Monthly Archives: February 2013

Meeting Ian and June Marks

Ian and June Marks

When we arrive at the Gembrook Hill winery down the hill from the Marks’ home, June Marks is picking tall grass to feed to the horse next door. She realizes we’re there and invites us up to sit with her and her husband, Ian, to taste through wines. She’s already done her weights, she explains. She’ll just feed the horse and then go up and get things ready.

Over thirty years ago the Marks moved into what was then uncultivated property. No one had planted vines as far south in the Upper Yarra subregion, and not in their nook of the valley. The wine divisions were based on shires, rather than distinct growing zones.

Having considered property throughout Victoria, the Marks arrived in the Yarra Valley as part of a second wave of winery owners. Some vine experimentation had been done to see what grew best in the region, but the area was still largely undeveloped. After planting, the Marks would become part of the turn in attention to the Yarra region as a good place for making quality wine, and Ian would help redelineate the appellation boundaries based on growing characteristics.

This vintage marks their 30th anniversary.

The Marks’ Story

Ian Marks, Gembrook Wines

Ian Marks

In the early 1980s, the Marks had been looking for property to build a home and plants some vines. “Eventually we saw this place and bought it in a quarter of an hour.” Ian tells us. “We didn’t really know anything about the soil, or rainfall, so it was quite a bit of luck. When we bought it, it had three cows and a tree. So, June and I planted everything.”

“On the weekends,” June adds.

Earlier June had pointed out parts of the property and explained together she and Ian had planted, tended, and cropped the vines themselves. She’s comfortable now leaving the work to Timo Mayer and their son Andrew Marks, Gembrook Hills’ winemakers, she explains because “I’ve already done everything.” She laughs.

Ian nods and continues talking about how they got started. “We planted one clone of Sauvignon Blanc originally but it picked at about one-quarter ton to the acre so we had to plant a new clone. Ian pauses, “it makes a beautiful wine.” He continues, “we’ve been lucky. That one clone is about the only big mistake.”

From the top of Gembrook Hill

from the top of Gembrook Hill

Gembrook Hill’s Sauvignon Blanc is widely considered the best in Australia. When we taste their 2011 current release I am surprised. It’s style rests outside the variety’s stereotypes. It is a texturally focused, light and lifted wine with real herbal, bay leaf elements, delicate fruit, and a long seashell, sea air finish. The acidity is dancing.

Gembrook Hill still whites

The Australian white wine market generally considers young wines the most desirable. Even among the winemakers and wine geeks I spent time with on this visit, the older vintage whites I’d brought from the States consistently got a surprise remark, though the wines were then enjoyed after. As Mike Bennie explained to me, as far as sales here go, in Australia people most often want to drink their white wines within the year of their vintage date.

But the Marks’ Gembrook Hill wines are known to age well. To showcase the quality of their whites, the couple recently hosted a vertical tasting of their Sauvignon Blanc, written up by Tim White in the Financial Review.

Ian Marks continues his story, revealing more luck in securing the quality of their white wine. “To be honest, this was 30 years ago. I’d never heard of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Marks’ had a friend help them with planting advice to best judge the character of the site. “He surveyed the property and said, this is the perfect site for Sauvignon Blanc, and I said, okay.” Ian pauses. Referring again to their advisor, “he doesn’t even like Sauvignon Blanc.”

Tasting Gembrook Hill Wines

Gembrook Sparkling Blanc de blancs

The Marks’ success has extended beyond the white grape. They’re also appreciated for their sparkling Blanc de blancs. They’ve produced still Chardonnay as well, and I quite enjoyed the 2008, but they’re shifting their attention with it to the bubbles.

Gembrook Hill Pinot Noir

The Gembrook Pinot Noir also shows off how well the wines age. We did side by side tastings of their current 2010, and the 2002. The ’10 was lifted, again with a textural focus, and plush while lean dark lines. The older vintage was still youthful and vibrant with a perfumed nose and graphite tension. The flavors had deepened into meats and cigar box. Ian explained that 2002 was an intense year with very small cropping. They didn’t produce that much fruit. But the wine is elegant, with supple tannin.


Thank you to Timo Mayer, Andrew Marks, Ian and June Marks, and Mike Bennie.

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Investigating Victoria Pinot Noir

Looking across the Golden Plains, and part of Lethbridge Vineyards

looking across the Golden Plain, Geelong region

Victoria has reinspired my faith in Pinot Noir. Drinking Burgundy was the first experience to enliven my relationship with wine, Willamette Valley the first U.S. wine region to pull my heart strings. So, I carry a love for Pinot Noir. But it’s also a grape almost everyone makes. Unlike other varieties, where middlin versions can rest in being drinkable if not exciting, something about Pinot Noir makes okay-only versions less drinkable. Well made Pinot wants delicacy but it also wants risk. Unlike Syrah that can keep interest grown in a range of warm to cool climates (though I vastly prefer cool), Pinot’s structure often falls to squishy grown in the wrong locale. Truth? I’d grown tired from it.

