For nearly a half decade, Nathan Zeender has used Right Proper Brewing as a laboratory to gleefully blur the lines between beer and wine.
These experiments have often taken the form of Berliner weisses – tart, low-alcohol German wheat ales for which the brewery has distinguished itself. Zeender’s take on the style is dry and assertive, with fruitiness and minerality that evoke funky white wines. The head brewer has frequently sought to accentuate that vinous connection with botanicals, fruit, and particular hops. First came Really Rosie, a rosé-inspired beer brightened with rose hips, hibiscus, elderberries, and pink peppercorns. Then there’s Right Proper’s popular Diamonds, Fur Coats, Champagne, which employs grapefruit peel, dried elderflowers, and grapey hop varietals to evoke its titular sparkling wine. More recently, the brewpub – now overseen by lead brewer Bobby Bump – unveiled I Remember Jeep, a glowing, magenta-hued beverage brewed with Norton grape must. Meanwhile, over in the Brookland Production Facility last fall, Zeeneder used one of the Right Proper’s massive French oak foeders to ferment August October, a mixed-culture farmhouse ale with Pinot Gris juice, skins, and seeds.
“We’ve done a number of beers that really referenced – either directly or indirectly – the world of wine,” Zeender shares over the phone one recent afternoon. “I’ve been teasing out these ideas for a while, so I guess now I’m prepared to go a bit more full-fledged in that direction.”
As announced last week, Zeender is making the jump to wine production with Hibernaculum, a “small and personal” low-intervention wine side project based on the grounds of Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Hyattsville, Maryland. Hibernaculum is not your typical winery, to say the least. The project – or as Zeender explains, the first iteration of it – will function out of a repurposed 20-foot shipping container powered entirely by solar panels. Equally unconventional will be the wines Zeender aims to make, which he characterizes as a “reply to industrial wine.” Inspired partly by ancient Georgian traditions, these wines will be fermented entirely in stainless steel with native yeast and extended skin contact, then packaged with no or minimal additions of sulfites – thus allowing the wine to continue to change and develop over time.
“The idea that I’ve been using when talking to friends about Hibernaculum is ‘living wine’ – it’s almost my preferred term at this point,” the native Marylander explains. “The wine will be a very vibrant and living and charming thing that we pass along to others.”
Zeender is currently raising money to get Hibernaculum fully off the ground, with the hope that he’ll be able to get grapes into tanks this year and self-distribute his wines in 2019. However, even as an alternating proprietorship winery – a model we discuss below – Hibernaculum must gain approval from both the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and state authorities.
“I’m a patient person, so if it’s next year, that’d be okay,” admits Zeender, who will continue as Right Proper’s full-time head brewer, “but I am making plans to work against this year’s harvest.”
A computer programmer in his former life, Zeender has traveled into unknown territories before: He had never brewed professionally prior to helping found Right Proper. But he had amassed experience and acclaim as homebrewer. Has Zeender ever produced wine before?
“I’ve never,” the longtime oenophile replies. “I’m very excited about the possibility.”
What is natural wine? What is minimal-intervention wine? Explain for the layman how they differ from the wine they would typically find in a bottle shop or grocery store.
We can start with how I would use those terms, which is through my own filter.
Let’s talk about natural wine and biodynamic agriculture first. Hibernaculum is not using the term “natural wine.” When I think of natural wine, I think of Loire Valley in France, the mecca of natural wine production, where you have maybe more than dozens of producers, a lot of whom are working in biodynamic agriculture. These people are first and foremost vintners. They’re grape growers – not all of them, but a lot of them. They make wine from their agricultural product, and so they’re usually putting a lot of thought into how they work the land. They dynamize the water to spray onto the crops with different medicinal powerful herbs. They do plantings by the lunar calendar, when the strength of the moon is affecting agriculture.
A lot of people think it’s hack science, but I was sort of brought up in that tradition. My early education until third grade was at Waldorf school, which was started by Rudolf Steiner, who created biodynamic farming. That was, like, Steiner lite. Steiner did a lot of stuff involving weird communications with other planets and other beings and things like that. It was pretty kooky. There are all these different treatments where you put soil into animal horns and bury it underground for certain periods of time – it’s supposed to be very powerful. Just a handful of this manure can dynamize an acre of land.
There are people in Loire Valley who are very into this stuff, and I think there are a handful of biodynamic winemakers in the United States, too. I am not in that category, so I would never use the term “biodynamic,” unless I was working with a biodynamic farmer, and then I would consider it.
Take one step down from that, and let’s talk about natural wine more generally. As I see it, natural wine is usually very heavily tied to agriculture and agricultural practice, so it’s very closely tied into the idea of organic. Biodynamics doesn’t use pesticides or anything like that. The idea of natural wine would be grapes grown organically. Now, in Europe, they define it differently, and there are all these different organizations that certify you in natural and biodynamic categories, but generally you’re talking about pesticide-free wine that’s made by people with very close ties to the land, being very thoughtful about the decisions they’re making, considering sustainability and the health of the earth. So, natural wine is generally considered that organic, green kind of mentality in the vineyard.
