As many of you know, my day job is at Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, South Carolina where I am the wine director for our flagship restaurant and manager of our wine shop/bar Edmund’s Oast Exchange. One of my favorite job perks has to be meeting winemakers and hosting wine dinners at the restaurant. We are hosting just such a dinner on Thursday, February 27, with California’s INNATE Wines. Founder and winemaker Nathan DeCamps, is a native South Carolinian and has become a great friend, and it has been thrilling to watch him bring his dream to life.
See, Nate was actually beginning his fourth year of medical school when he left to pursue his true passion: wine. Today, he spends most of his time in California and is putting the finishing touches on his fourth vintage. He seeks out lesser known grapes (think Tocai Friulano, a native grape of northeastern Italy; Arneis, a native white grape of northwestern Italy; Mourvedre, a native grape of southern Spain; and others). And he is very particular in his sources, finding naturally farmed vineyards in lesser known California regions like the Sierra Foothills, San Benito County, and Happy Canyon. He then uses minimal intervention in the cellar to make fresh, pure wines that pair beautifully with food. (If you have heard the buzz word "Natural Wine" these wines most definitely fall into that category!)
I recently had the chance to catch up with Nate and dive deeper into his story and the inspiration for his outstanding wines. Keep reading to learn more.
And for more information on the dinner click here.
Okay set the scene for us, we know from your bio that you were in medical school when you decided to forego all that hard work and head to California to make wine. How did this come about? Was there one pivotal aha moment (or bottle)?
Well, first of all I assure you there were many bottles! And I was constantly thinking about wine, grape growing, and fermentation while wearing the white coat. However, the impetus was my grandmother's death. I decided life was too short, and to change directions. Right then, I decided to go after what was my utmost passion, and use my talents in a way that would give me the most rewarding life. The day after her funeral I drove across the country, with no job or housing, to the Napa Valley to learn more and start this new adventure.
Did you grow up in a family of wine lovers?
My family appreciates grape growing and wine making. We grow Muscadine and Scuppernong grapes and make homemade wine. So, from that standpoint you could say I come from a family of wine enthusiasts, especially on the production side. From a very young age I remember crushing grapes and the smell of fermentation in an empty garage! To this day I still prune the family vines, but have handed over the winemaking duties to a longtime family friend. However, on the other hand we did not have wine on the table at night or a large collection. During my childhood my physician father was on call most of the time, and this was not feasible. Only when I went away to college did I start to delve into the classics and beyond.
What have been the most inspiring wines to you? Regions? Producers? Both?
Vaguely, any producers who make high quality wine while not over manipulating the fruit thus allowing true expression of the vineyard. While I do enjoy some amount of funk in certain hands-off wines, I do not like overtly flawed wines for the sake of being “natural” (or insert most current buzzword). Some producers that inspire me, and that I consume regularly include: Christian Tschida and Gut Oggau from Austria, Jean Foillard and Yvon Metras from Beaujolais, Frank Cornelissen and Miani Pettarin from Italy, the Loire Valley, and Champagne.
Also, long term skin contact wines which are transformed into something more than the original grape almost transfix me. The effort and dedication to the wines is almost like a pilgrimage. I must have Josko Gravner’s amphora aged wines, and Movia Lunar on a regular basis.
We know that you are into lesser known grape varieties and lesser known regions. How did this come about? Did you ever consider just making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma?
The wines I make directly reflect those which I enjoy consuming. I’m sure it sounds crazy to some business owners but there was never any business plan or meeting at all over this. That’s one benefit of being the sole employee! To achieve this, vineyard site is critical and a limiting factor. Not only are some of these grapes difficult to find, but it’s imperative to have healthy vineyards that produce fruit that not only physiologically ripen at lower brix, but also maintain an abundance of acidity. This allows me to make wines with no additions or subtractions.
One decision from the beginning was that I was only going to make 100% varietal wines from single vineyards. Therefore, there is no “hiding” a flaw by toning it down or bulking it up with other juice.
Describe your first year of making wine on your own. Was it terrifying?
I knew exactly the three wines I wanted to make (Tocai Friulano, Arneis, and Mourvedre). I also was not overly worried about the winemaking, in fact I was excited. What was terrifying was choosing the vineyards. I was like the character in the film “A Beautiful Mind”. The incalculable hours, maps, and research that went into that first year’s vineyards was on the verge of insanity.
