The state's next-gen vintners have more ingenuity than money, and they're changing California wine for the better.

By Betsy Andrews
April 02, 2020
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When Ryan Stirm started his eponymous label, he says, “I didn’t realize how unpopular Riesling would be.” But he was persistent. A cellar rat in Santa Barbara, Stirm flipped a fixer-upper there and, with the profits, was able to move to Santa Cruz and grow his coworking winery, Stirm Wine. Six years later, he’s fêted for his Riesling. Naturally fermented, unfiltered, and unfined, his old-vine wine from Cienega Valley has a heady guava nose, lush texture, and sly acidity. “I love that Riesling turns people off at first,” he says. “I find it so easy to change minds.”

Stirm, 32, embraces challenges. For Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, he’s practicing no-till dry farming, a rarity in plowed and irrigated California. “It’s jungly because I let weeds grow,” says Stirm. “But the results tell a different story.” (Acid, concentration, flavor.) “I’m trying to be a true minimalist, starting with less and making it better.”

Illustration by Abbey Lossing

That’s the mantra of California’s new producers. With little money but loads of ingenuity and an understanding of their impact both on wine drinkers and the earth, they’re diversifying California wine.

Strawberry-tart Mourvèdre, skin-fermented Chenin Blanc redolent of honey and Meyer lemon—Megan Bell, 29, makes low-intervention wines such as were once unheard of on the Central Coast. Bell launched Margins Wine on Kickstarter in 2016 and guides growers in emerging regions, like the Santa Clara Valley, through converting their vineyards, and she sources most of her obscure varieties from these growers. “My most important mission is getting more small farmers to farm organically,” she says.

Eschewing additives, says Gina Giugni, 28, “means you can only make wine as pure as your land.” South of San Luis Obispo, Giugni farms biodynamically to underpin her Old World–style foot treading and aging on the lees. Her Pinot Noir exhibits a Burgundian austerity; her Sauvignon Blanc boasts green-mango snap and mouthwatering salinity. Giugni’s next move will be a tasting room with her husband, Mikey, 32, the rising star behind the label Scar of the Sea. She sees her own brand, Lady of the Sunshine, as “a platform” to create wine that speaks of origin, which for her wines is the volcanic soil of the Edna Valley.

Miguel Lepe, 33, is just as dedicated to his appellation. Monterey’s first Mexican-American winemaker, he started Lepe Cellars in 2015 after working in wineries all over the state and in Chile. “From what I’ve seen, it all starts in the vineyard,” he says. “My parents worked in the fields. We gardened at home. You plant something, it’s going to be healthy as long as you take care of it properly.” Organic Zinfandel on its own rootstock, naturally fermented with just a touch of new oak; crisp, neutral-barrel Chardonnay—“I want to show that Monterey has potential for low-intervention, boutique wines.”

Lepe’s identity encourages new wine lovers. “I have a lot of Hispanic clientele. Traditionally we weren’t into wine, but when I tell my story of starting with nothing, they get excited.”

Identity also matters for Sonoma’s Corinne Rich, 29, and Katie Rouse, 32, who refer to themselves as “partners in life and winemaking” when pouring their Birdhorse Wines. “Queerness has to be a part of the conversation,” says Rich. “It’s empowering for young people to see there’s a seat at the table if they’re from a minority.”

Birdhorse makes wine for its generation: quaffable, minimalist, and gently priced. That’s led the winemakers to “fringe” grapes and vineyards. Sourced from the Suisun Valley east of Napa, their plummy Valdiguié smells of flowers and finishes bone-dry. Their Verdelho, from Contra Costa County, has a chalky minerality and pineapple-y zing.

In 2019, two years in, Birdhorse made just 350 cases of wine. Eventually, says Rich, “I’d love for us to go full-time with it.” For now, the two work day jobs at lauded Napa wineries—gigs that, a generation ago, would’ve set their career paths. Not today. “Napa Valley Cabernet isn’t going away. But newer winemakers are saying, ‘What else works well in California?’ We are challenging the norms.”