Enter Victoria.

Timo Mayer

Timo Mayer on the Bloody Hill

Timo Mayer on his Bloody Hill

Timo Mayer grows his own grapes on a steep slope he has named “Bloody Hill,” actually carving that name into the wild grass of the hillside below his house where it’s too steep to easily put vineyard. Describing the choice as art, he laughs, explaining the grass acts like a painting viewed in the right light–when the sun is high the words shimmer. His not-yet-released 2012s are sexy carrying the curved hips of a finely dressed woman when destemmed, and a lean Zorro debonair flair when whole cluster. Both versions drink taut and poised.

Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes with Mike Bennie

Mac Forbes showing Mike Bennie the Worri Yallock Pinot Vineyard

Also, in the Yarra Valley, Mac Forbes cuts what Mike Bennie aptly describes as “fine boned” wines. The lines are lean while fleshed, with the pointed toe grace of a ballet dancer outside performance. Forbes strengthens his intended longevity with annual experimental batches he aptly names EB followed by a number. Each EB represents the testing of a hypothesis Forbes wants to consider in his overall program. The resulting development shows with the wines carrying a consistency of character while also becoming more focused in current vintages.

Gembrook Hill

Ian and June Marks

Ian and June Marks standing at the top of Gembrook Hill

Ian and June Marks, of Gembrook Hill, shared a 2002 Pinot Noir, made by Mayer, from the Marks own vineyard. They planted the site themselves more than 30-years ago, as part of the second wave of vineyard owners moving into the Yarra, establishing the furthest south site for the Upper Yarra sub-region.

The eleven year old bottling shows how well their wine ages, generating plush while directed midlines that deepen into earthy, cigar box, meaty characteristics on a juicy light, still lively frame.

With such experience, Marks offers insight into the particularity of the variety. “I reckon the grapes tell you everything.” Ian Marks described to us how he encouraged Mayer, and the Marks’ son Andrew, now also winemaker, to push the envelope on their wines. “I told them, go for it. You have to go right to the edge and produce what the vineyard is capable of producing.”

Such edginess can be found too on the other side of Victoria.

Lethbridge Wine

Pinot Noir with tiny bunches (these are normal for the vineyard)

tiny bunches at Lethbridge Vineyards

Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis, of Lethbridge Wine, grow grapes at the edge of possibility, the Geelong region consistently harvesting last among the mainland appellations. Their Mietta Pinot Noir is home planted on a cool climate vineyard dominated by dry seasons over shallow, dark basalt soils poured on limestone, creating tiny berried small clusters with outrageously low yields.

Thanks to the site’s conditions, the wines are nervy, meant to age, with Lethbridge holding their wines at least three years in bottle before release. In this way, Lethbridge speaks to a French style with a slightly bigger frame. Mietta showcases the couple’s top tier Pinot, while their entry level Menage a Noir Pinot Noir is meant to drink more immediately upon purchase. Menage drinks juicy and fresh, while still offering an energized structure.

Ray and Maree, with Alex

Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne at Lethbridge Winery

Byrne Wines

The newer label, Bryne Wines, from Alex Bryne (also winemaker at Lethbridge alongside Nadeson and Collis), showcases the fruit of cool climate Ballarat, near the Geelong region. Bryne was forced to declassify his 2011 Pinot after a hard working season due to the extreme weather conditions of that year. (Many people lost fruit thanks to weeks of non-stop rain.) But his soon to be released 2012, and his previous 2010 both offer a sensual youthfulness, giving fruit without sweetness, and a pleasing texture.

Victoria Soils

Looking into the Yarra Valley

Looking into the Yarra Valley, in the Woori Yallock area

What excites me about Victoria Pinot Noir comes partially from the cool nights common throughout the region. (Even the warmer Continental climate of Great Western offers a diurnal shift that helps retain wines’ acidity.) The other piece comes from the soils.

Victoria is spotted by iron stone that translates into a ferric finish in many wines. Some locations also generate a slight saltiness. Together the result is a reverberation effect in the throat, with flavors coupled by an echo that generates palpable multi-dimensionality, and longer finish.


Thank you to David Fesq, Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne, Jonathan Mogg. Thank you to Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Timo Mayer, Ian and June Marks.

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I love wine. We know this. That said, the reason I do this is for the people. Here are a few portraits of people I was lucky enough to spend time with in Victoria.

More photos and write-ups of these and other wines to follow. Finally back to an internet connection.

Portraits from Victoria

 Ray Nedeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne, Lethbridge Wine, Byrne Wines

Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis of Lethbridge Wine, Alex Bryne, Bryne Wines

Tom and Sally Belford, and kids, Bobar Wine

Tom and Sally Belford (and kids), Bobar Wines

Gary Mills, Jamsheed Wine

Gary Mills, Jamsheed Wines

Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Mac Forbes Wines

Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes, Mac Forbes Wines

Timo Mayer, Mayer Wines

Timo Mayer, Mayer Wine

Ian Marks, Gembrook Wines

Ian Marks, Gembrook Hill

Ian and June Marks, Gembrook Wines

Ian and June Marks, Gembrook Hill

Stu Proud, Yarra Valley

Stu Proud, Yarra Valley Viticulturalist

Mike Bennie, Elaine Brown

Mike Bennie, Me


What a beautiful region.

