Driving westbound through the Russian River Valley on his way to work one day, winemaker Matt Niess watched the vineyards rolling by and realized that as far as he could see, “all of the grapevines were not from here.” Then, spotting wild California grapes growing alongside the creek of the Russian River, a switch flipped. Why was no one interested in making wine from indigenous grapes?
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That set him off on a quest. He quit his longtime job at Radio-Coteau, a celebrated winery known for its cult-status pinot noir, and spent a year with his nose in vintage winemaking books before launching his own label, named North American Press.
I drove to meet Niess in Dry Creek, past wineries with ornate gates and opulent tasting rooms, and parked in a field next to his sunbaked Ford pickup. Beside rolling hills of picture-perfect cabernet sauvignon, Niess showed me his scrappy hillside where he’s planted 40 varieties of hybrid grapes, a somewhat shotgun-style experiment to see what takes. Niess is confident that he has “the only winery in the state of California that exclusively works with native grapes and hybrids.”
This may not sound like a big deal, but nearly all the wine you know and love is made from the species Vitis vinifera, which hails from southern Europe and western Asia. When Niess tells people what he’s doing, he gets “a lot of funny looks, a lot of raised eyebrows, and a lot of questions.”
To Niess, the big question is, “What do native grapes taste like, and can you make good wine from them?”
Wine drinkers love the flavor of European grapes, but those grapes are disease-prone and typically require a lot of spraying. North American grapes are more drought-tolerant and disease-resistant and require little intervention, but there’s a prevailing stigma about their taste. Some feel that North American grapes are foxy, a term that sounds good but actually refers to fox urine.
Niess counters the foxy criticism by saying, “There are so many wine descriptors of European wines that don’t sound very good to me, like fresh-cut garden hose, tennis ball, and cat pee in sauvignon blancs. I don’t know why you can have that but not this.”
Adam Tolmach, owner and winemaker of the Ojai Vineyard, says that while there are many indigenous grapes in America, “the wines they make are odd, at least for somebody who has a European taste, and odd enough that they’ve never caught interest.”
“There are a few exceptions,” Tolmach explains. “I think norton and baco noir can make sort of acceptable wines but nothing anybody is too excited about.”
When Niess pulled two glasses out of the bed of his pickup and poured me a taste of the Rebel, a baco noir (a hybrid of the indigenous American species Vitis riparia and the French varietal folle blanche) grown along the Sonoma coast, I couldn’t taste anything foxy about it.
Bruce Reisch, professor of grapevine genetics at Cornell University, sees a rising interest in hybrids, partly because of the increasing desire to reduce pesticide applications and the urgent need to combat the effects of climate change. He rattled off a short list of climate factors threatening viticulture: “Cold, flooding, heat, spring frost damage, salt accumulation in California, rains at unusual times of the year.” That last one also concerns Niess, as downy mildew is becoming a bigger factor in California.
The rise of the natural-wine movement has also been a boon to hybrids, as it’s shifted the palates of many wine drinkers, putting flavor profiles once considered undrinkable on the trendiest lists. Even though Niess is interested in making a more classic style of wine, he still feels the “time is ripe” for hybrids, since consumers are interested in avoiding chemicals, have more-adventurous palates, and are less devoted to established varietals.
“The preconceived notion against hybrids is going away,” says Niess. “Yes, they taste different, but that’s OK. We can work with these amazing grapes that are native to North America and grow them here in California more sustainably.”
Yet the interest in using native grapes and hybrids in California is for now a fledgling movement, and Niess feels as though he’s on a David and Goliath journey, battling an entrenched multibillion-dollar industry. “There’s a lot of direct interest in preserving the way things have been done for a long time, and I’m trying to wave a flag and say it doesn’t have to be like this,” says Niess.
Christopher Renfro, activist, farmer, and cofounder of the Two Eighty Project, a nonprofit that is bringing equity and diversity to the wine world, calls Niess a mentor when it comes to hybrids. Renfro farms vines on a little hillside next to California’s Highway 280 (hence the name) and recently started tending to a vineyard tucked away on the 650-acre property of the renowned Filoli Historic House and Gardens in Woodside, which has 120-odd varieties of hybrid grapes.
“These vines are probably the wildest thing in California that I know of,” says Renfro, adding that they’re in a secret area open to the public only once a year. “It’s the rarest thing I’ve seen in California or ever heard of as far as the future of grapes.”
Renfro thinks the Filoli vineyard is “the future for real, because as the world changes, we need to do better things for our environment. This spot is literally going to be one of the historical places we talk about how to do that. These vines are going to be some of the things we actually refer to as what works well in California.”
To people who aren’t sure if their palates will like wines made from indigenous and hybrid grapes, Renfro likens it to the strategy of the game Pokémon: “You gotta catch them all. You gotta try all the different wines in the world. That’s the only way you’re going to know how cool wine is. They all have their own secret powers. They all have their own special thing about them.”
Niess and Renfro definitely applied the Pokémon principle when they collaborated on a mixed heirloom American hybrid rosé using around 100 varietals, called L’Amalgame, the result of tasting and picking as much fruit as possible from the Filoli vineyard.
“It’s something that is literally made from a really rare set of vines that were garbage that was kind of just sitting there. But it’s garbage that is the future of the world of wine,” Renfro says.
When it was released in June, it sold out within two weeks.•