Born and raised in Humboldt County, winemaker Pat Knittel found herself driving through Napa Valley’s famous vineyards one day and thinking about home. She’d crushed grapes from Sonoma to New Zealand, yet Knittel’s mind ran to Humboldt County’s legacy of apple orchards. Though best known for more herbaceous crops, Humboldt County’s apple history dates back to the early 20th century when Albert Etter put Humboldt on the map by patenting unique cultivars like Pink Pearl, Waltana, and the Wickson crabapple. Knowing this heritage, Knittel started imagining how the art of fermentation would translate from wine to hard cider. Her parents, recently passed, had left behind the family home in Freshwater, a farm town with more resident apple trees than people. With the house sitting empty, Knittel packed up her dogs and headed north. She knew there must more to the story.
In the past five years, Knittel has joined a new crop of Humboldt County winemakers who have kickstarted a revivalist wine scene on the North Coast. For her part, Knittel started making wine under her North Story label, along with a hard cider labeled Wrangletown—the historic place name of Freshwater—in 2015. Returning home with a depth of knowledge about winemaking, Knittel has been taken aback by the support of the community and the growing quality of wines emerging from Humboldt.
“There’s enormous potential in Humboldt to grow varieties that I love,” says Knittel, who bottles North Story Syrah, Pinot Noir, Carignan, Petite Sirah, and Vermentino wines. Knittel likes how the name piques everyone’s curiosity. She’s currently re-designing her label to feature aerial photos of the Humboldt Bay on each bottle. The geography of the North Coast outline will be familiar to locals; for others, the labels will resemble a map that points north.
“Cool-climate versus warm-climate is a huge factor in viticulture,” explains Knittel. Like many winemakers, she prefers the subtlety of cooler climate wines. For those not familiar with the binary of styles, grapes grown in “warm” regions (California’s Central Valley, Washington State, Australia, and some areas of Napa and Sonoma) yield extremely fruity and high-alcohol wines, which are dependably likeable by a wide swath of consumers. Meanwhile, cool-climate wines (Oregon, France, Germany, and coastal California) are known to be more expressive, a function of moderate temperature that allows bright acidity and non-generic flavors to develop freely. “Those are the wines that really flip my switch,” explains Knittel.
In her third year of production, Knittel is equally committed to craft cider, producing three orchard-designate ciders, a barrel-aged cider, and her original “farmhouse” dry cider. Lately, she’s been playing around with extended maceration (leaving the juice on the skins), allowing more complex flavors to develop, a technique typically reserved for red wine. The range of styles and raw quality of Knittel’s ciders are a direct reflection of her winemaking experience and intimate relationship with Humboldt County fruit.
“You make what’s best for the area,” says Knittel with a humble shrug. For North Story, that has means pinot from Ryan Vineyards in southern Humboldt and syrah from rural Orleans, located inland. Though each vineyard soaks up far more heat than Humboldt’s foggy coastline each summer, the growing season is distinctively shorter than California’s traditional winemaking regions. Along with Adrian Manspeaker, a Sonoma winemaker who produces three Humboldt-grown pinots for his label, Joseph-Jewell, Knittel characterizes Humboldt County as an up and coming region for pinot noir. Selling their wines in a competitive boutique marketplace, Joseph-Jewell describes their trio of Humboldt pinots as a style between the fruit-forward character of Sonoma and the subtlety of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “People love our Humboldt wines,” adds Manspeaker.
In Arcata’s historic Creamery District, Knittel’s neighbors at the Wrangletown/North Story facility are likely to agree. Jared Sandifer opened his “micro-winery” in Arcata in 2014, branding his new business, Septentrio. septentrio is a Latin term, loosely meaning both a constellation in the sky and the direction north. After learning to appreciating good wine at a young age, Sandifer fell into an opportunity to pick up some discount grapes and equipment while visiting his mom in Napa one year. Hauling the slightly overripe fruit back to Eureka, he crushed his first harvest and made pinot and tempranillo in his garage. By the next year, he was applying to get licensed and bonded, and Septentrio was born.
