Monthly Archives: November 2012


Gustafson Family Vineyards, Overlooking Dry Creek Valley from 1800 feet

Having spent time regularly visiting Sea Ranch, on the coast West of Healdsburg, Dan Gustafson began looking for property in the Dry Creek Valley area. He wanted to grow grapes. Having raised his kids on a working cattle ranch, in the midwest, he was used to work outside and was ready to invest long term in Sonoma County. Early in life he’d worked in restaurants, gaining exposure to food and wine. During the same period, he developed a taste for California wine because, he says, it was what he could afford at the time.

The point on the Mountain Range is St. Helena, photo taken looking East from the Gustafson house, located on the West side of Dry Creek Valley on Skaggs Spring Road, near Lake Sonoma

In the midst of a trip out to Sea Ranch, Dan Gustafson drove by a property on Skaggs Spring Road with a For Sale sign. He jumped the fence to look at it, and discovered a wealth of Madrone trees throughout. Viticultural folk knowledge says that where Madones grow, vines will too–they both need to keep their feet dry. The property also already had several clearings throughout that meant no dry grading was needed to start building, and clearing wasn’t required to plant vines.

So, Gustafson moved an Airstream to the top of the property to live in while he planted vines and started construction on the winery. In 2004, the Heritage Tree Block was planted with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah. Over time what was found was the site did best for Petite Sirah, and so that became the bulk of the property’s focus.

In 2006, construction on the winery began, close to the house site, with a barrel cellar built beneath. The layout arose naturally from the demands of the ground itself–it turned out to install a proper foundation, the crew had to dig 18 feet down to bedrock. The space between the foundation and the house floor, then, built into the hillside, became the winery’s barrel storage.

The reality of planting an entirely new vineyard site rests in a process of learning the soils. The vineyard manager and winemaker, Emmett Reed, likes to say the vineyard is young and still learning itself.

The site located at 1800 feet elevation on the Northwest side of Dry Creek Valley has no vineyard planted neighbors. As a result, there is no blueprint for what does best in the area, nor neighbors to ask for advice (there are other vineyards further up the road, but in uniquely different slope, aspect, etc than Gustafson Family Vineyard).

With vintage variation as well, Gustafson wine is also, in some ways, getting to know itself. Reed is happy with how the 2012 harvest has gone, and with how the quality has progressed through the last several vintages (including their weather challenges).

looking Southeast down Dry Creek Valley

The Gustafson site has 3 natural springs, and a wealth of both Redwood and Madrone. The winery is bonded for 4000 cases, and makes approximately 3400 currently. Much of the fruit from their site is sold, with two of the primary customers being Orin Swift Wines, and Eric Cohn’s Shoe Shine Wine. The Gustafson fruit is preferred for the cleanliness of the site that comes with its elevation, but especially for how precisely Reed is able to follow the clients’ vineyard protocol.

looking Northeast towards Lake Sonoma, and the Rockpile AVA

The elevation over Dry Creek Valley comes through with the inversion effect–Gustafson is warmer at night, and cooler during the day, offering a narrower overall temperature range. The site is also only 18 miles from the coast, located at one of the higher points between the coast and the valley.

steep slope vineyards at Gustafson

With elevation, the individual berries on a cluster tend to be smaller, offering more concentrated flavors. This proved true even in 2012 when the overall cluster size was larger. This recent vintage, then, offered a unique balance of the concentrated spice from small berries, with still greater volume from larger clusters. The ultimate goal is to establish dry farming throughout the Gustafson Estate. Currently minimal watering is done simply because of how young the vines are.

Sheep’s Barn Pasture

The lowest vineyard on Gustafson Estate offers cool enough overall temperatures to host Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the one area that had to be entirely replanted when the original grapes didn’t handle the cooler area well. It is also the only area on the site that has suffered frost damage from cool air pooling down the hillside into this little flat.

The Heritage Madrone, Gustafson Estate

Gustafson Estate hosts the oldest Madrone in Sonoma County, and what is believed to be the oldest in California as well. The tree is 11.5 feet around its base, and so beautiful.

The Heritage Madrone, with Kaitlin Reed, Gustafson’s Hospitality Manager

The idea of affordability is at the core of Gustafson Wine label, with the wines being priced for genuine value between $20 and $28.

The 2009 Mountain Cuvee, 83% Zinfandel, with the remaining a blend of Petite Sirah, and Syrah, is the clearest value. It offers a nice texture with smooth polish, an interesting complexity, and super clean presentation. They describe the goal of the wine as “to get enough backbone to be recognized as Zin, while avoiding the steamroll.”

The 2007 Petite Sirah is a good example of the quality of their fruit, again offering good value at $28. The advantage of the Gustafson site has shown itself in its love for Petite Sirah–it’s become the most planted fruit, the vine proving to be easy to generate both good crop levels and complexity on the hillside. Thought of as “the poor man’s Cab”, the Gustafson’s Petite Sirah does well at offering the richness and potential weight of a Cab, without going into heaviness that can come in an overdone Petite Sirah. It offers a lot of complexity on the nose, following into the palate with a silky rich mouthfeel and stimulating finish.


Thank you to Kaitlin Reed for hosting me, and giving me a tour of the Gustafson site. It’s quite beautiful.

Thank you to Kyrsa Dixon.


Touring Dry Creek Valley:

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This Fall I have been lucky enough to get to know the Dry Creek Valley AVA through tastings, interviews, and tours. Beginning with yesterday’s feature on Paul Draper’s work with Ridge Vineyards–they began making Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley within two years of Draper starting at Ridge–I’ll be showcasing aspects of Dry Creek Valley here.

