Wine Making

Meet Ashanta, a promising new California winery that sources grapes grown in unexpected places


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Compared to most California winemakers, Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta have had a very different harvest season schedule this year.

In the city of Los Angeles, they picked grapes from abandoned vines near Dodger Stadium and tiny backyard vineyards planted by Italian immigrants during Prohibition. Near the California-Mexico border, they rounded up Nebbiolo. And in an area of ​​the San Gabriel Valley that burned down in last year’s wildfires, they searched for elderberries.

This adds to an eclectic array of fruit sources for Ashanta Wines, the couple’s fledgling label. Ashton-Lewis and Basanta say they’re drawn to sites like these, still largely unexplored by the California wine industry.

But the couple, whose inventive style has gained popularity in Bay Area wine destinations such as Valley Bar & Bottle and Ordinaire, aren’t just looking for novelty for novelty.

Will Basanta harvests a bunch of Pinot Noir at Ashton Vineyard.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

Yes, they make lovely wines Рlike a natural sparkling neon red of French Colombard and white grape elderberries, or a sparkling blend of apple cider and wine grapes. But they also make much more traditional wines: lively, tangy ros̩s and structured, full-bodied red wines that seem made to age.

And despite the fact that Ashanta wines are zero zero – the most radical branch of natural winemaking, involving no additions or chemical adjustments – you wouldn’t be able to tell by tasting them. So far, their wines are clean and concentrated.

For two newbies who only have a few years of winemaking experience, Ashton-Lewis and Basanta hope for a bright future.

“When you make natural wine, there can be a flaw,” says Basanta, referring to a host of bacterial issues that can arise under this low-intervention winemaking protocol, imbuing a wine with flavors that some people find it off-putting. “This is not what we are looking for. We never want to be the funkiest bottle on the shelf.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis of Ashanta Wines harvests Pinot Noir grapes at Ashton Vineyard, owned by his grandmother.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis of Ashanta Wines harvests Pinot Noir grapes at Ashton Vineyard, owned by his grandmother.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

Ashton-Lewis intervenes: “We really just want to make classic reds.”

The story behind the couple’s wine project involves an unusual and complicated story, stemming from a family vineyard planted on Sonoma Mountain in 1974.

After Ashton-Lewis grandparents Stephen and Justine Ashton planted pinot noir grapes around their house, they first sold their harvest to local wineries like Gundlach Bundschu. Eventually they started producing their own wine under their own label, Ashton Vineyard. As a child, Ashton-Lewis, who grew up in Oakland, watched his grandparents take care of the vineyard.

Then in 2017, the Sisters fire swept through the property, destroying their house and 80% of their Pinot Noir vines. The fire also burned down all equipment – from projectors to film archives – the Ashtons used for the annual Wine Country Film Festival, an event they had hosted for 31 years. Part of the vineyard with Syrah vines has survived.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis (right) pauses grape picking to talk to her grandmother Justine Ashton.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis (right) pauses grape picking to talk to her grandmother Justine Ashton.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

“We were evacuated for three weeks,” says Justine Ashton. “When we were finally reinstated, it was a burnt field. We have lost everything. We thought, ‘Dang, this is the end of this story.’ “

The following year, her husband died of cancer.

In 2019, Ashton Vineyard’s future was uncertain, according to Ashton-Lewis. Her grandmother did not know if she wanted to replant the portions of vines that had burned, or even continue to make wine. At the end of the harvest season that year, there was still a considerable amount of fruit hanging from the vines.

“The birds were going to eat the grapes,” says Ashton-Lewis. So she and Basanta, who lived in Los Angeles and worked in the film industry – he’s a director of photography, she’s a writer – went to Sonoma.

Neither had made wine before, but both had had a passion worth trying for years. Ashton-Lewis dreamed of making wine since childhood; after the death of her grandfather, she felt moved to continue her legacy. Basanta became interested in wine while working on the documentary series “The Chef’s Table”, when he tasted a natural orange wine from Friuli at the famous Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana.

Will Basanta from Ashanta Wines throws the Pinot Noir in a trash can.

Will Basanta from Ashanta Wines throws the Pinot Noir in a trash can.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

The wine they produced from the Ashton Vineyard harvest in 2019 was only 300 cases, and since they did not produce it at a fully licensed winery, they weren’t licensed. to sell it. But a spark had ignited.

They convinced winemaker Tony Coturri to let them settle in his neighboring winery on Sonoma Mountain. The facility was attractive not only because of its proximity, but also because of Coturri. He has been making natural wines since the 1970s and mentored many young winegrowers at that time.

