The Art of Problem Solving
Review of Walt Klenz lecture with Martha Stoumen
As someone who has studied viticulture and enology in both my bachelor’s and my current master’s program, I have learned that most grape-growing and winemaking is problem-solving. It’s up to the grape-grower and winemaker if they want to problem-solve proactively or reactively (or both), but trust me, the problems will come eventually and need solving—and you simply can’t prepare for them all.
So, when natural winemaking legend Martha Stoumen delivered the 2022 Walt Klenz Wine Business lecture, I was excited to hear about how she solves problems in the vineyards and the winery. As Stoumen discussed, traditional winemaking has its challenges, but natural winemaking has another set of challenges that allow her to think creatively and act with ingenuity while expressing northern California’s unique terroir in her minimal intervention wines.
An alumna of UC Davis who earned her Master of Science degree in Viticulture and Enology, Stoumen is a first-generation winemaker and grape grower. She has worked 18 harvests around the world and now owns and operates her eponymous winery and label. Stoumen launched her wine brand while still working full-time as an assistant winemaker for a natural winery, making her own wines during evenings and weekends in a basement. Stoumen referenced humble beginnings that were enabled by her frugality both in her personal life and in her business operations, citing that “great wine could be made with few means as long as the grapes were good.”
Stoumen shared some of the challenges she has experienced while owning her natural winery and her inventive solutions. For example, when determining which grapes to use for her wines, she proactively recognized that powdery mildew was her area’s worst disease pressure and realized that Nero d’Avola grapes have loose clusters that will be less susceptible to powdery mildew in the vineyard. And when she needed to transport her grapes into her basement, she rigged a tube through a window to funnel grapes into the makeshift winery.
When her winery flooded in the spring of 2019, she could not top up her wines, causing some of them to turn mousy, a wine fault that rendered the wines undrinkable. Instead of dumping her wine, the equivalent of months of hard work, she collaborated with a distillery to turn it into brandy and then blended in her own Orange Muscat juice, a delicious experiment born out of necessity but fueled by imagination. In 2020 when wildfires ravaged Northern California, Stoumen felt uncomfortable producing age-worthy red wines that might suffer from smoke taint, so she pivoted to create a wine spritzer called “Try It Out,” a product that enabled her small business to maintain its cash flow in such a tumultuous year.
Even as the Martha Stoumen brand has grown from the basement to its current winemaking cooperative, Stoumen has retained her inventiveness, transparency, resilience, and commitment to her values. She has shown that although you can’t always control your situation, you can control your reaction and problem-solve to make the best of it.
To view the video recording of the event, visit the Walt Klenz webpage.
Kendal Koorenny is a current master’s student in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis. She adores food, wine, and science and writing about it all! When she is not in class or working, you can find Kendal reading a book, crafting a new cocktail recipe, or spending time with her kitten.