Interview with Winemaker Darek Trowbridge
by Andrea Dante, owner of 100% Italiano
You claim to be a "pastoral winemaker." Since I didn't see any sheep on your website, I'm assuming that means you view grapes as your flock? Can you elaborate?
The term Natural Winemaker is not to my liking, it begs an argument from others who may not be natural and don't want that known. So I chose Pastoral because that is the setting in which nature happens. There are many images on photos and artwork of a pastoral setting and that is the unspoken nature that I invite into my wines by allowing the natural process to exist. Most pastoral pictures, or views, are of nature as it exists, naturally. There may be human involvement you can see in structures and such but the natural process undisturbed is what creates a certain beauty that many of us are attracted to. So this is what I am celebrating in the term I use. It's a celebration rather than a term that brings adversarial feelings.
Speaking of sheep, you're a part of the Martinelli family, famed for some of California's best Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels, yet you're making natural wine with grapes like Mondeuse and Abouriou. Are you the black sheep of the family?
I am close to my family and we spend much time camping together at the Martinelli family ranch. I worked for my uncle much of my early life. Old World Winery is my art project that most conventional business people would not choose because it is risky. It is risky because I have made a commitment not to add anything to my wines. I am also a small operation. If a larger operation has a wine problem developing they need to protect their investment in that large lot by using today's wine technology. I say wine has been made without this for 6,000 years and I adhere to my own strict desire not to invite most of today's technology. It is the same as the organic food movement. It started with purists first and everyone else needed to protect their investments. But as the market develops you find many more doing organic and figuring out the investment part and then you have the robust market that we have today. This has not yet materialised for"Natural" Wine. We are about 20 years behind the Organic Food Market which began with the Organic Food Act of 1991.
I should note that the term "Natural" Wine is the current term used by the market, meaning buyers are choosing to use this term. There wasn't any term when I started my wine project, so I chose Old World as a way to explain that my ancestors brought the winemaking method used for centuries from Italy and this method predates any technology of additives in wine. My grandfather never added anything except sulfur, which historically is a mined product. In getting my Masters degree in wine making from Fresno State I learned all about the technologies of today and I had a shift in desire to not use these methods but to do what I knew my grandfather did.
Or perhaps, are you the beta test with your emphasis on biodynamics and natural winemaking?
Old World is the space I created to do this experiment back in 1998. After 20 years I have seen the market for "Natural" Wine begin to follow that upward trend that was created by Organic Food many years ago. I am an early adopter of technologies that made sense to me like Biodynamic Farming, which I also started doing in 1998. I want the beverage that I make to be the most pure it can be. That only comes from the purest farming and winemaking techniques. This is offered to the consumer as a choice where they did not necessarily have a choice before, I do not wish to force anyone to do what I do in terms if winemaking and land management.
You work with some very fun varietals that your grandfather planted many years ago. What happened to those vines in the time between his care and yours? What saved them from being ripped up and replaced with popular varietals?
Various family members have tended the blocks that I now farm and they did so out of respect to the elders rather than a real money generating Enterprise. It was about saving the old vines from death and passing them down to the next generation. It was about stewardship, you take care of something under your watch so that others may have it later. It was not exactly the capitalist model we have today. In other words these family members had a day job and the farming was extra so it was done out of conservation. I am now trying to bring a hybrid model of conservation and personal income to that Enterprise so that it sustains itself. Sales and marketing is always the stopgap, or bottleneck, in the consumption of time for an Enterprise such as this where there are very few hands handling all the tasks.
Making wine is an expensive investment which seems to deter most growers and winemakers from getting too experimental. But with the growing interest in nerdy wines made from obscure grapes, do you think attitudes will start to change? In other words, will we ever see Cab vines replaced with Trousseau?
I've always wondered which comes first - the artist perfecting his craft or the satisfaction of his expenses? It is a difficult dance to start something, anything, from scratch, and then to bring it as a new category, it takes much time to educate others on what you do and why it is relevant, and this is a barrier to success, but the satisfaction in this case is perhaps in the artist maintaining his conviction towards the purity of his subject. This is what motivates me.
I think we are seeing greater acceptance of things which are not widely found, such as obscure varietals for instance. But this is for the educated wine consumer which is a small segment of the overall wine market. I do feel that this as a choice for wine consumers will continue to increase as it has been.
