Avi Deixler will readily tell you that he doesn’t know how to make wine. “Pretty much I use intuition and hard work,” said Mr. Deixler, owner and cellar master of Absentee Winery, which is located inside the former Gallagher Dairy on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Where milk once flowed, wine now ferments in barrels that Mr. Deixler—whose casual manner belies the winemaking experience under his belt—hollowed out himself.
A San Anselmo native who spent his high school and college years in New York, Mr. Deixler took an interest in wine soon after his undergrad days. “I wasn’t into anything else,” he said.
He first took a job at a winery in Oregon, processing and pressing grapes. From there he worked at wineries in Australia, Napa and France, learning various skills along the way: driving a forklift, fermenting wine in a barrel, making rows in a vineyard.
But Mr. Deixler quickly noticed that commercial wineries were overly focused on “the chemical ideals of wines aimed at pleasing certain demographics,” as he puts it. Wineries added both yeast to speed up fermentation and sulfites to prevent wines from developing after bottling; he wanted to create wine that expressed not the work of additives, but of grapes and natural chemistry.
“I saw wine make itself without cultured yeast; there was never a good enough explanation for why to [add] it,” he said. “I remember my first year going into the lab, which is where the head honchos hang out and the rest of the people do the actual work, and they were like, ‘If we add this, then it could be like this,’ and I remember thinking these guys don’t know—and they have 40 years of experience between them.”
The vast majority of wineries in the United States use sulfites, or sulphur dioxide, as a preservative. The need for preservatives came about with industrialization, explained Kara Sowler, an employee at Ruby Wines, a San Francisco wine store that specializes in natural wines. “Before that no one [used them]. Most wines we work with are from Europe as opposed to California. California is a place where sulphur is used much more widely, because winemaking culture here is younger than in Europe.”
Tony Coturri, who owns a winery in Sonoma that also eschews additives, said many young winemakers don’t want to risk forgoing sulfites. Most of them come out of teaching colleges where they are taught that wine made without sulfites won’t last more than six months. “Which is totally wrong—I have wine going back to the ’80s in my cellar,” Mr. Coturri said. He called such messaging “propaganda” that “influences young people trying to make natural wine.”
Mr. Coturri compares what he and Mr. Deixler do to shepherding; Mr. Deixler likens it to stewarding. Both vaguely Biblical verbs draw on the idea that humans are conduits rather than manufacturers.
It’s part of why Mr. Deixler gave his winery its name: Absentee. “If anything is a good thing, it came from the vineyard; if anything gets messed up, it’s because of me,” he said. “So many people will say, ‘I drank that whole bottle and I didn’t get a headache.’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t do anything. I just didn’t do something.’”
After his time working on vineyards in France, Mr. Deixler decided it was time he tried his hand in the business. He began making his way to Inverness, where his family has a home, and searching for grapes and land.
While the Gallaghers were deciding whether or not to lease him the dairy barn, Mr. Deixler showed up with a broom and garbage can in hand, ready to prove his dedication.
He sourced grapes from Poor Ranch in Mendocino, a sixth-generation ranch that forgoes more invasive methods like irrigation and trellising. (Eventually, Mr. Deixler wants to have his own vineyard, and grow it using the same dry-farming ethos.)
He first began the enterprise in 2016. He had to crush the grapes in a winery in Sebastopol until obtaining county permits in the fall of 2017, and he sold his first wines that winter. This year, he has processed 50,000 pounds of grapes, which will amount to roughly 18,000 bottles.
None of his wines have official varieties. “To do that you have to declare all your weights and measures, and I’d rather have the freedom to blend where I need to,” Mr. Deixler explained. The labels on his bottles simply say “California red wine,” and they incorporate different levels of five varieties: carignan, syrah, petite sirah, zinfandel and abouriou.
The fermentation process takes two months, in part because it moves at a slower rate than wines that have added yeast. Mr. Deixler monitors it by tasting each barrel at least once a week, checking to make sure the natural yeast in the grapes has not died off.
Ms. Sowler said that Mr. Deixler’s wines “are really easy to work with because they are pretty oaky and big in body—they’re sort of what people feel are classic California wines, but they’re also natural.”
Mr. Deixler hopes that West Marin will embrace his additive-free wine, but so far establishments in the area have been slow to do so. “My ideal placement is a restaurant, to be on the table with food that I think is prepared in a similar, careful way,” he said.
For now, he primarily sells to San Francisco and distributors in other markets, though he sells bottles at the Palace Market and created a wine club last year, which he calls the North Marin Wine District. Members get a 10 to 20 percent discount and purchase bottles directly from him.
“Really, if you wanted to make money, you’d have an online presence, online stores, distribution service,” he admitted. “I just don’t want to do that—I want to spend my time making the wine. Maybe not too much in the short term, but in the long term, somebody who focuses on the quality of the product rather than the marketing is gonna have more staying power in the industry.”
Astrid Zometa, a member of Mr. Deixler’s wine club, first happened upon Absentee wines at the Point Reyes Farmers Market. “I just remember walking by and saying, ‘Oh wow, here’s something different,” she said. “I went to try it and it was pretty delicious. What caught my attention was the bottle—all it said was ‘grapes’ as the ingredient, and normally you see a ton of stuff there.” Unlike with other wines, Ms. Zometa said she gets a “happy high” rather than a headache the next day.
Mr. Coturri believes that dedication to the craft is its own marketing technique. “Avi is a great marketer: he’s excited, he’s passionate, he’s in love with what he’s doing,” he said.
That love is evident not only in the time Mr. Deixler invests in his work, but how much he enjoys that time. “Do I wish sometimes I didn’t have to spend a whole day just labelling 20 cases of something?” he asked. “Yeah, but I’d rather do that than watch a movie or watch TV for an hour. It’s a cool thing. I’m glad that people are hopefully going to support it, because I would rather do nothing else.”
To learn about Avi Deixler’s North Marin Wine District, visit absenteewinery.com.