Included will be considerations of Zinfandel, but also a tasting on Cabernet Sauvignon from differing types of loam; interviews with people that have helped shape the AVA; photos of specific sites; and historic pre-Lake Sonoma photos shared with me by the Mauritson family.

To begin, here are some photos of the beautiful valley. Enjoy!

Pasterick Vineyards, on West Dry Creek Valley Road

Jr. Drawing in a Rhone-varieties Vineyard

A view of the Valley from 1800 feet

Gustafson Family Vineyards, Looking Towards Lake Sonoma

The Oldest Madrone in Sonoma County, and likely in California, at Gustafson

Looking up the Valley from Dry Creek Valley Road, near Geyserville

A Garden Family at Nalle Vineyards

Head trained Zinfandel planted in 1932

The overlap of Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile AVAs in the early morning


Drinking Balance: Considering Terroir, Old Vines, and Natural Winemaking, A Conversation with Paul Draper:

Happy Halloween! Or, And Now For Something Complete Different (and a little random): The Heritage Madrone, A Bonus in the Wine Writer’s Life, for Shiloh:

Visiting Gustafson Family Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley AVA, 1800 feet elevation:

The History of Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma, and Rockpile: Meeting the Mauritson Family:

Visiting the Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile AVAs Overlap: The Mauritson Family Vineyards:

Tasting the Soil: Clay Mauritson’s Passion for Loam and Cabernet:


Thank you to Michelle McCue and Dan Fredman.

Thank you to Krysa Dixon, and Anne Alderete,

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Visiting Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, with Paul Draper

In considering his mentors in winemaking, Paul Draper of Ridge Wines is clear. His work is done in California, and his influences find their roots in this same state. The important point though is asking when his mentors did their work. As Draper explains, in the 1930s winemakers could be found still producing California Zinfandel in what he calls a traditional method. “They made wine that was still traditional, a straightforward process.” He pauses, “well, natural.” The relevance of this idea for Draper carries into the balance of the final wine, and the quality with which it ages.

Ridge is known for great success and influence in at least two styles of wine–Bordeaux blends, on the one hand, and Zinfandel, on the other.

Starting as Ridge Vineyards’ head winemaker in 1969, Draper was given the charge of increasing the quality of the company’s wines, and its overall business model. The hope was to bring the winery into a long term vision. The original owners had commitment to the idea of creating world class wine but needed someone with know-how to help fulfill the dream. By 1976, the Monte Bello blend had bested first growth Bordeaux on an International stage, the grand Paris tasting. It is these wines that originally secured Ridge, and its winemaker, Draper, its now legendary status. Bordeaux blends are widely considered the pinnacle of caché in wine circles, with even those that may claim to prefer other styles still feeling the weight of reputation emanating from Bordeaux.

I ask Draper to tell me the story of how he started with the company. He was invited by the original three family partnership to taste wines from their Monte Bello property. They poured for him their 1962 and 1964 blends. The site had originally been planted in the 1880s with a first bottled vintage in 1892. By the 1940s a large portion of these vines had been replanted, having seen great neglect during Prohibition. 1962 was the first vintage for the new family partnership relying on these more than 20 years old vines. The family winemakers, however, had no real experience with making the beverage. “They’d made beer once,” Draper explains. “But never wine.”

After a moment, Draper adds another detail–they also poured him a wine spontaneously (and non-commercially) done in 1959, ten years prior to Draper’s meeting with the families. The 1959 vintage had been made almost in error. The family picked grapes from their low yield vines, put them into a bin, and then went on vacation for two weeks, leaving the grapes completely unattended during their absence. When they returned, the fruit had fermented dry, so, they pressed and bottled the resulting wine. By the 1962 commercial vintage, the families had integrated in a purposeful submerged cap technique, and developed a slightly more refined result to the wine.

Draper explains, it was these early efforts, and especially the 1959 vintage that convinced him to join the Ridge family. “These winemakers had no knowledge, no experience. They were utilizing fully natural winemaking. That is, the wine really did make itself” (the truth of that certainly couldn’t be denied at least in 1959). Yet, what Draper tasted in the resulting wines was complexity, and a sense of completeness. “These guys just were not getting in the way.” Draper tells me. “I thought, it must be the site giving the quality.” Draper realized it would be an honor he could not deny to work with such a location. “Plus, I liked the families.”

That experience with the first vintages of the Monte Bello, plus the work he’d already done around old vines in Chile, set him on a mission. To expand the production of Ridge Wines they would seek old vine vineyards. In 1971 they located what is now known as the Lytton Springs site, making their first Zinfandel blend from Dry Creek Valley with that fruit in 1972. The vineyard had been planted in the 1870s and 1880s and at least half of the plants had actually survived Prohibition. In 1990, Ridge bought the old vine half of the Lytton Springs property; in 1995, they purchased the rest. I ask Draper about the about-20 years between when they first started using the Dry Creek Valley fruit and when they finally took ownership of the vineyard. In that case, there was a little back and forth with the previous vineyard owner. But Draper clarifies that Ridge tends to take their time before buying new property.