I always over research, over analyze, and over scrutinize. I knew if I messed the vineyard up I was doomed before I started. I could taste the wines in my head; I just needed the correct fruit. The decision of choosing vineyards is always perhaps the most difficult, important, and is something I work on all year.
How have things evolved since that first year? How have you decided which sites to work with?
For wines that I continue to make, I have forged lasting relationships with the owners and growers of the vineyard. Many of whom have become good friends. In addition, I look to trusted colleagues for advice.
When looking at a vineyard, even if it is a completely different grape varietal, I will taste and evaluate as many wines from that vineyard as possible. Sometimes, I remember vineyards from past wines and write them down.
I was up one night and remembered a wine I had in Yountville several years earlier. I tracked down the vineyard, and after visiting the area, found a neighboring vineyard who happened to have a particular rare grape I wanted. The vineyard sits stunningly on a peninsula but did not sell fruit! After visiting several times I was able to be the first person to get this beautiful and quite rare fruit.
All of my vineyards to date have come from cool climate areas, either close to the ocean, in a canyon, or high in the mountains. I also like vineyards that have a large diurnal change (day to night temperature difference). There are so many variables when looking at potential vineyards like soil, soil, soil, spacing, slope, row orientation, trellising, age of vine, dry farming, microclimate, and countless others. They all make a difference.
Finally, the people! Who are the owners, and how sustainable/organic they farm their grapes. Their dedication to farming, dropping fruit, and canopy management. You can see the passion in vineyard owners and managers, when they are excited to show you their vines and lovingly tell you about them. When they have pride in their vineyard it matters. All of these factors are directly manifested in the vineyard, the fruit that it bears, and resulting wine you ultimately consume.
I know it’s hard to choose favorites, but what are your two current favorites in your lineup?
Ouch, this is tough! I think my wines for the most part are quite old world in style, benefiting from bottle aging. With that said, currently the 2016 Arneis, and the 2017 Mourvèdre, which has just come into its window, are both drinking beautifully right now.
Your wines most definitely strike me as “food wines” meaning that they are even better at the table paired with a meal. Do you have any favorite pairings for your own wines?
I agree in the sense that they are not cloying, have great acidity, lower alcohol, and absolutely zero residual sugar, all of what I want in a “food wine”. However as far as pairings, I’m no help at all. I like each one with everything! I will leave you to your own creativity.
Beyond being plain delicious your wines stand out for their beautiful labels that are sketches by a Charleston artist, Whitney Lejeune. How did you decide on this direction for your labels?
I believe as each wine is unique, so should be every label. Even if I make the same varietal in different vintages they are innately different. For this reason I knew a stable graphic designed label would not appeal to me. I have collected art of the female form since college, and have amassed quite a wide and varied collection. When I was beginning my winery, I saw an oil painting of a female by Charleston artist Whitney LeJeune at ArtFields in Lake City, South Carolina.
Afterwords, I approached Whitney with the idea of commissioning original oil paintings for use as my wine labels. I speak to her about the wines in humanistic terms rather than flavor, and she composes the corresponding “woman”. Her paintings are powerful and emotional, and I’m happy to have them compliment my wines.
Further, we have a great friendship. I never see the oils before they are completed and she somehow always captures the essence of the wine.
Also, how about the name “INNATE Wines”? Obviously, it’s play on your own name. But what does the word innate mean to you within the context of your wine project?
Ha! Most people think the winery’s name is a play on my name. However, when I came up with the name I never made the association. Even after running it by family and close friends no one said anything. Now it’s common to get this question. The name refers to allowing each grape the ability to express their INNATE attributes and characteristics. This refers to my single varietal, single vineyard, ultra low manipulation winemaking. I simply want you to have the INNATE qualities of that grape, from that place, from that year, fermented with care on your table.
And finally, any major goals for 2020? It’s obviously a big year for you. Your wines are hitting the market in your home state of South Carolina, and I imagine you will soon be expanding to other states as well. Give us some insight into what it takes to develop a wine business since you are essentially a one man show?
For 2020 I see the brand getting into the marketplace on a much larger scale. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive! I have a great distributor (Grassroots) in South Carolina and am planning on doing a state-wide tour with them in April. Before that I am bottling some really exciting wines bringing my total up to 13, something I am very proud of. New to distribution, and currently only in South Carolina, it is already apparent I want to vigorously seek other states. Along with winemaking, I enjoy doing events with the distributor, charitable events, and wine festivals, such as the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.
(To learn more about our dinner with Nate click here.)
(To learn more about natural wines; read my previous blog by clicking here.)