The Winemakers Looking Beyond Vitis Vinifera

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The Winemakers Looking Beyond Vitis Vinifera

One of the most appealing aspects of wine is our deep understanding, as humans, of its ancient nature: the implicit knowledge that for thousands of years, our ancestors have been fermenting food in all forms. Grapes, of course, but also wheat, apples and clusters of foraged blueberries. Consider the Egyptians, leavening bread with nutrient-rich yeast, or the Babylonians, crafting some of our first sweet beverages with water, honey and dates.

Across the country, a new generation of winemakers is reclaiming this definition of wine. They are rejecting binaries rooted in colonialism—new world vs. old world, grapes vs. found fruits—that have upheld the status quo at the expense of equity, access and taste. The result is an emerging class of wines, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Asheville, North Carolina, that not only express the land but also an ancient understanding of wine. As Erin Rasmussen, founder of the American Wine Project in Wisconsin, put it, “This may be the most exciting time in American wine history.”

Recently, on a golden day in Brooklyn, the expansiveness of this generation of winemakers was on full display. Organized by the sommelier and bartender Jahdé Marley, “Anything but Vinifera” (ABV) was an ode to all ferments. This includes beverages made from apples (ciders), indigenous grapes, foraged fruit, sake, makgeolli and, most commonly, hybrid grapes. Noticeably missing was the Sangiovese or Cabernet found at your grandfather’s house.

As the name suggests, hybrid grapes are the combination of two or more vitis vinifera varietals. Vitis vinifera are the grapes that we have come to understand as “wine,” from Pinot Grigio to Zinfandels and everything in between. Using the strengths of these grapes, hybrids are able to survive extreme conditions—cold climates, exposure to certain mildew or pests, drought—that the original varieties cannot.

Like so much of agricultural history, these hybrids emerged out of necessity. In the late 1800s, a small bug called phylloxera attacked vines in France and Italy, causing thousands of acres to perish and nearly decimating the industry. The grapes were only able to survive through cross-breeding with indigenous, bug-resistant American varietals.

Today, with the existential threat of climate change, producers are once again turning to hybrid grapes to survive. However, unlike the phylloxera of generations past, climate change is partially caused by the industry itself. Agriculture is one of the top five contributors to global warming, and more than half of these emissions are the result of synthetic fertilizers, the drainage of organic soils and irrigation practices. These tactics are employed in conventional vineyards across California, where more than ninety percent of wine in the United States is made.

Hybrid grapes offer a powerful alternative to these decimating practices. Their inputs in the field (fertilizers and water) are significantly less than their vitis vinifera counterparts, especially in regions such as the Northeast and Midwest where grapes cannot otherwise grow. For several producers at ABV, climate-adaptive strategies also include embracing the fruit that is around them and even eschewing the need to plant altogether. This could mean the inclusion of foraged fruits or growing localized crops and co-fermenting them with grapes.

The result is wines that are ripe with new flavors. “We’ve been told that all wine should taste, smell and look the same,” said Chris Denesha of Pleb Urban Winery in Asheville, North Carolina, “but that is simply not the case.”

Indeed, the effort to move toward a broader definition of wine is reflective of a larger effort to decolonize what has long been a Euro-centric industry. “We have an opportunity to reimagine what it means to own land and how to provide for everyone involved,” said Etinosa Emokpae, who moderated a panel during ABV. This means acknowledging that climate change, land ownership and fair wages are inextricably bound to what’s in the glass, reversing a longstanding history that prioritized a Western palette and pairings above people and land.

At Kalche Wine Co. in Vermont, the entire vision centers around “decolonizing big wine.” Kalche’s wines, which are farmed on several acres in Fletcher, Vermont, are emblematic of that goal—and broader shifts in the industry as a whole. Justine Belle Lambright, Kathline Chery and Grace Meyer formed the cooperative in 2020 with a focus on people over profit. “Even if I go and win the lottery tomorrow, our voice in Kalche will be equal,” said Lambright. Without these guardrails, conventional winemakers often make extreme profits while laborers who plant, care for and harvest the grapes suffer. In fact, all of Kalche’s practices are the result of community collaboration. They farm on land provided by a man simply known as “Cranberry Bob,” who has lived in Vermont for decades.

During the tasting at ABV, I could feel their vision—for shared land ownership, cooperative economics and an embrace of sustainable fruits—with each sip. Their Touch of Noir Rosé, from their first 2021 harvest, was a glittering blend of hybrid grapes and, you guessed it, cranberries. It had a fullness I had never experienced before; I couldn’t help but feel it was the taste of the many hands, ideas and hopes that had led to its creation.

Here are some of the producers you should know:

The Two-Eighty Project: Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris Renfro farms two and a half acres on Alemany Farm, a public land trust that is combatting food insecurity, cultivating the next generation of producers and making wine as delicious as his Napa neighbors.

Kalche Wine Cooperative: Based in Fletcher, Vermont, Kathline Chery, Justine Belle Lambright and Grace Meyer are cultivating the “next world of wine.” As a worker-owned cooperative, the wellbeing of people—farmers, employees, neighbors—is central to their vision of creating magical wine with hybrid grapes.

Pleb Urban Winery: Although the winery is located in the heart of Asheville, Chris Denesha and his team farm all of their grapes from the surrounding Appalachian foothills. These wines aren’t available at your local shop, though. To reduce carbon emissions, glass and costs, 8% of buyers visit the winery to fill up on-site.

RAS Wines: Maine is widely known for its abundance of wild blueberries, but these wines don’t taste like your average fruit jam. High in acidity and lush with body, RAS is the brainchild of three friends who realized that they could embrace sustainable local fruits instead of traditional vitis vinifera.

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