Discovering Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley, and Zinfandel

Draper illustrates what he thinks of as a 50-year plan. The decisions they make today at Ridge are all aimed towards turning these first 50 years of the company’s success into the next 50. One of the primary effects of this view is that Ridge, the company, grows only as it has the money to grow, planting new vines only as it can afford to let those vines develop into greater age, and buying new sites only once the particular vineyard has proven itself with consistency over time. With that in mind, Ridge has worked with more than 50 Zinfandel vineyards throughout California, with all but ten of those being old vine planted, and at least 20 being within Sonoma County. The larger portion of vineyard sites for Ridge, then, is devoted to Zinfandel plantings, rather than Bordeaux varieties.

While Bordeaux blends carry with them a weight of reputation, Zinfandel, on the other hand, was long described as the everyman wine, costing very little compared to the heftier cost of Bordeaux blends. Draper succeeded, however, in showing that even California Zinfandel could be worthy of wider acclaim. In 1983, he appeared on the then-popular show Dinner with Julia offering her a 1980 Ridge Amador Zinfandel, which he described as “a Beaujolais style Zinfandel”, as well as a 1977 Paso Robles Zinfandel (and the 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon–keep an eye out for the Ridge White Zinfandel, which he calls their “essence of Zinfandel”). What is impressive about this, then, is that Ridge has wielded incredible influence at both ends of the California wine spectrum–showing California wine can garner respect at the highest level with Bordeaux blends, and that an everyman grape like Zinfandel can be deserving of a better reputation as well.

Draper tells me that they like to experiment by sourcing around from different sites. “In a typical year, we’ll produce Zinfandel from 12 or 14 sites in very small quantities. We’ll look at the consistency of character and how fine it will age.” Scouting a new site for Ridge, then, depends first on picking a location that shows promising characteristics up front. But the next level of commitment comes not only in working with that site for multiple vintages to see how the wine does each year, but also waiting long enough to see how well the resulting wine does in the bottle. When I ask Draper how many vintages that would tend to mean for him, I guess, maybe five or 6 to show a range of seasonal variation? He tells me, “With Lytton, we purchased it 18 years after making the first vintage with proven quality. We just let go of a good [but not reliable enough] vineyard we sourced fruit from. We made wine from that location 20 years before we dropped it.” That said, the goal for Ridge is to farm 75% of its own grapes, with other locations being experimented with in only small quantites. He tells me why Ridge focuses on having control over their own vineyards, and on only expanding as they can afford. “The heart of the matter is not being driven by what the market will sell, but instead on what the soil and climate will support. That is hard to ask of people.”

In considering the number of vineyard sites Draper has had the privilege of working with, he returns to the idea of “wine making itself.” The reality of winemaking, Draper explains, is that “the wine won’t make itself without you standing there. But, with the right vineyard site it is like it makes itself.” We turn, then, to the topic of terroir, and I ask Draper to describe his understanding of the notion.

Reflecting on Terroir, Balance, and Natural Wine

“Terroir in California,” he begins. “It shows in wines that distinctly offer the same character of place when tasting the wines side by side through different vintages, though the vintage element too will be distinctly different.” Draper says the focus for Ridge is on offering terroir through their vineyard specific wines, because what he wants for Ridge Wines is the kind of complexity and quality that accompanies that sense of place. In order to accomplish this goal, the winemaking team at Ridge (Draper still acts as head winemaker, but now also has a team of winemakers that work with him–located at the three wineries) uses what Draper calls “minimal intervention with very obsessive watching over.” He elucidates, “any tweaking occurs at blending, choosing what barrels, that is, vineyard parcels, we want to include. We avoid mechanical or chemical intervention. The goal is to make the best that vineyard can make.” As a result, Ridge wines also go through both natural alcoholic and malolactic fermenation.

Ridge does, however, utilize “the minimal required amount of sulfur” having tested what is demanded by each site, and by the specifics of a particular vintage. Draper tells me he does know, of course, that some people making “natural wines” go without sulfur as well. But, for Draper, to fulfill his commitment to terroir, the wines require a small portion of the additive. “It takes some SO2 for the vineyard to show its individual character.” I ask him to talk me through this view. He offers me two side-by-side explanations.

First, he offers, “when we talk about terroir, we’re saying the wines are showing the individual character of a site. But,” he goes on, “sometimes the word terroir becomes an excuse, without it being necessarily clear if what is showing might actually be the fault of the winemaker.” This brings him to his second point. “When we don’t use the minimum effective level of SO2, the wine goes off differently every year. It can be fine. Or, it can be off. But we’ve found, what you get is simply not a consistent sense of character from the place it came.” That is, the overall quality and presentation the wine gives you might be pleasurable, but what it isn’t offering is that reliable experience of terroir coming from the vineyard site itself.”

We come around to the idea of balance. It’s a word that has gotten a lot of traction recently in discussions around wine. Zinfandel, one of the primary grapes Ridge works with, for instance, is known for readily growing to produce higher alcohol levels. Some have argued that it is possible to have a quality wine of higher alcohol as long as it works with the wines’ other elements, while others strike the view that only lower alcohol (coming in more like below 13%) should be considered in balance.

Draper offers his view. “When any element is too extreme a wine does not age as well. The elements we can easily name–acid, tannin, fruit.” He later adds the idea of too much oak as another aspect for consideration. “Plus, each of these need to work with what the grape brings to it as far as more complex flavors. For example, when you see a wine that is initially too tannic… yes, it will soften with age. But it will never be as finely balanced if it isn’t in balance initially.” He continues, considering his view in relation to ripeness. “If a wine is really over ripe, or if the alcohol is not carried well enough by the body, then it is out of balance.” He acknowledges such a wine will change over time but clarifies that it is certain types of integration-over-time his view of balance is in relation to. “But how is that wine in ten years? Or, in three years? If you don’t prefer that wine in ten years, then it wasn’t in true balance initially.”

