SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.


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Wanted: Vineyard Owners with a Sense of Daring

Here’s to the crazy ones.  The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers…..

Last weekend, on a gorgeous and balmy Saturday afternoon, consumers packed Bergamot Alley in Healdsburg to drink Aglianico, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Trousseau Gris and Trousseau Noir from “a veritable Who’s Who list of many of the hottest small wineries in California” — Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Ryme, Matthiasson, Massican, Broc Cellars, Scholium Project.  These may not be household names, but amongst the trade, these producers have a lot of pull and have garnered a fair amount of attention.  And deservedly so.  They are making exciting wines.

But in order for these producers to keep capturing our imagination, they need to secure the raw materials, the grapes, to keep producing these wines.  And as Jon Bonne pointed out in a post over a year ago, “the vast majority of California up-and-comers” don’t have the resources to own their own vineyards.  Instead, they’re buying fruit from growers.

These farmers and vineyard owners are the unsung heroes of the “new” California.  They may be growing unheralded grapes, planting vines in areas consumers are only starting to discover, or holding on to old vines that still manage to eek out enough grapes to make a barrel or two.  And at the same time, they are helping fuel a very exciting and dynamic part of the California wine industry.

Sadly, this wine world recently lost one of these daring vineyard owners:  George Vare.  George’s wine career included many blue-chip names:  Geyser Peak, Beringer Vineyards, Henry Wine Group.  But he also had a sense of adventure, founding Luna Vineyards and being the first to introduce Ribolla Gialla to California.  George planted about 2.5 acres in his own vineyard in Napa and shared the grapes and his knowledge of Ribolla from various trips to Italy and Slovenia with a talented group of winemakers.  I never met George, but I admired what he did, and have talked to many who directly benefitted from his vision, his moxie, and his friendship.  Here’s what the Napa Valley Register had to say about George and his Ribolla upon his passing:

His last great project arose as a result of his work at Luna and the many friendships and visits he made to vintners in the Collio region of Friuli, Italy, and Slovenia. George loved small family winemakers, and became interested in the ancient Friulian grape variety Ribolla Gialla. An idiosyncratic grape, tough to grow, different to make wine from, and hard to pronounce, it is also fascinating to taste, great with food, and represents a long tradition in Italy of toiling out of love, rather than following the latest trend. George loved this about the variety, and decided that it would be his retirement project.

As much as George loved Ribolla Gialla, he was equally passionate about the help he could give to young winemakers with a vision, whether his help was advice, encouragement, or access to his precious Ribolla Gialla grapes, which he shared with a group of young iconoclastic winemakers.

From his time at Luna, where he provided an incubator for young winemakers, to his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, George was a sort of godfather for the current “new wave” of California winemakers. Ribolla Gialla to him was more than just a grape variety … it represented everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business — the business he loved and help lead for 40 years.

At events like the 7% Solution, I find myself wondering if there are enough vineyard owners who have the vision and daring to follow in George’s footsteps.  People who are willing to take a gamble on unknown grape varieties even though they could get more dollar-per-acre or ton for Cab.  Farmers dedicated to making sure that California — a state with a very young winemaking history in the grand scheme of things — continues to figure out what-grows-best-where.

I worry that with all the talk of a California grape shortage, vineyard owners (large and small) will try to play it safe and focus on brand name grapes and AVAs and try to maximize production at the expense of quality.  I worry that they may rip out old vines or be tempted to sell solely to large, mass-produced brands that they know will be around 5 years from now, and  less willing to take a chance on a year-to-year contract with a young winemaker just starting out.

We can and should continue to celebrate the winemakers who are experimenting with lesser known grapes and sourcing from lesser known places.  But we also need to tip our hats to and encourage vineyard owners and farmers who are providing the very ground upon on which these winemakers stand.


