. Anyone who grew up amidst the pristine inlets and spectacular wilderness setting of this northern location is going to be on nature’s side.
Coast&Kayak Magazine suggests Surge Narrows offers an ideal mix of paddling extremes: “serenity” flat water and white water “surge”. Presumably Faith’s transplanted American parents schooled Faith and her four siblings on the flat- water route to the one-room school-house that the Armstrong children rowed to everyday. Curriculum for this intrepid lot included emergency preparedness, knowing how to call the Coast Guard and being able to read a nautical chart. Certainly, the family’s hand made boat – christened The Onward – was a fitting metaphor for Faith’s developing fortitude, living off the grid, eco-friendly and growing their own food, as they did.
Faith’s passion for agriculture and a short stint at Ironstone Vineyards in California paved the way for her education at UC Davis in California, where she studied enology and viticulture. Graduating with highest honours in 2006, she was scooped up by Frank Family Vineyards where she quickly moved up to assistant winemaker. Four children, a winemaking husband, a menagerie of pets helped expedite her decision to manage her own business and create her own wine label. In 2009 she launched Onward Wines, the brand representing “a little of her past and a lot of her heart”.
I was keen to speak with Faith for a number of reasons.
First, her frontier Canadian roots means her view of viticulture and viniculture has been shaped by hard work and an appreciation of the land. Having kayaked the intricate waterways both north and south of BC’s Discovery Islands, I knew she was ‘hardy people’.
Second, her website reads like poetry. She leads with her heart and her heart is in supporting grape growers who respect the land as much as she does.
Finally, Faith is an early pioneer in the renaissance of this natural old world wine and precursor to Champagne – Pétillant Naturel. The naturally sparkling wine is fundamentally different from Champagne (méthode champenoise) which requires a second fermentation and a minimum of 15 months (non-vintage bruts) on dead yeast cells (lees) to develop those heady, baked bread notes.
Pétillant Naturel favours a single fermentation, requiring an uber steady hand to steer the unfinished, still-fermenting wine from tank to bottle. A crown cap keeps the CO2 and light, foamy bubbles in check, and the minimal intervention philosophy behind Pét Nat means the wine is often a tad cloudy. Faith whips up two versions of Pét Nat to add sparkle to our lives. She uses this little-known grape called Malvasia Bianca for a floral and citrus rich Pét Nat and Pinot Noir for her Rosé explosion of raspberry and strawberry fruit.
Everything about her says rule-breaker and off the beaten path, which of course, I love!!
Here’s our discussion:
As I read your website, I’m getting so many interesting messages. What part of your message resonates most with your consumers? A natural winemaker? Artisan winemaker? Risk-taker? Small producer?
I’d say it’s all those things, but I also definitely think it’s the personal connection I have with so many of my customers. Most of my business comes from people meeting me on some level. They see how passionate I am, and that I’m a small producer of wines. Whether that’s at a restaurant or wine shop, people really do enjoy the direct and personal route of sourcing wine directly from a winemaker. But that’s hard because there are only so many hours in the day.
And you have four children!!! Life’s busy! Are you able to sell much of your wine DTC?
I’d love to be able to sell more wine DTC or direct to consumer, but I don’t have a tasting room location, so I can’t meet the consumer. I’ve had to find every one of my consumers, through events and through media and pourings at different restaurants. I don’t have a list of 300 – 400 followers that I’ve brought over from another winery, which is how a lot of winemakers make it work and build a following.
So it’s hard because I don’t have a big budget for marketing and sales. I sell my wine in 15 states and make about 5,000 cases a year. I started in the business using a distributor to get my wines across the country.
Was that challenging – finding a distributor whose thinking aligns with yours?
There are a lot of big distributors and picking the right one for me was really important. I’m an ethical brand, I make natural wines and I use fourth and fifth generation farmers who grow sustainably, dry farm, and are ethical growers. Being respectful of the land is really important to me, and I wanted to be paired with an artisan distributor who is thoughtful and cares about the same things that I do.
Also, by making unusual styles and working with unusual grapes like Malvasia and Carignane and making Pét Nat, and skin contact wines, there’s a uniqueness that resonates. It’s not just the varietal. It’s also the region, the amazing growers* I work with, the AVA’s that I source from. I think they all add a unique layer to my story.
So, really, I think it’s been an amazingly positive experience. I’ve had very organic growth and that way I feel much more personally connected to my audience. And at the core of my brand is my ethical message.
So yes, I’m a winemaker but I’m also a business person, and a marketer, managing sales, social media, etc………….
How many on your team? And how many sku’s….the list seems to go on forever (lol)?
It’s just me. I do it all myself. Between the Onward single vineyard wines and the Farmstrong blends, I make 14 different sku’s (stock keeping units or different bottles).
I know, it’s crazy.
So you’re getting great accolades and making this fabulous rustic sparkling wine. What is the difference between Méthode Ancestrale (the name I see used in Canada) and Pét Nat?