Once you come into the winery, we’re talking about wines that steer clear of the 70 or more additives that are allowed in wine – different enzymes and gums and clarifiers and finings and all kinds of stuff that affect color and acidity. Generally, natural winemakers are going to steer clear of those corrections. A lot of them will choose to go with native fermentation. Since they spend all this time cultivating the land and the fruit, they rely on the yeast and bacteria that’s on the fruit. They aren’t going to pitch commercial yeast. I don’t know if that’s exclusively the case, but generally that’s the idea. Some of them are filtered, some of them are not filtered. Sulfite use is generally kept to a minimum or none. With hardcore natural wine folks, there are no sulfites at all, but there are some people that use a minimal amount of sulfites to stabilize wine.
I think a big point of Hibernaculum is a direct response to industrial wine, which I see as stabilized with sulfites and pretty much lifeless and without any anima. Those wines are just going to stay a certain flavor for the most part. Over aging, they become more oxidized, which effects the flavors, and the tannins will break down. But the wine is not going under continued fermentation. It’s not really changing. It’s pretty static at that point. It’s pretty lifeless, because SO2 is pretty deadly stuff. It’s what we used to kill each other in WWI – nasty stuff. They poison the wine to stabilize it.
The natural wine folks generally stay away from that, but if you’re a natural wine producer in Loire Valley and your family’s livelihood involves shipping wine internationally, it’s going to be really tough. Because of the volatility of that wine – it’s still living – it’s not really meant for long, hot voyages. The inside of a container can get to well over 100 degree Fahrenheit, and so the wine it could have some serious issues in there. It could become pretty unstable. So, those people might want to use minimal sulfites to stabilize wine. Now, I’m sure a lot of the natural producers in, say, France, if their wine is sold locally or into Paris through trusted partners, then they may not see the need to sulfite their wine, because they know that it’s not traveling far and it’s going to be well looked after. Now, I’m not a producer of one of these wines yet, but I would imagine that’s some of the decision making that people doing natural wine are thinking about.
The next category is low- or minimal- intervention wine. It borrows a lot of from natural wine making, so it’s about getting away from the use of any additives, enzymes, chemicals, finings, stabilizers – any of that sort of thing. It’s generally relying on native yeast fermentation. But it’s not necessarily organic – they’re not necessarily the grape grower. Maybe they partner with the growers they trust. But maybe it’s grapes that were grown conventionally.
That’s roughly how I would look at those categories, although there’s a lot of grey in each.
What’s your personal history with wine? I know it’s something that predates your interest in – and certainly your production of – beer.
OK, let’s go in the time machine, back to my early 20s, when I started drinking alcohol. Wine was my preferred alcohol throughout pretty much my 20s. I became very interested in wine. I had a small cellar. I didn’t have a lot of money, so it didn’t contain a lot of high end stuff. But I was always drawn to wine that tasted of fruit – something that tasted like it came from a grape. There’s a lot of wine that tastes more like lumber than grapes. I’ve never been a huge fan of oak-driven wine. I’ve always preferred very, very dry and mineral-driven wines. Those were the wines that I was attracted to right away.
I always liked the simple country wines from small producers in France. You could maybe rely on importers, which I always thought was a really interesting way of buying wine. You find an importer with a similar palate, like Kermit Lynch or something, and you can assume that most of their wines are going to be OK – they’re dry wines, they’re country wines, they’re wines that have an interesting character, they’re wines that don’t taste like the vast majority of wines on the shelves. Those were always my preferences. They’re wines that generally wines don’t have a strong wood influence. They’re red, white, and rosé-colored wines.
What do you have envisioned for Hibernaculum? What’s inspired this plunge?
I think it’s something that I’ve thought about for a while. I’ve thought about having a side project that’s exactly that: a side project. So, nothing with salaries or any real expectations of financial gain or anything. No employees.
When I first started thinking about it awhile back, I figured it would be some sort of contract situation. In the wine world, TTB allows for a couple different structures of contractual agreement with a host and tenant. Most traditionally, it would be a contract situation, which in the wine world is often called “custom crush.” That’s where you find a host who has excess capacity, and they’re willing to make some wine for you. A lot of times, they’re using their expertise and their equipment, and they sort of have chain of custody over the raw ingredients through vinification. It’s really when they have the finished wine that the tenant would purchase that wine under their own label. So, you’re a restaurant and you want to make wine, but you don’t want to buy a multi-million dollar winery and vineyard – you contract with an established producer and then use their expertise and equipment to make wine. That’s sort of the traditional “custom crush” model.
