California native Martha Stoumen exudes warmth and joy, then bottles that adventurous, sunny spirit in her fun-loving, highly sought-after, natural wines.
An outspoken champion of transparent winemaking, Martha Stoumen Wines are taking Northern California in an exciting new direction with lower alcohol, fresh and beautifully balanced wines that shine a spotlight on the grapes and flavours of her preferred regions (Mendocino County, Contra Costa County, Suisun Valley).
Canadians are in for a rare treat. On November 19 & 20, Martha Stoumen will be pouring 5 of her natural wines at RAW WINE Montreal.
Hailing from Sebastopol, Sonoma County, Martha has just completed her 20th harvest and her 10th for Martha Stoumen Wines. She graduated from UC Davis with a Masters in Viticulture and Enology in 2010 and has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. Eight years of working harvests in Europe in dry-farmed, organic vineyards cemented her love of old-vine, traditional winemaking. She returned to California in 2014, convinced the best canvas for the pure, thoughtful and complex wines she wanted to make, was her own company.
Wine is an Agricultural Product
Martha is very clear about the core values underpinning her wines. Environmental responsibility, dry farming, minimal inputs and minimal-intervention guide her winemaking.
She’s happy to let nature’s beautiful complexity add flavours to her inspiring collection of wines.
Martha’s decision to farm and make wine in harmony with nature, respecting the environment and supporting responsible agricultural practices, has made her a leading voice for honest, transparent winemaking in California.
Those values and practices in a time of climate change, make Martha Stoumen Wines a perfect fit with the RAW WINE ethos.
Martha Stoumen is a NATURAL! Here’s our conversation:
AMR: How’s harvest going?
MS: It’s going well. It’s a very bizarre harvest as they all seem to be since 2017. We’re seeing some weather extremes and maybe that’s always been the case and I’m just paying more attention, but it’s more turbulent here for sure. We had a heat wave mid Sept/end of Sept….it’s all blending together now – where one (of the two) vineyard that I lease and dry farm had the heat clock in at 124 degrees Fahrenheit.
MS: Yea, it was a little crazy. And part of the vineyard with some of the younger vines that are less developed, some of the leaves actually looked like a burnt piece of paper, pulled from the fireplace.
That was unfortunate, but the vines that are more mature and have much more canopy to keep them protected are tasting wonderful. And then we had early rain so some of the fire risk was tamped down. And that was nice and such a welcome relief.
AMR: Any wildfire smoke come your way this year?
MS: No – nothing this year and that’s something we’re extremely grateful for. Again, going back to the 2017 harvest when the fires broke out, there was still fruit to be picked, so we’ve had smoke exposure over the years.
But we’re also learning a lot about smoke and we were probably more concerned than we needed to be. The smoke has to be quite close and fresh to actually affect the grapes.
I should add we also have a lot more tools out there. I have an app on my phone that alerts me to wild fires within the counties I source fruit from, and this – along with live wildfire cameras and wind pattern maps from the electricity company PG&E – means I can survey a bunch of vineyards at once, which helps me stay on top of smoke-related winemaking decisions.
AMR: Where are you located?
MS: I’m now based in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County and the shared production facility I make wine out of is in Sebastopol. But the majority of vineyards we work with are up in Mendocino County. I only ferment 1 – 3 tons of grapes from Sonoma County. I don’t work with much Pinot Noir and that’s becoming the de-facto grape here. I really love working with old vine vineyards that are dry farmed. At one time there were lots in Sonoma County. The good news is there’s still lots in inland Mendocino.
AMR: And this is your first foray into RAW WINE?
MS: Yea, this is my first RAW conference. I was working a harvest in the south of France and learned about Isabelle Legeron and knew about her interests and passions before her book was published and before the fairs. At the time, it was really expensive for me as a tiny, bootstrapped producer to participate. It didn’t make financial sense. RAW WINES are all about transparency and I think it’s important to talk about some of the financial considerations and trade-offs we have to make as producers. But now the time is right and I’m really excited to be participating.
AMR: Yes, I get it and totally appreciate your honesty. And why did you decide on Montreal?
