Martha Stoumen Is a Champion for Natural Wines—and Women Winemakers

Her low-intervention approach is helping redefine California wine.

Martha Stoumen
Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee

From the eye-catching labels on her bottles by Oakland, California–based artist Carolynn Haydu to her wines' cheeky names and terroir-specific, thought-provoking contents, Martha Stoumen is challenging wine orthodoxy in California. An advocate for women winemakers and a frequent collaborator outside the wine space—consider her wine-beer hybrid with Chicago's Middle Brow—most recently she's been dreaming up ways to turn a fermentation gone sideways into a low-ABV hard seltzer and, of course, releasing her latest batch of wines.

F&W: How do you describe your wines? And what's your take on natural wines overall?

MS: Natural winemaking is really kind of a behind-the-scenes technique; it's not necessarily a finished category that you drink from. Mostly I hope people understand my wines just by drinking them; I hope that they feel like they're classic expressions as well. My approach is low intervention, but I feel the wines themselves bring a lot of joy and are ageworthy, too. Plus, I really like to make wines that are multidimensional—they may have some tannin, but also acidity and a freshness that can go throughout the year with a wide range of foods.

F&W: Do you get any resistance from the California old guard about what you're doing?

MS: A little, yes. A few years ago, I was at a trade fair that was taking place in Napa—people selling barrels, stuff like that—and the crowd was mostly older. And I remember talking to an older gentleman who was just not into natural wine at all; he kind of hated the scene and hated the term and gave me a lot of pushback. Since that time, though, I haven't had as much interaction with those people. I would love to continue the dialogue. It's similar to politics—when you sit down with somebody and have a long conversation, and you realize you certainly have areas where you disagree, and they're good to talk about, but you actually have more in common than might be expected.

F&W: What is something you're learning right now and something you're teaching?

MS: Not growing up in the wine industry, I've had to try and figure out a lot on my own, and thankfully there have been people who have been very open with me [Stoumen is in an ongoing online forum for women winemakers and has also worked at COS in Sicily and Broc Cellars in California, among others]. So with any and all information I can share, I say, let's do it. Let's make this wine industry a place where the barriers to entry are fewer: for women, people of color, and more. I'm also trying to figure out how small businesses afford health insurance; for instance, collective bargaining, as an industry—how can we work on that? How can we create a more equitable system for everybody involved in this business?

Wines to Try

2018 Martha Stoumen Negroamaro Rosato ($42)

One of the wines Stoumen ages longest before release—unusual for a rosé—this is made with fruit from Benson Ranch, which Stoumen leases and dry farms. It's a rosé for fall, with cranberry notes and well-balanced acidity.

2019 Martha Stoumen Young Vines Venturi ($38)

Stoumen blends three clones of Zinfandel with a touch of Vermentino (a white variety, which gives a lift to the flavors) for this plummy, tea leaf–scented red. Like all of her red wines, it is aromatic and can take a bit of a chill.

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