Then there’s another model that allows for a lot more independence called “alternating proprietorship.” That’s when you find a host, and you operate pretty much independently from that host. You come to an agreement about equipment use – you either have your own or if they have spare equipment you can use that. That’s all agreed upon beforehand. The tenant has custody of raw materials all the way through the chain of custody. They source or grow the grapes, and then they just use the umbrella license of the host to produce wine without having a brick and mortar situation. That model makes more sense to me – to have that complete independence and ownership all the way through.
As time went along, I started thinking of ways that I could use my own equipment. Then I started thinking about warehouse use. Right Proper has been expanding, but we don’t have a very big space, so we got a container to start warehousing glassware and empty cans and packaging supplies. So, the creative use of space has been on my mind. And then when I looked into fermenters that would make the most use of cubic space at the brewery, I found these square fermentation tanks. I started thinking, “Wow, you can build a winery in a very concise space. Beyond that, could it be mobile? And beyond that, could it be free of utilities?” All of those ideas started coming together over the course of months.
I’ve also gotten some inspiration from my borther Aaron, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is a very talented builder. He built the first carbon-neutral house in Martha’s Vineyard. This was just in his spare time, when he’s not a chef in-season. In the off-season, he needed something to do, so he just taught himself to build, and after a few years he was building houses. Then he had a winter where he needed something to do, so he bought a vintage Airstream-type trailer from the ‘40s, gutted it out, and built a professional kitchen inside – just for fun. That was coming together around the same time I was thinking about warehouse use, and I’ve always been interested in tiny spaces, like tiny houses and things like that.
All of these things started moving in a direction. I’ve got a two- and a five-year-old son, and I’ve opened two breweries, each of which happened right around that we had a child. Now, the breweries are doing well, and the children are growing up, so I thought I might be able to carve out tiny bit of free times to take on a side project like this.
What is the model for Hibernaculum’s production? You’ve mentioned a shipping container and three square fermentation tanks. How are you going to make wine?
Let’s define “hibernaculum,” because I don’t think it’s a word that comes up in a lot of conversations. A hibernaculum is a winter sleep chamber for a hibernating animal, like a bear, bat, or snake. It’s their winter den. I think that name is telling a bit about the production and the thought process in this project. It’s a quiet, hibernal, and very seasonal place.
The idea for Hibernaculum would be to do work against the harvest. We’ll harvest grapes generally in the fall, anywhere between September and late October – depending on the varieties, when things ripen, and where we want the acid and sugars balanced. We’ll crush directly into the fermenters and then allow fermentation to happen on skins and seeds through the spring, both for white and red varietals.
That’s pretty nontraditional for white wines. Generally, white wine is white because it’s pressed off; it has no interaction with the skin. That’s why it’s so clear. But the last number of years, we’ve seen more and more skin contact white wines available in market, either produced internationally or to a lesser degree in United States. These producers allow traditional white wine varietals to macerate with the skins and seeds and sometimes stems for different periods of time. After a couple hours, you get a light color. After a number of days, you get a darker color. After number of weeks, it’s more intense and there are more tannins.
I’m going for the Republic of Georgia model. They’ve been making these sort of wines in Amphorae for 8,000 years or so, and rhey sort of treat a white wine like it’s a red wine. You leave it in contact for months. Almost all the flavor compounds and phenolics and tannins in a wine grape are in the skin. That’s why red wines have these big punchy flavors and dark, saturated colors – that all comes from the skin and from the seeds a little bit.
The idea is to crush into the fermenters and let fermentation happen with the native yeast that will be on the fruit, and the “intervention” is just keeping it away from oxygen so we don’t have issues with the acetobacter. But we’ll be allowing these wines to ferment over long periods of time with their their skins on.
So, that would be in the fall, then the wine would hibernate into the spring. At that point, decisions would be made about blending and pressing. Generally, red wine is left to macerate and ferment on skins and seeds for some period of time, then it’s pressed off. Before that, there’s the free run, when you’ve opened up your valve and a good amount of wine freely flows out of the vessel – that’s free run wine. Then, if you wanna get all the liquid out, you can start pressing pressing the pomace. When you start pressing that, a lot more tannins are going to come out. Generally, pressed wine is of a different grade than free run wine. For a lot of producers, maybe their grand cru is their free run wine, and then maybe they have a second tier of wine that’s a blend of those two – it can get some extra character or roughness or rawness from those pressings.
Those things will inform your decisions. What is your free run wine tasting like? What is your pressed wine tasting like? How can it be blended together to balance tannin and acidity and fruitiness and fermentation character and everything else? Red wines can be mixed with white wines. I also have ideas about doing experimentations with taking seasoned skins from one varietal and blending it with juice from other varietals to see what happens – almost like you would use different hops in beer.