Thank you.

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Driving the Great Ocean Road

A dear friend that lives in Seattle, Washington, USA asked me to make a point of looking at the night sky in Australia to tell her what it’s like to see entirely new stars.

So, last night after a day of flying into Victoria, vertical tastings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz, an Australia-focused dinner of classic regional wines plus locally (as in backyard) harvested lamb leg and shoulder, I walked outside and looked up at the night sky. The first thing I saw was Orion.

Today my host was kind enough to drive me into Geelong and along part of the Great Ocean Road. We stopped and looked south into the Southern Ocean, the water here, a beautiful ultramarine.

Here are photos from two lookouts along the Road. Eastern View Beach looking West, Great Ocean Road

Eastern View Beach, looking West, Great Ocean Road

Eastern View Beach, looking East

Eastern View Beach, looking West, Great Ocean Road

Standing on Eastern View Beach in front of the Southern Ocean

standing in front of the Southern Ocean in summer

View from Devil's Elbow, Great Ocean Road

the view from Devil’s Elbow, Great Ocean Road

The Southern Ocean, looking South

The Great Ocean Road often includes whale sightings as they swim through the Southern Ocean. We did not see any this visit.

After the drive we turned to the city of Geelong, the second largest to Melbourne in the region of Victoria, for dinner.

The Geelong Harbor

the Geelong Harbor


The visit so far has included:

Whale Beach Dinner

(1) an intensive taxi ride from the Sydney airport to a wine party at Whale Beach. The Aussies took a collection to raise the money to get me to the party after my flight arrived in Sydney 12-hours late. The ride cost almost $200 but they decided they’d rather meet me there than have me stay in town. Cool.

Wines they were drinking at the party?

Whale Beach Dinner

Whale Beach Dinner

Whale Beach Dinner

Whale Beach Dinner

These people have damn good taste.


(2) Rootstock all day intensive Aussie hipster viewing session. Okay, it was actually a WINE TASTING event, and I did taste a ton of wine but just as significant was learning what the Sydney hipster scene looks like. (I’ll post on the stand-out wine from that event soon. Thank you to Mike Bennie for the invitation and his hard work on the event. Congratulations on its success!)


(3) A flight to Victoria. Geelong (and a few from Ballarat) region wine tasting. Tasting of some Australian wine classics from other regions.

I’ve got a lot of wine to write about, but I am also letting myself calibrate to this unique place first.

Tomorrow I head to the Grampions, then on to Yarra Valley.



p.s. My internet access here is spotty so I’ll be posting as I’m able. I’d intended to get in a longer write up today but by the time I had internet access I had to admit I was tired. So, instead, these photos.


Thank you to David Fesq, the Fesq family, Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne.

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Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this article in The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading”, February 19, 2013.


Circling George Vare: One Way White Maceration Ferments Came into California

George Vare, an investor with decades of experience in Napa wine, celebrates the work of experimental winemakers. For Vare, the passion of young people trying new approaches exemplifies the future of the California wine industry.

Operating outside the mainstream appears as a theme in Vare’s own history with the industry. In early 1995, Vare and Michael Moone decided to step outside the Cabernet and Chardonnay focus of 1980s and 90s Napa Valley and established a new company, Luna Vineyards. Vare had worked for decades already at scouting and expanding the commercial success of now historic Napa wine labels, including Geyser Peak Winery, Beringer Wine Estates, and others. In 1995, however, after considering the pulse of Napa wine, Moone and Vare realized there was room for taking their business in a different direction.


George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, July 2012

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla, Friulano vineyard

Though Italian immigrants had helped establish the original wine industry through the valley, by the end of the last century, little interest in Italian varieties could be found rooted in the area. Together, Moone and Vare decided to take advantage of that missing piece by making Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio.

The original goals of Luna were to make Italian varietals to rival old world quality. Early vintages were described as carrying “old world austerity and terroir, bolstered by new world fullness and verve” (Boca Raton News 16 March 2003).

In March 1995, Vare and Moone’s Luna purchased a Chardonnay vineyard at what were then the Southern reaches of the Silverado trail. What is remarkable about the story is that soon after buying the 82 acre vineyard they replanted most of the site to Pinot Grigio, establishing 44-acres of the variety by 2000, and increasing from there. At the time, the idea of pulling out Napa Valley Chardonnay and replacing it with Pinot Grigio, was surely crazy. So, the group renamed themselves the Luna-tics. Where Oregon had begun the Pinot Gris experiment as early as the mid-60s, Luna stood as one of the leaders of the grape in California. In this way, the intention to do things differently defined the beginnings of Luna. As John Kongsgaard once explained, the self-named Luna-tics even used to play classical music to the vines.

