Spiritualized: The Making of Martha Stoumen
April 28, 2021 — There are certain places where the English language falls short. Wine is such a place. How to describe its aroma? No English speaker seems to know. So we un-crumple our grocery lists and recite fragrant produce items. Texture words, too, are scarce. Likening wine to sandpaper — is this really the best we can do?
It’s fitting then that Martha Stoumen, a native Californian and one of the country’s most celebrated winemakers, is equally difficult to put into words. There’s really no simple way to describe her mix of intensity and ease, brio and grace. If wisdom is what redeems us when we’re old and weary, then Martha, it would seem, has jumped the line.
Martha grew up in Sebastopol in the heart of Sonoma County, which makes her path to wine notably circuitous. As an undergraduate at UCLA pursuing a dual degree in environmental studies and geography, she became fascinated by food systems. For this she credits her professor Judith Carney — author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World” — who instilled in her the foundational idea that food was part of a broader sphere of human activity, shaped by social, economic and political forces.
After college, Martha moved to Tuscany to work on a small agricultural estate and learning center. She harvested grains, cared for animals and tended an olive grove, an experience that granted deeper resonance to everything she’d come to believe in. The estate also included a vineyard — and while Martha didn’t make any wine during her stay, the vines — and the communal, almost devotional activities they seemed to inspire — mesmerized her. As a Californian, she’d always seen wine as a commercial good, detached from nature and community — yet here it was a vital part of a wild, buzzing landscape. It was food; it was life.
The winemaker in January, 2020. Photo by Elizabeth Cecil.
By the time Martha returned home to Sonoma, awe had resolved itself into determination: she was going to learn how to make wine. So she immediately set out in search of a winery position, an endeavor that could have been complicated by the fact that she’d never actually set foot in a winery. But Martha possessed a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of wine thanks to her undergraduate studies and farming background — and within a few weeks, she’d landed her first job in production. She was off to the races.
There are two archetypal paths to becoming a winemaker in America: the first is academic — the pursuit of wine as a scientific and commercial enterprise, often in a classroom. The second is vocational — a blend of cultural immersion and on-the-job-training, in which the aspiring winemaker seeks mentorship around the world, often pinging between the northern and southern hemispheres to squeeze in two harvests per year. Over the better part of the next decade, Martha would pursue both paths simultaneously — her second double degree — earning a master’s in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, while apprenticing under pioneers like Reinhard Löwenstein (Heymann-Löwenstein) in the Mosel, Clive Dougall (Seresin Estate) in Marlborough, and Didier Barral (Domaine Leon Barral) in Languedoc-Roussillon.
However, it was Sicilian winemaker Giusto Occhipinti of COS who provided the blueprint for what would later become Martha Stoumen Wines. It was food systems applied to natural wine — a holistic and compassionate approach to farming, production and business. Sure, Giusto’s wines spoke of Sicily, but they also spoke of Giusto, reflecting his spirit of imagination and play.
Since 2014, Martha has been producing wine under her own label, working out of a shared facility in Sebastopol, just a few miles from where she grew up. Of all her wines, the one that consistently stands out for me is her Venturi Vineyard Carignan — sourced from a quartz-flecked riverbed in Mendocino, a former tributary of the Russian River. The wine is elegant in the way nature is elegant. A beauty that feels more observed than imagined. “Rocks and moon dust,” she says.
Owning vineyards isn’t an option for most young winemakers working in America today — which is to say, without trust and shared values, wines like Martha’s couldn’t exist. For example, her Venturi Vineyard Carignan is born from her partnership with Larry Venturi, a dyed-in-the-wool Mendocino rancher whose family has been farming grapes in and around the town of Calpella, just south of Redwood Valley, since his grandfather arrived from Tuscany in 1917.
But far from bemoaning this reality, Martha sees these intergenerational, intercultural relationships as the bedrock of California wine. So she invests in them — much like a producer in the Loire Valley would be wise to invest in an inherited plot of vines.
At the winery with husband, Jon, and son, August. Photo by Elizabeth Cecil.
Late in the summer of 2020, Venturi Vineyard caught fire. Grape vines, with their neat rows and manicured canopies, aren’t as flammable as you might think. However, Larry’s — head-trained, dry-farmed, beautifully unkempt — is an exception. Just when the flames were starting to take hold, a firefighting aircraft appeared high overhead. But Larry knew better than to hold his breath. With forests and towns burning across much of the region, it was painfully obvious that the plane was headed to one of the major fire complexes nearby. Which made what happened next all the more astonishing: the sky bloomed with bright, rust-colored foam as fire retardant rained down over the vineyard.
It turned out that the plane had indeed been dispatched to fight a larger fire, but at the last minute was rerouted. On the return flight, the pilot happened to catch sight of the fire breaking out in Larry’s vineyard and requested permission to release some of his payload. A split-second decision, a 70-year-old vineyard saved.
Martha didn’t harvest any Carignan that year, as the grapes had been baked on the vine. “They tasted like cooked jam,” she said, recalling their haunting sweetness.
For most winemakers, the story of wine is the story of a landscape. Not so for Martha. After 14 consecutive harvests in California, she sees wine as the condition of being human. It’s the people, the relationships, the whole circuit of culture and values that tie grower and winemaker together. Or maybe it’s something she can’t quite put into words.
But yes — I know that the fog comes in every morning and I know that even if the wines are warm before I tuck in for the night, we’re always going to get these cool evenings to bring them back down, so we’ll get that nice long extended fermentation. There is always that moisture in the morning that will keep the barrels from becoming too alcoholic as moisture evaporates. Little things like that.