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Harvest in a Bottle

Arnot-Roberts Touriga Nacional Rosé

According to the publisher of a now-defunct wine publication, “The romance in wine is spent.” I beg to differ. While the prominence of the 100-point system and the proliferation of “critter” labels may be disheartening, spending time in a winery during harvest is all I needed to spark a love affair with wine. I was reminded of this recently as I cradled a bottle of the 2011 Arnot-Roberts Touriga Nacional Rosé – one of the wines made during my harvest internship and the first of the lot to be bottled.

Working Harvest

I developed a strong interest in wine ever since moving to the Bay Area a little over five years ago. Ready access to Sonoma and Napa made the agricultural core of winemaking more apparent to me. I was also lucky to meet many people who were willing to talk about the history, science, and craft of winemaking.

Last summer, during a break from my legal career, I decided to continue my wine education by seeking a harvest internship in California. But I didn’t want to work for just any winery. I wanted to find a place that continued to explore the full potential of domestic wines. A place willing to take a gamble on lesser-known grapes and obscure growing regions. After all, the U.S. has a relatively young wine history and part of the excitement about California wine (at least for me) is that there is still plenty of unchartered territory.

That spirit of adventure is what drew me to Duncan Arnot-Meyers and Nathan Roberts, the owners/winemakers at Arnot-Roberts. Duncan and Nathan have made a name for themselves by producing high-quality, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay. Although they could have relied solely on the popularity of these well known varieties, they started seeking out some odd-ball grapes, including Trousseau Noir (also known as “Bastardo”) and Touriga Nacional, a red grape variety typically used to provide tannin and structure to Port. There are approximately 220 acres of Touriga planted in California — less than 0.5% of total amount of Zinfandel in the state. It takes guts to make wines that people have never heard of much less be able to pronounce. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Duncan and Nathan agreed to bring on board an attorney with minimal winemaking experience for harvest 2011.

Let me dispel any notion that I had traded in the law firm for sun-soaked days traipsing through vineyards. The bulk of harvest consists of manual labor: moving heavy objects, scrubbing down bins, shoveling out tanks. I probably spent more time handling a power hose than I did walking through vineyards. It is exhausting work, and the rewards are not always immediate or obvious.

Harvest Tools: Cleaning the Tank

One of my favorite activities in the winery was the pump over. When red wine grapes arrive at the winery, they are put in large bins. As fermentation begins, the resulting carbon dioxide pushes the grape skins to the top of the tank, creating a cap that sits on top of the juice. In order to ensure a healthy fermentation and promote color and tannin development, the skins and the juice must be kept in contact. One way of accomplishing this is to pump juice from the bottom of the tank and use a hose to spray over the cap.

A friend at a Napa winery told me that all the guys there loved doing pump overs because they feel like firefighters when they get to lug the hoses around the winery. I never thought of it that way. To me, pump overs were about providing basic care and feeding. I felt more like an attentive gardener rather than a swashbuckling firefighter. Each time I got to pump over a bin, I thought about how the color and smell had changed from one day to the next, and contemplated the natural process that allowed these changes to happen. When Duncan first taught me how to do a pump over, he mentioned that he found it to be very meditative. I can see why: there is a certain calm that comes over you as you tend to the needs of the juice and must.

Arnot-Roberts Fellom Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (10/24/2011)

2011: A Challenging Year

In addition to juggling the multiple tasks involved in any harvest season, wineries must also keep a watchful eye on the weather. The combination of cool weather and rain made 2011 particularly challenging for California winemakers. Percipitation that late in the season can lead to rot or mildew. Wineries have to play a delicate game of chicken with Mother Nature, and decide if they should continue to let the grapes hang to ripen and risk potential crop damage, or pick them early, potentially before the berries have reached the desired level of ripeness. According to a local newspaper, “grape growers [were] reporting significant signs of damage to [Sonoma] county’s $400 million crop” as a result of early-October rain storms. Every morning at The Flying Goat, a Healdsburg coffee shop, you would hear multiple people say, “I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years in the industry.” During this stressful time, Nathan and Duncan were in constant contact with the vineyard managers with whom they worked, and scheduled numerous visits to see first hand how the vines were doing in order to determine when to bring in the grapes.