John Kongsgaard Starts the University

After 20 years of success in the Napa Valley wine industry, Kongsgaard was brought in to Luna in 1996 to establish the house’s winemaking style. Konsgaard had started his career making wines in 1980, side-by-side with Doug Nalle at the now defunct Belvedere Winery. By the mid-1990s, however, Kongsgaard had proven himself as an influential winemaker through his 13-years of work with Newton Vineyards.

In 1997, Kongsgaard and Vare began making regular trips to Italy, originally searching for “the holy grail of Pinot Grigio.” As Vare explained, they searched first in Alsace, and though they liked those wines, the climate didn’t suit Napa. Alto Adige also proved too cold. Finally Friuli gave a closer parallel, and a wealth of influence through small scale and experimental winemakers of the region.

Kongsgaard worked with Christopher Vandendriessche, of White Rock, as assistant winemaker initially. Together they helped establish what Abe Schoener calls a university environment in Luna’s winery. Schoener had begun working with the team at the end of the 1990s, gathering data on their vineyard sites, but also learning from Kongsgaard as Schoener’s mentor. Schoener makes clear too that Vare supported and encouraged the winery’s university methodology.

By allowing interns to make their own barrels of wine, while also doing their work for Luna, the facility trained a number of young wine enthusiasts that would go on to influence the area’s wine industry. But the approach also effectively expanded the experimentation witnessed by the mentors as well. Kongsgaard has stated that he fine-tuned some techniques he’d go on to use for his own label through the early investigatory period of Luna.

Schoener explains, Kongsgaard had a talent for standing back to let his mentees explore their interests in wine, while being there to facilitate a successful project at the same time. Vandendriessche operates with a similar approach in his work today at White Rock as well. The site served as Schoener’s first winery in establishing Scholium Project, and today facilitates the work of other new winemakers getting ready to release their work.

Learning from Radikon and Gravner

After Vandendriessche chose to move his attention to the White Rock facility, Kelly Wheat was brought in as the new assistant winemaker to Kongsgaard. Wheat began traveling to Friuli with Kongsgaard and Vare, who had already established strong relationships with the winemakers through Friuli and Slovenia. Wheat benefited, then, from the friendships already started with the likes of Stanko and Sasa Radikon, Josko Gravner, and others.

Radikon had begun experimenting with making his wines with extended skin contact in 1994, utilizing open top wood fermenters. Stanko Radikon’s father had talked about techniques used in Oslajve prior to the onset of more contemporary pressed wine techniques. Eventually Stanko decided to invest in using them.

Previously, Radikon explained, wines were made using all of the fruit, rather than removing the skins. The result was to develop wines with greater texture, aroma, and flavor, that also kept longer after being made. The skin contact style of winemaking, then, was historically situated–a normal approach for the technology of the time–but it was also economical–it made the wine last.

Drawing on Georgian winemaking history, Gravner began using extended maceration fermentation in clay anphora in 1996. He had helped introduce the focus and freshness of temperature controlled stainless steel vats to Friuli, thus introducing the winemaking changes associated with newer technologies. But after a friend brought Gravner a kveri (Georgian anphora), the winemaker experimented with the winemaking techniques of that region, known to be thousands of years old.

With both Radikon and Gravner there was an adjustment period while moving to the historical-but-new-to-them techniques. Each winemaker had developed expertise with their previous styles, and were known for making quality, terroir-driven wines. In shifting to the use of extended maceration, however, they also needed time getting to know the effects of the approach. In 2001, Gravner released his first fully anfora based portfolio (though bottlings as early as 1998 are still available for purchase in the United State). In establishing friendships with both Radikon and Gravner, the Luna-tics were able to learn new techniques both through direct witness at the Italian wineries, and through on going consultations had by phone.

Kongsgaard and Vare had befriended Radikon as early as their first trip to the region, meeting Gravner a few trips later. On one visit with Gravner, a barrel with a plexiglass side stood in the corner. Grapes were inside aging not only on lees, but skins, with the wine in such a state for over a year. The Americans were able to taste the wine from the experiment and were pleased at the result, not having heard of such an approach previously. As Vare described it, the wine had a nice weight and texture, without any bitterness.

Showing Skins: the practice moves to California

After returning from a visit with these winemakers in Friuli in 2000, Wheat decided to try the techniques himself and make extended skin contact lots for some of the white wines at Luna.

In 2000, Wheat began making a Pinot Grigio blend that sent 40% of the grapes straight to press before fermentation, while the rest were put through a crusher to allow more aromatic and textural contribution from skins.The technique loosely resembles the impact of older technology that broke up grapes more than simply pressing them, causing more skin and stem influence (and thus both more aromatics and more body) on the juice.

