On a cold and rainy afternoon, I’m winding my way northwest along the sinuous highway 128 in northern California, direction Mendocino, overlooking lush green fields and woody scrub on my way to meet with Lisa Bauer, owner of Yamakiri Wines and Sin Eater ciders. Our rendezvous is at the Yorkville Market, a low slung red building in, not surprisingly, Yorkville, California. While not officially a tasting room, the wine bar serves many of the Yamakiri wines and Sin Eater ciders by the glass.
I find Bauer busy in the kitchen instead of behind the bar, preparing the monthly First Friday Dinner—a community dinner for approximately 60. It soon becomes clear that having many irons in the fire runs deep in Bauer’s DNA, as does community.
Bauer studied philosophy at Ohio’s Oberlin College before heeding the call of the Californian coast.
“I was a garagiste for 20 years,” says Bauer, explaining her long connection to brewing and fermentation. As a hobbyist winemaker and brewer, Bauer’s path was roundabout. “It’s very circuitous, but I got into it through herbs,” she says, adding that a series of health problems when she was younger got her deeply into herbs, their study, and use. “And then I kind of got more interested in fermentation. And that kind of lead me to beer, and that kind of lead me to wine.”
Her professional career took a most intriguingly different route from her personal interests. Before retiring, Bauer had spent the best part of her life in waste management, with the last 20 years as the Campus Recycling and Refuse Manager at the University of California, Berkeley. When she found an abandoned vineyard that she was motivated to revive, her former career became a link. “I am looking at this abandoned vineyard, and it’s kind of another form of recycling, right?” she says as she pours the first of her white wines, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Mendocino Ridge AVA. This AVA—also known rather poetically as Islands in the Sky—is the only non-contiguous AVA in the United States, unique in that it is defined solely by elevation.
After initially buying land in the Yorkville Highlands nine years ago, Bauer only moved here permanently three years ago, and thus began the story of Yamakiri. To help transition from dilettante to professional, Bauer enlisted the help of seasoned winemaker Alex Crangle, who when he’s not working for Bauer, is assistant winemaker at Balo (less than a mile up the road from Yamakiri’s rented crush pad in Philo) and Angel Camp Vineyard. “We do a lot of collaboration, but I would never take credit for it,” Bauer says. “He is the one that actually makes good wine.”
While Bauer may not consider herself a professional winemaker, her knowledge and understanding is vast. The name Yamakiri is Japanese for “foggy mountain.” Bauer asserts the influence of the late Japanese farming icon Masanobu Fukuoka on Yamakiri, and his cultishly influential book, The One-Straw Revolution, which she first read in college.
“He would look at my Sauvignon Blanc vineyard and be like ‘Oh, I got it.’ I mow, sometimes, and prune, and that’s it. No water, no fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, anything,” Bauer says. “I don’t till, I don’t do anything, because I’m completely dry-farmed. I’m not breaking the crust of the soil, because I don’t want to lose the moisture. That’s very Fukuoka.”
Farming in an unconventional way can come at a cost, but Bauer is committed to producing affordable and authentic wines. “I don’t insist on certified organic or biodynamic,” Bauer says. “Because if I did…it would cost me four to five dollars [more per] bottle.” Increasing the prices by that much isn’t realistic for Bauer’s business model, which is less concerned about certification than cultivating a relationship with the people who drink her wine.
But Bauer doesn’t just make wine. Under the Sin Eater label she also produces cider, like the 2017 Traditional, using quince from her garden as well as a dazzling and rambunctious dry-hopped (Amarillo and Citra) version, a perry, and an Albariño blend.
Another take on Fukuoka’s holistic principles and sustainability is the way Bauer thinks about her wine after it’s made. “I really wanted to do just keg wine,” she says, acknowledging that doing so ran the risk of misperception. “Unfortunately, in this country, kegs mean garbage wine,” she says. But with an indomitable spirit, Bauer continues to sell her wine locally and to the Bay Area in kegs.
Bauer works in a male-dominated industry, and one that often skews young. But her wisdom and experience give her a particularly unique perspective when it comes to issues of sexism, and she is a force to be reckoned with.
“I don’t get catcalled,” Bauer quips. “If you think they’re sexist in the wine industry, you have no idea…they’re all pea-brained garbage men,” she says, referencing her time in the waste sector. But Bauer has not allowed this to temper her resolve. “It’s not age, it’s my attitude. Do I look like I suffer fools?” She says. “I’m incredibly fortunate. I don’t need this for a living. I’m retired. This is fun. So when it ceases being fun, I will excoriate somebody before I put up with that.”
Bauer is open and honest about the realities of her industry. Referencing a recent article in the LA Times about the majority of grape pickers in California, Bauer says, “This is such a perception industry, I don’t see a lot of honesty, and a lot of candor.”
Unfortunately, this holds the industry back, she says. “There’s a huge disparity between workers and owners. Huge, massive… It’s the money and not money, and it falls very much, unfortunately, along racial lines. I’d love to see more writing on that. It’s time, we’re a mature enough industry. Don’t you think it’s time to start?”
While many winemakers have a long-term plan, Bauer is a little more spontaneous.
“You’re asking something that I don’t do, which is have a very distinct five-year game plan,” she says. “I have threatened to distill!”
But after mulling over the question for a bit, Bauer adds that she’s gearing up to plant Arneis and Nebbiolo.
“That’s where we’re headed, climate wise,” she says. “I’m planting for 10 years in the future.” Then she reverses herself. “I don’t have any long-term plans. The point is to have fun.” And somehow this irreverent and lighthearted attitude seems perfectly in keeping with challenging the status quo so dear to Fukuoka.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Luc Revel is an advocate of honest winemaking. He is based in the Puget Sound and works in the fields of architecture, photography and writing.