Sparkling wine bottle conditioning technique on display at Charlie & Echo
San Diego’s larger-than-you-think wine industry has emerged from the shadow of craft beer, and it’s primarily thanks to a growing national reputation among fans of natural wines. Among the local wine labels getting notice is Charlie & Echo, an urban winery best known for making sparkling wines from San Diego-grown grapes, using only the yeasts found on their skins. However, on the side the Miramar winemaker has been pushing the boundaries of wine craft in directions more commonly associated with beer and cider.
8680 Miralani Drive, San Diego
Charlie & Echo cofounder Eric van Drunen has been making natural wine in San Diego since 2010, drawn to the idea that it brings unpredictability back to winemaking. He contends conventional winemakers have become so adept at using commercial additives, the resulting wines wind up tasting too similar. “You will always then put it wherever the focus group says it should be,” Van Drunen says, “You open up this whole drive towards creating very widely accepted, very commoditized, boring, redundant product.”
Cans of hard spritzer, a sparkling blend of wine, spring water, citrus fruit and cane sugar
By contrast, natural, or low intervention winemaking, finds charm in letting the grapes go unexpected directions, resulting in more distinctive character. And it’s not without risk. An extreme example is The Kraken, a sparkling red that accidentally introduced the concept of sour wine to Charlie & Echo’s portfolio. It was likely the result of a spoiled grape cluster tossed in the picker’s bin, which ruined other iterations of the same vintage. However, in this instance, the combination of wild yeast and bacteria yielded something special. “The Kraken came out completely wrong for wine,” Van Drunen says. “[There are] a million things wrong with it. But,” he adds, “it tastes like one of the best sour beers ever.”
The bulk of Charlie & Echo’s natural wines do not so wildly diverge from traditional norms; they’re not experimental so much as they offer compelling idiosyncrasies. I’ve written before about another sparkling syrah and zinfandel blend, Darkstar, which offers refreshing notes of cherry, plum, and black pepper. A wine Van Drunen has been making for several years, LaDona, is a sparkling white pressed from muscat grapes, expressing grapefruit, mango, and floral notes.
That said, neither does Charlie & Echo stick purely to its own natural wine script. “Our main line of stuff is nothing added, nothing taken away,” emphasizes Van Drunen, “no filtering, no oaking, no color corrections, acid corrections, any of that.” On the other hand, he says, “We also do love to experiment and have fun.”
On a weekly basis, Charlie & Echo introduces a new beverage to its tasting room under the tag Project X. “We pick a theme for a couple of months,” Van Drunen explains, “and then riff on it.” One theme saw the winery blend several takes on sangria. More recently, it took advantage of San Diego’s small but feisty annual hop harvest to play around with wet hopped sparkling wines, using Cascade hops procured from Ramona’s Star B Ranch.
Charlie & Echo started canning what it terms hard spritzers. “They’re somewhere in between the hard seltzer craze and the whole nouveau wine cooler thing,” he suggests. The 7.1-percent beverages are a sparkling blend of white wine, spring water, cane sugar, and organic citrus, with flavors including lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit.
Purists might balk at the notion of giving sacrosanct wine the craft brew treatment, but Charlie & Echo’s customers don’t register so stodgy. Van Drunen characterizes them as cross drinkers. “The vast majority of everybody who’s a customer of ours drinks at least beer or spirits, or something besides wine,” he says. Which makes this winery and tasting room an especially good fit for the cluster of craft beverage producers collectively known as the Miralani Maker’s District. One the other side of the winery’s wall is an organic beermaker; around the corner are a distiller and sake brewery. Charlie & Echo might be an outlier in the world of wine, but its creativity it right at home in San Diego.