Taking the Touriga Nacional from Grape to Bottle

On October 13, Nathan and Duncan decided to pick the Touriga Nacional from Luchsinger Vineyards in Lake County, an AVA about 1.5 hours northeast of Healdsburg. I eagerly waited for the bins of grapes to arrive, hoping that the higher elevation and lower humidity of Lake County had allowed the grapes to dry out from the rain. Thankfully, the clusters were healthy — ripe berries with good acidity and minimal damage. After we QC’d the lot of them as they rolled by us on the sorting table, we pressed the grapes whole cluster (i.e., stems included), and the resulting juice ended up in a large steel fermentation tank.

10/13 - Sorting Arnot-Roberts Touriga Nacional

We kept an eye on the temperature and the sugar levels as we waited for nature to take its course and for natural yeast fermentation to begin. When it did, it was magical. I was mesmerized by the bubbling cauldron of juice turning into wine, the heat that rose from the surface, the alluring smell of fruit and spice. And the color — a stunning raspberry red — had us wondering if the Rosé might actually turn out to be darker than the Trousseau. This liquid had a palpable personality and life force of its own.

10/22 - Arnot-Roberts Touriga Fermentation

As the sugar levels dropped, we started sampling the goods. It was lively — lots of zip and good structure to boot. Nobody wanted to claim victory quite yet. The winemaking process is long and drawn out, and there is plenty of room for things to go awry. There’s no counting chickens before they’re hatched in this business. We were, however, cautiously optimistic that this had the potential to be the best domestic Touriga Nacional in the history of California wines. [Yes, I know that's going out on a limb.]

I wrapped up my harvest internship in early November but got periodic updates from Duncan and Nathan. I found myself talking about the different wines as if they were kids. (“Oh how’s Joey? He was always a strong student — is he still getting As in school?”). During a Beaujolais tasting at Arlequin Wine in mid-November, I asked Duncan how the Touriga Nacional was doing. I can’t quite recall what he said (no doubt due to the amount of wine consumed that night). I do, however, remember him raising an eyebrow, nodding his head, and giving a thumbs-up.

Two weeks ago, I had a chance to come back to Healdsburg and was happy to find that Nathan and Duncan (along with help from our friends Pedro Rusk and Hardy Wallace) had bottled the Touriga Nacional.

Giddy. Proud. Awe-struck. It’s hard to pick one word that describes how I felt when I first saw this bottle of wine. I imagine it’s how parents feel when they see their kid graduate from college. You take some pride in thinking that maybe, just maybe, you had a hand in making it possible. But you also realize that there are so many other forces at play — forces that are largely out of your control — and you simply give thanks that you’ve gotten to see this day.

I hardly recognized the wine. The color had softened dramatically and now had a slight salmon pink tinge. How did it taste? Frankly, I was so overcome with harvest memories that I didn’t take the time to jot down aromas or flavors. But that doesn’t bother me. The first sip brought together pleasure, excitement, and experience — something any score, aroma wheel, or tasting note would fail to capture.

There are a number of other wines that will be bottled over the next 12 months, and there will be countless moments of nostalgia for harvest 2011. Indeed, most of my favorite red wines from the 2011 vintage won’t be bottled for quite some time. But you always remember your first, and that’s why this particular wine will always be special to me.

Even in the modern era of commoditized supermarket wines, there is plenty of romance to be found. It is in the appreciation for the agricultural roots of the industry; the sense of exploration, experimentation and discovery of certain California winemakers; and the awe-inspiring transformation of grapes into wine. Even as I write this, I can feel my mind race, my pulse quicken, and a smile creep across my face. If that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.

