Niccolo Coturri and Tess Bryant moved to the San Juan Islands, off the coast of northern Washington State, in 2019. Relocating from California, they found in this northwestern corner of the United States a nascent, mostly unknown wine region blessed with a favorable climate, heirloom fruit varieties, and a long history of fruit cultivation. They brought with them a deep background in natural wine: Nic as a winemaker and winegrower, and Tess as an importer. Together, they created a new project, Piquenique.
Nic comes from a line of natural wine pioneers in the United States: the Coturri family has been farming grapes without pesticides, herbicides or fungicides and making wine without any additions in Sonoma County since the beginning of the 20th century. Recently, climate shifts have made this work exceptionally difficult: fires, drought, and heat waves have upended the formerly reliable cycles of agricultural work in California. For Nic, the San Juan Islands and the area of the Salish Sea are a more ecologically sustainable home for viticulture, without the extremes that are starting to define winemaking in some areas of California.
Under the Piquenique label, Nic and Tess are working with the mixed bounty of fruits present on the San Juan Islands and in the Salish Sea area. The San Juans are essentially submerged mountains, a continuation of the Cascade Range, with highly varied micro-terroirs that feature a wide variety of soils. Drawing from old orchards and vineyards that are either organically farmed or now growing untended, they source apples, pears, plums, quince, blackberries, medlars and grapes. Their wines embody a holistic vision of the area’s agriculture, which is polycultural and multifaceted, as different fruits have been planted in the area over the past 150 years. First came apples, with some of the trees that Nic and Tess work with dating back to this first wave of plantings in the 1880s. Apple orchards gave way to other fruit varieties, and Tess and Nic work with local farmers to retain this heritage of mixed cultivation.
Some of the farmsteads that supply fruit for Piquenique, like the Blue Moon Farm on Waldron Island, are very isolated. Within sight of Vancouver Island across the Canadian border, the Blue Moon farm apple orchard of roughly 40 1880-era trees sits on a sandstone slope descending into the Salish sea, facing west. Waldron Island has no electricity, no stores, and a population of just 104 people. There are no regular ferries between Waldron Island and San Juan Island: access to Waldron is by invitation only. While honoring and expressing the history of the islands and the local area are major components of the Piquenique project, Nic and Tess are equally committed to imagining the future of viticulture and farming in the area. They are working with local farmers to plant new apple trees and hybrid vineyards, and farming old vineyards on Lopez Island with a local owner.
The approach in their small winery on San Juan Island is transparent, reflecting their shared background and tastes. They work without any additions, never using added yeasts, sulfur, or sugars in the fermentation or elévage of their wines. The work is done on a limited scale. All fruit is harvested by Nic and Tess, their friends, and the small local farmers that they collaborate with, and the two make and bottle all of their wines in the cellar by hand.
Work in the cellar is done with a small, manually operated apple chipper and a similarly petite basket press, which are put to good use every day during the months-long, gradual harvest as different fruits from different cultivars in different places ripen at their own pace. After pressing, the juices ferment spontaneously without temperature control in glass demijohns or small stainless-steel tanks. Finally, when the wines are nearly dry, they rack them off most of their solids and bottle in bottles made with 65% recycled glass from Oregon, with labels that are easily removable to facilitate reuse. All of the wines are sparkling, finished in bottle in the Ancestral method as refreshing examples of the Petillant Naturel style.
Blue Moon Farm Cuvee 3: All apples from the 1880s-era orchard of roughly 40 trees at Blue Moon Farm, a homestead and organic farm run by Rebecca Moore on west side of Waldron Island. The orchard sits on a slope of decomposing sandstone that descends towards the Salish Sea, facing Vancouver Island. Cuvee 3 is the product of the apples that ripened in mid/late October: these are more complex, later ripening varieties of apples, and these later-harvested apples ferment more slowly due to lower ambient temperatures. In Nic and Tess’s cellar, the apples were processed in a small apple chipper, then pressed in a small basket press. Tess notes that, “as we crush the apples, we layer pulp into the basket press with hay grown on our friends farm on the other side of the island, Oak Knoll farm. This provides resistance for the pulp to press against, rather than using plastic mats, and adds sometimes a light aromatic profile.” The pressed juice was added by hand to glass demijohns and stainless-steel tanks – there’s no pumping in the Piquenique cellar – and left to ferment at its own pace without temperature control. The juice was racked off the dense lees once, leaving just a small amount of solids, then bottled by hand once settled and mostly dry. No fining, filtration, or additives of any kind were used in this process.
Blue Moon Farm Cuvee 4: All apples from the 1880s-era orchard of roughly 40 trees at Blue Moon Farm, a homestead and organic farm run by Rebecca Moore on west side of Waldron Island. The orchard sits on a slope of decomposing sandstone that descends towards the Salish Sea, facing Vancouver Island. Cuvee 4 is the product of the latest ripening apples, harvested in early November: these are more complex, later ripening varieties of apples, and these later-harvested apples ferment more slowly due to lower ambient temperatures. In Nic and Tess’s cellar, the apples were processed in a small apple chipper, then pressed in a small basket press, fermented naturally, and bottled by hand without additives.
Cuvee Annie Late Harvest: Cuvee Annie is named for Tess’s cousin Annie, who has lived her whole life on San Juan Island and assisted Nic and Tess with the picking of much of the fruit in their first vintage. It represents their connection to their family here. The fruit is sourced from Annie’s own trees, and other late season apples from orchards across San Juan Island. In Nic and Tess’s cellar, the apples were processed in a small apple chipper, then pressed in a small basket press, fermented naturally, and bottled by hand without additives.