Monday, April 27, 2015

Winemakers of Change: Four Advocates of the 7% Grapes

Clockwise: Mahle, Allen, Rorick. Photo credits below

Note: This piece was originally set to run as the cover story in Sip California but due to a publishing delay and the timing of 7% Solution tasting event, I’m posting it here now.

As you drive across the wine-growing regions of California, the majority of vineyards you pass will be planted with the big eight-- Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc. According to the USDA’s report on California’s wine grape acreage, these eight varietals are the most widely planted grapes; roughly 93%.

The remaining 7%* of the acres planted are rare and obscure grapes that many consumers have never tried or even heard of before. For growers, decisions on what to plant are based primarily on economic viability, not necessarily on terroir or for what grows best where. Yet for a small cadre of maverick winemakers it’s that seven percent, the uncommon and rare varieties, such as Aglianico, Grenache Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, St. Laurent, Tinto Cao, Friulano, Verdehlo, and Trousseau Gris, that are most appealing. *{It’s important to note that the 7% calculation applies primarily to the acreage of California’s North Coast.}

By focusing on the unusual, lesser-planted grapes, these forward-thinking producers are establishing an important knowledge base on Californian wine with regard to soils, climate, and farming techniques. Their efforts may predict the future of what’s in your glass, and herald a significant turning point in California wine.

Four of the most passionate advocates for the 7% grapes are Duncan Arnot Meyer of Arnot-Roberts, Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope, William Allen of Two Shepherds, and Pax Mahle of Wind Gap Wines.

If, as the saying goes, wine is fashion, then these winemakers are the avant-garde designers of the moment, sending Arneis, Counoise, Vermentino, and others down the cat walk with a strut of attitude.


“I think we are just beginning to explore the inherent valor of light-bodied red wines in California,” says Duncan Arnot Meyer. His standout wine, the Arnot-Roberts Ribolla Gialla, is fermented in clay amphorae. He also makes a Rosé of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao that’s dry and light as parchment with a fresh scent of strawberry and spice.

“Much focus has been spent on making hearty, extracted wines over the past twenty years and the other end of the spectrum deserves more attention,” he says. “We are in the midst of a very exciting time to be growing grapes and making wine in California and the potential is being further revealed to us every year.”

Chasing the tough-to-grow, hard-to-pronounce, and at-times-persnickety varietals rather than follow the tried and true is not necessarily the path to riches and glory. The common denominator among the winemakers is the compulsion to follow their own tastes while pushing the prevailing expectations of what makes wine great. If it pays off, so be it.

“We make the wines we want to drink and love first, then find a following,” says William Allen of Two Shepherds. “I can’t tell you how often I heard in my early days, if I didn’t make Pinot Noir, how much I would struggle.”

Instead of making wine to fit a business/marketing plan, Allen makes wine to suit his palate. His love for Rhône varietals grew from a hobby into to a full-blown label, and his Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc, from Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez, has gone on to achieve near-cult reverence.

“Our wines are appealing not just because of the variety, but for those seeking wines of restraint, lower alcohol, higher acidity, and finesse over brawn,” Allen says.

Pax Mahle’s focus on wines with a sense of place is reflected in his label name--Wind Gap—in reference to the Petaluma Wind Gap a viticulture sub region of the Sonoma Coast where the grapes are influenced by cool coastal winds and “…taste like where they are grown.” His old vine Trousseau Gris, an aromatic delight from Fannuchi-Wood Road Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is fermented in concrete and available on tap at his grange-chic tasting room in Sebastopol.

Many 7% varieties have an ardent following by wine consumers looking for something new, but the masses have yet to embrace the full range of varietals. “People are more intimidated by a $26 bottle of California Vermentino that’s terrific with food than a $75 bottle of Chardonnay that’s so oaky and mass produced it tastes like it could have been grown in a lab,” says Mahle.

“The lesser-known varieties that the 7% is shining a light on are made to be enjoyed with ease and not put on a pedestal,” he says. “Not every obscure variety will become a favorite, but that’s the joy of tasting and experimenting and taking the journey of discovering what you like.”


These winemakers draw inspiration not just from the grapes. Diverse and esoteric sources including art, music, and literature informs their winemaking methodology. Matthew Rorick finds Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence an ongoing inspiration, and two of his wines, Suspiro del Moro and Sogni della Speccia, bear names from Rushdie’s writing. Meyer cites Frank Herbert's Dune as an influence, and compares a great wine to “the epic crescendo in a good version of 'Terrapin Station' by the Grateful Dead.”

A minimal approach to winemaking and willingness towards experimentation is a calling card of the avant garde, with many using "old world" techniques like native yeast, neutral vs. new barrel, concrete, no fining or filtering, and picking at lower ripeness levels. Indeed, many of the 7% wines exhibit an inherent lightness of being, alive with an energy that practically bounces in the glass.

For Rorick, a minimal approach applies to both winemaking style and case production. The Forlorn Hope wines are labeled as “rare creatures,” and made in lots of less than 2,500 bottles. His Que Saudade Verdelho, from the Sierra Foothills, is full of flavor and vibrant acidity—a veritable poem to the Portuguese provenance of the grapes.

Rorick was drawn to the less commonly grown grapes in California out of curiosity. He began to wonder, “How does Verdelho behave in the vineyard and winery? How would the approach to producing Alvarelhão differ from how I'd made Cabernet?”

It's not dabbling as much as purposeful experimentation with old vines and forgotten vineyards in a concerted effort to learn from the grapes and what in time may reveal what's truly California.


