Why is it so hard to envision the natural wine movement taking root in Napa Valley? Maybe it’s the prohibitively expensive land already bought up by beverage biz conglomerates and billionaires with retirement hobbies. Or the expectation of Old California big boy Cabs and Chards that edge out an idiosyncratic hope of the small and funky to flower. Or the ’90s-style consumptive luxury that still attracts generic tourists who want their classic Valley experience. With Napa Valley being headquarters to commercial American winemaking and its corresponding iconography, it’s probably a combination of those things.
But thanks to Outland, a tasting room in Downtown Napa, the hope for a nouveau Napa experience isn’t so outlandish after all. It’s the outpost for three local, small-production winemakers: Farella, Poe Wines, and Forlorn Hope Wines. With its white walls, Eames chairs, and wide windows, this breezy space looks a bit like a stylishly furnished spaceship. It’s approachable, relaxed, and youthful—a palate cleanser from the Italianate gaucheness that still has a stronghold on many of these neighboring storefronts and tasting rooms.
“We’re a little step away from the dominant paradigm of producers here, and it affords our guests something that’s pretty unique,” says Natalie Dulaney, director of operations and disarmingly delightful tour guide through Outland’s ombre of natural-ish wines from all over Northern California.
Outland’s strength in avoiding those Napa clichés while welcoming all manner of drinkers is to make small-production wines of varying gradients of obscurity unintimidating and fun to explore. You can stay safe, or you can go wild. Try the 2015 Poe Chardonnay, which saw no new oak and feels clean and fresh. Taste the Forlorn Hope 2016 Dragone Ramato, a translucent rubine that gives way to the scent of opening those continental breakfast packs of strawberry jam but brings you back to real fruit with an irresistible tannic pucker. Farella’s 2013 Estate Merlot tastes timeless and full of contradictions, like a clean cloud of smoke or fruit flavor without the sugar, just the spirit of a berry.
“Our agenda is to provide excellent wine that tastes great, and just happens to have mindful attention to being responsible,” says Dulaney. “Our winemakers aren’t throwing all sorts of unnecessary things into their wines or their land.” Perhaps we shouldn’t call Outland a natural wine tasting room, but it is one of the best places to take a full spectrum of palates and please each with refined takes on unfined juices. There’s something here to make everybody happy, and that’s shaping up to be the attraction of Downtown Napa these days. It’s fresh but not oppositional, not anti-establishment. Sprudge spoke with Dulaney about Outland’s collaborative model, the profiles of each of its producers, and why we should keep our eyes on Downtown Napa.
What sort of people walk in off of the street? Are they surprised? This is definitely a different style of winemaking than anywhere else you could just walk into in the area.
I’d say our general daily demographic is split down the middle. About 50 percent of the guests come in because they know one of the three producers already, and none of those producers have had a place to go and try the wines in the past. Someone will go to a restaurant in New York and try Forlorn Hope wine for the first time, get excited about it, go to the website, and see [that] this is where they can go to taste more. That’s very new before this past year; we’ve only been open just over a year.
The other half, they don’t quite know what they’re getting into, and it’s fun! We get some walk-by traffic; we are in a bit of a fishbowl. People look in, wave, see that we have the list of offerings up on the wall. They’ll either have heard of one of the producers before or they’ll stop in because something on the list strikes them, and it’s fun to tell the story because all three producers are so small and it’s usually a chance to get them to try something new and off the beaten path. They’re definitely not for everyone; some of the wines more than others. It’s exciting to see them get to try something so unique.
Could you triage the three of them, from the wildest to the most refined?
