A Labor of Love
How Lamorinda became a wine appellation
Story and map by Nikki Scott | Photography by Olivia Vigo
California’s brand new wine appellation, the Lamorinda AVA (American Viticultural Area), is definitely not going to emerge as the next Napa Valley—and that may be its biggest selling point.
Encompassing the area between East Bay cities Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda, this suburban enclave of wine production is a well-kept local secret, and it seems likely to remain that way. The passionate people growing grapes and making wines here are perfectly content with this. For them, it’s not about fame or fortune. Most are retired or work primarily in other fields, so they have the freedom to produce wines they are proud to share with their friends and neighbors without feeling the need to meet the pressures of the market. One might make the mistake of presuming that these are simply amateur hobbyists producing the viticultural equivalent of homebrew, but for many of the people growing grapes and making wine here, such as Humblebee Farm/Coletta Wine and Captain Vineyards, this couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, these producers (and countless others in the Lamorinda area) are making wines of high quality, using sustainable and organic practices. The wines are local in the purest sense of the word.
Cutting through the red tape
An AVA is not an easy thing to establish. Getting one approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a laborious path lined with paperwork and red tape that can take years to complete. In the case of Lamorinda AVA, it took five years. Approval was finally granted in February 2016 following the efforts of Susan Captain and others within the 18-member Lamorinda Wine Growers Association. Former president of the organization and viticulturalist at Captain Vineyards, Susan needed to prove to the TTB that Lamorinda was a distinctive enough winegrowing region to merit AVA status. Previously, wines made from grapes grown in that area had the option of being labeled as belinging to either the Contra Costa County AVA or the San Francisco Bay AVA, but the Lamorinda Wine Growers Association knew that this smaller section of land had something special to offer.
Two UC Davis geologists and several geographers collected data to convince the TTB of Lamorinda’s unique physical features and their importance in terms of quality wine production. The Lamorinda Wine Growers Association argued that the clay loam soil, ubiquitous throughout the region, is perfect for water retention in a climate in which drought is a constant concern. They explained that the warm weather, with long sunny days followed by cooler foggy nights, is ideal for winegrowing, allowing grapes to ripen slowly and evenly while maintaining their natural acidity. They described how the hilly terrain offers a variety of options for planting orientation in order to provide more or less sunlight exposure depending on the needs of each individual grape variety. These facts were submitted in a painstakingly detailed petition. Paul Coletta of Humblebee Farm/Coletta Wine was able to help move the application process along by leveraging his connections as a founding board member of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science at UC Davis. Ultimately, the TTB determined that Lamorinda has a sufficiently distinct sense of place to merit its own AVA.
In the Orinda Eye
A far cry from the glitz and glamour of Napa, Lamorinda is all about the neighborhood. In 2009, Paul Coletta planted 200 vines of syrah (enough to make exactly one barrel) right in his Orinda backyard—a steeply sloped hill with optimal sun exposure. His small plot is in the center of what he refers to as the Orinda Eye, a micro-region that is frequently sunny and clear during the day, with cooler weather rolling in at night. Influenced by his agricultural background studying honeybees, Paul is attentive to the overall health of the vineyard ecosystem, taking advantage of cover crops to improve soil fertility, facilitate water retention, and prevent erosion. When Paul sold the property and moved to a new home a short drive away, the buyer happily agreed to allow him to maintain Humblebee Farm (which includes beehives and chickens in addition to the vineyard) on the property in trade for a few bottles of each vintage. The arrangement was a good fit for Paul, since he does not have a bonded winery, which means the wine cannot be sold to the public.
Paul has a demanding day job running Bay Area organic food company Urban Remedy. Since that pays the bills, the vineyard is purely a very time-consuming hobby. Paul does everything on his own, from planting and growing to winemaking: “I really wanted to do the whole thing,” he says. “I wanted to be able to hold a bottle of wine and go, ‘gosh, I took that from the beginning to the end.’” Those wines end up being consumed exclusively by Paul and his family and friends.
