An East Sac Couple Begins a Foray into the World of Wine
Words: Susan Brown, CSW / Photos: Penny Sylvia
On a recent 40° morning I wrested myself out of my cozy bed to make the trek to the Sierra Foothills, specifically the El Dorado American Viticultural Area (AVA). On the drive east from Downtown Sacramento I started craving apple pie and greasy cider donuts.
My Pavlovian response was obviously due to years of Apple Hill decadence: Highway 50 + El Dorado County + Local Fruit Crop = Apples, right? I needed an early a.m. adjustment to something more relevant, like: Grapes + Elevation + Perfect Climate = Tasty Regional Wine.
That adjustment finally arrived on the winding backroads where I spotted my destination in the distance: row after row of grape vines, standing like soldiers in formation. As I ascended the hill to Barnum Vineyard, gravel crunched beneath my tires, serving as an unmistakable signal of the transition from city life to the peaceful pace of life on a family farm.
For the ambiance alone, it’s easy to see why East Sac residents Christopher and Natasha Barnum decided to mix it up a bit and combine a life of urban domesticity near McKinley Park with a back-to-the-land experience on a pastoral vineyard in El Dorado County. The vistas are gorgeous and the setting is meditative and refreshing.
In January 2012, along with their business partners Peter Barnum and Sean Costanzo, the couple purchased 70+ acres of established Barbera grapes in El Dorado County with the intent of making wine. Peter is Christopher’s younger brother and is a designer and builder in Aptos. Along with his wife, Nicole, and sons Jack and Samson, Peter heads out to pitch in on the farm when he can. Sean is an old Army buddy of Christopher’s and works for the U.S. State Department. He is currently posted abroad, but when he’s stateside, he comes for weeks at a time to work at the vineyard. Without a drop of enology or viticultural experience amongst the lot, everyone is learning ala “baptism by fire.”
Christopher was born in New York and raised in the small seaside town of Madison, Connecticut. A former Green Beret, he is currently a structural engineer with McGinnis Chen Associates. He’s long been a garden hobbyist, and has background knowledge in the areas of geology, chemistry, turf management and plant biology. Anyone familiar with the world of wine knows that interdisciplinary knowledge is key, and combined with his green thumb, Christopher was primed for this new project. He has a palatable tenor of individuality and significant pride in this new business.
Natasha is spirited and adorable; her smile lights up a barrel room, and she has a cool and eclectic history. Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, she spent most of her childhood between Caracas and Washington, DC, where her father was a diplomat. She spent part of her high school years in Brussels and Madrid; she is fluent in three languages and has a working knowledge of two others.
No stranger to hard work, she studied international relations at Georgetown and ultimately worked as an account executive for a tech firm. It was while in DC that she met Christopher. They married in 2002 and have two darling boys: Theodore (5) and Eli (3). In 2010 the Barnums relocated to East Sac. Lacking Christopher’s green thumb, she decided it was in their best interest for her to take part in Soil Born Farms’ Urban Farming Program. She says that the hands-on experience she gained at Soil Born gave her the working knowledge to interact with their vineyard manager, Bill Naylor, and speak knowledgeably on the topics of soil, fertility, irrigation and cover crops.
Traveling back and forth each week between their urban and agrarian neighborhoods, the Barnums confess their endeavor is intense, but worth the effort. In addition to their passionate desire to create a lifestyle rooted in the foothills wine community, the Barnums want their children to have the opportunity to spend their childhood roaming the land; the vineyard serves as a never-ending classroom and playground. Watching the boys dashing through the vines, tending to the animals and hiking all around in their tiny work boots, it’s clear that these little guys are thriving.
At an early age, they are gaining an understanding of their family’s business. Theo mentioned how you have to protect “the grapes from the birds” and Eli told me he likes “Bahbearwa” and that his “boots get dirty when he comes out to the farm.” Whenever grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends are in town, it’s out to the farm. Family buy-in has been just as Christopher and Natasha had dreamed it would be. Creating this opportunity for their entire extended family to enjoy the land together was a top priority. Come early summer, those gatherings will include one more. The Barnums are expecting their third child, a perfectly timed addition for a vineyard family who starts their harvest in August!
An aspect of the vineyard that was appealing for the Barnums was its age. Planted in 1970, the vines are dark and gnarly, reminiscent of tree trunks you might see in a haunted forest. The message vines like these send is “Hey, I have some tasty potential.” In a nod to their quality, the grapes from this particular vineyard were purchased and used for 15 years by Boeger Winery. Barbera grapes like elevation but also a touch of heat and the Barnum property has both. Wines from this grape have a gorgeous color and are popular everyday food wines. Barbera can tend to be high in acid and it is low in tannins, but when given a good site to grow on, and when it is nurtured gently, followed by a skillful vinification process, it can become a splendid wine.
Christopher and Natasha are becoming entrenched in the contemporary wine community that now exists in the foothills. The Barnums wanted this venture to be successful from the start, and they knew the key to that would be bringing on the right people to make the right wine: a wine that speaks of its place. The vineyard is currently tended by foothills resident, grape grower and manager Bill Naylor. Throughout the seasons he ensures that the vines are properly pruned, canopy-managed, irrigated and harvested.