In the springtime, those decisions will be made. I imagine that free run wine would be blended and bottled in the springtime, and then pressed wine would be moved into another fermentation space and then aromitized with different medicinal and traditional healing herbs that are used in vermouth and amaro making. They’ll be these sort of unfortified, dry vermouth-type wines – apertifs. I thought that would make good use of pressed wine. Those are the intentions
There’s no role for oak in this process.
No, this is all stainless steel.
Is that is normal for this sort of wine?
Well, that’s good question. I don’t know if I’ve had this sort of wine. This is a new thing for me.
Let’s go back three or four years. I think an important part of this story is when I had a very transformative bottle of wine. It was a wine from Scholium Project, and it was called A Prince in His Caves. It was the first skin contact white wine I had ever had, and it blew my mind. It was an incredibly tannic, rough-drinking wine that had all these amazing, huge flavor compounds. It was super interesting. It’s a different vintage every year, and I think that one was Sauvignon Blanc, and it was also, like, 16% alcohol. It was just this crazy wine, and it blew the top off my head. I was like. “Wow, I’ve never had anything like this at all.” I think that experience is a big part of the reason why we’re talking right now. I had this wine, and I wanted to learn more about that process. I thought, “How did the wine end up tasting like this?” It had some sherry notes to it. It had some young gueuze notes to it. It was really, really interesting stuff.
OK, back to oak. With these wines from the Georgian tradition – these sort of amber wines – a lot of times those are done in clay qvevri underground, so they don’t really have any oak. The producers that I love still do it that way. And like I’ve said a few times, I’m not a big fan of oak in wine generally. From France, I love Gamay wines that have very neutral oak character from the Beaujolais area. I love Cab Franc that doesn’t have a lot of oak. I love those sort of bright wines that are meant to be drunk young, with a lot of vibrancy. They don’t taste like lumber.
But I’m considering Hibernaculum sort of a prototype. We’re gonna try to deal with these stainless steel totes that I’m very excited about, but then who knows if there’s a prototype two that maybe would have some more larger format oak. In that format, you don’t get a lot tannins but you could get some more neutralized oak character over extended periods of time. If I had wine in a 60-gallon barrel, even if it’s relatively neutralized, you’re still going to get a lot of oak. So, who’s to say whether or not prototype two could have a larger format oak fermenter in it, where you can get a relatively neutral character? For now, though, we’re starting with stainless steel – super clean, vibrant, bright flavors.
Cider is another part of this. Cider is a fruit wine, so I’m very excited to make ciders as well under the same license.
I assume that apples are on a similar harvest cycle as grapes. If you only have three fermenters, doesn’t that limit what you can do with cider?
Absolutely, that is a limitation on production, but keep in mind there are a lot of apples that store well cold for long periods of time. That’s why cider producers can produce year round. The idea would be then to possibly use those fermenters in the springtime to do cold-stored apples
How much money are you looking to raise to get Hibernaculum off the ground?
Well, I’m building it with my best friend, who I’ve known for a very long time, and we are going to try to raise $20,000. It’s a very lean budget to build a winery, so we’re going to use as many repurposed and reclaimed materials as possible. We’re not paying ourselves any salaries, and any money we raise will go to raw materials to build this thing.
The real needs are the container, then putting in floors and a ceiling, then epoxy sealing the floors and adding insulation to the walls and ceiling. Those things are important to utilities because [containers] can get really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter. Then we’ll be installing a 3 kilowatt solar array that will cover the whole roof of the container and feed into a battery bank. Those are special batteries that are used with the controller to store solar energy. The idea is that it will function independently of any utilities. It will produce and store its own power, almost like a hibernating animal.
Then we will have a mini split, which is a very small compact HVAC system that does heating and cooling and doesn’t pull a ton of electricity. We’ll only use that lightly to ward off extreme temperatures. It’ll only kick on when it’s, like, above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and maybe again when it’s, like, mid-30s Fahrenheit, just to keep the box from completely overheating or freezing. Temperature control is another thing when it comes to natural or minimal-intervention wine making. Some people want the fruit to express itself pretty freely, so they’ll allow for ambient native fermentation at whatever temperature it feels like fermenting at. We will hope to embrace that as well.
When you talk about using native yeast, will you source strains that you like or will you allow the grapes to ferment with whatever naturally occurs on them?
I will try to find a trusted grape-growing partner and try to source fruit that I will be happy to use, and then I’ve had conversations with Jasper Akerboom who runs Jasper Yeast out of the Ocelot space in Dulles. He’s very talented microbiologist that’s done a lot of work very extensive work with capturing native yeasts. A lot of the yeasts he has banked are what he’s captured or people have captured for him. So, I’d definitely be working closely with Jasper to see which cultures were on that fruit, keeping in mind the microbiology is very important. Hopefully, we find fruit that is in good condition to ferment itself.