Chenoa and Will enjoying wine
Credit: Gabriela Hasbun
The Way We Eat

Foraging a New Path: How Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta Built a Wine Brand From Found Fruit

published Nov 21, 2021
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Names: Chenoa Aston-Lewis and Will Basanata
Location: Sebastopol and Los Angeles
Number of people who eat together in their home: Two

The city of Los Angeles is known for many things: Hollywood, a vibrant live music scene, and epic traffic. But beyond the glitz, glamour, and gridlock there’s something more natural going on here — a deep, vibrant urban foraging scene. And that’s where you’ll find Chenoa Aston-Lewis and Will Basanta.

Their love of foraging and nature inspired the couple to found Ashanta Wines, a brand of natural wines that’s just released its third vintage. Before becoming winemakers themselves, their relationship with wine revolved largely around drinking it as they travelled abroad working on films. The pair met on a shoot in Sweden; Chenoa was a camera assistant and Will was a cinematographer.

But for Chenoa, who grew up in Oakland, winemaking was a homecoming of sorts. Her maternal family, originally from Sicily, had grown wine grapes for a few generations in rural Sonoma County. Her grandparents, Justine and Steven Ashton, both moved from New York to Berkeley during the hippie era and eventually bought a property in Sonoma’s Glen Ellen enclave, where they planted Pinot Noir and Syrah vines in the 1970s.

Fast-forward to October 2019, when Chenoa and Will learned there were still leftover Syrah grapes on the vine at Chenoa’s family vineyard. They jumped at the chance to claim the fruit, which eventually became an experimental Syrah and Pinot Noir co-ferment. When the pandemic hit, the couple headed back to Northern California, where they discovered and reclaimed abandoned vineyards, connected with wine icons and renegade winemakers, and explored and foraged along the Sonoma Coast, discovering a whole new bounty, including healing foods like elderberries and horsetail, plus old grapevines, kombu seaweed, sea urchins, and mushrooms.

And the coast is where we met up with them for a foraging trip that they turned into a rustic dinner cooked on a secluded beach. Along the way, we talked about LA living, their passion for old-vine vineyards, and their wine-making philosophy.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

So how did you wind up making wine that first year?

Chenoa: It was very, very late in the year, a late harvest, but we had been interested in making wine. It was kind of like a journey I set out on after the fire in 2017 and then it was an opportunity and so we made just a barrel of wine on the property and then that sparked a fuse in use that has now exploded.

Will: It was pretty magical to witness that spontaneous fermentation. The whole process was super, super magical and then in a lot of ways, what happened last year was very much a COVID pivot. Because we had been working on a film, but there was no film work, and we didn’t want to be in LA because it was weird. We had the space and the opportunity to be up in Sonoma. So we did that, and we connected with Tony Cotturi, who’s sort of the godfather of natural wine in America, and he invited us to make wine up there. And it was like we’re …

Chenoa: We’re not doing shit in LA!

Will: We can watch Netflix or we can go do something with our minds and hands.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

I love going to LA just because there are so many fun restaurants. What were some of your favorites? How did you eat there? Where did you shop?

Will: Night + Market is amazing, Pa Ord is this incredible soup noodle spot that’s just amazing Thai food. It’s in East Hollywood or Thai town. One of our favorite little spots is Lolo, it’s a little wine bar. It’s in East Hollywood. It’s lovely.

Chenoa: We recently just did a bit of eating out. We went to Koreatown and did a seafood barbecue Korean night with some friends and it was incredible. They were bringing out everything you can imagine from the sea. They were bringing it out and grilling it for you.

Will: On a charcoal fire in the restaurant.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

When you say everything you can imagine, what does that mean?

Chenoa: Abalone …

Will: Squid, prawns, oysters, eel. All that good stuff.

With lots of soju?

Will: They have BYOB. I think it’s $40 for as many bottles as you want to bring. So we went with a bunch of wine friends and just brought different wines.

Anything in particular that stands out?

Chenoa: We brought our Chardonnay that’s called Calypso which is 100% Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. It’s the best seafood wine, but also it’s amazing for any sort of dinner you can think of. We’re big fans of this one, which we’ll have with dinner tonight. We just made a small amount of that.

Will: We only made a barrel.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

Where did you shop in LA?

Will: A lot of farmers markets. The Atwater Village Farmers Market every Sunday. We’d go to our friends’ house and they have probably 12 chickens in their backyard so we would get chickens and eggs and honey from them.

Chenoa: There’s Cookbook, which is a little local market that has a lot of produce from local farmers or farmers from around the area.

Will: The amazing thing about LA is just that there’s so much talk about foraging. There are so many fruit trees and it’s legal, if the branch is over the sidewalk, even if the tree is on private property, you can pick any of the fruit that is hanging over the sidewalk.

Chenoa: Limes, lemons, pomegranates, avocados …

Will: Persimmons, guavas.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

I used to love finding loquats.

Will: Yeah loquats are so good and you can’t commercially produce them. But yeah, loquats are delicious.

Chenoa: And then this year we found grapevines around the city of Los Angeles and actually harvested these grapevines and made wine with them down in LA.

Will: We have a barrel of LA city wine.

What kind of grapes were they?

Will: They’re a weird hybrid of Alicante, which is an old French varietal, and vitis Californica.

How did you know what they were?

Chenoa: We got them identified by a UC (University of California) Davis professor. I was a part of this internship program with Steve Matthiasson and the Two Eighty Project and within that program there’s a UC Davis professor, Beth Forrestel, the lead of the enology department. I’m currently taking a class from her about vine identification.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

Tell me more about the Two Eighty Project?