Paul is inspired by winemaking style of the Côte-Rôtie region of France’s Northern Rhône Valley, where bold, earthy syrah is fermented along with viognier, an aromatic white variety that serves the dual purpose of adding floral perfume and preserving syrah’s unique violet-magenta color. In a tiny cellar beneath his home, Paul sometimes co-ferments his syrah with viognier, and other times with petite sirah. The results are a true testament to both Paul’s love of French wine and the terroir of his vineyard, with classic old-world acidity cutting through juicy berry flavors that are unmistakably Californian—as he puts it, “Old World process, New World fruit.”
Good land stewards
One of the most notable things about Humblebee Farm is the commitment to dry-farming, sustainability, and organic practices. When Paul decided to incorporate these philosophies into his winemaking, he turned to Susan and Sal Captain of Moraga-based Captain Vineyards. “I was looking for somebody that had shared values around how to make good wine,” says Paul. “I wanted to dry farm, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to not use herbicides and pesticides, and I didn’t know exactly how, so they really taught me just about everything.” Captain Vineyards is a Certified Green Business in Contra Costa County—the only producer in the AVA to bear this distinction—and while neither winery is certified organic, Paul found in the Captains a common belief in the importance of environmentally friendly wine production. “We live on the land, and we want to be good stewards of our land,” says Susan matter-of-factly.
Like Paul, the Captains had no background in viticulture or enology. When their four grown children had left home and Sal had retired from his job as head of R&D at a large international medical device company, they needed something to do with their time—something more than just relaxing on their stunning Moraga property.
Susan, who has a degree in statistics, applied herself for two years to an extensive study of viticulture before planting a single vine. She carefully selected a small group of red varieties, determining their ideal locations within the nascent vineyard. She found herself drawn to sustainable viticulture practices, as she could see the relationship between the health of the vines and that of the overall ecosystem. She made the decision to halt the use of any chemicals for weed control on her property. When people come to visit the winery, she explains to them, “it should be acceptable to your eyes that there are some weeds, rather than clean cut—because nature doesn’t come clean cut.”
Sal Captain is in charge of winemaking, and he and his wife have found that it’s best to keep their roles in the vineyard and the cellar separate. They banter playfully—walking through the vineyard, Sal quips, “Susan is the viticulturist here, so if there’s anything wrong with the grapes, you can blame her.” But when it comes time to taste the wines, Susan excuses herself, explaining, “This is one thing we can’t do together. I do the tours on my own, and then he does his wine tasting. This way, we don’t fight quite as much.” She could talk about vines and grapes for hours, but Sal knows their guests are anxious to taste the wine.
Captain Vineyards, a commercial winery, produces an impressive array of wines for such a small operation. Like Humblebee’s syrah blends, these are concentrated, structured reds—some blends and some single varietal—with bold fruit flavors and a racy streak of acidity. On their property, the Captains grow grenache, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir, and petit verdot. Any other varieties needed for blending are purchased from neighbors within the AVA, such as the merlot and sangiovese used alongside the homegrown Bordeaux varieties in their earthy, spicy “Super Tuscan” blend. Something can be found here for just about any red wine drinker. A comparatively light and delicate grenache blended with a small amount of petite sirah expresses tart cherry, strawberry, and raspberry aromas, while a robust petit verdot is structured, tannic, and dark-fruited, with notes of leather and spice.
While there are approximately 100 vineyards in Lamorinda, only a handful of them are tended by growers who also make wine. Most sell their grapes to one of the six bonded wineries in the AVA. The wines can be found in some East Bay restaurants and bottle shops, though the best way to try the wines of Lamorinda is to visit the tasting rooms (by appointment only), where you have the opportunity to meet the growers and winemakers in their own homes. But even the largest wineries, like Captain Vineyards, do not have much of a vision for growth—they prefer to keep their wines within the local community, and physical space for planting is limited. When asked if he has plans for expansion, Sal says, “Absolutely not. I want to only use the grapes that I produce, and grapes from vineyards that I am responsible for managing.” He estimates that the maximum he would want to produce is 1000 cases per year. Paul asks his mentor, “Can you be profitable at 1000 cases?” Sal replies, “no,” shrugs, and takes a sip of his wine.