Every harvest, there’s a madcap comedy-drama just begging to be made at Pax Wines at The Barlow in Sebastopol. The father-figure character is a flip-flop-wearing, Phish-loving winery owner with too much cellar space on his hands (Pax Mahle).
Throw in a fast-talking New York sommelier turned winemaker (Patrick Cappiello); a third-generation scion of wine royalty (Carlo Mondavi); a scrappy rock climber and master of cellar logistics (Rosalind Reynolds), and a locally raised natural winemaker (Martha Stoumen), along with a team of handpicked interns from around the country— and watch as they make it through the grueling harvest season.
Along the way, trucks loaded with grapes will break down (it has happened). Others might be confiscated by the CHP (that, too, has happened). At some point, there will be too many grapes and too much juice for too little tank space. And to help it all go down, there will be plenty of mezcal shots, smash burgers, beer on tap, and a competition to see who can control the Spotify.
“It’s a tricky place I run here,” says Mahle, who grew up working in restaurants in Florida and moved out to Sonoma County in the late 1990s as a wine buyer for gourmet retailer Dean & DeLuca. “Because I don’t allow anybody to bring in any outside yeast or enzymes or bacteria or anything that’s going to affect the natural, ambient, healthy environment here.”
Not to be mistaken for a custom crush operation, Pax Winery started out as the home to Mahle’s Wind Gap brand. Long before that, it was a lid factory, churning out food-grade caps for applesauce and mayonnaise jars. But for the past five years, Mahle has shared his 8,000-square-foot crushpad facility with like-minded winemakers who pay rent by the tonnage, share his team of interns—and forge deep bonds over a shared winemaking ethos.
“You think, ‘Oh, five roommates all living together —it’s gonna be messy.’ But it’s not. It’s not like a frat house. It’s very clean,” says Stoumen, an Analy High grad who interned all over the world before returning to Sebastopol to make natural wines from varietals such as Nero d’Avola, Carignan, and Syrah under her Martha Stoumen label.
Everyone in the cellar makes low-intervention wines farmed from organic and biodynamic vineyards.
Mahle’s game is mainly Syrah, with some Chenin Blanc and Gamay Noir thrown in. Carlo Mondavi and his brother Dante focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Rosalind Reynolds falls back on mostly old-world California classics like Carignan, French Colombard and Zinfandel at Emme Wines. And Cappiello buys mostly Lodi fruit to make very affordable Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, and Sangiovese at Monte Rio Cellars.
If everyone were picking the same varietals, the daily game of musical chairs would never work out. “Every single day is this game of ‘What tanks are available? What’s coming in? Where can we squeeze things?’” says Reynolds, who also works as Pax’s assistant winemaker.
During harvest, the shared parking lot is swamped with trucks unloading grapes, likely to the amusement of the folks at the luxury real estate company next door. “They probably think we’re funny,” says Reynolds. “I bet they wish they were us sometimes, but I’m sure they also see us here all day, every day, and they’re happy they’re not us.”
Somehow, they make it through the harvest.
Maybe it’s the mezcal and Tecate chaser at the first sign of crush in August. Or the custom of opening a bottle at lunch that matches the same variety they brought into the winery that morning. Or the bottomless bag of discount Halloween candy that appears magically on the counter midway through harvest (blame Mahle).
Even on those long October days, when it feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen and all seems irretrievable, Mahle wouldn’t have it any other way. “It would be pretty lonely making wine all by myself in the cellar,” he says.
By the end, usually around early November, the team usually goes out golfing together, followed by a wrap party and farewell dinner at a nice restaurant. Cue the closing scene where the interns pack up and head home, a winemaker puts their wine to bed in barrels and Mahle closes the back door.
Until next season.
Pax Winery, 6780 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707-331-1393 paxwine.com
Martha Stoumen Wines, Martha Stoumen. marthastoumen.com
Emme Wines, Rosalind Reynolds. emmewines.com
Monte Rio Cellars, Patrick Cappiello. monteriocellars.com
Raen Winery, Carlos and Dante Mondavi. raenwinery.com