This consideration of aging potential ties back into Draper’s interest in minimal intervention wines, and his reasons for winemakers of the 1930s being his original inspiration. At that time, winemakers were still relying on techniques from before Prohibition, that is, little mechanical or chemical technique, very much using only what was available locally. “One of the effects of Prohibition,” Draper tells me, “is an eventual break from this tradition. [UC] Davis came in post-Prohibition as a kind of reinvention of winemaking by modern chemistry, relying on cordon versus head pruned, clones versus selections.” He clarifies that it isn’t that some portion of such knowledge couldn’t be useful. But he does go on to say that in his view, “newer technique [ie. mechanical and chemically intervened] wines don’t age as well as traditional.” He further clarifies that whether or not a wine ages well can be considered part of the character of a place (depending too though on how interventionist the wine was made).

In one final conversation around terroir, Draper expands on his original comments about the notion. “Terroir,” he tells me, “is also a matter of what grapes grow best in what climate and in what soil. Does the vineyard show consistently? Or, do we have to help it out? Do you have old vines, or new vines? The Geyserville site was originally planted with some Carignan, but at Lytton that other portion is Petite Sirah. We’ve kept that.” Draper’s description, then, implies at least two things. For one, the quality of each site varies. Some produce better, and certainly different wine than others. But, in addition, terroir does not just come down to the rocks and climate of a place. It is also an expression of a vineyard’s particular grape types, and history, and those are both a matter of the people that have worked the site.


For more photos from the visit to Monte Bello:

To see video of Draper on Dinner with Julia:

For an interesting consideration of balance in relation to Zinfandel, read Talia Baiocchi on the Wine Spectator blog:

For more on Dry Creek Valley:


Thank you to Paul Draper for taking so much time to meet with me. I am deeply grateful, and blessed.

Thank you to Sue, Sam, and Amy.

Thank you to Michelle McCue.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Thanksgiving holiday ending in the United States means people are flipping it towards Christmas, freaking out about selling as much as they can if they own businesses that make, or carry things to sell, and buying as much as possible for their little families to open on the offending day.

I actually love Christmas. But, I love it for the sense of snow christened gratefulness that comes with the incredibly cold weather I grew up within. That is, pinpoint, ultra focused, star flashes on snow so cold it has diamond shining clusters all through it’s crusty top. It’s so cold outside the air is silent, and on the holiday no cars move. Too cold to travel. Even the moose are moving slowly to eat the trees outside. (I grew up in Alaska after all.)

The thing about such familiarity with cold weather is you come to expect the tension it causes in the throat, and on the face. Warm weather, though desired, offends for the way it makes the entire body feel a little too soft. That’s what a warm bath does too–it softens everything through that thing the upper classes call “relaxation.”

Here’s why what I’m saying here matters. (I do realize it sounds like weirdly spontaneous personal revelry.) I’ve decided the difference between life in warm climates, and the kind of softness of flesh that accompanies it, versus the reality of cold-cold weather, helps to get at a wine descriptor I need. A very particular tension quite desirably found in some wine.

When thinking about descriptors for wines, one of the important points to make is that we can readily depict how it smells and tastes, on the one hand. But, we can also focus on the feeling and texture it offers, on the other.

Shifting to texture, mouthfeel, and stimulation in wine is what I want to do here. Making this move offers a different perspective than the more obvious-in-the-New-World attention to scents and flavors. It is a textural, surface-stimulation phenomenon I want to focus on.

I tried to find an old photo of me out cross country skiing, but I just couldn’t for now (I’ll get one up later, promise). But, let me tell you, holy god, Montreal (this is taken in old town) got so cold in the winter. So cold.

Some winters life in Alaska was so cold that to go out cross country skiing (I raced my first two years of high school, and was lucky enough to be sponsored by Fischer skis, though that entire tenure I swore I liked running better) I would coat my face in Dermatone wax stick to keep my skin from freezing. The Dermatone would layer against the cold air pushing over my face as I tucked down hills, or climbed against the wind of an uphill facing the water of the Inlet. Skiing in below zero Farenheit with Dermatone on my cheeks meant the warmth of my own body-heat, sealed beneath a layer of wax, stayed, blended with the sharp needle point prick of the cold air. It was a weird sort of tension in my skin that would worsen when I then stepped inside after to warm back up again, as if my body couldn’t help but fight that initial change.

Here is why I’m telling you this: I am drinking Donelan 2010 Obsidian Vineyard Knight’s Valley Syrah. It is their recent release. 385 cases produced. The nose carries ripe wild berries with the pungency of tundra plants growing in peat. At first taste, the fruit cascade drinks blue, cool, tight, yet round in the mouth. The wine swirls slowly as it turns towards the belly and then rubs down the throat with the heat-insulated, needle poking texture that comes from cross country skiing with Dermatone on the face in too much cold. It is a throat stimulation and weave that is not acidity zipping over the tongue (though there is enough acidity in this wine). It is the almost metallic vibrancy of the site. This is a Syrah with an older world sophisticated nature. It carries the tension of Cornas, with only the very initial fruit that would worry you it will be too big. Drink this wine when you want to tease someone. Tonight, I’m teasing me.


Donelan Wines:

Thank you to Tyler Thomas. This bottle was given to me as a sample.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


It’s holiday in the Americas. Or stateside, anyway. Here are notes on two wines I opened the day before Thanksgiving, and tasted again the day after, just for the heck of it.