The Two-Eighty Project is based in San Francisco and it’s a community vineyard and a community farm right off of Interstate 280 and Alemany. Christopher Renfro is leading that project so he and Steve Matthiasson had a joint internship this summer for 10 different BIPOC bodies to come and learn about viticulture from the beginning to the end and everything in between. There’s a little Pinot vineyard that he’s farming and he just planted more. He’s also doing a project with UC Davis as well.

So did you have a background in wine, Will?

Will: No, just drinking it. I had the opportunity to shoot quite a bit of food documentaries. There’s a show on Netflix called Chef’s Table that I filmed a bunch of. We worked on the Rodney Scott episode and he’s amazing. He’s awesome. In season one I worked on the Francis Mallmann episode.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

Oh I loved that one.

Will: It was ridiculous. It was fun.

Were you eating on set?

Will: Yeah so we get to eat all of the meals to understand the food and understand the chef, so that’s definitely a job perk. And that’s where I really started getting interested in wine, and natural wine specifically. When I was at these restaurants having these meals I would always pay extra attention when a sommelier would be pouring something interesting.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

There are a lot of different ways to approach winemaking. Why natural wine?

Chenoa: I grew up eating organically. That was something that my mom especially was very aware of. Will actually introduced me to natural wine and it just made sense. It made sense with my upbringing in terms of the way I was raised to eat food and be conscious of, or be aware of, what it’s putting in my body. Because similarly with wine, there are 100 ingredients you can put in wine and not list it. And there’s crazy stuff that they put in. And just us being introduced to Tony Cotturi. He was kind of our guide through that whole process. He’s probably in his 50th harvest. Natural wine has been passed down for the past three or four generations from Italian immigrant families.

Will: For consumers to differentiate it we have to call it natural wine, but it’s really just traditionally made wine. Wine was made this way for 6,000 years until essentially post-World War II. It’s only in the last half-century or so that it has really changed.

It goes back to farming. If the grapes are being farmed cleanly and organically, the yeast should be healthy, and the grapes should be healthy, and you shouldn’t really have a lot of issues with balance or fermentation.

Chenoa: Also the idea of conventional winemaking is that there’s a lot more control. People want this flavor profile and they want this mouthfeel. They think of a wine they want to make and then they try to create just exactly that. Whereas what we’re doing is allowing the vineyard to express what the wine is going to be like. We’re relinquishing control of what this wine must taste like and having these preconceived ideas.

We make decisions on how we process the fruit if we want a full red or if we want a Rosato or a skin-contact white or whatever, but otherwise in terms of having super-oaky flavors or more acid to more sugars, that is all going down to the vineyard and when we decide to pick.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

So tell me a little more about your vineyard? What do you see when you’re there so we can set the scene?

Chenoa: We source our fruit from all over; a lot of different regions in California ranging from Covelo, which is about two-and-a-half hours north of Russian River, to Sonoma Valley to Solano County and Green Valley.

Will: We’re mostly looking for ideally older vines and the best farming we can find. We look for organic farming, either certified or organic practices. And interesting sites Iike this incredible old-vine vineyard in the Russian River Valley that’s white grapes, which is kind of weird. The old vines are almost always red grapes in California, and this spot was clearly abandoned. It was overgrown with blackberries and everything. So we knocked on the door of the house next to the vineyard and asked if we could pick it. They said sure. It’s this strange Swiss varietal that this guy’s great-grandfather planted in 1940. It’s called Golden Chasselas. So that’s the kind of thing we’re interested in: small lots and interesting varieties.

Chenoa: Discovering all these things is coming from that foraging mindset. There are abandoned and overgrown and unmaintained vineyards all around us in prime destinations to be growing grapes. There are certain lots that just kind of get forgotten. To us, they’re actually very interesting and it always turns out that there’s like a fascinating story behind them — that there’s this rare, interesting varietal that’s not common, and it’s definitely much harder to pick. We’re going through blackberry vines to get to the grapes.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

How did you get started foraging?

Chenoa: I grew up in Oakland and so that was very much a city lifestyle. And then I’d go up to Glen Ellen to just be immersed in nature. But the foraging really happened after meeting Will. You grew up doing a lot more foraging than I did.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

Where did you grow up, Will?

In Southern Illinois; the town is near Carbondale. We grew up picking wild persimmons and blackberries. My grandma took me dumpster diving around the age of 5 for bread from behind the grocery store. And then we go around to the front of the store to get cheese for cheese sandwiches. It’s kind of like that Depression-era mentality. There’s nothing wrong with the bread; it had just expired.

And certainly being in LA, lots of urban foraging was a big influence. And also experiences like filming with Chef’s Table or with other productions. We went to Kyoto and went to Miyamasou, where chef-owner Hisato Nakahigash is making all these incredible, incredible almost entirely foraged meals. The miso we’re using tonight is a gift from him.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

What else do you forage for up here?

Will: Once it rains, we do a ton of mushroom foraging. There are a lot of oyster mushrooms in Forestville and morels.

Chenoa: You hike into the forest and you’ll find them. That was a big part of last year when we moved to the Russian River.

Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

So are you some of these people that the pandemic has been good for in a weird way?

Will: Actually one of our New Year’s resolutions for 2020 was to cook more because we had just been going out all the time and just so busy and not spending enough time at home in the kitchen making meals. We definitely got that.

Chenoa: I grew up going to Muir Beach and Stinson but never fully went this far. Growing up our field trips were going to the tide pools and playing in them and now I’m actually as an adult playing in tide pools and eating what’s in them. It’s kind of an amazing full circle to be back home and exploring this part of California.