Wheat experimented further however, making small lots of white wine left to ferment like a red. Inspired by his time in Friuli, Wheat located some Friulano in 2001, sourced from the Hollister area (and grown in limestone) and fermented to dryness on skins, working similarly as well with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grown in or closer to Napa. The most successful of these, Schoener believes, was the Fruilano.

Having worked with Luna in various capacities for several years, Schoener became winemaker there after Wheat’s departure in 2002. Witnessing Wheat’s trials with skin contact, Schoener encouraged the Luna label to make some skin contact bottlings. Having become more mainstream by that point (Vare was also no longer acting president), the board was resistant to investing in wines without more proven market success. Schoener stayed in the role at Luna long enough to help winemaker Mike Drash take up the reins in 2003, only ever intending to secure a smooth transition from Wheat to the new person. After Schoener dove into his Scholium Project, beginning to make a skin contact Sauvignon Blanc, the now oft mentioned Prince in his Caves, in 2006.

Luna would not be bottling skin-contact only white wines. However, drawing on Wheat’s experience with the approach, Drash continued making what Luna called their Freakout White blend. The wine included extended maceration of Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Friulano left to ferment to dryness on skins.

Looking for Texture: Pax Mahle experiments

Over in Sonoma County, independently of the work being done with the Luna-tics, Pax Mahle had started Pax Wine Cellars in 2000. The label had a central focus on Syrah, but made Rhone whites as well. Working against the norm at the time, Mahle was committed to making low alcohol white wines, without the influence of new oak. One of the downsides of whites made in this approach, however, is a textural change in the wine’s mouthfeel–they become lighter, with less weight, and to some people, less interest. Searching for a way to offer more textural interest without reliance on new wood, while keeping alcohol levels low, Mahle began experimenting with skin contact lots in 2003. Just like the adjustment period between a new technique and quality wine necessary for Radikon and Gravner, Mahle explains it wasn’t until 2007 that he bottled a skin contact wine. He wasn’t willing to put a label on something he couldn’t get behind. It took those several years to find a barrel he believed in as a stand alone wine. Prior to 2007 the experimental lots were blended back into other white blends.


To read part 2 in this series: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 2: Variety, Terroir, and Mind Scrambling

Part 3: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 3: The Craft of Wine Tasting, and the Question of Responsibility, Conversation with Two Sommeliers

To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva


Over the next weeks I’ll be exploring the work of contemporary skin contact wines from California and Oregon winemakers, both varietals and blends. I’ve been lucky enough to taste several dozen examples both bottled and barreled from a range of grape types in both California and Oregon, and to interview a range of people on the subject.

I’ll be traveling in Sydney, Melbourne, and Geelong as well, however, and so my posts here will be mixed in with updates from Australian adventures.


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Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in The New York Time’s Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading,” February 15, 2013.


Focus on the California Coast

Pax Mahle working on a Syrah blend

When I arrive at Wind Gap Winery, Pax Mahle is working on blending components for his Sonoma Coast Syrah. When he’s finished a stage of his work, we begin barrel tasting various small lot experiments that characterize the depth behind Wind Gap Wines. While maintaining focus on his label’s overall quality and central expression, from the beginning Mahle has nurtured his wine through side projects with experimental techniques. The Sonoma Coast Syrah, and its component parts

Wind Gap began with a central goal of expressing California Syrah unique to a particular site–the Western rim of the Sonoma Coast. The definitive wine for the label, then, is the Sonoma Coast Syrah, made with a blend of wines from three different vineyard sites within a few miles of the ocean. Though Mahle explains he is invested in an appellation focus, he knows people enjoy vineyard specific bottlings as well. As a result, Wind Gap also offers component bottlings from the Sonoma Coast blend.

Majik Vineyard carries a wild, heady top note that surprises me right out of the glass with its aromatic intensity. Nellessen Vineyard gives everything I love about Syrah–cool, lean, focused fruit, all backbone. “It gives the freshness and attitude of the blend,” Mahle explains. Finally, the Armagh brings the meat. “Armagh is the guts, the bacon, the bones.”

I nod in agreement and comment how much I love Syrah.

Mahle responds, “What I love about these wines is it would be very hard to confuse any of them for anything other than Syrah.”

Each of the four wines come in around 12% alcohol. “Yes, it is low alcohol,” Mahle tells me. “But that is not the point. The site gives that result. These wines could not be more representative of this part of California.” Nellessen Vineyard, as an example, Mahle explains is picked at the very end of the season, the grapes not ripe enough to harvest until November.

Most of the current portfolio

In 2000, Mahle and his wife began the label Pax Wine Cellars, along with an investor, with the intention of focusing on site specific Syrah from various parts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The methods used on each bottling were the same–whole cluster, foot tred, with similar duration of elevage. In keeping the techniques basically identical for each site, the wines expressed gave a view of the uniqueness offered from various parts of this portion of the California coast. Some of the wines came in regularly light bodied and around 12%, while other sites easily ground out 15% alcohol. The model made sense to Mahle who saw it as analogous to enjoying Northern Rhone from Hermitage, versus Cornas, for example. If one wine had higher alcohol, and another lower, it was because that was what the site naturally generated.