Arnot-Roberts Touriga Nacional Rosé

Arnot-Roberts has an open mailing list, which means you can sign up and buy the Touriga Nacional directly from the winery. Here are the official winery tasting notes:

Our 2011 Rosé is made from 100% Touriga Nacional grapes farmed adjacent to our Trousseau block by the Luchsinger family in Lake County. The fruit was harvested at 21 brix on October 13th and was direct pressed to steel tank for a native yeast fermentation. The pale salmon colored wine has aromatics of blood orange and melons dusted with white sage and sea salt. The wine has some weight from the structure of the Touriga grape but floats delicately to a crisp and fresh finish with great acidity, (12.4% alc). We are very proud of this wine and think it will pair well with shellfish, seafood, game, poultry and even mildly spicy foods.

[Note: picture of the sorting table was taken by Robert Morris of Copain Custom Crush, and is used here with his permission.]


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Looking Forward to 2012

Let’s start turning the page on 2011 and start looking forward to the year ahead.  Here are some thoughts on what 2012 has in store for California wine.

Gamay at Arnot-Roberts

MORE UNDERDOG VARIETALS:  The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in California wine making.  Although Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are by far the most widely planeted varietals in the state, there are a good number of quality producers seeking out less heralded varietals, and thereby continuing to explore the full potential of California wine.  Since 2009, Arnot-Roberts has been making Trousseau sourced from the Clear Lake AVA, and this year Duncan and Nathan are working on a new project with RN74’s Rajat Parr:  a Gamay from the Sierra Foothills.  This was one of my favorite ferments during my time working harvest at AR — the clusters were gorgeous, the ferment tank was giving me highs, and the color was stunning.  The blogosphere also is eagerly awaiting the inaugural release from Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery, including a Semillon and a Mourvedre.  Started by two bloggers, D&R is “America’s #1 Winery” so you know it’s gonna be good!

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Bottling Petillant @ The NPA

LOCAL BUBBLES:  Unlike Cole Porter, I do get a kick from Champagne.  But domestic sparkling doesn’t thrill me at all.  Actually, that’s a bit harsh.  But let’s just say that it’s been a while since I’ve been excited about buying a bottle of domestic sparkling.  That may change soon:  Kevin Kelley of Salinia and The NPA is making a petillant, and rumor has it Donkey and Goat has some bubbly juice in the cellar, too.  Keep an eye out for these wines — might turn out to be something new and fun to open up on New Year’s Eve 2012.

Note: Picture is from The NPA’s Facebook page

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RE-VISIONING CHARDONNAY:  The market is flooded with domestic Chardonnay that tastes like it should be poured on top of movie theater popcorn instead of being served at the dinner table.  But there’s a change afoot in California, and 2012 should see an uptick in the number of balanced (dare I say, nuanced) Chardonnay. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what John Raytek, the new winemaker at Lioco, does with access to the broad range of Chardonnay sourced from the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, and Chalone AVAs.

Still need more convincing that Chardonnay is on the upswing?  The folks who pulled together the In Pursuit of Balance: Pinot Noir event this past March will be hosting a similar event focused on — you guessed it —  Chardonnay.  And according to some tweets and pics posted by sommelier and James Beard Award winning author Rajat Parr, it looks like he is working on a Chardonnay book as a follow-up to Secrets of the Sommelier.

For an entertaining read, check out this newsletter from Lioco, comparing Chard to Fat Elvis (RIP, King!).  

UPDATE 12/30/2011:  Dirty South Wines gives a shout out to CA Chard and small fizz producers in his 2012 wish list.  

“CA Chardonnay:  Become the #geekwine that we know you can be.  Some producers are rolling in this direction (some have always been there). But- thisnerdigo goes far beyond the lame wood or no wood pulpits.  Break the glass and release the monkeys….

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Domestic Sparkling Wine:  We’ve got mid-sized covered, where are our little guys focussed on the fizz?”