The wines on Thanksgiving were nothing to write home, or you about. Poo.

Also just for the hell of it, here’s a photo from my toddler years. That’s me doing the toddling, my dad winning Movember, and my pretty Aunty being smart and reading things. Also, just to be clear, my family is so not Italian. Just awesome. My favorite parts of this photo include my belly, my dad’s shoes and smile, the weird portrait on the upside down newspaper, the obviously 70s decor, and the authentic Eskimo hanging in the hallway. Of course she’s wearing a fur collar–it gets fricking cold outside in Alaska.

Sottimano Maté 2010 100% dry still Brachetto

A bright pink, rose potpourri tinged aroma surrounded with spicy pungency. The spice, dried rose palate continues, wrapped in a juicy soft palate stimulation, and pleasing mouth grip. The finish is long here, stretching itself into a gentle squeeze sensation of a vibrant medium-light bodied red wine, leaving a late post-finish nuttiness I can’t help but enjoy. The vibrancy on this wine is stunning. It starts perhaps a little lighter than I feel like but each sip starts me with surprise, each swallow moves into a longer finish than I expect. Drink this wine and try not to wiggle.

Day 3: The wine is pert. There are ripe rose floral qualities on the nose and mouth blended through with canteloupe, now with a weighted belly of light leather and spicy pricks across the palate. If you want fresh, light, and zesty with a floral-fruit focus, this is your wine.


Poderi Elia Barbera d’ Asti 2009 100% Barbera

The focus of this wine seems to be ‘thickening up’ Barbera. The French oak spice here dominates much of what else the wine has to offer, though in a general sense the red fruit, oak spice, and alcohol heat do arrive together. Still, the ultra long finish form primarily in spice carry through. How will this wine age? The nose rushes a mixed floral potpourri that carries over into the palate, along with red fruit, and exotic spice. I appreciate the nuttiness of the initial finish, but it cascades into a predominance of spice that feels overdone. Too much new oak. My hope is that with a bit of age it will calm. That said, at $17 per bottle, I’ve got to keep things in perspective. You get a damn lot of wine and flavor for your money here. There is a generally smooth polish to the texture of this wine, upset to some degree by the spice pinprick of the oak. I just prefer a little less focus on spice.

Day 3: The spice has mellowed and moved alongside a nutty smoothness in both the midpalate and finish. The red fruit persists. There is a real top-note, soft palate focus on this wine balanced by heat in the throat and a long spice resonance.

Thank you to Michael Alberty, Storyteller Wine, Portland.

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The Complexity of Gratefulness: Remembering Thanksgiving

In first grade, as Thanksgiving approached, we learned the story of its origins–how the pilgrims were on the verge of dying, and the neighboring Indians came to offer corn, as well as how to cook it. The Pilgrims were so grateful, they asked the Indians to stay a while, and in the celebration of their getting along they made a feast. At the time I was fascinated. Touched too by the power of generosity and sharing. The story developed into a Thanksgiving celebration of our own, which included a project.

Each of us were given a paper pattern for making a simple three part vest. We were to lay the pattern onto burlap, cut out the scratching brown weave, and then stitch the pieces together with yarn. I loved this. The care demanded of marking the pattern, followed by the hands-on process of cutting and sewing… perfect. Hands on work was always my favorite. Once we finished the vest a new aspect arose.

The class was going to reenact that original Thanksgiving. We were to choose–did we want to be a Pilgrim, or an Indian, and then embroider icons onto our vest accordingly. Part of the pattern, it turned out, included things like feathers and corn for the Indian vests, or outlines of houses and something else for the Pilgrims. I sat for a long time confused.

My family is Alaska Native. On my father’s side we are Inupiat, which is an Inuit group that happens to be on what is now the Alaska side of the border with Canada. On my mother’s side we are Aleut. Most people haven’t heard of Aleut, it’s okay. But Aleuts are a group of people that come from along the Aleutian Chain of Islands of Alaska, up into the Alaska Peninsula, where the Islands join the mainland. The Aleut are more closely related to the Yupik and Inupiat of Alaska, than they are to the Athabascan, or Tlingit–the two major “American Indian” groups in the state–but really they are their own group of people. In Anthropological, in Linguistic, and in Census terms, neither the Aleut nor the Inupiat are “Indian.” Though “Indian” itself is a problematic usage, I’ll overlook that for now. The point is that, Aleuts and Inupiat simply are not what is called an “Indian” group, though they are Indigenous.

The challenge of the vest for me lay in having to choose my identity–Pilgrim, or Indian.

My family celebrated Thanksgiving every year. We would put together a huge meal, and I would revel in the extra days off from school to play with my stuffed animals, watch the science shows on PBS, and rearrange the furniture of my room. (I rearranged my furniture a lot.) My mom would make several pies, and homemade rolls, which were everyone’s favorite. But, honestly, she made the entire meal every year. We would start the meal in prayer, and then we would eat, without a lot of talking, but with a lot of appreciation for the food. We didn’t eat muktuk or seal oil that day, but we might have had it earlier that same week.

I remember saying aloud in the classroom as I sat deciding, “I can’t be a Pilgrim.” Well then, be an Indian, the teacher and other kids responded. “But I’m not Indian.” It took me more than a day to decide. Eventually I ended up with an Indian vest, and a construction paper feather at the back of my head. My people don’t put feathers on their head or wear burlap vests.