I recently started working with some old-vine Cabernet [Sauvignon] not far from here in the Russian River Valley. It’s a cool climate, which gives it that pyrazine quality that I actually really like in Cab. I’m also working with Syrah from up on the mountain near Dry Creek Valley.
I think the varieties became popular partially because of the way they grow, but also because their flavors are more obvious and more immediately acceptable. The flavors jump out at you. You don’t have to coax them out the way you might with a lesser known variety. I made some Cabernet early on in my career, but I’m not trained in a Cabernet tradition. I didn’t grow up in Napa. So I just kind of go my own way.
There are a few other grapes too – like Colombard – which I’d never made until recently. So with that, I was just thinking: what is this ingredient like in its most elemental form? What does Colombard give and how can I lean into certain aspects of that?
But a blank canvas does not mean boring. It can go from bright, fresh and mineral, all the way to honeyed.
I knew it was a grape that held onto its acidity and I also knew that one of the parents was Chenin Blanc. But I didn’t realize that it doesn’t ever spike in its sugar. Here in California, there’s a fairly narrow picking window if you don’t want the alcohol to hit you over the head. But Colombard basically maintains the same acidity and sugar level from beginning of September to the end of November. And it doesn’t fall apart on the vine. It hangs on.
So it was this cool thing — I could ask myself, do I want it bright, almost like a Txakoli? Or do I want it more concentrated like a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc? You can kind of choose anywhere along that spectrum depending on whether you pick early September or late October.
The 2018 Zinfandel is one of my favorite wines I’ve ever made. And yet, I think I’m going to need to get louder about it. Because, try as I might, Zinfandel just isn’t cool right now. When I was working in Sicily, they said, “You should work with the grapes that are as historic to California as you can find.” That’s Zinfandel. It’s this old, amazing bomb-ass delicious grape that grows here.
Then in California, we’re more engaged in what’s modern and what the science and data say. California is so focused on the young and the new and the innovative. And I definitely have that spirit, but I’m also always searching for this kind of reverence for tradition as well. I think both of these things very much inform my winemaking.
I’d listened to conversations while working at commercial wineries, and I often didn’t understand a lot of the jargon or where people were getting their perspectives.
And then when I started getting more into natural winemaking, I realized that there is kind of a built-in observation and intuition. So I felt like I would take some of the science to heart and try to incorporate it — because I think it makes sense to lean on that — while also using my intuition. If you understand the whole landscape, you can choose which things to take to heart.
But I also think they’ve been working with the same vineyards and the same grapes for a long, long time — so that knowledge is internal. They have a lot of experience, and I still believe there is no substitution for experience in the wine industry.
And it’s the same thing when it comes to vine age. The balance and flavor that comes from old vineyards, it’s just… There is no substitution for taking care of these vines over the long haul and making sure they’re healthy. There are no shortcuts.
I’m thinking about how the waves have been lapping onto the shore day after day. And how these trees have been around for hundreds of years, just standing there. These are very calming things for me.
Whereas winemaking has a slower arc, you can basically run as fast as you want on the business treadmill.
That’s what I had always wanted to create myself and still do. It’s one of the puzzles that I am chipping away at.
When I started making wine in 2007, it was definitely the time of big flavor. And all that richness didn’t fit California food — we’re like the land of salad. So I felt like those bigger wines were really culturally tone deaf; I think’s what Jon Bonné was really hitting on. What’s happening now [in wine] is born out of that rebellion against big flavor. But what’s also being addressed now is the question of core values. California is known for environmentalism and for transparency in business. I don’t think wineries were really embracing that culture. And I do think they are now.
In terms of winemaking methods, I don’t think we should be out on a witch hunt for the people who are adding 16 parts [per million] of sulfur, versus 15. But I do think having more transparency for the consumer is important.
I think education is the key. So that people can choose their own values and you’re not shoving values down people’s throats.
Calling out a winemaker for filtering a wine — that has nothing to do with the health of the environment, the wine, or the people who drink it. These sorts of dogmas are not going to be long-standing in the conversation. But workers’ wages and land stewardship are going to stick around and remain important.
And then doing right by my employees and the people who work in the vineyards I purchase fruit from. My business is small enough that I know these people well. I know their children and what they enjoy doing in their free time. I think that’s the most important thing of all — to make sure that there’s humanity in every aspect of this business. And joy. I want to be doing this when I’m 90. And I want everyone who works for me to be just as excited about wine then as they are today.
But one thing I do think about is the price of my wines. One of the hardest things to manage is wanting the business to be sustainable for everybody, but also wanting people to have access.
My winemaking knowledge was formed in Europe under the estate model, and when I came back to California, I felt kind of ‘lesser than’ because of the model we use here. But I totally disagree with that now. I don’t think one is better than the other. And I’m now coming to terms with the fact that this model is something to be celebrated. A lot of the people I purchase fruit from are in their 70’s and they have a lot of knowledge. So instead of just coming from my father or mother or grandparents, I have six or seven people I can gain knowledge from. Also, I think that making wine from different regions is a really great way to learn about this place.
Are they stubborn and principled? I want to work with farmers who are composting every year and keeping their vines healthy — not ones who are chasing the market or cutting corners.
Maybe combined with leasing or owning a few smaller vineyards where I can do more pilot experiments and ask questions. What if we don’t want to till, but we do want to dry farm? What does that look like?