They Packed Up Their Lives to Make Wine—A California Dream Fraught with Wildfire
Ashanta winemakers Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta roam California looking for unexpected vines to make zero-zero natural wine.
Fire seems to follow Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta. Or perhaps that’s just what it means these days to be a winemaker in the West.
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A week after the couple packed their entire lives into storage and whatever else fit in their car, the Bobcat Fire swept through the San Gabriel Mountains, charring more than 100,00 acres of chaparral and brush above Los Angeles. The pair, who also work in film, had just foraged elderberries in the area for their first pét-nat.
With L.A. in the rearview they headed for Sonoma Valley, where Ashton-Lewis’ family has been farming since the ’70s. Fire met them there. In the wee hours of the morning, they watched as a red ember glow from the LNU Lightning Complex spread across the valley.
“Wow, what have we done?” Basanta recalls thinking. “We just gave up our perfectly fine shelter in Los Angeles to move up here.”
They’d come to hone their craft, an interest sparked years earlier when the Nuns Fire tore through the family farm. And after Ashton-Lewis’ grandfather died—the person she’d anticipated learning from—she made a brief trip to Sicily to shadow a family friend. The next year, she and Basanta made their first barrel on the property mostly using unpicked Syrah saved by way the winds drove the fire’s path. But they wanted to do more.
The duo pitched a tent during harvest at natural winemaker Tony Coturri’s vineyard, a few minutes up the hill. As they rose to make food each morning, they found themselves the beneficiaries of a “two-hour lecture” on natural winemaking, Ashton-Lewis says. It was a like “crash course,” Basanta quips. “With the Godfather,” Ashton-Lewis adds with a laugh. Coturri told them: If you can make stew, you can make wine.
They’ve released several zero-zero wines under their Ashanta label, which are at once approachable and forward-thinking. The elderberries were used in a French Colombard co-ferment so juicy you might almost forget you’re drinking natural wine (in the best way, until you realize you’ve drank more than half the bottle by yourself). A rosado pairs perfectly with a last-minute decision to hit up the pool at a Los Angeles boutique hotel on a warm afternoon.
Now, the couple is splitting harvest between northern and southern California to work with the “full spectrum” of what the state has to offer, Ashton-Lewis says. It’s like the ultimate California Wine Dream, though not without challenges due to historic wildfires and drought. “How long will it be able to sustain itself?” Ashton-Lewis asks.
The couple continues to look for new and unexpected areas to find grapes, from the San Diego-Mexico border to “abandoned” vineyards in L.A. How long they’ll continue to rove, only time will tell.