Embracing loftier ideals than maximised returns, slick marketing and presumed prestige, a new generation of food producers is helping transform the counties of Sonoma, Yolo, and Mendocino in Northern California into havens of integrity and equality.
“We are insanely grateful for the millennial generation.” It’s a refrain not often heard, as millennials have been blamed for the downfall of so many commercial practices and products, but Californian organic farmer and natural winemaker William Allen credits the forward-thinking generation with refocusing a key element of the once-stuffy world of wine.
“Millennials ripped open the false kimono of the wine industry,” he explains, “where people once succumbed to pretty marketing pictures, pretty vineyards and poor labour practices.”
There’s no denying that Sonoma County’s long-established wineries are thriving, but Allen’s speaking of a generational shift towards ecologically responsible farming, ingredient consciousness and social justice, among other awarenesses, that have helped catapult Two Shepherds, the farm and winery he co-owns with his wife Karen, to more recent success. He founded the company in 2010 and already had a reputation for producing natural wine of actual quality (not something the niche has been especially known for), but business has doubled in the past four years.
“When I first started, what we did was heresy and of no interest. Now, we’re more energised and jazzed than we’ve ever been.”
Two Shepherds is one of my first stops in Sonoma County and Allen’s voice will remain in my head for the rest of my road trip through Northern California. His determination to take back the land and rehab an industry is a sentiment I’ll encounter frequently, and his desire to right some historic social wrongs is echoed often. Aside from one assistant winemaker, he has no regular staff, so there’s not a ton of room for improving labour practices at his scale, but he historically only hires women for this role because they’re underrepresented in the industry. “I’m making up for one of the inequities,” he says.
The Two Shepherds tasting room is next door to Tilted Shed Ciderworks. The first thing I notice there is the ‘All Welcome’ sign in rainbow letters. A trans rights flag sits in front of a large rainbow on the window, declaring ‘You’re Loved’.
When I ask Ellen Cavalli, who co-founded the Tilted Shed Ciderworks with her husband Scott Heath, why there’s so much LGBTQI+ representation outside, despite the fact that all the staff happen to be cishet, she explains, “because the LGBTQI+ community needs to know they are supported and have a safe space, always. These signs are up all year, not just in June.”
Tilted Shed is equally passionate about protecting and promoting the BIPOC community, regularly raising money and awareness for carefully selected organisations that both promote long-term change in politics and provide immediate relief for underserved communities.
“We don’t care about doing what’s right for marketing,” says Cavalli. “We do what’s right for us. We’re more than just a business. Tilted Shed gives us a small platform and we use it.”
Cavalli isn’t only interested in traditional ciders; she’s part of a growing community of co-fermenters – those who ferment multiple fruits simultaneously to produce new and more complex flavours. Cavalli acquires most of her non-apple produce by gleaning, which means you may find her picking berries from roadside bushes or taking surplus harvests from local farmers to mix with her apples.
Co-fermenting, especially from gleaned material, is also connected to the larger movement of reducing carbon footprints and not wasting the local bounty. In a land of such plenty, much is wasted, which is why the non-profit Farm to Pantry was formed to redistribute some of the tremendous surplus to those with less access. The 500-strong team of Sonoma-area volunteers now gleans more than 200 tons of would-be-wasted produce annually, which keeps it out of landfills and reduces methane-gas pollution by as much as removing more than 1,000 cars from the road.
Before leaving Sonoma, I stop at PizzaLeah, a lesbian-owned pizzeria helmed by Leah Scurto, who’s won international awards and participated in the World Pizza Championship. The stack of take-out boxes waiting to be claimed is sky-high and some patrons arrive wearing PizzaLeah merch. I also spot Two Shepherds canned wines in the refrigerator. Like her neighbours, Scurto is hyperfocused on local, quality ingredients for her pies, so the relationship is a natural fit.
“The neighbourhood is equally worth a stroll, overflowing with beautiful blooms from both residences and small businesses, many with LGBTQI+ support proclamations in their windows.”
It’s about an hour to my next stop in Yolo County, and I wish the drive were longer. Many of the rolling hills are gold with wheat, and layered deep against each other, as though a child got carried away drawing them. Others are neatly lined with the cheerful green of spring vines. There are many pull-offs to take in the views, especially as the road climbs mountains or overlooks water. When I arrive in the town of Winters, I’m greeted with a dramatically different scene: a living testament to America’s largely bygone era of Main Street USA, complete with a railroad track running the length of the place.
There are only 7,000 residents, but Winters receives a steady flow of daytrippers and overnight guests seeking the seemingly incongruous pairing of small-town charm and destination-worthy restaurants fuelled by Yolo’s agricultural prowess. Just 20 minutes from here, the University of California, Davis produces some of the nation’s top agricultural graduates, and it shows. I’m fortunate to be in town on a Saturday, when Davis Farmers Market takes over Central Park. There are vegetable stalls, bakers and flower vendors aplenty, but I’m most impressed that even the food trucks are using ingredients from the market itself – supporting local at its finest. That, and by the volume of plant daddies bringing home armfuls of potted babies.
