In 2008 when the recession started, winemaking wasn’t even on Chris Walsh’s radar. But unable to find work in the city as an architectural lighting designer, he took a job out of necessity: he became a courier and bus driver at a Manhattan wine bar specializing in organic, biodynamic and sustainable European wines – a decision that would ultimately lead into his current career as Amador County’s only natural winemaker. Today, the natural wine movement has grown exponentially, but Walsh’s time in this bar was long before natural wines dominated the zeitgeist. It’s a style of winemaking that appealed to Walsh even in the later years. “They never said the word ‘natural,’ but it started me down this path because I just saw it was possible,” Walsh says. “It struck me more because it’s the old way of making wine. If you could grow organic and make wine without all these crazy interventions, why wouldn’t you?
Walsh eventually became a certified sommelier, and as he began to realize that many of the wines he loved came from California, he turned to his childhood home in Amador County. He was fed up with the New York restaurant lifestyle after seven years working there, so he moved back west, becoming a harvest intern for Donkey & Goat in Berkeley and taking winemaking classes at the University of California at Davis. He wasn’t looking for a degree, but wanted to learn the winemaking process. “A professor basically told me that natural wine was impossible, that you couldn’t make wine that way,” says Walsh. “And I was like, ‘Wait, what? No.'”
Despite the false starts, Walsh set about learning more, working for other wineries including Shake Ridge Vineyard and Terre Rouge. Walsh knew the only place he could afford his own winery—and make wine his way—was in the Sierra foothills; In addition, natural winemakers, including Donkey & Goat, Arnot-Roberts and Jolie-Laide, were already using grapes from the region. Grapes grew in the Sierra Nevada foothills right after the 1849 gold rush, specifically zinfandel grapes, which came with immigrants to the area, according to Passionate about wine. Today, Gold Country is home to dozens of wineries, with over 50 wineries located in Amador County alone. The region has expanded beyond the Zinfandel grape, but it’s only in the last 20 years that a new natural wine scene has developed among the already established wineries. Walsh, with his End of Nowhere winery, is the first to bring an element of natural wine to Amador County – or rather bring it back in Amador, considering the region’s longer winemaking history.
Walsh credits part of his gravitation towards natural wine as a byproduct of being a history student. He was looking to create something more in harmony with nature and agriculture. He liked the idea that people fell in love with wine thousands of years ago, when wine didn’t require adding acid, watering it down or adding enzymes to the drink, says -he. “The way I describe making natural wines in the tasting room is that you can have a homemade cannoli or a Twinkie,” adds Walsh. “They’re kind of the same thing, but one is highly manipulated, and the other is just the thing that inspired this highly manipulated thing.”
Tracey Rogers Brandt, winemaker and general manager of Donkey & Goat, remembers Walsh as eager to work with grapes from the foothills region and ready to establish his own vineyard. “He’s very insightful and makes wines from the position of art and craft, and just this whole philosophy [at Donkey & Goat] was instilled in him when he was with us,” Brandt says.
Walsh returned to Amador County in 2014, working to establish a 20-acre vineyard on the property he grew up on in Pioneer. He buys grapes from other organic vineyards while he waits for his vines to ripen, mostly Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier, to name a few, which he says , was difficult given the high altitude of the vineyard and its use of no-till and dry farming techniques on the volcanic soil. Still, in 2015 he made his first vintage in a 600-square-foot two-car garage before moving production in 2020 to another building on the property, a former auto shop his father ran while Walsh was growing up. , which had been closed. for 20 years before Walsh took it over.
Walsh says he always felt like Zinfandel was pigeonholed, like it could only be one thing – a big, jammy, high-alcohol wine – and that he thought the grape could do much more. It produces traditional Zinfandels (more in line with the wines of the 1970s which contain less alcohol and retain the natural acidity of the grape), a rosé Zinfandel and a carbonic Zinfandel to “show off” the grape. Beyond Zinfandels, it also produces two types of Pinot Gris, a red and a white; a Mourvèdre; and a barbera, all with grapes from foothill vineyards.
End of Nowhere wines have landed in a number of Northern California restaurants and wine bars, including Ro Sham Beaux in Sacramento, Snail Bar in Oakland and Blackbird in San Francisco. “In a perfect world, you represent the grape and the site,” says Walsh. “Having been a sommelier in wine bars, I like to represent a place. There’s no designer yeast, it’s just what happens to the fruit, so we try to make wines that are clean and have a sense of place.
Walsh opened a tasting room in November 2018 in Amador City, but given the town’s small size, he likens the space to a casual wine bar where residents and visitors can hang out. It hosts live music, welcomes guest chefs to sell food like burgers or pizza, and showcases local artists as a quasi-gallery space. There’s no natural wine scene in the region like there is in the Bay Area – especially since Walsh only produces natural wines in Amador County – but he prefers the historical aspect anyway. from natural winemaking to the scenic side of things. “The way I see natural wine is that there is a scene, and then there is also the story; it’s the old way of making wine,” says Walsh. “I really think there are people who are into it, who make natural wine, more for the stage. The scene may be a fad, but the natural, old-fashioned way of making wine isn’t going away.
Walsh would rather the word “pioneer” not be used for him and his history of making natural wine in his home county. He does not hesitate to recognize others who have produced natural wines locally before him. “I may be the first based in Amador County to produce natural wine, but there are certainly a lot of good people out there making low intervention or natural wines. [in the foothills] who preceded me,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for people like that, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to know to come home.”