As small as this moment seems, Thanksgiving has made me tense ever since. It’s not that I want to talk about the decimation of Native people. I actually don’t. Nor, (please, god, no) do I want a moment of silence “for the genocide” to start the meal. It’s more that I don’t want to not talk about it as though gratefulness is a monotone focus. It is not only a focus on the positive. Gratefulness, I believe, is a complicated state that flows fullest with recognition of the blessings that come even within the challenge. As well as appreciation for what we might think is simply good.

I am deeply grateful. It’s a kind of miracle that as a Native person I am even alive, our history has been so challenged. I am grateful for the vitality of my family. I am grateful for the wealth of incredible teachers my life has included–both literal in the classroom teachers, and each one of you I meet and learn from. (My first grade teacher was honestly one of the coolest people I ever knew. She used to threaten that if we acted out she was going to pick us up “by the seat of [our] britches and carry [us] to the principal’s office.” I longed to see that happen, even as I desperately didn’t want anyone to act out.)  I am grateful for my daughter, that through everything, we have persisted in joy. I am grateful for this little house I have just moved into in Sonoma, and am still unpacking. I am grateful for my sisters’ wonderful families–it does my heart good to know they have such lives. I am grateful for my mother. She is the most dedicated to me, and I learn on a regular basis what devotion means from her commitment to her family and to god. I am grateful for my father. His life is a testament to how much is possible when a person chooses well, determined to succeed.

I give thanks for my friends. I thank god for getting me here. It is my friends god has most clearly acted through. Their willingness to love me through the struggle of making change, as well as the celebration and excitement of my goals coming to fruition–that has made everything I’ve ever done in my life feel possible. A year ago at this time I was getting ready to close my last semester teaching at the university. I had given my resignation and had no good idea what I was going to do. I only knew I wanted to spend my time writing, and I wanted to decide where Rachel and I were going to move, then move us there. That’s exactly what I did this last year–another sort of miracle. Now, I want to focus on us getting settled, on celebrating the connections we’ve started with people, on continuing to grow a healthy liveable income, and on appreciating each other. She is just 13.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow. What a beautiful idea to have an entire holiday devoted to gratefulness. May each of you feel the blessing of this day. Amen.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to



Listening to Joe Rochioli, Jr.

Joe Rochioli, Jr.

“I am always the first one to work in the mornings. I get my men started, and am usually the last one to leave. I don’t know for how much longer.

“From 8 years old, I helped my dad prune, head prune. The vines were all planted in the 1890s. We would pile up brush between four vines and then burn the brush. We’d sulfur the vines with a big sack–put a handful on top of the vine and it would go poof.” His hands lift up to illustrate. “Everything was planted 8 by 8. But then in the 60s, we started pulling them out.

“I went to college at Cal Poly. I started to go to Davis, but then a guy came by, right here to the ranch, and told us at Cal Poly you learn by doing, and I like that model. I was an Animal Science Major to start. I had all kinds of animals here. Future Farmers of America. I won awards. But I sold my bull, the cows, and all 80 sheep, and my dad gave me $350, and I went to school.

“When I was 12 I was already doing man’s work. I grew up fast. But really I hated to pick hops [the ranch had more hops than grapes planted originally], so I talked my dad into letting me work in fields with the men.

“I worked to put my way through school, and I played baseball all 4 years at Cal Poly. It was difficult to work, play baseball, and go to school. While there I was doing all the crops course electives, and working for the crops department. Later I started with vineyards. For 10 years we were on beans here. Then we moved up to grapes.

“I started reading books on French Burgundies. I got it in my head–in France, they can’t produce big [grape] crops… and they’re making the best crops in the world. So, I wanted to plant varieties. Everyone was growing only for bulk wine back then. But I wanted to grow varietals. Dad wouldn’t let me. He made the decisions in those days.

old vine Sauvignon Blanc on Rochioli Estate

“Finally, in 1959 I talked him into Sauvignon Blanc. When I went to Davis I went to get bud wood and they had rows. I started tasting them. They had this one row that had this fig taste to them. So I took all my bud wood from that and planted that. [UC Davis eventually sold all of this bud wood, without record of its origins. As a result, the clone of Sauvignon Blanc located at Rochioli is unknown. The Rochiolis produce an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc bottling from these vines.]

“In 1961 I tried to talk my dad into Pinot. He said no. He was right. There was no one to buy it then. The wine all went into Gallo. But in 1968, I planted a clone of Pinot Noir. For several years it all went into Gallo’s mixed reds. Same with the Sauvignon Blanc, into their mixed white. But then Mondavi Estate took some. Then Windsor Vineyard. Then Dry Creek Vineyards, in the early 70s–he won a lot of medals for that wine. Then in 1973, I started selling Pinot Noir to Davis Bynum. He won some medals as well.

“In 1972 I planted Chardonnay. Just pulled some of that out. There is still a block of old vines out there.

“I have always been proud of my quality. I started pulling leaves before anyone thought of it. Mainly on the Sauvignon Blanc because it was so bushy no light was getting in. I built a cane cutter in 1960. It was the first cane cutter in the county. I built my own house. It took me two years, but I built it. I built my own bins. Made a hydraulic dumper. That ‘learn by doing’ came through from Cal Poly. I’m still proud as hell. I still want to make the best grapes.

Vivienne and Joe Rochioli, Jr.

“I got remarried, and married my high school girl friend. We ran against each other for Student Body Vice President. She was the first girl to run for that position. I beat her. She said it was the mafia, but I was a pretty good athlete. Football and baseball. I won a lot of trophies.