MS: I work with a great distributor Oenopole and they said they’d love for me to come up. Quebec’s a really great market for us. We started working with Quebec first in Canada and they’ve helped build the market there.
But actually, both our Quebec and Ontario (Grape Witches) distributors do excellent work.
AMR: You have a really great video on your site that’s speaks to your values around winemaking. But you also focus on something called patient winemaking. Why should consumers care about patience?
MS: In winemaking, we have all this language for sustainability and craft and processes. I do feel, though, that we’re lacking a word that encompasses all those things. Slow food or slow wine is probably the closest thing but I think patience encompasses all of those ideas.
A lot of organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming involves more patience.
If we think about how these natural processes work…. if you’re using compost vs adding fertilizers which often come in a liquid form, that compost takes a long time to break down, and to be absorbed in the soil. It’s also a longer, more sustained way of feeding plants and soil vs a quick hit of nutrients which can lead to more microbial blooms for example.
So, this idea that good things come with time, I truly do believe that and it leads to less processing. And wine at its core, is made with microbes. It’s made through a natural process with the time-honoured process of fermentation. And then on the other side of that fermentation are all those chemical processes that happen with aging that usually involve small amounts of oxygen coming into contact with wine and slowly creating these reactions and flavours over time.
There are ways to rush making wine, but at the end of the day what are you giving up? And maybe you rush one thing and no one notices but if you’re constantly rushing what naturally occurs, then eventually the product just isn’t as good. Our economy doesn’t always favour patience – we live in a capitalist world – and producers just want to get products to market. But, over time, I worry about what’s lost.
Can I give you another example?
I grew up on a small apple farm and I loved eating all sorts of apples. And I grew up meeting people who had only ever eaten one type of mass-produced apple. And I just keep thinking how awful that would be. Same thing with tomatoes. And I think when we start eating these products out of season, how collectively we lose incredible sensory experiences.
I think many sensory experiences are at the core of being human and if a generation of people isn’t exposed to how good the thing can be – naturally grown grapes, or tomatoes or apples – then why would anyone in that generation put money, time or resources toward that thing.
AMR: I grew up in the Canadian prairies harvesting fruit and vegetables from my grandmother’s huge garden, so I get it. But it’s true, we have generations of consumers who only know running to the store to grab whatever’s available. So that sensory pleasure you’re describing for me is pure nostalgia. But who do you think is most receptive to that message now?
MS: I do think this patience message resonates with people hankering for nostalgia and who want to step off the treadmill and the fast pace of modern life. They’re probably the same people who are looking more locally to buy clothing or handmade goods.
But I think there’s also another larger group who’s interested in the natural wine culture – and while that’s different all over the world – in California, its rooted in sustainability.
Sustainability and sustainable values are highly important to this consumer group. But I think it’s also a kind of defiance and pushback toward big business and what wine and wine culture was in the U.S. for many years….. or maybe what our parents’ thought wine was.
So yeah, I’d say reverence toward the wine product and irreverence toward all the pomp and circumstance that has historically been associated with wine. I think that cultural shift is even more powerful …taking wine back, so it’s more for the average table. It’s more for week nights and more joyful and less about knowing everything there is to know about wines from around the world.
I think it’s about peeling back a lot of the cultural constructs around wine and I think that’s appealing to many natural wine lovers.
AMR: I’m reading the James Conaway trilogy on Napa which delves into the dynasties and wine empires and the impact that growth has had on the land and the region.
MS: A lot of that impact on the land is due to the farming practices.
But I also think about the cultural elements around terroir. I think about it a lot. The price of land here. Does Napa only grow Cabernet because land is too expensive to grow anything else, or is Cabernet truly the best grape for Napa because of soil and climate? In general, in California it feels like a bit of a battle to make wines that are really well made and a little less precious/affordable.
We’re creating a new model here in Sonoma. We have five winemakers who share the same facility and we don’t have a Disneyland-like estate. And we work with old farming families who are multigenerational and who have always just grown wine grapes. So, there are lots of exceptions to that big business model but it’s hard for smaller producers with the economic climate here.
