Madson: Natural wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains

Photo: Contributed

I first heard of Cole Thomas (Madson Wines) when friends took to New York City for RAW and Wild World - natural wine fairs that have become the gathering place for anyone who's making (or drinking) minimal intervention wine. Madson kept coming up so I took to Instagram to do some research.

The beauty of social media is that it has leveled the playing field - of course traveling to see wine regions and rub shoulders with producers is incomparable - but a quick DM can spark a virtual relationship that is the next best thing. Accessibility, especially in the natural wine community, is one of the hallmarks of the movement, and Instagram has propelled this ideal to the forefront.

You can follow the winery on Instagram at @madsonwines.

LM: How did you get into making natural wine? 

CM: I got into natural wine because I was making wine for many producers, both conventional and natural, and I found that the most interesting wines were the ones that were made naturally. I find that naturally produced wines are more expressive of the place and the vintage. When producers utilize native fermentations and do not add chemicals or fining agents the wines speak more about the vintage and less about the winemaker's recipe. LM: Why wine, and why natural wine?

CT: For me, wine was an obvious path (in retrospect) because I was raised in a family of artists and I started gardening and growing food from an early age. In college, I farmed annual crops including tomatoes and strawberries and then I met Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. I quickly realized that wine was a beautiful collaboration of agriculture and art. It was a perfect fit and I became obsessed.

LM: What's your response to the elitism/militant nature that is very prevalent within the natural wine community?

CT: I think elitism in natural wine (and conventional wine also) is isolating to our industry and disengages potential new wine drinkers. I imagine that a few interactions with elitist wine industry professional will push any new possible consumer away to IPAs. And that is a sad story! I think the wine industry as a whole could work on being more inclusive.

Photo: Contributed

LM: Who are some marquee producers people would be remiss to try?

CT: I might be slightly biased but I am pretty excited about the new natural wines coming out of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I think people should try Stirm Wines, Margins Wines, Florez Wines and Stagiare. From Santa Barbara County, I think people should try Lo-Fi Wines. From the Sierra Foothills, I think people should try End of Nowhere. All of these producers make really clean wines of place.

LM: What is your approach to making wine? How has that changed over time?  My approach is to express vineyards with freshness and exuberance by harvesting slightly earlier than many (especially California based) wineries. Another stylistic choice that defines my approach to winemaking is relying largely on whole cluster fermentations. These fermentations are not "punched down" in order to preserve different yeast strains in different locations in the vat. I have found that this increases the layers and complexity of the wine by allowing more native yeasts to be present simultaneously. After fermentation, we press to neutral oak barrels and puncheons. We want to showcase the vineyards so we do not overwhelm the wines with new oak.  LM: Who are your inspirations? 

CT: I have many inspirations but the first two that come to mind are Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Francois Millet of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue. Jeff has been making wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 1979 and he has been an incredible mentor to me- not only in wine but also just living and enjoying life.  Francois Millet of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue is a purist, the way he talks about the vineyards that he makes wine from... you would think he is talking about a person in his family. I have found this to be really important in the wines that I now make. Its important to listen to the vineyard, understand that you only have so much control in the vinification. 

Photo: Contributed

LM: Regions in your opinion that are killing it at the moment? CT: I appreciate cool climate expressions of wine. Outside of California, I think Central Otago is killing it for Pinot Noir. I think the Sonoma Coast, Mendocino Ridge, Santa Cruz Mountains and Willamette Valley are doing cool things (literally). I am seeing a lot of vignerons harvesting earlier and keeping natural acidity in the fruit and keeping ABV's lower than the previous generation. 

LM: What's next for your brand?  CT: Next for our brand is biodynamic farming. Our goal as a winery has been to take over farming practices in some of our favorite vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and convert them to organic agriculture. The next step is incorporating animals (sheep) and using biodynamic preparations in these vineyards. As a brand, we want to stick to our values of holistic agriculture, which results in a healthier vineyard environment and better wine. LM: What's a style you'd love to see go away? What's a style you think is going to be huge in the coming years?

CT: I appreciate most wine styles and think that each style has a place and can be interesting with the right food. With that said, I would be happy to see the "Robert Parker Style" of wine disappear. I do not appreciate syrupy, oaky, high alcohol, obtrusive, terroir-less, fruit bombs. On the other hand, I am super excited to see more Pet-Nats on the market!  The ones that are done well have great mineral components and luscious textures and will last a long time in the bottle without So2. 

Photo: Contributed

LM: What would be your elevator pitch to someone looking to getting into winemaking? Would you encourage or deter them? Why or why not?

CT: My elevator pitch would be to go work as many harvests as you can, for as many producers as you can! Learn and travel and have fun!  I would not deter anyone from this industry, unless their goal is to become wealthy. There are many reasons to make wine but money is not one of them.

Thank you Cole for taking the time to chat with me! Cheers!

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