“Meet us out on Treasure Island. Bring your own glass and two bottles. Agua only.”
So said the cryptic email I received before my trip to Oakland, where I was to attend the Fourth Brumaire, America's premiere hubbing of the natural wine vanguard. Nervous visions danced in my mind—”Do I pick up a couple bottles of Borjomi?”—but then, slowly, it dawned on me: agua doesn't mean water at all. It's a phrase popular in the Bay Area but first coined in the Catalan natural wine scene, in reference to wine of a kind so pure, so unfucked with, so utterly zero-zero that drinking it would not be like quaffing the very atoms of our being. The Marriage at Cana in reverse, an ecclesiastical miracle volte-face in which water and wine became one, and all thirsts would be slaked.
I did not, in fact, end up going out to Treasure Island, because my flight was delayed and I wimped out and went to Burma Superstar instead, to steel myself for the next day, a miracle of a different kind—America's very best natural wine festival, full stop. A place where the agua flowed.
There is an aura of… not exclusivity, I don't think is the word, attached to the annual Brumaire (now in its fourth year), but it's somewhere in the linguistic neighborhood. Tickets sell out nearly immediately. Winemakers you like, wine personalities you respect, well-meaning locals and friends and friends of friends—you might see them at the afterparty, but if they didn't act quick enough to get tickets you won't see them that day inside the Starline Social Club. But there are stories: Such-and-Such showed up onsite as a “ticket for one” and breezed in paying cash; So-and-So sent a desperate email two weeks out and was granted an allowance. When I announced cheekily on Instagram that I would be attending this year's event, in parody of the Brumaire house style, I was shocked by the number of inquiries received in reply. Verily, into the DMs they did slide, plaintive requests for additional ticketing with enough frequency and fervor that I invented my own adjective—”Fort Knox-y”—as part of a proportional response. As in:
“I'm sorry, I don't have extra tickets. You'll have to reach out to the event and get on the wait list, but I'm hearing this year they're being rather Fort Knox-y.”
The air of… not exclusivity, again, but something not unlike it… extends to the exhibiting winemakers. One cannot simply write a check large enough to earn tabling rights, though surely it's been tried. Brumaire is not a glorified portfolio tasting or an exercise in PR-backed millennial capitalism. There is a mise en scene here that creates its own orbit. You might not agree with everything they do; in fact, that's kind of the point. Indeed, there are winemakers who I respect immensely, past exhibitors, diviners of agua, who did not get the invite to the Fourth Brumaire. But what the Steering Committee (Bradford Taylor, Josh Eubank, Matt Coelho, and Quinn Kimsey-White) did instead was set up an event ripe with the joy of discovery, with tables manned by the very winemakers themselves (with few exceptions), and a capacity limit that kept the event from ever feeling overfull or inaccessible. There is precious little of the “I'm the bloke who sells the wine” shit that permeates other shows; instead you've got Krista Scruggs, or Julie Balagny, or Gideon fucking Bienstock right there in front of you, pouring wine and chatting and answering questions.
Brumaire could be five, ten times bigger if it wanted, multi-ticketed across a full weekend with fifty more winemakers. Instead the show remains a small, relatively intimate peer to peer exhibition of the natural wine moment right now in America. There is no Instagram wall, no PR battalion sounding the hashtag klaxon. Save for the odd cell phone the whole thing feels decidedly analogue, downright 20th century. It is remarkably refreshing.
When I interviewed the aforementioned Steering Committee back in early 2018, they talked about being inspired by the annual culture of Dives, off-Dives, and various tasting salons across France. These have been lamented as increasingly commercial, with no less an authority than Alice Feiring—who attended her first Dive Bouteille in 2002—declaring in this year's 2019 wine predictions “Natural wine fairs for the public will begin to lose momentum.”
She's probably right, of course (on this and all things), but I wonder if there's still room for an event in America to mean something in the fact of natural wine's increasing trend-driven commodification. If there's a chance that a show, if it's pure of heart and sound of intention and refreshingly non-commercial, can be like a divining rod for truth in American natural wine by showing us the way to agua.
I won't claim to have all the answers, and you should doubt any journalist—in wine or otherwise—who says otherwise. But I do know there's something special about this show that makes it such a thrilling place to lose oneself for a day of tasting and talking and sipping and kibbutzing. Below you'll find a half dozen or so imperfect sketches of my favorite sips from the show, plus assorted notes and flavors from the floor in Oakland. Throughout I've included a couple cagey suggestions on where to find this stuff out in the wild.
In short, Brumaire remains a coup.
Kindeli — 2017 “Blanco”
The first-ever New Zealand wine on offer at Brumaire, I was astonished right away by these wines, positioned directly next to the entry door of the second floor main hall. Hailing from tiny Nelson, New Zealand—near the top tip of the South Island—winemaker Alex Craighead makes utterly natural zero-zero wines using mostly own-farmed fruit, with an emphasis on cleanliness and meticulous practices all the way throughout. Read here for more on his winemaking and farming style.
All the Kindeli wines at Brumaire showed well, but his 2017 “Blanco” jumped off the table. A melange of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with a bit of skin contact and time spent in various vessels (including steel vat and amphora), without a hint of flaw or funk. Total juicy juice, like biting into a ripe Bosc pair, with heaps of acidity finishing cleaner than clean. This wine, as much as any other, made me well and truly utterly fucking bummed out I could not simply buy wine then and there across the table, but fortunately Craighead's struck a deal with Percy Selections, which means these wines will be available for retail purchase stateside shortly. Do not sleep!