While the Napa and Sonoma regions are different, they have more in common with one another than say, Mendocino, does with either of them. But, if we’re trying to differentiate categories, I think looking at winery size is more important than region. I always describe the California wine scene as David and Goliath. There’s been so much consolidation and it’s still happening where large companies are buying up medium sized wineries. We’re now at the point where there’s mostly very small wineries or very large businesses with multiple brands and I feel that’s where the dividing line is. And then I guess there’s a third group which is the elite Napa money which is small wineries with a huge resource bank behind them.
A lot of the smaller producers I speak with in Sonoma and up and down the California coast are often first generation. They’re making wines without as much make-up and definitely with a focus on organic farming. That’s the cultural cohort I know the best and we all share those natural wine or RAW wine values and practices.
AMR: Do you get push-back around certifications…. It can be a bit of a front burner issue here. Or is there a healthy foundation of trust that exists around claims?
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of trust here and it goes from the grower to the winemaker, the distributor and the retailer and really, everyone in that chain has to trust that everyone is doing their due diligence. Perhaps if we were bigger, certifications would be more important. But when you’re a small business, I’m the one who’s going to the vineyard and talking to the grower. I don’t have a grower relations manager. I’m the one making all the decisions in the winery and talking to the distributors. We’re up to 5 ¼ people, but that’s still pretty small and I know what’s going on everywhere. Are there people who don’t speak truthfully? Maybe, but for many, not getting certified comes down to the expense and the time it takes to do so as a small business.
It’s something I think about a lot, but as a longer-term goal. The more people who do it, the more pressure there is for organic and regenerative farming and if that can help move the needle, that’s great.
Post Flirtation Red (left) and being poured, Varietally Incorrect Zinfandel. Photo credit: Emma K. Morris
AMR: In your experience, what language – regenerative, organic, low intervention, biodynamic….natural – best helps consumers understand the thoughtfulness and stewardship that goes into farming?
MS: A good question, and one I’ve been trying to crack for a long time.
I wish I had a clear answer. I like regenerative, because it does consider the vineyard within its greater environment. I know when I talk about our small-scale organic farming practices, I’m essentially using organic and regenerative interchangeably. At a larger scale, though, organic farms may simply be swapping out organic sprays/products for conventional ones, without actually systemically changing the farming practices to consider the surrounding environment. For example, there’s this idea that the way you deal with pest pressure is to spray. Or the way you deal with weeds is to spray. You may be spraying with softer chemistry and with something that’s organic, but the end result is the same as with conventional vineyards.
And I want to say, it’s a good first step in the right direction.
But on the other hand, where I would like us to get to as land stewards, requires a paradigm shift. Instead of looking at it like it’s a problem, what are the benefits of having those other plants in the vineyard? Are they habitat for beneficial insects which out-compete vineyard pests?
So, looking at farming more holistically – as a system – which is kind of what biodynamic farming does. And what I like about regenerative farming, is it takes carbon and climate change into account, which is so important. When people ask me if we’re regenerative, I make sure to explain that one of our practices includes a little bit of tilling which is a main no-no in regenerative. But the reason we do that is because we dry farm our vineyards. So, it’s necessary. California is under extreme drought stress, and we’re not irrigating, so a little bit of tilling seems like a more responsible trade-off to me.
And there are trade-offs in farming. Anyone who tells you all their decisions are positive and have no negative effects, it’s just not true.
It’s about trying to get to a place where we are simulating what’s happening in nature. How can we look at our vineyards and try to push them as close as we can to a mature forest eco-system? Yes, this is a crop and we’re trying to produce something from it so there are going to be compromises, but what are the best decisions we can make?
Farming and nature are so incredibly complex and I think to constantly challenge our thinking around what best practices are, is really important. And if we don’t have a solution today, maybe that’s because we haven’t searched hard enough. Maybe that’s my stubbornness kicking in. And when people say that’s not possible it’s because we haven’t spent enough time on the problem.
AMR: With all this extreme weather and the impacts of Climate Change, are you thinking about changing up your varietal selection?