The wines that gained press attention for Pax Wine Cellars turned out to be the big hoofed work horse wines with higher intensity and higher alcohol. The range of offerings, however, generated some confusion among consumers that would come in expecting each of the wines to offer similar expression–those from the rim of the coast were sometimes taken by the bigger bodied wine lovers to be green. So, to offer greater brand clarity, Mahle started Wind Gap with the intention of carrying those leaner bottlings from the edge of the coast under the new label. Soon after initiating the beginnings of Wind Gap, changes occurred in the original winery partnership at Pax Wine Cellars, leading to Mahle’s attention diving full-time into his newer label, and its expansion beyond Syrah.

Old vine bottlings--Grenache and Mourvedre

Wind Gap Wines arise from a focus on site expression, and the commitment to letting more delicate techniques provide a view into this portion of California. In thinking about the idea of California wine, and the oft referenced perception of more fruit focused, large bodied wines, Mahle turns again to France as a counter-example. “No one would say Languedoc wines should taste like Rhone or Bordeaux. California is much larger, a very big place [larger than those regions in France],” Mahle remarks, “so why can’t we have wines as varied?”

Two old vine bottlings showcase well-established plantings found in Sonoma County. The old vine Mourvedre draws fruit from vines planted in the 1880s at the Bedrock Vineyard of Sonoma Valley. The wine is impressively expressive while light in presentation. It’s a good, enjoyable wine. “The Mourvedre is fun to drink. I like to have fun.” Mahle remarks.

The old vine Grenache celebrates bunches grown in Alexander Valley in a vineyard entirely dry farmed in sand (an impressive feat). The vines are 70-80 years old. The wine is made partially carbonic with two different picking selections at two different levels of ripeness–the combination offering greater dimensionality to the final wine. It’s style echoes that of the Mourvedre while carrying the zest and red fruit zing of Grenache.

Chardonnays, including an old vine bottling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir

Two Chardonnays show other aspects of the history of California wine. The Brousseau Vineyard in Chalone grows 38 year old vines in granite and limestone offering incredibly small berries, impressive concentration and that limestone-zing finish. The Yuen blend brings the Brousseau fruit in concert with 50 year old vines from James Berry vineyard in Paso Robles, only 10 miles from the coast. The combination lifts the intensity and seriousness of the Brousseau, into a balance of juicy citrus and blossom vibrancy with an under current of nuttiness and bread crust.

The Pinot Noir surprises me. (I hadn’t realized they were making one, to be honest.) It’s an intriguing and inviting wine, with a belly of dark fruit carried on a savory expression. It’s light with still great presence.

He realizes I'm taking his picture

What is common through the Wind Gap label is clean wines with strong lines. The structure is impressive throughout, the fruit allowed to speak for itself. These wines do not insist upon themselves, or demand you to listen. Instead, they compel your interest, leaving you happy to give it. There is great complexity here, and confidence. Wind Gap Wines carry intelligence dancing through a core of joy.


Thank you to Pax Mahle for taking time with me.

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In 1965 David Lett planted what would be the first Pinot Gris vineyard in North America, 160 cuttings placed in the ground on their own roots in the Willamette Valley. Today those vines still give fruit, and serve as the source material for all of Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris vines.

Jason Lett and I spoke recently about these grapes in particular. “Dad had done cuvée from the original vines, and they were delicious” but Eyrie had never sold such bottlings separately. Jason had wanted to find a way to pay homage to these original vines, however, and so in 2008 started playing with the fruit. He’s produced two different styles of wine with bunches from the original vines. One, a Ramato style, with the fruit fermented on skins for an extended period, then left for extended élevage as well. The other a sans soufre bottling meant to keep the wine as close to the juice of the vineyard as possible. Yesterday, I opened a sample bottle of the 2011 sans soufre.

Drinking the Eyrie Vineyards 2011 Original Vines Pinot Gris

Eyrie Original Vine Pinot Gris 2011

click on comic to enlarge

The wine evolves in the glass. At first opening it offers the tang of carrots and tomato leaf fresh from the garden, an herbal lifted nose and palate. The wine uncurls over the course of the day–lofted, fresh aromas, apricot and plum, just cut button roses, bread with light honey lifting from the glass. The palate moves as well. There is a stimulating vitamin buzz through the mouth carrying into a long soil and saline finish. The flavors offer lilies with their greens, fresh bread and grain with hints of butter, and the groundedness of coffee. The overall presentation is fresh, delicate while lively. I admire this wine both for its history and for its interest.


Thank you to Jason Lett for extending this wine to me.

The Original Vines Pinot Gris bottlings from Eyrie Vineyards will be released later this Spring. (I have a bottle of the 2009 Ramato as well and have been reluctant to open it, the gift of irreplaceable treasure. Though I can’t wait to view its copper color.)

