Man pouring red wine into a glass, J. Brix name on wine label
Pouring wine in the J. Brix cellar / Photo by Anne Watson

It’s Friday evening in the mostly residential South Park neighborhood of San Diego, and young wine aficionados pile up outside of The Rose Wine Bar + Bottle Shop. Inside, the usual coterie of regulars who enjoy obscure, low-intervention wines are packed into the main wine bar. Even more are crowded into the adjacent event space, where a set of women winemakers pour their small-batch bottlings to a crowd of natural wine fans.

Welcome to opening night for Nat Diego 2019, the third time that natural wine producers, importers and advocates have descended on this Southern California city. One of the capitals of the country’s craft beer movement, San Diego has also cultivated quite a natural wine scene. Bars like The Rose and Vino Carta promote unique bottlings from across the globe, while hometown producers like J. Brix, Vesper, and Los Pilares turn San Diego County fruit into fresh fun.

“Once you get hooked on what natural wine can be when it’s good, exciting and vibrant, there’s no going back,” says Chelsea Coleman, who worked at The Rose when it was a “normal” bar for three years. In 2014, she became co-owner and immediately shifted to sustainably sourced, gently handcrafted wines.

“Gradually, it has taken hold, and people are paying attention now,” she says. “Beer nerds are into crazy aromas and lots of flavors. That can be leverage when you’re trying to introduce new things to San Diego.”

Wines lined up in front of wine barrels
The wines ate J. Brix / Photo by Anne Watson

Natural Winemaking in San Diego County

While wine bars and bottle shops push the envelope for natural wine in most communities, there’s a short yet strong history of the winemaking technique in San Diego County.

Chris Broomell sought to pursue this when he started Vesper Vineyards in 2008 with his now-wife, Alysha Stehly. Both of their families settled in Northern San Diego County generations ago and still work in agriculture, some in vineyards.

“We actually rode the same school bus,” says Stehly. Broomell jumps in quickly, “She rode in the front and I was in the back, getting kicked off.” They both lived on Vesper Road in Valley Center when they were kids, hence the winery’s name.

While Stehly studied winemaking at University of California, Davis, Broomell learned on the job at Jaffurs Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara County. He commuted back and forth for the first vintage that included more traditional wines made for his extended family under the name Triple B Ranches. Broomell moved to the Escondido area in 2009.

“That began my great grape vineyard search of San Diego,” he says. On his hunt, he discovered vineyards with popular varieties like Pinot Noir and Grenache, but he was more intrigued by obscure, warm-climate varieties like Cinsault and Carignan.

“Here are grapes that handle the generally hot temperatures of San Diego and do well,” says Broomell, who translated that suitability to hands-off winemaking. “What naturally grows well here? How do you not ‘do inputs’ to make great wine? Because every addition gets a little more risky.”

Broomell was one of the first in the region to name single vineyards on his bottles. That pleased growers who sold mostly to nearby Temecula over the years, only to have their grapes be thrown into proprietary blends. He’s since encouraged the planting of more than 20 different varieties around the county, a Rhône-heavy influence that includes Picardan, Clairette, Terret, Ugni Blanc and Torrontés.

One of their biggest gambles was Mar-Cin, Vesper’s co-fermented blend of Marsanne and Cinsault. Stehly’s classically trained nerves frayed a bit at the idea of a mix of a red and white grape together. There was no one she could call for advice, says Broomell.

“I have it in my head,” he told her.

“I don’t like what happens in your head,” says Stehly today. “But it turned out awesome.”

Their lineup includes about 20 different wines of varying shades and tartness, like the popular Tie-Dye Lollipop, a co-ferment of Grenache and Carignan.

“It’s not funky to me,” says Broomell of their bright, snappy style. “It’s what makes sense for the region.”

“We make wines that go with the lifestyle of San Diego,” says Stehly.

Sharing space with Vesper in Escondido is J. Brix Wines, where Emily and Jody Towe make a variety of low-intervention wines. Most of their grapes come from Santa Barbara County, which included a pétillant naturel Riesling that won wild praise from The New York Times. But they also make Carignan, Cinsault and Counoise from San Diego County.

“It’s all sort of a happy accident,” says Emily of their path to winemaking. It started with batches of Grenache and Syrah in their garage in 2009, but now sells to 19 states and is featured on top wine bar lists from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Mexico City.

They adhere to low-intervention methods for philosophical reasons.

“It’s less dogmatic than it is pragmatic,” says Emily. More additives cost more money, she says. “And that’s how we eat.”

Like J. Brix, Los Pilares started as a home winemaking project for Michael Christian and Coleman Zander, who sourced grapes from San Diego backyards.

“I used a ‘recipe’ for home winemakers, until I realized that the chemicals and processes were designed for poor buggers who started with shit for grapes, whereas Coleman was bringing me near perfection, with balanced natural acidity, fruit and tannins,” says Christian. “So I just removed unnecessary processes and chemicals until there was nothing but grapes and sometimes stems. We stumbled on natural.”

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring took note, as did the San Francisco Chronicle. Today, they sell a Grenache-Carignan blend as well as many naturally sparkling wines that include an un-disgorged Muscat called La Dona, a bubbly red wine and a fizzy cider.

“My view is that [natural wine] can be faddish, but it’s not a fad,” says Christian. “When people get onto it, they generally don’t stop. It seems to be an acquired taste in the best sense of that term.”

While growth is slow, he says, it never dips.

“To see the future, go to Paris,” says Christian. “The market for natural wine there just gets bigger and bigger.”

Wine shop with plants framing a doorway
The Rose Wine Bar in San Diego / Photo courtesy of The Rose Wine Bar

The Natural Wine Scene in San Diego

Beer is what led to natural wine in Little Italy, an urban neighborhood north of downtown San Diego, and home to many of the city’s top restaurants and bars. This is where Brian Jensen started Bottlecraft Beer in 2011. One of the first in the craft brew scene to combine a bottle shop with a taproom, the small chain now features seven locations across Southern California, with more said to be on the way.

Jensen, born in Southern California and a veteran of New York City restaurants, moved the original Bottlecraft up a block in 2014, partly because he thought the building was slated to be torn down. But the new landlord simply remodeled, so Jensen teamed with wine sales veteran Patrick Ballow to open Vino Carta.

Wine shop full of bottles
Vino Carta’s massive selection / Photo courtesy of Vino Carta

The shop combines the Bottlecraft idea with traditional and natural wines. There are more than 500 wines for sale in the back of the shop, while the front is a popular wine bar with rotating by-the-glass selections from Slovenia to Sicily, weekly educational tastings and frequent DJs that spin until late.

“Down here, we struggle with selling Chardonnay,” says Ballow. “People want more Grüner Veltliner.” He appreciates that beer lovers are open to less traditional wines. “They see the parallels with the esthers that natural fermentation pushes. Beer being the dominant force in San Diego has helped wine find its way.”

Back at The Rose, Coleman is happy to attract people from all over San Diego. “We’re still kind of the only place that puts our foot in the ground and says we are exclusively natural, so people come looking for us,” she says. But the neighbors haven’t gone far either. “We have people here three times a week. It’s like Cheers.”

To switch from a traditional wine bar to a natural one was not without risk. “It definitely took some explanation,” she says, but it’s been worth it. “We may have lost a few [customers], but we gained a lot more.”