The Shaking Hand — 2018 Merlot
The first wine from New Zealand at Brumaire, meet the first wine from Outer Sunset at Brumaire! Hailing from the intersection of 43rd and Judah, Shaking Hands is a Brumaire exclusive bottling from budding winemakers/established wine culturalists/occasional Sprudge contributors Kara Fowler and Connor Geraghty. “We just made some wine to share with friends,” Fowler told Sprudge from across the table in the downstairs “Youth Movement” section of Brumaire. Shaking Hands as a brand is brand new; the wine came from fruit they found on Craigslist, from a one acre “organic by accident” vineyard in the mid-90s out near San Jose. I think this was meant to be kind of a fun splash for the party times but I find myself thinking about it now, that good-ass natty California merlot, so drinkable and chuggable and soif-fy and refreshing. I want to grill a dozen portabella mushroom caps and glaze them all with balsamic vinegar and work my way through that bottle with a couple of friends. It will not be sold; this is a backyard project. Ah, life!
Marina Kurtanidze — Mtsvane “Marina”
The Georgian contingent were out in force at Brumaire, led of course by Chris Terrell of Terrell WInes, an importer responsible for so much of the new Georgian winemaker access in the United States and beyond. It's typically tough to pick any one particular Georgian wine for recap purposes, but this weekend Marina Kurtanidze's namesake bottling, Mtsvane “Marina” made the choice a no-brainer. There is this lovely taut electricity to the wine, yet at once it is a savory sort of pink-ish thing. Like shrimp crudo with grapefruit, maybe, or licking a piece of rose quartz. Just stunning.
Sonoma Mtn. Winery — 2018 Chardonnay
It's not out yet but wow wow wow the 2018 Chardonnay from Nic Coturri‘s Sonoma Mtn. Winery is going to be, as the kid's say, a banger. Like somebody bottled California sunshine without a touch of light pollution. A light beam. Watch for all the 2018 Coturri the Younger releases, this 2018 California fruit is the stuff of dreams.
Frenchtown Farms — 2018 “Pearl Thief”
Made with that good cult fruit out in North Yuba, the Bienstockytes at Frenchtown Farms change up the blend each year for their white bottling “Pearl Thief.” In past year's there's been a bit of Viognier in the mix, but at Brumaire they're pouring a 70% Sauvignon 30% Roussanne expression of the storied Renaissance site. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream sprinkled served with a good outdoor grown joint. Sign me up!
Fable Farm Fermentory — “Fluxion III”
The most incredibly Vermontian beverage imaginable: a pet nat apple wine, made using maple syrup dosage. Drinks deceptively dry, but with the most lovely naturally sweet finish that would be absolutely lovely with cheese and grilled bread. This was Fable‘s first year at Brumaire and everything on the table popped. Highly recommended, if you can find it!
Cote des Cailloux – Sonoma Valley Syrah
Another stunner from the Coturri orbit, this time made in collaboration with French ex-pat Jacques Mathieu, who came to Glen Ellen in the early 90s. I'd heard the buzz but never before personally tried these wines, so cheers and kudos to Brumaire for putting them on for the show. Don't let the traditional French labels and Mssr. Mathieu's reserved demeanor fool you: this was some of the coolest wine I tasted at the show, showing well across a range of bottles and vintages. My personal favorite was the Syrah, vinified with just a scratch—perhaps 1% total— of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, helping lift the wine into a stunning round sweetness. My notes say “tastes like Syrah in a good mood” and that just about gets it!
Marto — “Weiss”
Agua! Purest agua, clean and cool! The talk of the show, the buzz of the natural wine kids, from the very hot right now Rheinhessen natural wine scene comes this lovely field blend of German white varieties. A bit of Muller Thurgau, yes. Some Riesling in there too, for sure. But it's a “field blend” through and through so who knows what else—there was too much of a party around this particular table to get in a word edgewise. Yes, in 2019 the coolest table at the Oakland natural wine fair was a bunch of dudes from Germany. Go figure! But oh this wine, I can taste it now… the tang, the sweet, the clean, the glug. All gone, back for more… I'd have drunk it all if there weren't so many other tables to see. Bravo Mato!
Oriol Artigas — “Beier”
I was bummed to miss the great Catalan winemaker Laureano Serres at this year's Brumaire, his wines being a major highlight of previous fests. But proudly holding the Catalan flag was winemaker Oriol Artigas, who makes wine in Alella, around 10 miles north of Barcelona. This is an ancient wine growing region which means they've still got some rare and unfucked with grape varieties, including Beier—Artigas is making some of the only 100% Beier wine in all of Spain. To me this tastes almost like a Spanish Zweigelt, tons of zippy minerality and freshness, perfect apertivo wine and blind almost rosé-like. Fresh light delicious red wine from Catalan, yes please.
Artemis Botanical Wines — “Gardener”
Last but definitely not least, the lovely aromatized wines of Artemis, a brand new don't-call-it-vermouth winemaking concern from Ian McCarthy, of Sharpshooter Traveling Cocktail Bar. This was the very first time an aromatized winemaker poured at Brumaire, and all three offerings with gob-smackingly moreishly good. Even after a long lap upstairs, these wines popped on the palate. Tough picking one but I especially enjoyed the white blend “Gardener”, made from Verdelho and Marsanne grape base soup'd up with quince, wormwood, dittany rue—a retinue of obscure herbs and balms to make the Christ child blush. Perfect neat, but I'd guess even better with a little Topo Chico, this is so very much what I want to be drinking at the end of the evening. Artemis is brand new, and their opening run of lines will be painfully limited, but I suggest following them on Instagram and sniffing around Ruby Wine and Ordinaire for upcoming releases. So good!