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.