“I was just a little Italian boy. I couldn’t speak English when I started. My sister and I, we both started at a little one room school house up the road. There were just two Italian kids back then, her and I.

“No one ever came around this area back then. It was really remote. When anyone did, my sister and I would run like hell and get behind the couch to hide. I had to force myself to do a lot of things. I think football helped a lot. I was President of the Grape Growers Association at one point. I forced myself through a lot of things. I was determined. There are a lot of opportunities for people here.”


Part 1 of this feature on the Rochioli family:

To read more on the Rochioli story, check out this comprehensive history by Prince of Pinot:

The Rochioli family is also featured in the Russian River Valley documentary, From Obscurity to Excellence. The release viewing occurs December 1, 2012. For more on the movie: To buy tickets:


Thank you to Joe Rochioli, Jr. for taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Kanchan Kincade.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Rochioli Winery & Vineyards: Meeting Joe Rochioli, Jr. and Tom Rochioli


click on comic to enlarge

click on comic to enlarge


I was lucky enough to meet with Joe Rochioli, Jr. and Tom Rochioli, and receive a tour of Rochioli Estate. Tom drove me through the property along the Russian River, then let me taste several wines from their substantial portfolio. Because Tom ferments each block separately, he is able to taste the unique differences between what are otherwise uniformly planted and comparable sections of the vineyard. The soil diversity, as well as clonal diversity that typifies Rochioli Estate, along with the dedicated vineyard management generate quality fruit that have made the Rochioli Vineyards, and their wines highly regarded, and award winning.

More on the Rochioli family story, and their wines tomorrow!


Regarding Rochioli 2: A Life in Wine, Joe Rochioli, Jr.:

Thank you to Tom Rochioli, and to Joe Rochioli, Jr.

Thank you to Kanchan Kincade.

Thank you to Dan Fredman.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley, A Documentary

a map of the Russian River Valley AVA, approved in 1983; image from Russian River Valley Winegrowers

In 1997 Maurice Joe Nugent began planting grapes in the Russian River Valley, having found his calling, in a sense, after leaving a professorship in Chemistry in order to fulfill his hope of living in California. Within a few years the fruit had proved to be reliable and he found himself enjoying his days driving a tractor about the property, pulling leaves to moderate sun exposure, and simply enjoying his new career. While walking through the vineyard he began to wonder about the history of the place–how did wine in Russian River Valley get so good?

That initial question set Joe off on a quest of talking to people on film–asking them to tell their stories about their life of wine in the area of the AVA founded in 1983, but reaching back to a history of wine production established well before Prohibition. What is remarkable about the project is that Joe succeeds in recording interviews with men that not only lived through Prohibition, but also helped jump start the California wine industry immediately after its demise.

The interviews have been brought together in a documentary film to tell the story of what is now called the Russian River Valley. What this film does well is bring together a wealth of information with the intimate insights of genuine story telling. The interviews shown throughout capture men in the revelry of their memories, offering a glimpse at the lives the people of the area have lived, while eliciting the history of the place itself. In this way, one can’t help but be charmed with how the history is told. At the same time, the movie offers clear insight into details of the industry’s trajectory, along with some, perhaps, illicit implications into the founding of one of the larger producers of wine in the area.

Where the movie limits itself is in a few interviews filmed with less polished technical effect. What becomes clear by the end of the documentary, however, is that those moments offer irreplaceable recordings of men sharing history. The rougher interviews are included for this reason–they are irreplaceable. Some of the figures shown in the story are no longer alive. In this way, the movie is an opportunity to hear from our elders in the wine industry, those any of us in Sonoma County are, in a sense, indebted to.

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley shares the history of pre-Prohibition immigration and migration to the then-remote area of Northern Sonoma, the post-Prohibition boom, and the quite recent move from bulk wine to a focus on quality, resulting in the development of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as the area’s grape figure heads. Best of all, the movie manages to share this history alongside the charm of real people that impacted the success of the wine industry in Sonoma.


From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes and Wine in the Russian River Valley will celebrate its release on December 1, 2012 at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA.

For more information about the movie visit the movie’s website:

To purchase tickets for the December 1 screening (some of the people interviews in the film will also be present at the screening):


Thank you to Joe Nugent for including me in the pre-release screening, and for taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Kanchan Kinkade.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews



The following is a guest post written by Abe Schoener, winemaker of The Scholium Project, and one of the founders and winemakers of Red Hook Winery, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. The text of this post has also been shared with his Scholium Project mailing list.


A Report on Tragedy and Comedy, by Abe Schoener

Dear Correspondents–

I am writing you from Red Hook, Brooklyn, on a beautiful warm sunny day. I wish that I could send a hundred photos. There is so much tell you and words are not enough. I am writing from a pier with water on both sides– the south side looks across the Red Hook Channel of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor to Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey; the north side looks across the Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. Wild ducks live near the breakwater shore; ferries, tugboats and their charges ply the water constantly. These days, we see a lot of police boats and Coast Guard cutters racing across the water. This is because we are at the center of a zone of water-born devastation.