Making the switch to biodynamic farming seems like a very big decision with a lot of investment; however, once built, the biodynamic farm seems rather self-sustainable. In the long run, is it a smarter investment to go biodynamic, instead of relying on irrigation and chemicals year after year?
This is a large subject, the scope of which many pages could be written. Let's suffice to say that Biodynamic is one of many organic strategies for winegrape farming, and organic strategies are on the increase in winegrape production. But that is from a small base. After all, wine, just like food products, follows consumer trends. We can find a wine in all price points and each of these trends based on demand.. The demand for "Natural" Wine is exceeding production for the first time and events like Isabelle Legeron's Raw Wine Tastings have come to meet this demand from their origins in the UK and Europe with events now in NY and LA. We are at an amazing growth point in demand for "Natural" Wine. It is from a small base, but growing immensely. Only the continuing of this demand will drive other vineyard and wineries to adjust their activities to satisfy this segment of the market.
In a recent blogpost on your website, you say that, "Time is linked to the seasons, it is how we experience time, through the movement of nature's growth..." One can gather from that quote that experiencing time is crucial to experiencing nature. We live in a 24/7 world, and people seem very disoriented, not to mention not very interested in protecting nature. Is it fair to say that natural wine is more than just a consumer trend, in fact, one piece of the larger puzzle of restoring peace?
A very interesting topic! I can say that I have more and more interest each year from people who want to come help harvest, make wine, prune vines, spread mulch, make compost, etc. People, in my opinion, are seeking the natural order of life that they have been cut off from. Living life where most of our time is spent in a concrete neighborhood with transportation by car on paved roads heading to work in an “Urban” setting pulls you out of the pastoral, or the natural process. Even walking in an "Urban" park doesn't really target this issue because it is a contrived existence, a combination of irrigation, fertilization, and non-native species that creates a kind of beauty but it is not in line with the growth cycle of the seasons necessarily - where you have growth push only in spring and bright green colors which tend towards becoming more browns at the coming of Fall and the onset of senescence. You can literally view time on a seasonal basis when walking through a natural, non-disrupted, ecosystem and this is the process that occurs on the farm. So coming to a farm allows one to become intimate with this process to the level at which the farm mimics the natural process. Perhaps the best term for a place such as this would be a Pastoral Farm.
Switching gears, how did Trowbridge Cider come about?
I didn't want to make cider and I originally turned down my friend who wanted me to make cider for his brand, Troy Cider, because I had no experience making cider and hadn't really tasted many ciders...then the following year he just handed me a check and I needed money so I instantly became a cider maker! That was 2013. I came to love cider. Now I have an orchard partner who oversees the farmed and wild crafted trees that we harvest to make a barrel aged dry cider.
My name, Trowbridge, is English and England has some of the oldest cider traditions - the town of Trowbridge (where we come from) is near some of the best cider country. There is also a cider handbook written in 1910 by a Trowbridge. None of this did I really have understanding of before I started making cider. It was mostly learned from people sharing with me as I traveled to London, Canada, and NY in pursuit of selling my cider.
The apple trees are in Sebastopol, CA which has a rich apple heritage going back 100 years. Recently Sebastopol lost it's packaging opportunities to outside competition and land conversion has occurred. So I view cider as a way to maintain those old trees that are already planted and celebrate the heritage we have already! And the cool climate of Sebastopol grows amazing flavors for us to enjoy!
What does the future hold for you and Old World Winery?
The future is supporting "natural" wine through events which is the way for us to meet and grow to find others who want "natural" wine as a choice. I will continue to celebrate my commitment to inviting nature over inviting technology. I am one of the originators of this discussion and I look forward to the discussion continuing! I thank you for your interest and for your inquiry. The toast "Salute" means "to your health", and perhaps we each get to decide what that means for ourselves. Thank you!
Also the labels are pretty cool. I hear they're designed by a local artist?
Yes Emile Rosewater was the artist on the collaboration that he and I did generating 6 pieces of original artwork that make up the new labels and our logo! It was an amazing, intense, 6 month process but I feel we captured the energy and spirit of the wines and all that I do to bring them true to their natural form and this energy is embedded in the images. Enjoy!