A Beautiful Blend

California vintners join forces to bring native grapes to everyone.

christopher renfro 280 project founder
Penni Gladstone

What do a Black sommelier in San Francisco, a white winemaker in Sonoma, and a historic country estate in Woodside have in common? American native and hybrid grapes, which are having their moment after centuries of being considered lesser than their European counterparts.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Christopher Renfro, cofounder of the 280 Project, and Matt Niess of North American Press have collaborated on a rosé blend called L’Amalgame made from such varieties. It will be available for purchase on the North American Press website starting on Memorial Day at 8 a.m. Pacific time (100 percent of the proceeds will go to the 280 Project).

Both men started their wine projects just before the COVID-19 pandemic. As a newly furloughed sommelier, Renfro spent the shutdown reviving an abandoned vineyard at Alemany Farm in southern San Francisco, ultimately founding the 280 Project, a nonprofit dedicated to creating safe, inclusive spaces where marginalized peoples can engage in hands-on viticulture and winemaking. Niess was the assistant winemaker for a cult pinot noir producer on the Sonoma coast and left to explore America’s forgotten history with native and hybrid grapes. Thanks to a mutual connection on Instagram, it came to Niess’s attention that Renfro also had an interest in these grapes. He offered Renfro a dozen cuttings of hybrid varieties that he thought might grow well in San Francisco, and the friendship grew from there.

In 2021, Renfro’s sommelier mentor introduced him to horticulturalist Kate Nowell, who oversaw the orchard and vineyard at Filoli, a country estate in Woodside. Renfro was familiar with Filoli but never knew about the vineyard.

Located 30 miles south of San Francisco, Filoli’s house and gardens were built in 1917 for businessman William Bowers Bourn II and his wife, Agnes. In 1975, the estate was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The orchard was an original landscape feature of the property, planted with hundreds of heirloom apples, pears, and other fruits. It lay fallow until the late 1990s, when Filoli’s director of horticulture at the time, Lucy Tolmach, lobbied to reconstruct it.

Garden volunteer C. Todd Kennedy was a fruit preservationist with his own heirloom collection, which included 115 or so varieties of American native and hybrid grapes. Among the collection were two dozen hybrid grapes bred by T.V. Munson, a grape breeder in Texas in the late 1800s and early 1900s who helped solve the phylloxera crisis that nearly wiped out vineyards worldwide. In 2017, Kennedy told the writer of a book about Filoli’s vineyard that he believes he was once “the only grower of these labrusca varieties on this side of the divide.” In order to preserve the grapes, Kennedy donated cuttings of his entire collection to Filoli in 1999. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture eventually came to obtain clippings for the national repository’s collection.)

Old clippings of Filoli’s garden newsletter, the Sundial Times, called the vines a collection of table grapes. They were used as visual props in public programming and events, donated to secondhand harvest organizations, or made into jams and jellies.

“It’s not mine, but if I can grow this and steward it, then we can turn this into something bigger, something cooler, because it’s just been sitting here doing nothing,” Renfro tells me. Filoli’s current director of horticulture, Jim Salyards, gave the approval for the 280 Project to use the vineyard as a classroom.

The Filoli vineyard has about 120 vines, each a different variety. Under each one is a plaque with its name: America, Catawba, Isabella, Jefferson, Last Rose. They are naturally more resistant to local pests, including phylloxera, and require few, if any, sprays or other treatments to ward off other diseases. Apart from pruning and shoot-thinning, Renfro mainly lets them grow.

Niess had been searching for a meaningful way to support the 280 Project. He wasn’t a wealthy investor, but he had the legal licenses to produce and sell alcohol. Every grape variety has a different ripening window, so he and Renfro taste each one and pick what’s ripe. The vintage bottlings have varied from pastel pink to magenta. For Niess, the wine is intensely aromatic and has cotton candy–like fruit, a typical note from varieties with labrusca in their lineage.

“We’re really just trying to get together, pick the fruit, and make a singular expression of all of these hybrid grapes,” he says.

Niess covers all of the up-front costs: bottles, corks, labels, custom-crush fees. The labels are designed by Dylan Clendenin, an artist he befriended on the San Francisco Metro 10 years ago. Niess says that he wants to live in the more-inclusive wine community that Renfro envisions. It’s his way of helping raise funds for the 280 Project’s future apprentices. And now the 280 Project has a tangible product to start the conversation.

Renfro feels good about the collaboration as well. “I’m very thankful to put out a wine with such a great winemaker—until I can actually do it legally, and then, I would love to support him back,” Renfro says.

The 280 Project was founded six months before the killing of George Floyd. Amid the frenzy of performative allyship directed at him and other Black people, Renfro has counted Niess among his true mentors. He imagines that this is what it must feel like to be on the inside, building relationships, rubbing elbows, and borrowing one another’s tools. Like any other winemaker, he wants to develop his craft. And he wants other people of color to have the same opportunity.

“At some point, hopefully, it won’t matter what color we are and where we come from,” he says. “It would be cool if we could just taste good wine and nerd out on it.”•

Sydney Love is a wine writer based in Los Angeles.
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