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Tasting with Sonja Magdevski Sonja Magdevski, Casa Dumetz wines

The food has not yet arrived for dinner and Sonja Magdevski, winemaker of Casa Dumetz, has begun interviewing me, though we’ve met for us to talk about her wine. Her work history includes a Masters in Journalism, I discover, and she writes for Malibu Magazine, as well as her own site Malibu Grange. The questions she wants to ask center around the career change I’ve made from teaching and academic philosophy to writing about wine. It leads us through intensive conversation on ideas of faith, commitment, passion, and fear. We both turned from advanced training in one discipline to pursue something different, and it gives us a way to mutually interview each other, both of us getting to talk and listen.

When we meet again two weeks later I discover an interesting correlation in Magdevski’s fascination with journalism and her investment in wine. Both include, for her, a sense of responsibility in freedom.

She explains to me the connection by starting first to describe her work as a writer. “It’s always been fascinating to me, journalism. People spend time with me for an interview, like we are doing now, you and me. After, I get to take all this information, and write anything I want with it. There is a real trust there. I want to show in what I write that I understood and absorbed the conversation. I love the freedom in that but I always ask, what is my responsibility? Who am I responsible to?” Magdevski describes her experience with journalistic interviews like she is being given a gift. She takes an awareness to her work that people are sharing something valuable. The responsibility and freedom both show themselves in her asking what she will do to best recognize that.

Wine parallels journalism, for Magdevski, through a similar process of honoring what she has received and asking herself what she will do with it. “All these hands have touched these grapes in the progress [from vineyard to wine], but in the end the decision [of how to make the wine] is made by one.” In this way, the relationship Magdevski sees between so many layers of human help–nurseries that provide cuttings, vineyard workers that plant and tend vines then harvest the fruit, other winemakers that offer advice and insight, people that later sell and purchase the wine–fuels a passion for her work. Listening to her speak about the process makes clear too that Magdevski has a deep appreciation for what it means to be human, and the value of human life. “In wine I am being given all this time. The grapes, they are a gift of time, and a product, and an experience. People take the time to grow fruit, listen to what I want, and then I get to do whatever I want with that.” She continues, again acknowledging the responsibility of it. “That freedom is exciting, and it is also sort of a test of your character. How are you going to impose yourself or not? The freedom of that is fascinating to me.”

The Wines of Casa Dumetz

Casa Dumetz wines

In considering how these ideas enter vinification, Magdevski again reflects on the idea of freedom. “I love the freedom of being able to take the wine and make whatever I want, and say, here I am. This is who I am.” She continues, “being able to say, this is what I did. I am open to you now, for better or worse.” What she loves most is letting the fruit character speak through the wine. Still, she gets excited about experimentation in the winery as a way of learning how the different sites show. When we meet the second time it is to barrel taste through her current vintage.

Putting her winemaking in context she tells me, “Viognier is why I started making wine. Grenache is why I keep making it.” We taste through multiple lots of Viognier, Gewurtztraminer, Roussanne, and Syrah. In the midst of the experience, she talks me through five different barrels of Grenache varying by clone and vineyard site. Her original Grenache comes from the Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, a steep sloped site banded with limestone, but she wants to work with grapes from other locations as well. Her goal is both to see if she might find something else she likes as much, but also to consider more closely what it is she loves from Tierra Alta fruit. In learning about these differences in wine, she realizes she is also learning about herself. She discovers not only what her own preferences are, but also how she wants to express herself, and what she will or won’t do about how others may receive her and her work.

Magdevski describes Grenache’s character as she sees it. “I really love Grenache,” she tells me. “It has a peasant nature. I love the brightness of the fruit, yet it is super complex, and it can be really elegant. I think of Pinot Noir, and Cabernet as elegant wines, and I like that. But that isn’t why I drink Grenache. I am looking for more complexity and beauty of fruit than elegance.”

Talking through each lot with Magdevski I begin to zero in on the peasant nature she describes. The barrel she likes best right now offers a plush convergence of round fruit integrated with spice and stemy hints. The wine fills while floats in the mouth and tasting it I see pink. It’s texture is more rustic, less candied, and less dense than the other lots.

That plush lift characterizes the wines of her 2011 portfolio too. They are round in the mouth with a core of powder touched fruit. Both the Grenache and Syrah rush with complexity and lightness with an subtle edge of wild funk, while the whites–Viognier and Gewurtztraminer–drink with the warm feel of Grandma’s white tile and wood kitchen–clean, comforting, and familiar. The Gewurtztraminer she started as a tribute to her Grandmother and her family in Macedonia, where the grape is traditional.

With her 2012s, she is playing with not only differing clones and vineyard sites, but also varying techniques. Her whites use a blend of skin contact and straight to press juice that offers dimensionality and a multi-note flavoral echo in the mouth. She will also be bottling both a Syrah and a Syrah rosé again, alongside her beloved Grenache.

