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What is Natural Wine? And Where to Drink it in San Diego County

When a San Diego natural wine maker uses local grapes, it’s San Diego in a bottle.

June 26, 2019
Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Natural wine, simply defined, is wine that has nothing but grapes and a little sulfur in bottling. (Though serious purists may not add even that.)

That means that in natural wine production the yeast responsible for the magic of fermentation comes in on the grapes themselves. It’s wild. And fermentation starts and ends of its own accord.

Most wines are made with additives, chosen from dozens, to either bring out a certain taste, feel, color, or odor, or to correct what is considered a problem.

Commercial makers typically aim to produce a predetermined product, rather than allowing the grapes to speak for themselves. Using additives to control acid, color, and the flavor profile, as well as to stabilize, refine and clarify.

That’s why, to appreciate natural wine, you have to eschew the idea that there are just a few varietals worth tasting or that a savignon blanc from Sonoma should taste the same as one from Australia.

By getting their organoleptic qualities (taste, odor, color, feel) only from the grape rather than via additives, these “wild” and “living” wines can highlight only their own terroir, not any other.

J. Brix

When a San Diego natural wine maker uses local grapes, it’s San Diego in a bottle.

“We take the approach that you’re done the day you harvest. The wine is made then,” says Eric Van Drunen of Charlie & Echo’s natural wine making. “Your decisions after are what’s going to be the best representation of that grape. Is it still, sparkling, red or rose, stems in or not? You let that grape and vintage speak clearly. And you don’t try to change it, mute it or run it through an auto tuner.”

Natural wines are generally made with grapes grown using organic practices, usually hand-picked, and often unfiltered. But, with no legal definition in the United States, descriptions and executions vary.

Natural wines tend to have more acid, though they mellow out with cellaring. They’re brighter, livelier, and sometimes wild and intriguing.

Charlie and Echo
Los Pilares

I’ve had a few bottles of Los Pilares’ sparkling black pét nat, which is made with a cabernet, and each time I’m surprised at how interesting on the palate and fun this wine can be.

It’s got a variety of flavors and is a little bubbly. It reminds me of when I first started dating my husband – I can’t stop thinking about it and can’t wait to meet up with it again.

The colors of natural wine range from pale white to pink to orange to deep, dark red. Because they’re unfiltered, they’re often cloudy.

“Natural wine is more exciting and has more diversity,” says Chelsea Coleman, co-proprietor of The Rose Wine Bar . “Natural wine can blow the lid off people’s perception of what wine could be, like when all these sour beers came on the scene.”

The Rose Wine Bar
Charlie and Echo

The Rose Wine Bar’s wine program aims to only feature natural wines.

“If you can taste the difference between food that’s grown in rich soil versus sand, it’s an easy leap to think the same would be true of wine,” explains Coleman, who is one of the founders of Nat Diego, San Diego’s natural wine festival.

“There are nearly 100 additives that aren’t required to be listed on wine (or beer) labels that have to be listed on food labels. Ranging from things that give some people a rash to harmless things like coloring,” she adds. Bad news for vegetarians, since several common additives come from animal organs.

Beyond being free of additives, natural wines may have other health benefits as well.

We know that probiotics are good for us, and since natural wine is a live product, some believe that it may be beneficial in the same ways that kimchi and kombucha are.

It’s also generally lower in alcohol than conventional wine so you can drink more without ending up on the floor (not that that’s ever happened to us).

Who’s making natural wine in San Diego and where can you drink it?

You can find natural wines at a few wine bars and restaurants throughout the county, including: Vino Carta in Little Italy, Madison in University Heights, Dija Mara in Oceanside, Nolita Hall in Little Italy, and The Rose Wine Bar in South Park, or go directly to the source with a visit to one of the four natural wine makers in San Diego County.

Charlie & Echo

With 12 years winemaking experience under their belts, husband and wife team Eric and Clara Van Drunen produce about 250 cases of natural wine a year with plans to increase production.

About two-thirds of their wines are sparkling, with flagship wines including Dark Star, a syrah and zinfandel blend, Rainfall which is 100% voignier, and Persephone (pronounced, per-SEF-uh-nee), a sparkling sangiovese.

The low-intervention grapes are sourced from Warner Springs, CA.

Charlie & Echo wines are only available at their urban winery on Miralani Drive and at Nat Diego.


The J.Brix team got their start making a little wine in their San Diego garage in 2009, using fruit and barrels sourced from friends in Santa Barbara. Ten years later, Jody Brix Towe likes to say that the garage has just gotten a bit bigger.

Endlessly curious about varieties and styles, co-winemakers Emily Towe and Jody Brix Towe makes small quantities of a large number of different wines and varieties in all shades of the color spectrum.

They are known for their naturally sparkling Riesling called Cobolorum, affectionately called the Naughty Goblin Bubbles (Cobolorum is the Latin word for goblin).

J.Brix offers winemaker-led private cellar tastings by appointment for groups of up to four people.

Los Pilares

Known for their “wild” pét-nats, the partners behind Los Pilares believe in the greatness of San Diego terroir.

Michael Christian, Coleman Cooney, Jay McCarthy, and Pelin Wood Thorogood team up with Charlie & Echo to make about 500 cases of wine each year, exclusively using San Diego grown grapes, some of which they plan to grow themselves at a high-altitude vineyard in Cuyamaca.

Vintages from their three acres in Cuyamaca will be out later this year.  You can find Los Pilares wine at the Charlie & Echo tasting room and at The Rose in South Park.

Vesper Vineyards

Another married winemaking duo, Ashley Stehley and Chris Brommel made their first Vesper wine in 2008. The pair come from farming families and source all their grapes from San Diego, with a strong reliance on relationships with fruit farmers that prioritize organic practices.

They’re known for their carignan (try the Tie-Dye Lollipop, if you can get your hands on some), but will try their hand at any varietal grown in the county.

With San Diego’s diverse microclimates, they’re excited about the region’s wine options. You can taste their wines at their urban winery in Escondido.

Try Them all at the Nat Diego Festival

If you’re new to natural wine, the Nat Diego festival is a great place to start. There are currently four natural winemakers in San Diego, all of whom will be at Nat Diego’s third annual “fun-loving natural wine festival” on June 28-29, 2019.

Run by a group of San Diego sommeliers and wine purveyors, including Pat Ballow of Vino Carta, Anne Estrada of Amy Atwood and The Rose, Tami Wong of Wine Wise, Katie FawkesMoore and Coleman of The Rose, the festival will include a Grand Tasting, Ladies Night, and seminars at Nolita Hall, Vino Carta, Bread and Salt, and The Rose.

Vesper Vineyards
Sarah M. Shoffler
Sarah M. Shoffler is a seafood enthusiast, foodie philosopher, and a fishery biologist for NOAA Fisheries. She loves writing about issues on the...
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