Absolutely. Farella is 100 percent estate. They purchased land in 1977 and everything comes from grapes on their property in Coombsville, three miles directly east [of Downtown Napa]. If you’re coming to Napa and you’re liking the wines from the Valley and that’s what you’re used to, that’s where I’d lead you. They use those traditional grape varieties: the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Merlot, the more robust grapes people are used to. But all three producers definitely fall in that line of minimal intervention. They all three really try to not influence the wines with outside additives. That’s one of the reasons they came together. Tom Farella does not fine or filter any of this red wines. You’ll see a good amount of sediment. They may be quite different than the very streamlined Napa Cabernets or Merlots. For example, he doesn’t use any new oak whatsoever on his Merlot. It’s definitely going to have more fruit-forward, rather than baking-spice aromas most people would be used to with Napa Valley Merlot. His Sauvignon Blanc: it’s stainless-steel aged, and 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc. There’s no additional weight added to the wine that I think has become common practice with the fumé styles. He is still a little bit set apart from Napa producers, but would be where I’d lead someone if they were like, “Yeah, I love those Napa Cabs!”
Second in line, I’d take them to Poe. Owner Samantha [Sheehan] makes absolutely stunning representations of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Classic varieties, but what she does is unique. She seeks out the coolest climate vineyard sites she can find in Northern California: way out on the coast, higher-elevation vineyard sites are very fog-influenced. She was heavily influenced by the wines of Champagne and Burgundy, so I wouldn’t say she’s trying to emulate that style, but she definitely pays homage to it. Her wines tend to be significantly lower in alcohol than the comparable wines from those vineyard sites or other Sonoma producers. She does not fine or filter her Pinot Noirs either, so you’ll see a little more sediment, a little more haziness to them. She doesn’t want to strip out any of that beautiful flavor, but she harvests earlier. In her Chardonnays, it’s very apparent—the antithesis of oaky, round, buttery. If someone uses those descriptors for the types of Chardonnays they like, I will explain to them [that] this will probably be a Chardonnay unlike any you’ve had before, because they are much lighter. She has a very deft hand with the oak she uses. It’s used more to soften the wine, not to impart any additional flavor. She doesn’t inoculate for malolactic fermentation. She wants that high-acid, that minerality, more of that bright citrus note. They are unique for the wines of this area but are still familiar varieties where people will still stay safe trying them.
And then you get to the Forlorn Hope wines, which are definitely the adventurous wines. They’re more fun, playful varieties you’ve never heard of before. Because they want to find such unique grape varieties to work with and focus on those heritage, pre-Prohibition grapes that people brought over and are slowly starting to replant and cultivate, Forlorn Hope looks all over the place for grapes. They use winemaking techniques that many people are not familiar with. They’re more than likely not familiar or don’t realize the impact that new oak has on their wines, especially their red wines. Matthew [Rorick, the winemaker] doesn’t use any new oak whatsoever in his winemaking. It’s maybe not as apparent in the whites because people have had a white wine without oak influence before, but very few people have had a red wine that sees no new oak, especially in the new world. It’s like, “Oh, these are tart! I’m not used to a red wine that’s tart. What the heck is Picpoul?” The people who want to try his wines are really looking for something new and different. Or they come in here because they’ve had one of his wines before and really liked it.
Does Outland consider itself a natural wine purveyor, or does it just happen to be natural-focused?
More the latter. We just happen to have producers that really follow natural winemaking philosophies and techniques. I don’t think you could fully throw Poe or Farella in the natural hat. They still occasionally inoculate for fermentation; they will occasionally fine the wines; they’re not as set very much in that natural winemaking practices as part of who they are. They utilize them very often, but I wouldn’t say that’s the dogma. We are three different wineries, and two of them utilize a lot of similar techniques but that’s not their defining characteristic. All three came together because they very much feel similarly about following many of those practices, but Forlorn Hope would be the leader on the natural wine side.
When you’re getting into natural wine, you start to realize it’s a lot harder to access. It’s not like conventional wine because you can’t just go to this multimillion-dollar estate in California and try some stuff for 30 bucks. It seems to me like the Outland model is kind of an anomaly with natural-leaning styles of wine in Napa and Sonoma.