“Humboldt County is filled with brilliant people who moved here for the quality of life,” explains Sandifer. “But there’s not a great economy, so people have done creative things to get by.” He has found his creative passion in wine—he and his wife Tynel now also own a vineyard in southern Humboldt—and the couple is part of Humboldt’s entrepreneurial culture. “We get that cool fog that creeps at night,” explains Sandifer. “It’s great because pinot noir is a thin-skinned grape and can’t handle too much heat. I think Humboldt will be the next great wine region.”
As Humboldt’s reputation for craft beer, wine, cider, and food continues to grow, Septentrio is getting ready for visitors. In 2019, Sandifer and his wife plan on opening a new tasting room in Arcata, featuring wine tasting, including their newest release, a sparkling brut rose, and a Euro-Asian fusion food truck. The expansion goes hand-in-hand with Septentrio’s philosophy of enjoying the good life and showing off artisan side of Humboldt County.
A little farther north, Sonja Shaw and Jason Smith are the winemaker/proprietor duo of their own boutique sized winery, Flor d’ Luna. Located at their home among the apple orchards of Fieldbrook, Shaw and Smith started making wine to satisfy their own curiosity and love of good wine. Shaw is the winemaker, building on her lifelong love of food, gardening, and four semesters at UC Davis’s Extension program for enology and viticulture. Smith serves as Flor d’Luna’s assistant winemaker and manages the winery’s marketing and day-to-day operations. “We saw a lane for our style and our approach of wine,” explains Smith.
Flor d’Luna makes a small portfolio of wines from vineyards in both Humboldt County and as far south as Amador. “Access is challenging,” explains Shaw, citing competition and scale as their main challenges for expanding production. “As a winemaker, my job is to find good fruit and not mess it up,” says Shaw with a laugh. An avid home cook and self-identified foodie, Shaw compares winemaking to the basic steps of canning. “It’s preparing, caring for, and preserving the fruit,” she says simply.
While Flor d’Luna is focused on winemaking alone—the couple does not own a vineyard—they still cite several key advantages to making wine in Humboldt County. Shaw explains how the moderate temperature and higher humidity allow for gentler processes in the winery, helping to keep the wines from being over extracted. In regions where temperatures stay hot through September and October, it’s common for wineries to air condition grapes and water down wines (warmer weather = more sugar content = higher alcohol levels). “Our cooler nighttime temperatures really help keep acids up,” adds Shaw.
Focused on making their wine from the best grapes available, Flor d’Luna has bottled several varieties since the winery’s first vintage in 2013. So far, Flor d’Luna has earned a solid reputation for their merlot, sangiovese, rose, and of course, Humboldt pinot noir. While many winemakers can be shy in public, Flor d’Luna uses events to connect and educate people about their wines. “I love changing people’s impression and turning someone on to a new style of wine they think they don’t like,” says Shaw. “Our enthusiasm really goes a long way,” adds Smith.
Sitting outside the Fieldbrook Market, a rural general store that serves house-made beet burgers and local IPA, the couple keeps returning to their hope that wine can convey the specialness of Humboldt. A land perpetually described as rugged, Humboldt County is best known for its eccentricities, secrecy, and raw beauty. Wine has rarely been painted into the picture. Humboldt’s new crop of winemakers is young, optimistic, and eager to share a story of authenticity and distinction in every bottle.
Nora Mounce is a freelance writer specializing in telling stories about food, wine, recreation, cannabis and community. When not writing, Nora runs a vacation rental in her Victorian home in Eureka, California. Her perfect day includes a run in the redwoods, antique shopping with friends and making a pot homemade soup for dinner. She believes in working to preserve the beauty of Humboldt County by writing about local farms and food, rivers and redwoods, and strength of the community.