Naylor farms his own wine grapes in Fairplay and is well known for his research-based techniques. He consults with Christopher frequently and they make decisions together regarding grapes growing throughout the seven different microclimates found on the property. Bill has been the Barnums’ teacher, and according to Christopher and Natasha, most everything they know about day-to-day oversight of this vineyard is due to the expertise he has shared.
The Barnum vines have always been head trained. The orientation of the rows provides optimal ventilation conditions for valley winds and the various slopes throughout the vineyard allow for differing and effective sun exposure. They prune to two canes and grow two bunches of grapes per cane. This relatively straightforward way of training helps with easier access for pruning, cultivation and harvest. The vineyard receives irrigation only when necessary, and the Barnums have chosen to not use ground chemicals. In addition to disking they use their nine sheep and one llama for weed control as well as for healthy doses of natural fertilizer.
This fall they pulled 22 tons of grapes from the vineyard, last year it was 16. They keep a little less than half for their own wines, and sell the remainder. They are beginning to think of other varietals and have begun the process of rooting Viognier, which they will ultimately plant onsite.
With each passing month the Barnums learn more about their land. It can take years to get to know a vineyard; slowly but surely they are taking in the vast information regarding drainage, wind patterns, sun exposure and the soil health of each row of their vineyard. It won’t be long before they know every vine.
Someone who really likes these particular grapes is Paul Einbund. Paul is a trained sommelier and beverage director for the Michelin one-star-rated Frances restaurant in San Francisco. He also makes his own Barbera under the label Seam; one of the places he is buying his grapes from these days is Barnum Vineyards. Paul is especially fond of how the vineyard has its own nuances, and he looks forward to a long working relationship with this unique property, that in his words “has huge potential.”
Their Red Bucket Barbera and Rosé wines are currently produced at Miraflores winery in Placerville. Another one of those “right people” they brought on was local consulting winemaker Marco Cappelli. A UC Davis graduate in enology, Marco has been with Miraflores since 2003. Previously, he made wines for Saintsbury Winery in Carneros and Swanson Vineyards in Rutherford. Marco not only lives in El Dorado County, but also grows his own vines, producing wines under his own label, Cappelli Ranch. The fact that Marco grows and produces his own wine in the area no doubt contributes to part of the camaraderie that the Barnums have felt.
The facilities at Miraflores are exactly what the Barnums need at this point in their enterprise. The custom-crush winemaking facility is able to accommodate their harvest from grape to glass. In a way, Christopher is the apprentice now, learning all the secrets of the trade and participating to some extent as Marco creates a flavor profile that is distinctive and representative of what the Barnums want to see in their Red Bucket wines.
When they took me over to Miraflores I could see more clearly what this whole venture is all about for them: The Barnums love the grape growing, winemaking lifestyle. They REALLY love it. They meandered knowingly through the industrial chaos you find in the back of any wine production site. They exuberantly entered the winery, knew where each barrel of their wine was stacked, and while Christopher grabbed glasses and began the task of lining up barrel samples, Natasha greeted cellar assistant Fernando Abarca with a huge smile, slipping effortlessly into Spanish as she communicated with him in his native language. They have created a whole new community for themselves, one of winemakers, farmers and cellar rats. They appear to fit seamlessly
Christopher and Natasha were like kids in a candy shop while Fernando siphoned off barrel samples of their wines so they could swirl, sniff and taste the fruit of their labor. While they shared their wines with me I thought about how some Italian red varietals can be aggressively acidic and astringent, and how that profile can sometimes prove to be a bit much for the average American palate. With the techniques used to produce Red Bucket, a keen attention to proper yield and sugar levels at harvest, as well as neutral oak aging, this Barbera’s richness is improved and its astringency reduced.
I’ve always considered Barbera to be a gentle giant. Red Bucket 2012 Barbera is medium-bodied, dry and smooth; it is bold with its own fruity charm and a softly oaked personality; it doesn’t overpower. It speaks of its place and of the hands that have touched it. Mike Compton, wine buyer for Compton’s Market in East Sacramento agrees. He says the Red Bucket Barbera is a good wine. It is very palatable, pleasant to drink and has a nice finish. He says he doesn’t buy anything he doesn’t like and it’s now part of his local inventory, so that says a lot.
Red Bucket wines may soon show up in another local spot. A few months back, Christopher dropped off some of his new Barbera at the popular East Sac eatery, One Speed. He asked famed owner Rick Mahan, also of the highly regarded The Waterboy restaurant, to give his wine a try. With no tasting notes to refer to, Rick remembers the wine as solid, especially considering it was a first attempt by this label. He says Christopher is a great guy and a nice addition to the foothill wine gang; there may even be a coveted spot waiting for them on the One Speed wine list!
The other wine Natasha and Christopher produce is Red Bucket Rosé. The 2012 rosé is made in a European style that is dry and crisp. It is a gorgeous shade of dark salmon and demonstrates a youthful sophistication. Derived from Barbera, this wine is perfect at the table, inside or out. You can order both wines through the website RedBucketWine.com or email Christopher at email@example.com. He’s happy to help you acquire either one of his wines… because that’s what those dedicated wine guys do.