A Brief History of Natural Wine Paired With an Inside Look at Semi Tropic Wines
Names: Kyle Kennelly and Becca Mantei
Job Titles: Founders of Semi Tropic Wines, a Natural Wine Bar
After a year of virtual happy hours and Friday nights at home on the couch, it’s time to celebrate a new sense of normal. That feel-good outfit, California sunshine and a glass of refreshing wine are all calling your name. The time has finally come to confidently get out and about and meet your friends for an evening of nothing but good vibes at Costa Mesa’s newest gem, Semi Tropic Wines.
Featuring natural wines from all over the world, Semi Tropic Wines opened their quaint bottle shop in November 2020. That’s correct—in the middle of a global pandemic. And just a couple months ago, the other half of Semi Tropic Wines, the attached wine bar, opened its doors.
Founders Kyle Kennelly and Becca Mantei realized the surprising lack of access to natural wine in the Orange County area. “It’s really an anomaly anywhere else; it’s relatively developed. There’s natural wine in abundance, and it was hard to find the wine we wanted.”
“We wanted to create a place for natural wine to flourish, giving people a space to explore at whatever level they come in at.”—Kyle Kennelly Natural Wine Bar
While the term “natural wine” is thrown around ambiguously, there’s a few key differences that make wine, well, natural. Kennelly dives into a bit of the history by explaining, “People have been making natural wine for thousands of years (all the way back 8,000 years ago in the country of Georgia), putting grapes in ceramic vessels, burying them in the Earth and letting them ferment; eventually it would turn into wine. Nobody was focused on separating the red and white grapes or taking the skins off the grapes.”
One of the biggest differences between conventional and natural wine is the farming practices. The use of pesticides and other chemicals to keep insects off the plants are excluded from the natural wine process. “Natural winemakers farm organically or biodynamically. They are much more connected to the earth and to their farms,” Kennelly explains. This explains the vibrant, funky and lively taste that comes when sipping natural wine. Mantei adds, “There’s a list of 70 chemicals that can be added to conventional wine that doesn’t have to be disclosed on the label. You can be drinking pesticides and dyes, and it’s barely wine at all.”
With a stroke of luck, a building built back in the 1960s became available for lease for the first time in over 50 years. Ideal for their dream wine shop, the two put in an application and were soon accepted to rent the Westside Costa Mesa building. Kennelly and Mantei envisioned a welcoming space for the community to gather, somewhat similar to neighborhood favorite Daydream Surf Shop—a specialty coffee and surf shop—which they also own. “We wanted to create a place for natural wine to flourish, giving people a space to explore at whatever level they come in at,” Kennelly states. ”The natural wine world is so rad. In comparison to both the surf and coffee industry, there’s a beautiful sense of abundance; everyone is so unthreatened.” Countless choices of bottles with intriguing and beautiful labels are available to purchase on the left side of the building, while the charming wine bar exists on the right side, filled with wood booths, plants, an outdoor patio and an open and airy atmosphere.
“Wine is meant to be shared with everyone and not some luxury commodity. It’s about wine for all people.”—Kyle Kennelly and Becca Mantei Natural Wine Bar
Not only does Semi Tropic offer unique wines from all over the world—France, Italy, Mexico, Georgia, Australia and California to name a few regions—but they also serve decadent dishes that pair beautifully with each bottle. Ashlee Barbito, who was instrumental in crafting the food menu at Neat Coffee (a fellow Costa Mesa coffee shop just a few blocks away), created the dishes and menu at Semi Tropic. Featuring fresh dishes with local ingredients, the team works with the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano to stock fresh produce, olives and other seasonal items. Charcuterie and crudité are a bit of what to expect. “When we visited Paris in 2019, every wine shop had a small kitchen set up, and they were turning out creative, super light menus,” Kennelly says. “What it feels like to go to a wine bar in Paris—if we can get a little slice of that in Costa Mesa, that’s success to us.”7/17
There’s truly something special about connecting with people in real life, especially over a glass of wine and a bite to eat. You’re bound to see a familiar face here, or you can strike up a chat with a stranger, which was wholeheartedly missed during a time when the world was in lockdown. “Wine is meant to be shared with everyone; it’s not some luxury commodity. It’s about wine for all people,” says Mantei. The entire goal and purpose of the shop, an inclusive space for all ages and backgrounds to gather, has been fulfilled. We’ll cheers to that!
Semi Tropic Wines
816 W 19th St
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Taylor is a graduate from the University of Southern California with a degree in journalism. She is our Los Angeles and Orange County editor. You can find her dining at a new restaurant, in the ocean or planning her next adventure. Say hello!