I work at a winery here on this pier. I helped to found a winery in Red Hook in 2008, and I have spent many wonderful days here, making wine from New York grapes. I have learned so much from and with my friends and colleagues and have treasured both the experience and our accomplishments. It is not enough to say that there is a world of difference between making wine in Brooklyn and in Napa. I will leave it to your imagination. But what you must know is this: we have found some amazing vineyards sites in the warm, fertile soils of Long Island, and we have made some wines as good or better than anything I have made in California. I will save details for another message. When the storm hit New York, Red Hook was like a breakwater. No zones in the storm’s path in NY suffered worse damage from the raging waters. On the morning that the waters receded, my colleagues reported to me that the winery had been destroyed and that all was lost. Within another day, I got a somewhat more studied (and optimistic) report. We had no power, no doors to close, no working equipment. But very few of the wines, fermenting or in barrel, had been been flooded by water or swept away. It was a miracle. We are still not sure how much might have been contaminated indirectly (through the barrels staves, by swirling vapors), but we knew that we had a new task: no matter what the final result, we must work to save everything that we could.

I flew out as soon as I could. Meanwhile, Mark and Christopher and Darren and Ben and 20 volunteers cleared the tumult of barrels and swept away the fruit spilled everywhere onto the floor. On the fourth day, we began working on the wines again, in the dark, using headlamps and flashlights. We tasted everything and made a triage chart. Some wines still needed pumping over; most were at the end of their fermentations and needed to be drained away from the skins and seeds. We began work draining the tanks of red wine by gravity, into large open vessels that we would then bucket out of to fill barrels. Over the next couple of days, we drained the puncheons of white wine by gravity, bucket, and eventually by a tiny generator-powered pump. Yesterday, we finished draining the puncheons of red. Except for one still active Cabernet fermentation, every wine is now safely down to barrel. We don’t know how much wine is spoiled, how much contaminated– but in a certain sense we do not care. We had work to do.

Why am I telling you this? I learned an important lesson, reflecting on my colleagues and friends working tirelessly in the cold, dark stone warehouse that is our winery. Among us for three days was a winemaker from Piemonte who had originally come here to promote his wines to the important New York market. Instead, he showed up one morning at the winery and could not stay away. For three days, he held hoses, swept the floor, filled barrels. He could not stay away and nor could we– even though none of us had any assurance that we could finally save anything. Our work was in a certain sense an end in itself.

Winemaking is an act of devotion: devotion to the wine in front of you, still young and needing your husbandry to reach its best completion; devotion to the grapes, the grapes harvested to make wine at your hands; but most of all: devotion to the vineyards and the people who own and farm them. None of us had any doubt: we had a natural and irrevocable responsibility to make sure that the grapes grown by Ron Gerler and Joe Macari, by the Matabellas and by Sam McCulloch, that the fruit of their vines, harvested at length, after months of tilling, pruning, thinning, mowing– that these did not go to waste. Storm, hurricane, flood, absence of power, a forklift that would never lift again– no excuse, no impediment: we had a responsibility to make the very best wine and make sure that a whole year’s life in the vineyard was not in vain.

Our devotion flows from the fact that the essence of winemaking is not something silly like blending or ordering the right barrels: the essence of winemaking is preservation and transformation. Both of these can take place with the least of our intervention or supervision; this in turn emphasizes that we are not creators but shepherds.

We were in that cold, dark building for four days– Luciano, from Monforte d’Alba, with other responsibilities in an important market; Talia, a writer with deadlines; Allison and Matt with restaurants to run- we were all there for the same reason. No shepherd would abandon a flock on a stormy hillside. Not his flock, not his neighbor’s. When you take on certain tasks, you accept certain charges and responsibilities and they take residence in your bones. It is wonderful to feel that charge, so deep and so viscerally; and wonderful to respond to it.

This is a report on the close of harvest. Normally, I would not report on Brooklyn– it is another venture, not Scholium. But I rushed from California to come here, leaving my noble and precociously wise interns in charge of the Scholium winery. And my mind has been forced to reflect on two places at once, but one truth. The harvest in California has been my best ever, in every respect. The quality of the fruit, the quality of the wines, the youthful interest of the wines (some of them are already fascinating!), the happiness and efficiency of our work– never have I had a year like this. And my friends and colleagues who grow grapes and make wines– all of them are celebrating. This year, there was no suffering in Napa or Sonoma or Lodi or Suisun– only gratitude and elation.

And then a winery in Brooklyn is demolished and a whole year’s harvest threatened. It made me think right away of the two sides of a coin, inseparable. And made me think of the emblem of the Theater: two masks together, Tragedy and Comedy, inseparable. And this in turn made me think of a very important line in Plato’s Symposium, a beautiful dialogue about love, but also about drinking. The story ends with Socrates compelling his two remaining drinking companions (they had drunk the others under their couches) to agree that “it is in the power of one and the same man to know how to write both comedy and tragedy.” This line has always mystified me and spurred me to thinking, but I never felt that I understood it fully, or knew why this question brought the dialogue to a close. I still do not; but I feel somewhat closer, brought closer by my recent experiences in agriculture, in winemaking, in working in a harbor: in other words, by having my hands and my feet, and my heart and my head, in the physical, unbending world of Nature– not in the filmy, pliable world of books. I learn every year how close the wedding-celebration of comedy is to the funeral march of tragedy. Winemaking– like farming– is shepherding, but it is always no more than a breath away from spoilage.

Thank you for reading such a long message. Just let me know when you want to hear less from me.

With very best wishes


Red Hook Winery is offering “Survival Packs” — collections of their wine, still intact, available for sale. To find out more visit their site here:

To read more on the history of Red Hook, and the impact of Sandy on the area plus the winery, check out this thoughtful post by Allon Schoener:

To hear more from Abe on the state of things at Red Hook Winery, check out this podcast with Levi Dalton on _I’ll Drink to That_. Episode 42: