Our Grapes Just Need to Have Sex, Kathryn Coker and Adam Huss Talk Wine

Wine label for Centralas’ Piquette wine, illustrated by Emily Reay

On a neat block in Crenshaw -- tidy houses with sun baked yards, silver LAX planes hanging overhead--Adam and Wendy Huss' house stands out with a crazy scribble of grapevines, low-hanging pomegranates, a soaring lemon tree, bright Hachiya persimmons, and avocados hiding in thick leaves.  

Adam, the winemaker behind South Central's Centralas, is quick to smile as he leads me past the weathered sign by the front door -- Welcome to Crenshaw Cru--and shows me into the house. It's cool and dim, crowded with boxes of his latest creation: Sublemonal, a wine amazingly made with just ‘lemons and sunshine.' A small white cat hunches on one of the couches, gravely checking me out.

"Want a kitten?" Adam says only half-kidding. Stray kittens show up at his door, and now he has a territorial problem with his resident cat--'like living in a war zone.'

You can see why they come. The backyard is a tiny Eden, exploding with more grapevines, peppers, apples, tomato plants, and thrumming with bees and hummingbirds. Adam has worked hard on this soil, coaxing it back to life the past 11 years with regenerative practices, and it shows. Centralas' actual winemaking goes on in Adam's Moorpark facility, but he sources fruit (not only grapes) from vineyards, farms and wild spaces all around L.A., including his yard.

There's been much talk about the term 'regenerative' lately, and how it leaves out that same practices have been used by indigenous farmers for millennia. As Chris Newman says in Civil Eats' 'Does Regenerative Agriculture Have a Race Problem?' by Gosia Wozniacka, "all of these practices are part of Indigenous land management, and yet they get presented like somebody just figured them out overnight.” Adam is white in a historically Black neighborhood and, yes, his practices are regenerative, but he's also inviting in his community in so many ways.

"I feel incredibly fortunate to live where I live," he says. "And so, I relate to my neighborhood with gratitude and humility, knowing I have tons to learn. My own family history and values made me a person who values diversity, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in LA. My friends, family (including my wife), and neighbors who are not white have expanded awareness in ways I consider to be the most important and meaningful elements in my life. When I make wine from Crenshaw Cru, my yard, I want it to be something that my neighborhood can have a sense of pride in. Several of my neighbors have become friends, some are members of my wine club, and a few have their artwork on Centralas wine labels. I'm proud to be from here and want to share the beauty of my corner of LA."

Kathryn and Adam talk wine at Centralas, photos by Alan Gastelum

I sit down next to his trellis, and Adam pours me a glass of lemon wine. It tastes bright, delicious, sunshine-y and tart. Kathryn Coker arrives, calling out through the house and joining us in the back. A Food & Wine 2017 Sommelier of the Year, the Wine Director here at Rustic Canyon Family Group, and co-owner of Esters Wine Shop and Bar, she's wearing a sailor top and jeans, a headband working overtime to hold back her curls. They both have podcasts. Kathryn's is The Long Finish, with Tug Coker, her husband, and Adam helms Beyond Organic Wine.  

'It's a hang, really," she says about hers. "The idea is to join us at the end of the day as we talk about everything, but really about wine. Adam's is the real deal. He goes deep and interviews the most amazing people."

 "It's my grad school," Adam says.

 For the next two hours it's my pleasure to ask questions of these two. The conversation twists this way and that and then over the trellis like a curious vine.

 ELA: So... what’s up in the wine world right now?

KATHRYN: It's changing. From where I see things, people aren’t buying expensive wine like they used to.  They’re not interested in spending $5000 for a bottle of DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti widely considered the world's most expensive wine) or $1000 for a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux. The older generations aren’t drinking as much.  And most millennials don’t want to spend a lot of money on building their cellars.  All the studies are showing that wine sales peaked five years ago...and yet it also seems like we also have this generation of 22-year-olds who drink a lot of wine. But they don't drink the same stuff, right?  They’re into natural wines, some classic wines, mostly whatever is new and fresh.

ADAM: There's the opportunity right there. They see the writing on the wall with this society, like the unsustainability of our culture, and they are eager for something different.

KATHRYN: We have to start by realizing that, so far, we've been looking at everything through a colonization lens, that idea that white people came along and dispensed civilization and progress. They made it better. And now we're finding out, with what's happening with the planet and the environment, that maybe they didn't entirely make it better, right? So that's also the moment we're at, a fact that's mirrored beautifully in the wine world and feels really important.

ADAM: Absolutely. I'm at this place of rethinking the entire wine industry from the ground up. And I think that, whether you come at it the way I did, deconstructing it and realizing it's necessary to work with nature, or whether you choose to hold on to your appreciation of European wine cultures, it's basically the same thing.

In Europe, they grew up the same way that I'm suggesting we grow. They didn't have fossil fuels to found their wine cultures. They were making the kind of wine that happened naturally in their area with the most consistency. This is what happened year after year as they tried making wines with grapes that grew well there.

That's what I'm proposing we do. And to do that, sadly, it will also mean toppling all of these investments in European varieties here, and that's not going to happen, because people are deeply invested in them, but it could happen because people lose interest, realizing that there's a whole other interesting way to build a wine culture from the ground up.

KATHRYN: I don’t have anything against Cabernet Sauvignon, but we need to reexamine why we're clinging to a past that's damaging our present. The obsession with Napa Cab reflects a historical infatuation with Bordeaux. It’s not helping us. We have to rethink what a good bottle of wine means.

ADAM: Yes, and it has to do with propaganda, and then with the marketing demands that followed the propaganda, because our entire wine industry, much like our country, is an English Colonial export. It's Eurocentric.  The English fetishized these European wine cultures, specifically France, but also other places where they had investments, like (Tokaji in) Hungary, Port in Portugal, and Madeira in Spain. They also built all the education, whether it's Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Those all originated in London and came with a classicist mentality.

Especially all this business about 'noble varieties,' and 'everything else is inferior,' and 'you should have only a racially pure species of grape.' I mean the whole idea of terroir was really  real estate investment propaganda, just like with the Grand Cru and Champagne. These First Growths and Grand Crus are insanely valuable real estate. And woven into it is that idea of the noble class and the castle on the hill.

So, we've inherited all these prejudices, and that's the sea change we're talking about, that finally people are getting to the point where we can actually talk about these things and understand that this whole industry is kind of antithetical to everything America stands for."

ELA: So, what exactly is a California wine?

KATHRYN: That’s such a good question. It’s still evolving. But I think the future will be about hybrid grapes. Most of the wine we taste or think about is from vitis vinifera species. Hybrids are v. vinifera crossed with a native grape, which is very useful because those grapes can be bred for different reasons, like cold, or drought. They take less cultivation, less pest management, less care. They just thrive.

ADAM: And you don't even have to have the organic conversation a lot of time because they know what to do. If you grew hybrids in California, you would never have to spray them. The reason the vitis vinifera grapes are so susceptible to pests is that they've been cloned. They haven't had sex for hundreds of thousands of years, if not thousands of years. Sexual reproduction is how adaptation happens. So, they're sexually frustrated. Their gene pool hasn't been stirred.

ELA: These are not happy grapes. But why don't people just switch to hybrids then?

KATHRYN: Because there's a history of people preferring vitis vinifera. People love pinot noir. People love cabernet sauvignon. They love what’s familiar.  And because wine is a big business, and there's so much money, it's hard to approach a farmer and say, 'You shouldn't do that!’  A winemaker knows they're going to get money for cabernet sauvignon, but they don't know if they'll get a dime for baco noir, or another other grape that might be more suited to the climate... I mean, money talks. There’s also the issue of people saying that hybrids are mousy, or foxy.

ADAM: Tens of thousands of grape varieties came from one species over the 8000 years of wine culture development, and we've just started in the last 250 years to tap into what's possible here. But I think we've passed the foxy stage. Those were the original hybrids, first-gen. All hybrids are not foxy; that's just misinformation and prejudice.

To me here's the model in California going forward: anytime you're replanting, stop. Replant with hybrids. Keep your old vinifera, but replant with grapes that are resilient, that you don't have to spray, and that do better with stress.

ELA: Kathryn, tell me about Adam and Centralas? What are you seeing here?

KATHRYN: What Adam is doing feels really essential. Number one is he's ecologically focused. His whole way of approaching wine is about the impact on the environment, and every single decision is factored into that, down to the weight of the glass and the cork.  I don't work with many wineries that are thinking on that level, so it's really exciting for me.

Also, the fruit he's choosing to use, whether it's grapes or some other kind, is chosen because it makes sense for where it's grown. It's grown from living soil.

And then there's the community aspect too. He’s here in LA. He's growing stuff in an urban environment while connecting with farmers doing excellent, really cool work.

The most important thing though is that the wines taste delicious. They don’t taste weird. They don’t taste like kombucha or like yesterday's something that was left out. They taste well made.

I have three tenets at Esters: number one is (the wine has to come from) a small winery. Two is it's really well-farmed, so at least it's chemical-free in the vineyard. And, ideally, it's organic or biodynamic or regenerative or dry-farmed. Number three is it has to be delicious, or it can't be on the shelf.

We all know there are urban wineries. There are some in LA, and Berkeley has a history of them... but how many urban wineries are practicing it in their home, making their living space a garden... Adam is building an ark for the future here.

My part is seeing his vision. With Esters Wine Shop, I have the watering hole. We carry Centralas on the shelves. We have Adam come pour for tastings. My job is to talk about the things that are important to me: small wineries, good farming and delicious wines.

There's also been this whole urban gardening boom for the last 10 or fifteen years. You can really get inspired, if you want. Why couldn't you do this too? Why couldn't you have a vineyard like this in your backyard?

Prickly Pear wine label. Illustrated by Emily Reay, graphic designed by Michael Rippens

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