I would agree, and I won’t claim to be an expert in the natural wine movement. I was a wine buyer for restaurants for many years before I moved to the winery side—that’s where I was introduced to it, and I found it to be a very polarizing topic. I saw a lot more examples of it from the Old World, especially those smaller lesser-known wine regions. It was more a novelty item, and this is going to sound disparaging but it’s not meant to be, but it was what the hipsters were drinking at the hipster wine bars, especially in New York. I started to get an understanding of it, but it is still the exception here in Napa and Sonoma. It’s the small boutique producers who don’t have the facilities and the big estates. There are a lot more every year coming up, and a lot more young upstart winemakers who are producing that way, who are using hands-off minimal intervention techniques that follow a lot of natural principles. It’s the exception. You have to seek them out or know that wine bar or retailer to go to who will then recommend where to go.
Downtown Napa is interesting to me because it feels like the place that probably has retail-wise maybe a smaller barrier for entry than St. Helena or Yountville.
Yes, I would agree. Downtown Napa’s really having a bit of a renaissance. It’s really fun to watch it grow and see where it’s going. I see more and more of these restaurants or bars being started by young professionals, people in our age range, who have a lot of those very similar beliefs. Take the women at Cadet, who are doing something awesome and really carrying a breadth of wines you don’t see left and right in Napa Valley. Same can be said for the boys at Compline: offering those wines at the lower starting point from places you’ve probably never heard of. How often do you try a Blaufränkisch when you’re in Napa Valley? They have it by the glass! They have some of those natural producers as well. The same can be said about the Back Room Wine Shop. They don’t carry any large big box names. All their producers are on the smaller side. They’re more boutique, or maybe don’t have the big showplaces. I see a more global perspective here in the Downtown area than you might find in St. Helena or Yountville, and it’s exciting because it’s a good eye-opening experience for a lot of people and one of the reasons why the three owners chose to have the tasting room down here.
Do you get a sense that there is a burgeoning wave of people in the Valleys looking to make wine this way, using a cooperative model, or does it feel like you are the only ones out here doing it?
There is this whole awesome new wave of young winemakers that are using that cooperative movement, using a small production model, and making wines the way they want to make them. People are realizing that you don’t have to be limited by not having the big estate, or having your own winemaking facility. There are no limitations now, where you can make wine, grow wine, source grapes from. If you’re passionate and you want to figure out a way to make it, there’s a way to do it. I see more and more people starting their own labels and making their own wines, following that boutique Les Garagistes model that started in parts of France—the little guys. The upstart wine movement is here, and you’re going to see a lot more over and over from small producers you’ve probably never heard of that are coming out and making fun things that are unique and different and new, and using minimal intervention.
The natural movement saw a bit of a pendulum swing when it was first introduced to the world. It was way off to one side, and some of those wines were very polarizing—introducing orange wine with a lot of funk. This is my personal opinion so don’t take it as gospel here, but it was very polarizing when it first came out. Now people are starting to understand it, and the wines—while still being natural—are made in a way that’s more accessible to a larger audience. You don’t have to be a sommelier or a wine professional to understand or enjoy them. Our demographic is eating foods with less sugar, with fewer additives—clean eating. All of those things coincide with this natural wine movement. So people are looking for that sweeter profile; they’re not looking for that big, high alcohol, oak influence as much. Our palates are changing a little bit. It’s leaving room for more of these new styles.
It’s cool to see it happen in Napa and Sonoma, because of course people are getting grapes from all over all the time, but it’s so expensive and already bought up that I’m excited people can come and have different experiences with wine—versus what they think of as Old California.
The great thing now is that wine has become less of a commodity, and more of an everyday thing people want to enjoy. There are so many online retailers and wine clubs, and these master sommeliers that are starting mailing clubs and daily stores. It’s following that European model, that it’s part of everyday life, especially for this newer generation of wine drinkers coming in. It’s part of that daily purchase, so there is that opportunity for these smaller producers to come in and join a party because the demand is there. There is that market for people who want to know and see the hands-off minimal intervention producers, more than there ever was.
Photos courtesy of Outland Wines.
Dylan Tupper Rupert is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Rookie, the Guardian, MTV News, Billboard, and the Pitchfork Review.