California natural wine fans came out in droves for this year’s edition of Brumaire (or at least those lucky enough to score a ticket). Beyond sold out and packed to the gills, the festival is now in its third year, founded by the Brumaire Steering Committee of Bradford Taylor, Josh Eubank, Matt Coelho and Quinn Kimsey-White. Around the fest itself, which happens yearly on Daylight Savings at the Starline Social Club in Oakland, orbits a solar system of joyful, international inebriation before and after the big event. It is among the funnest weekends of the year to live in California and love natural wine.
One of Brumaire’s strengths and a part of its mission is to set a stage for California natural winemakers. There's typically just a few California makers pouring each year at the natural wine fairs in Europe; here they take center stage in from of a group of their peers, both natural (the attendees) and international (the visiting winemakers). The West Coast's cadre of natural winemakers is growing fast; events like this are important for newcomers, while reminding those of us who live here to not forget what we’ve got. Another strength is the event's particularly intimate format: the roster is comparatively small to other wine fairs, and Brumaire only invites winemakers (as opposed to their importers or brand ambassadors) to pour wines at the event. As a result, mixed in with some exciting young winemakers making their debut were well-known wine celebrities like Raj Parr and Frank Cornelissen, all pouring together on the same floor of the same fair. You may have many thousands of Instagram followers, or be a relative unknown—here it's the wine that matters.
I'd change one thing, really, about this year's festival, and that is to address its depressingly low percentage of women winemakers. Including couples and winemakers who weren’t present (but whose wines were), women made up just 20% of the participants this year. That's a step up from last year, when the overall ratio was 10%. Let's see that ratio continue to rise as this event grows and continues to establish itself as an essential American natural wine fair.
And now, in no particular order—some of my favorite sips and splashes from Brumaire 2018. This list is by no means authoritative, but rather a personal expression of my favorite tastes at the show.
The Georgians were out in full-force this year and were pouring stellar wines across the board. Ramaz Nikoladze poured one of his own bristly and beautiful orange wines made from Tsolikouri as well as two of Iago Bitarishvili’s Chinuris: one with skin contact, one without. These Chinuris from Iago’s Wines, the name of his label, are solid, bright, delicious wines that always remind me of the aftertaste of a tomato. John Okro was pouring his wines including the first Georgian wine I ever tasted, his gorgeous and citrusy skin-contact Mtsvane.
Chateau de Béru
Chablis producer Athénaïs de Béru poured a long lineup of beautiful wines, but I fell hard for a few. The Béru estate has been operating in Chablis for 400 years and de Béru’s current lineup of chardonnays are excellent and dense, with savory, almost broth-like flavors. My favorite was her Epineuil Pinot Noir which made my mouth tingle and my heart flutter; tulips, sunshine, pencil lead, and magic.
Sheep farmer and Beaujolais icon, Julie Balagny’s 2015s live up to the reputation of both the vintage and the winemaker. Balagny's 2015 Fleurie —dubbed “seXappeal”—is true to its name, a big and lush and interwoven wine, with electrified cherries and gravel. Her 2016 wines from Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent are no less dreamy; these are florid and swoony red wines that create their own gravity in your mouth. As I was tasting these wines, all I could think was, “When can I drink these again?” That question was answered two hours later when I returned to Balagny’s table to help finish off the remaining bottles as the fair was winding down.
Miguel Avinyo of Clos Lentiscus shares the quality of boundless energy with his wines. Pouring and talking about wine for five straight hours (in the middle of a long weekend of partying) is exhausting, but Avinyo was joyfully retelling the same stories all day. His family’s estate is in Penedès and is most well-known for their sparkling wines but the still Xarel.lo, “Perill Blanc,” was the one I enjoyed most at Brumaire. It gets two weeks of skin contact, and is made without added sulfur, yet strikes a refined balance while maintaining loads of charisma. Pour this for someone who's never had natural wine before.
A (recently) former assistant of La Garagista’s Deirdre Heekin debuted her wines at Brumarie. That would be winemaker, Vermont vineyard manager, California native, and general badass Krista Scruggs, under her new ZAFA Wines label. Her wines are not wines, they’re more. Of the five things she poured at Brumaire, only one of them was made entirely from grapes. These brand-new, hand-carried-in-a-car-across-the-USA, bottled-for-the-event offerings from ZAFA contain Vermont hybrid grape varieties co-fermented with foraged apples. She works with skin contact for both the apples and the grapes, and the resulting juice positively vibrates with tannic and phenolic energy. I know of only a few other producers making apple and grape co-fermentations (Art & Science and Hiyu in Oregon, Aaron Burr in New York) and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things to drink. Scruggs’ wines show off some of the endearing quirks of hybrids and natural ciders alike, with their turn-the-volume-all-the-way-up fruit flavors and a scooch of wildness.
There were several exciting wines from the Pacific Northwest. Joe Swick, when he wasn’t wandering around tasting the wines of his peers (don’t worry, he had an assistant pouring in his stead), was pouring one of my favorite wines from the 2017 vintage yet: Only Zuul. This rosé is a Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer co-ferment that tastes like twangy roses and cranberries. Lately I’ve been looking at my fridge and wishing that it was full of Only Zuul instead of leftovers and condiments. Jesse Skiles of Fausse Piste, professional food nerd turned professional wine nerd, was also bringing his A-game at Brumaire. He was pouring, among others, his Muscat pet-nat, “Fish Sauce,” and a GSM blend called “MSG.” Skiles has the uncanny ability to eke umami out of grapes that don’t normally swing that way.
Sonoma Mountain Winery
Nic Coturri’s Sonoma Mountain Winery Chardonnay did the opposite of Fausse Piste’s Muscat and teased out poetry in aromatics from your mom’s favorite grape. Each of the wines being poured by N. Coturri were engaging and surprising but the Chardonnay made me eyes pop as my afternoon was getting a little hazy. Across the board, the wines coming out of papa Tony Coturri’s family of brands—which include the Côtes des Cailloux, Sonoma Mountain Winery, and Caleb Leisure labels—are elegant and exciting, but these Sonoma Mountain Winery wines are distinctly their own thing.
Anders Frederek Steen
Denmark-born former Noma sommelier Anders Frederek Steen’s wines have always drawn me in the same way: their names. In the past I’ve had wines called “Moonologue” and “Don’t Throw Plastic in the Ocean, Please” that stunned and surprised me. In Oakland he was pouring a funky rosé called “The Artist Formerly Known as Peach” and a singy white-red blend called “Let’s Eat the World We Want to Live in.” The wines are delicious and interesting, but there is a linguistic, intellectual hook through the names that can't be ignored. These wines were highly photographed and talked about at Brumaire.
Vin de France
Adam Vourvolis of @Natural_whine Instagram and parody t-shirt “fame” and winemaker Mikey Giugni of Scar of the Sea paired up to make my favorite Merlot in recent memory, along with a couple other bangers under the name Vin de California. I wrote down “charismatic, licorice & herby clouds of happiness” and then I got reprimanded by a colleague for drinking it from the bottle. When in Rome, right?
Jenny Eagleton is a freelance writer and wine professional based in the Bay Area. Read more Jenny Eagleton for Sprudge Wine.