The neighbourhood is equally worth a stroll, overflowing with beautiful blooms from both residences and small businesses, many with LGBTQI+ support proclamations in their windows. The Pence Gallery hosts exhibits focused on social and political concepts. Some of the art is even for sale. Yolo County is teeming with accessible art venues and one of the best, Gallery 625, is nearby in Woodland. Here, amateur artists are displayed alongside local professionals, and the collection changes monthly. The art scene in Yolo is less about the overpriced kinetic lawn sculptures you’ll find at Napa galleries, and more about local creatives with something to say.
Even the wine business here is a bit more grassroots than in many of the legacy wineries found elsewhere. Berryessa Gap Vineyards is co-owned by Corinne Martinez, whose grandfather started a rootstock nursery in 1969. Today, Martinez Orchards is run by her brother Dan. “A lot of people today enter the wine business with an enormous amount of money to invest,” says Carey Bettencourt, vice president of sales and marketing at the vineyard. “The Martinez family built theirs through agriculture, and they’re proud of it.”
Dan Martinez Sr, who co-created the original company, was the son of Spanish immigrants. The vineyard’s current co-owner, Santiago Moreno, is himself a Mexican immigrant and former farmer at Martinez Orchards. It’s the story of the American Dream for a family that’s literally rooted in the local industry thriving off their efforts. It’s also the story of Yolo at large, where a region of top growers supports entire communities.
It’s nearly four hours to Mendocino, and this may be one of the most fascinating routes in the country. The final two hours follow a stretch of Highway 128, and to call this a winding mountain road would be an injustice. The constant curves are more of an incessant slalom than a series of switchbacks, changing elevation as rapidly as direction. But it’s as thrilling as it is daunting, especially during the final hour, when a tunnel of behemoth redwoods blots out most of the sunlight, but not enough to darken the vibrant mosses covering their impossibly wide trunks. It’s single lane the entire way and at times there are no guardrails along the cliffs, adding to the adrenaline offset only by the astounding serenity of the natural beauty.
“The wines snobs of yesterday – the ones William Allen warned me of – don’t often make it as far north as Mendocino, and that seems to suit these growers and makers just fine.”
Much of the region’s agricultural activity (and therefore holiday activity) is centred in a series of small towns in Anderson Valley, but I continue past these to reach the coastal resorts in and around Mendocino Village. These are not the tennis and pickleball resorts of the tropics, but quiet cottage and villa resorts focused on natural wellness and environmental intimacy. The thrills here are the soaring sprays of ocean waves crashing into the cliffs below – an excitement that reduces blood pressure rather than raising it. Here, and in the aforementioned towns just below, noteworthy restaurants are fed by renowned chefs capitalising on the expert farming of the region. Tables are not always easy to get, despite the casual atmosphere of the region.
At Pennyroyal Farm, a unique experiment of symbiotic dairy production and vineyard farming finds tremendous success, yielding bounty for both award-winning wines and tantalisingly fresh cheeses. Wives Sarah Cahn Bennett, who makes the wine, and Erika McKenzie Chapter, who manages the creamery, own the business and manage a team of female farmers with a passion for regenerative agriculture.
I can’t deny playing with baby goats was the giddy highlight of my visit, but I was in awe of the thoughtfulness in every detail of production and property. The animals are almost eerily calm (because they’re healthy and happy), and each stage of the farm is pristine and perfectly tourable. Even the creamery has windows on all sides, inviting us to look in.
It’s a philosophy media manager Joslyn Thoresen describes as innate to the couple’s openness and accessibility-mindedness. It also speaks of their determination to make responsible farming and production equally accessible to all. Likewise, every facet of the property is open to tours – it’s full spectrum wellness as much as entertaining activity.
Though magnificent wines and enviable restaurants abound in Mendocino County, it’s decidedly less showy than Napa, or even much of Sonoma. The scene is rustic, though far from unrefined. You’ll still find plenty of prim properties and sophisticated presentation, like that of Goldeneye winery, but you’ll also spot winemakers pressing grapes on crush pads next to outdoor tasting tables, like the husband-and-wife owners of Foursight Wines. The people here are infinitely approachable, eager to pass on their knowledge and experience to anyone interested in their unique brand of inconspicuous quality.
The wines snobs of yesterday – the ones William Allen warned me of – don’t often make it as far north as Mendocino, and that seems to suit these growers and makers just fine. This isn’t a place for pretence and showmanship, but for presence and sincerity. Perhaps that naked honesty and authenticity are what draw so many discerning LGBTQI+ travellers to this haven so far north of San Francisco. These are qualities our community depends on.
Photography courtesy of Berryessa Gap Vineyards, John Burges, Michael Sugrue, Carol Highsmith/Visit California, Terry_McCarthy, Seth Lowe, Max Whittaker/Visit California, EM Productions/Visit California, Al Mueller, and Dan Meyers