MS: A lot of exciting things are happening in viticulture – there’s renewed interest in hybrid grapes and new research on traditional grape breeding. But for me, it’s not about how we tend to the same grapes, the same growing practices, the same trellising, but how do we think from the ground up and how do we make our vineyards more resilient.
AMR: Where are you in that process?
MS: When I started making wine, I was specifically looking at grapes that were/are more heat tolerant, and vineyards that were planted on drought tolerant rootstocks.
But also, what are the vinifera grapes that have the least mildew pressure? Hotter areas don’t typically have the same disease pressure but my goal there was to ensure fewer chemical inputs.
So, I started looking at Nero d’Avola. It’s a great grape (from Sicily) …. heat loving, loose cluster, I love the flavour, it doesn’t need to be sprayed. Or, if it does, you use soft chemistry and not very often. It also has great tannin and acidity so if you’re in a camp where you don’t want to add anything in the winery – those are great natural preservatives in wine – so kinda looking at that whole line of thought.
We also grow Negroamaro – also from southern Italy. And while I love the grape – and I’ll continue making wine with what we have – it’s not doing all that well with big diurnal shifts. We have very intense diurnal now. We can go from 50 degrees overnight to 100 degrees during the day and Negroamaro doesn’t like that kind of shift.
So, with climate change and more extreme weather, I need to get a little more fine-tuned in my analysis. Plus, resilience isn’t just about hot or cold, but resilient to big swings in moisture and dryness. Drought is obviously a huge concern in California.
And then, another strategy is just a good old douse of diversity, so looking at grapes that ripen at different times, with different characteristics. In the winery I’ve started doing more blends – which I’ve always done – and now I produce more non-vintage wines as a way to become more climate resilient. Climate change makes it difficult to produce a single vintage, single vineyard, single varietal wine every year, but I can usually make a great wine within two of the three of those constraints. So, if I want to showcase a specific parcel and a specific varietal, I may make a non-vintage wine, like our Bricarelli Ranch Negroamaro Rosato. Or if I want to highlight a vintage and vineyard, it may be a blend of varietals.
I’ve also thrown all categories out the window and made non-vintage, non-AVA wines from a blend of what I’ve got in the cellar. Flexibility in the cellar is a key way to be able to continue making natural wines and still make something delicious despite what climate change throws our way.
AMR: Wow – lots to consider when you add Climate Change into the winemaking mix.
MS: It’s true. In some respects, I would equate wine to fashion. It is very quick to change, but growing grapes…. it’s a big, long-term investment. To plant a new vineyard or graft something over, to make the wine and age the wine. Any change is a slow progression. And it takes a while to learn how different grapes and different areas react.
I would just add, everything we do behind the scenes, we’re trying to do and communicate better so our customers can just focus on enjoying the wine, knowing they’re supporting a sustainable product. We’re trying to be clear and transparent so they can make an informed decision in a quick minute and then just enjoy the wine.
AMR: And what will you be pouring in Montreal?
MS: Yes! I’m so excited! We’ve got a great lineup:
Our Post Flirtation Red, which offers a fresher take on a very classic California wine – Zinfandel and Carignan. The 2021 vintage also contains some Pinot Noir after our Carignan was badly frosted. All grapes are from old-vine, dry-farmed vineyards.
Our 2021 Post Flirtation White – is a white blend from two different regions in California – slightly salty, bright, and a coastal feeling.
Our 2021 Post Flirtation Rosé is primarily is primarily Zinfandel with a touch of aged Vermentino for added texture. All of our Post Flirtation wines are joyous, easy to drink – more young drinking blends of different varieties and in proximity of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Contra Costa Counties.
We also have our 2021 Ricetti Vineyard Carignan in our lineup. In my mind, single vineyard old-vine Carignan is California’s answer to Cru Beaujolais – it has similar weight and goes with almost anything on the table. Ricetti is a particularly stunning old-vine Carignan vineyard.
To close out the experience, we’re also pouring our 2018 Nero d’Avola which is structured and age-worthy, and we are one of only a couple of California producers of the grape!
Feature Image – Chad Kirkland Photography
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