There really isn’t a difference. It’s just a different descriptor. The rebirth of Méthode Ancestrale happened in the Loire Valley a number of years ago. Winemakers haven’t adjusted the method at all – we’re just bringing it back to life. I prefer the term Pétillant Naturel because of the ease of saying it – it’s easier to say Pét Nat and the shorthand is just kind of fun and catchy. I also like the word ‘Naturel’ because it describes the process – or my process – better. So it’s the same category but there are a lot of dramatic differences between the way producers make Méthode Ancestrale or Pét Nat.
The biggest difference?….
I’m not disgorging mine, and I’m pretty adamant about that!!
Why did you decide to focus on Pét Nat?
It really sparked my interest in the category – it was old, but new, and it was natural. It was an exciting category and wine style.
I started making Malvasia Bianca in 2013, so this is my fifth vintage with Malvasia grapes. I was pretty early to the category – a bit of a pioneer I guess because there were maybe two other producers in the US at the time.
I only started making Rosé, Pét Nat in 2016 so it’s brand new. I knew I wanted to make a Rosé as well, but I waited several years until I knew the Pétillant process well. Grapes behave differently in the Pét Nat process and every year, the process throws me a curveball. With Rosé I’m working with Pinot Noir grapes and not the Malvasia grapes that I’ve come to know.
What kind of curveballs?
In general every year can be different and every wine is different. The biggest challenge is around the pH and the secondary malolactic fermentation. The pH is higher in the Rosé than the Malvasia – around 3.3 vs 3.1.
I don’t necessarily want my wines to go through Malo in the bottle – it gives off aromas of sauerkraut and cottage cheese in the end wine. The smells don’t last but I’d rather the process not happen or it be finished when I bottle. The Malvasia is microbially stable, and at the lower pH (higher acidity), there’s no Malo, so it’s more vibrant.
I just finished bottling the 2017 and when I bottled the Rosé it had gone through 100% Malo prior to the fermentation finishing. I whole cluster press. Also the pH of the grapes is different year to year and that affects the timing of Malolactic Fermentation in the tank and my control of the process.
Is sediment and a cloudy wine a positive or a negative for your customers? Are people ok with turbidity?
Yea, I was really concerned about that when we first launched. Now I’d say it’s a plus. Consumers are far more open to the idea of natural wines and prefer that, over filtered wine. People are better educated about the range of wine and my customers see it as a positive.
“Gushing”. Can you help me with that? Is unfiltered sparkling more likely to gush?
Yes. The other challenge with Pét Nat is the gushing. A lot of Pét Nat producers will disgorge the wine’s leesy sediment to remove the problem with “gushing”. But I really like the sediment. There’s a rawness, cellar aromatics, and freshness and all these great fermentation esters, and the reductive matchstick esters – you lose that if you disgorge. The way I do it is a little more challenging and gushing is more of a risk. So many brands say, we disgorge, and remove all the leesy particles and remove the problem. In my case we’re releasing 6 – 8 months after making so unlike with champagne – there isn’t a lot of time for the lees to do its creamy, textural and toasty thing. So I really like sediment.
Also, this is smaller batch wine production. With the way you mechanize the process, it’s hard to make much, so it’s pretty intense. I make about 350 cases of Malvasia and 30 cases of Magnum and I only make half of that – 175 cases – of the Rosé.
It’s funny. The first time I made Pét Nat with Malvasia, I was a rookie and with my first run I made 250 cases. Everyone else I’ve talked to since says – no – you start with small trials and then build from there. Not me. I went in big and fortunately, got lucky!!
Where do you get your grapes for Pét Nat?
I get my Pinot Noir in Mendocino. They have these fantastic 50-year old vines. My Malvasia grapes are from another fabulous grower in Suisun Valley – east of Napa. I’ve got three versions of Malvasia now – the grapes are so vibrant. I have to say – I’m so lucky. I have a fabulous community of growers* for all my wines – both the single-varietal Onward wines and the Farmstrong blends.
Sadly, I can’t source Onward Wines in Canada so tasting notes are sourced from Onward Wine’s website and tech sheet.
Pétillant Naturel Process for Onward Wines
- native yeast fermentation
- no sugar or other juice added
- wine is moved from tank to bottle by gravity
- hand- bottled
- un-disgorged (with sediment/lees)
- available in both 750mL and 1.5L magnums (MB only)
Malvasia Bianca Pétillant Naturel – $24 (U.S.) Appellation: Suisun Valley – between Howell Mountains and the Vaca Mountains
Alcohol: 12.1 % Vineyard: Capp Inn Ranch Grower: Brian and Rob Capp
Floral and fruity, but refreshingly bone-dry. Yeasty brioche notes and lively youthful freshness. To follow are notes of night blooming jasmine, citrus blossom, melon rind, warm Kaffir lime scones with preserved lemon…and a refreshing hint of sea air….and soft tiny delicate bubbles.
Rosé Pétillant Naturel – $30 (U.S.) Appellation: Redwood Valley, Mendocino
Alcohol: 12.1 % Vineyard: Hawkeye Ranch Grower: Johnson Family
Ripe summer berries, floral and citrus notes and is very alive! The opening aromatics explode from the glass, and are lively, fresh and mysterious. To follow are notes of strawberry fields, citrus blossom, warm brioche toast with lemon curd and juicy berries…and a refreshing hint of mint.