Meet the winemaker: Old World Winery


4 min read

Old World Winery is a small, family-owned winery and farm run by fourth-generation winemaker Darek Trowbridge. For 20 years, Darek has used organic and biodynamic methods to make dry farmed, hand picked wines, using techniques learned from his grandfather Lino Martinelli.

We had the chance to speak with Darek about his work. We hope you enjoy our conversation.

Can you tell me about your background - how you came to be a winemaker, and what influenced your style of farming and producing?

I was born into winemaking, my mom’s side of the family - Martinelli is the name - there is a Martinelli here in California that’s considered a cult Pinot Noir winery and my uncle owns it. My grandfather though, his dad, was the one I wanted to be like. When I was a kid I worked with him and went over to the ranch, really I idolized the ranch, and he was a winemaker. So I drank natural wine as a kid, but I didn’t know it as that. All he did was talk about his process, he never said he was strictly natural - there was none of that conversation ever. Fast forward to getting a bachelors degree in viticulture and a masters degree in winemaking, it was during my masters that I was like, “Oh shit, this isn’t what I want to learn to do!” They were teaching me manufacturing, how to do chemical ads, use the equipment and how to make wine, sure partially with your hands, but most likely some you’re never going to touch. 

At that time, I was like, well what did I grow up drinking? The wines we were making at school were simple and I didn’t like the process using freeze-dried yeast and a singular yeast. One of our grad school brethren was doing his thesis on native yeast - not necessarily natural wine, but native yeast as the best way to ferment from French tradition. And that’s when I learned that it’s 25 species and there’s a complexity of the palette that I’d already zeroed out to and you had to have that to get past zero, to be enjoyed. So I had to relearn all that and had a couple of years with my grandfather before he died, asked him a bunch of questions and realized he was making natural wine. 

When I started Old World back in 1998 and there was no such name, and organic wine was a real problem in California in the 80s. People needed sulfite-free wine so certain wineries just started making wine without sulfur, but they didn’t have the long tradition of France of that possibility so let’s just say there were a few endeavors that nobody really wanted to drink. So you kind of didn’t want to be associated with that. I called it Old World which is confusing because I’m not an old world winery. But it just alludes to the information that came from my great grandfather who came to the US from Italy, through to my grandfather, who were making wine the way wine was made for hundreds of years. There was never any question, never anything to add. It wasn’t until recently that the term natural wine came out and that we could have a discussion about what that meant. 

How has it been for you to navigate the change in natural wine’s popularity?

I felt like a surfer - I’d been waiting all these years for that wave to come in. For 15 years it had been a struggle. I was a small town kid making wine and trying to sell it, calling it natural, and that was really difficult. So when the wave started coming in, I thought, thank God - I’ve been waiting all my life for this. 

But to continue with the surfer analogy, I felt like I was sitting on my board and the waves were just passing me by. It was a pretty lonely feeling and unexpected, because the wave had a specific taste in mind that I hadn’t really understood. What a proper marketer would know if the kind of style and flavor people want - but that’s not the way I was going about it. I was just trying to make the terroir-focussed red wine I could with tannin, and that’s not what people wanted at the time. People wanted carbonic maceration which I really don’t like, and I was already making skin contact whites but when the wave came in, I lost my sources. I was doubly out and it was even more difficult for that to happen. 

And then I changed my ways and started making some lighter, more fruit forward wines which I really enjoy. And I think that tannin is still yet to be discovered in the natural wine scene. There are many undiscovered flavor profiles that wine is capable of.

What's your approach to farming?

I farm many different small places - that's how you do it in California because land pricing is so expensive. I don't own vineyard land, I own the land the winery is on but I can’t afford more land than that. So I lease vineyard acreage which means I do all the farming and take all the risk and pay a sum to the landowner each year. 

I farm each vineyard regeneratively using a composted mulch to grow microbiology that revives old dead soil that has been tilled for way too long. Each vineyard is dry farmed (non-irrigated) with no tillage (soil disturbance).

I am a person who cares about ecology and the owners of the vineyards I lease usually share the same. They want organic farming next to their house so they can feel safe from pesticides, that’s how I become involved.  

Do you use any sulfites?

I don't use sulfites in the farming or in making, but at bottling will add around 25 parts per million to make it a little more stable for shipping, and I've never found that to be noxious or a problem. I'm super sensitive to sulphur. 

Visit Old World Winery's RAW WINE profile to learn more, and discover which RAW WINE fairs they're pouring at soon.

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