The more time the couple spent in Ashton Vineyard, which had been organically grown from the start, the more their reverence grew. Especially after having made a remarkable discovery: two years after the fire of the Sisters, new vines seemed to come out of the ground.

While walking one day through his grandmother’s vineyard, Ashton-Lewis stumbled upon something new: a little green sprout, the kind of growth one would expect to see out of a vine, but apparently no strings attached. Carefully, they retraced the shoot. It connected, via a slippery underground passage, to the base of the 52-year-old vines that had burned down.

“A fire is going through your vineyard and you think you’ve lost everything,” says Justine Ashton. “But the roots were fine. I guess that’s what happens in a forest after a forest burns down, ”the flames paving the way for new life.

Will Basanta and Chenoa Ashton-Lewis discovered hundreds of new vines growing from the ground a few years after the nuns fire swept through the Ashton Vineyard in 2017.

Will Basanta and Chenoa Ashton-Lewis discovered hundreds of new vines growing from the ground a few years after the nuns fire swept through the Ashton Vineyard in 2017.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

Ultimately, Ashton-Lewis and Basanta identified around 100 of these new shoots. They wrapped them around wooden stakes, coaxing their horizontally growing limbs into makeshift vertical trellises. Over the seasons, the shoots grew buds, which turned into flowers, which turned into fruits. This fruit entered the first wine of Ashanta, a co-fermentation of Pinot Noir and Syrah.

But the idea that they could continue to work the reborn vineyard soon faded. Justine Ashton and other family members decided to start making wine again, reviving the Ashton Vineyard wine label. There would be no grapes left for Ashanta in the 2020 vintage.

The couple, however, remained committed to starting a wine business. Like many residents of Los Angeles’ film industry, Basanta and Ashton-Lewis found themselves without a stable job for much of 2020. With more free time, they crossed the state, in search of wineries too. away than the counties of El Dorado and San Diego. From the sources they found, they produced 11 different wines last year.

Many are quite impressive. A cuvée called Mawu ($ 44), a blend of Merlot and Chardonnay harvested from the same Sonoma Valley vineyard, smells of cranberry sauce and rose hips; it reads like a charming red with a light body. The pet-nat ($ 40) made from elderberries and French Colombard, a white grape, is clean and pure, with a tangy strawberry puree taste. Zareen, a Zinfandel from the Sierra foothills, reminded me of blackberry jam when I tasted it in the barrel where it was aging. (He hasn’t come out yet.)

Will Basanta of Ashanta Wines rinses a trash can before filling it with freshly picked grapes.

Will Basanta of Ashanta Wines rinses a trash can before filling it with freshly picked grapes.

Alvin AH Jornada / The Chronicle Special

Some of these fruit sources were undoubtedly attractive for their affordability, especially elderberries from the San Gabriel Valley. Ashton-Lewis and Basanta fed them at no cost other than their gas mileage. But the couple also say they are attracted by vineyards that go off the beaten track. While they now buy grapes from some proven regions such as the Sonoma Valley, Sierra Foothills and Los Olivos of Santa Barbara County, they are also excited about the prospect of producing unique wines from places. where other winegrowers do not venture. , like those forgotten vineyards of the city of Los Angeles.

Circumstances dictated many of their winemaking decisions last year. They wanted to make piquette, a drink made by combining pressed grape skins with water, but they did not have access to high-quality water. So they replaced the water with apple juice, creating a kind of experimental fruit wine. Due to the widespread threat of the smoke smell from forest fires last year, they turned many of their vintages into sparkling wines, hoping that less grape skin extraction and a little carbonation would mitigate the effects. smoke.

As the 2021 harvest approaches, Basanta and Ashton-Lewis have assumed they will not get any grapes from the Ashton vineyard this year. So they had obtained enough fruit elsewhere to make about 1,000 cases of wine.

In early September, they received an unexpected call. There was Sonoma Mountain fruit for Ashanta after all. So Ashton-Lewis and Basanta spent a morning harvesting the vineyard, including the small pinot noir clusters from the staked vines they had discovered.

Their access to any Ashton grape next year is still uncertain. As veterans of the film industry, however, they are used to uncertainty. “We structured our lives around things that we thought were permanent and then they turned out not to be,” says Ashton-Lewis.

But, as she has learned, sometimes something new can pop up when you least expect it.

Esther Mobley is the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. E-mail: emobley@sfchronicle.com
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley


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