“What might our vineyards look like today if Verdelho, Trousseau noir, Riesling, Chenin blanc, Tinto Cão, Arboriou, and other 'lesser-known' varieties had continued to be cultivated in diverse locations and larger plantings over the past hundred years?” Rorick asks. He would be delighted if all of the work being done with fringe varieties in California continued to deepen the understanding and relationship between site and vine, and forge a link between the state’s viticultural history and its future. “Continuing the exploration of this history is irresistibly compelling,” he says.

Are the 7% varietals destined to become just a passing fashion trend? The equivalent of wide-legged palazzo pants of the late 1960s? One day you’re in, the next day you’re out. Or will they become generally accepted and long lasting?

In the end, the change and shifts in wine culture may not come from the growers and producers, but from the new breed of wine drinkers, that once they get a taste, will drive the demand for more.

“These lesser-known varieties offer wine aficionados a much broader world of possibilities and palate experiences, and a chance to appreciate the benefit of old vines and historic vineyards,” Allen says. He sees it as an opportunity for California to distinguish itself, and believes the number of small wineries producing lesser-known varieties will continue to increase.

Mahle definitely believes the interest by growers and producers in 7% varieties represents a significant turning point in California wine. Rorick’s take, on the other hand, is more restrained: “Culturally significant? Absolutely. Turning point? Ask me again in ten years.”


The 7% Solution tasting event was the brain child of Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts and Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines, who wanted to showcase the varietals made from the lesser-known varieties planted in only 7% of the acreage in the North Coast of California. 2015 will mark the third year of this not-to-be missed event. Details on locations and tickets below.

SAN FRANCISCO / Wednesday, MAY 6, 2015 / 5pm-8:30pm
FOLSOM ST. FOUNDRY, 1425 Folsom Street, San Francisco / 415-795-3644

HEALDSBURG / Saturday, MAY 9, 2015 / 1pm-4pm
BERGAMOT ALLEY, 328A Healdsburg Avenue / 707-433-8720

Tickets available here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Blissed Out on Portuguese Wine

It’s no secret that I think some of the most fascinating, knowledgeable, interesting and out-right fun people, are wine importers. (Frank Dietrich of Blue Danube Wine is perfect example of this.) In spite of the inherent risks, wine importers seem to possess some kind of plucky can-do attitude, compelled to carry on when others might give up. I find it inspiring to be around people who love what they do and there’s something very appealing about their enthusiasm for a region and their zest for bringing the story of the wine in their portfolios to life. Yes, I realize that a wine importer’s main job is to sell you on the wines. But the best importers seem to transcend mere sales talk and it becomes personal. The wines become a part of them and the level of excitement they generate for their “babies” is contagious.

I don’t remember how @BlissWineImport  got on my Twitter radar, but once I followed, I became instantly engaged with Alleah and Erin’s International Adventure in search of wine and their quest to become wine importers. Last year I followed along on their journey as they tweeted and blogged and made videos about their discoveries. It was like reality TV, but without the fake plot lines and bad commercials. It was fun, seat-of-the-pants, honest and un-pretentious.

So when I saw that Erin and Alleah had finally settled back in California I tweeted that we should get together. They agreed and graciously offered to bring samples of their latest imports from winemaker João Tavares de Pina of Quinta da Boavista in the Dão, Portugal.

What started out as a “come by for an hour” -- turned into a wine fueled odyssey of conversation, connection, and confessions. Well, I was the only one with the confession-- I admitted that I really wanted to back out of the invite an hour before they arrived because I’m actually a introvert of the highest order and I began to panic at the thought of hosting total strangers for an hour.

But 8 hours, 6 bottles, and 2 broken glasses later, I realized, I need not have worried. We had a blast, and carried on a non-stop conversation over our shared interests and belief in the connective power of great wine.

I’m already a big fan of the wines of Portugal and I was very impressed with the selections Alleah poured--three reds and a white all from Quinta da Boavista in Dão, Portugal. I did not take formal notes, but I found the wines tasted like pure Portugal to my palate. Hearty, rustic, full of spice, earth, red fruits, and dazzling minerality with a great depth of flavor that continued to open and evolve in the glass. The tannin profiles were robust and suited my preference for a taut backbone and structure, but were never overpowering.

First we tried the 2012 Rufia Red blend of -- 40% Jaen, 30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Pinheira -Full minty mouthful with lots of red fruit and robust tannins.

Then we tasted the 2006 Terras De Tavares -- 50% Jaen, 50% Touriga Nacional -- Hearty, earthy flavors with a plusher mouth feel.

Followed by the 2003 Terras De Tavares - 60% Jaen, 40% Touriga Nacional. -- Deeper, more developed flavors with long lingering finish.

And finally, the 2008 Torre de Tavares 100% Encruzado that was love at first sip for me. This wine was a big OH YES! Not technically a true orange wine, but in the style I like to call the White Unicorn. Meaning it’s a rare and magical beast. Catch one if you can.

After tasting each wine, it occurred me that all together they were very much like a chord progression, a perfect harmony of flavors and structure that created a melodic sense of place. A wonderful riff, it was as if I could hear the sound of the terroir as well as taste it.

As Alleah poured the wines I could not help but notice the odd little fabric wraps around the necks of the bottles. They looked like mini ankle weights or leg warmers circa 1982 Jane Fonda ~ “Feel the burn!”~ but it turns out they were drip catchers called DripTeez. A product conceived, designed and marketed by Alleah’s mother. What an entrepreneurial-minded family! Anyway they worked great and nary a drip escaped down the bottles.

Check out the stunning Bliss Wine website designed and engineered by the talented Erin. There you can learn more about the wines, watch videos with the winemakers, and place an order for your own selections.

Bliss Wine Imports


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