In considering what she loves about winemaking, Magdevski tells me it is the dance of going deep into “geeky winemaking talk” about science, the process, the fruit, and the numbers–again a recognition of sharing and learning–while striving to make “a bottle of wine that is approachable and not pretentious.” She reflects again, “I never want to take any of this for granted. This is a gift.” She continues. “The goal is to share this with as many people as possible.”


Thank you to Sonja Magdevski for sharing with me, and for pushing me too to reflect in conversation. Thank you for taking time to talk with me.

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Moving in the Sta Rita Hills

Looking at S&B Vineyard from Mt Carmel

Santa Rosa Road side of Sta Rita Hills; looking across to Sanford & Benedict Vineyard from Mt Carmel Vineyard

Yesterday Matt Dees, winemaker of The Hilt, drove me through the Santa Rosa Road section of the Sta Rita Hills. The appellation inspires in its winemakers a dogged devotion, and two differing kinds of commitment to match two distinct zones.

Melville Pinot Noir Vines

Looking across the flats of Highway 246 section of Sta Rita Hills, Melville Winery

Along Highway 246 there is a prevalence of diatomaceous soils, that is, to put it simply, sand. The vineyards planted here struggle in wind and lack of natural born water, depending on irrigation in the midst of no ground cover and no rain. Winemakers like Greg Brewer have found a way to devote themselves to the starkness of such conditions, offering wines with a vivid saline and seaweed finish. One of my favorites, the Melville Inox, gives the sense of shooting an oyster with rock salt on top.

Santa Rosa Road instead rolls in a twist of exposed and nestled hills. The canyon and slope sides curling and bowing into varied aspects and angles generating a rich texture and flavor potential, all with high acid commitment. The Santa Rosa Road section of Sta Rita Hills also has sand, but more prevalent loam and clay, with old vineyards still on own root and dry farmed. The vineyards through this zone can readily be considered heritage.

S&B Vines Looking Towards Mt Carmel

Looking across 1972 planted Mt Eden clones in S&B Vineyard, towards Mt Carmel Vineyard

On the North slope perches Mt Carmel, the beneficiary of an unfinished nunnery that just ran out of money. It’s undone building stands still devoted to God’s timing near the top of the hill. Below grow old vines brought into known quality by the work of Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer for their Brewer-Clifton label. Today the grapes are used instead by wine named for the vineyard, showing the dark fruit, spicy, thick skinned quality of Pinot Noir on this slope.

Now Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr of Sandhi Wines also source from Mt Carmel, finding a ready home for Chardonnay. Though they have made Pinot from the South facing slopes of Santa Rita Road as well, Sashi Moorman expresses a greater interest in making their Pinot from the North-facing side of the road. The North-facing side offers greater sun protection that Pinot Noir needs.

S&B Vineyard Looking toward Sea Smoke

Looking at Sea Smoke Vineyard, beside Mt Carmel, from S&B Vineyard

On this North-facing side, Sanford & Benedict (S&B), planted in 1972 with still about 100 acres of own rooted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Mt Eden clones, offers steadier paced growth. Matt Dees explains the development of the clusters from this vineyard, “even with heat spikes, these vines take their time. They don’t jump to conclusions. They maintain their acidity. The fruit doesn’t jump. It mosies.”

The Santa Rosa Road area of Sta Rita Hills seems almost comforting against the persistent barrenness of the Highway. Both, however, trigger appreciation. Standing on Mt Carmel with Matt Dees, looking across to Sanford & Benedict, I was swelled with feeling. When you recognize that in the early 70s Richard Sanford planted his vineyard site amidst a completely unknown region it is easy to see his work as inspired.

View from the top, Pence Ranch

View from the top, looking into Sta Rita Hills from Pence Ranch

Sta Rita Hills as a whole carries that sense of inspired expression. The region should be respected for its ability to generate impressive whites. Raj Parr calls Sta Rita Hills one of the best regions in the world for white wine. Moorman too agrees that whites as a whole, not just Chardonnay, are brilliant here. Acidity comes naturally thanks to the Hills’ conditions. Coupled with the concentration and layers of flavor found through Santa Rosa Road, or the saline sea air finish of the Highway, the whites are more than compelling.

The region focuses too on Pinot Noir and Syrah, both benefiting from the acidity and long growing season. But where the whites speak with an established albeit young fervor, the reds offer a feeling of quality that is still discovering what can be said. It is the kind of exploration celebrated and encouraged by Matt Kramer in his recent push for Pinot producers to take chances. The work of Chad Melville through Samsara, and Ryan Zotovich through his self-named label, give examples of grounded reds with lift. Comparatively, larger projects like Dierberg, with winemaker Andy Alba, still show that stable verve possible through the region, and new projects too, like Blair Pence’s Pence Wines, offer insight into the lively richness possible with Pinot. The yet to be released Goodland Wines Sta Rita Red (a Pinot named to express the appellation rather than the grape) hits home with its impressively taut line of energy.

In his devotion to the Santa Rosa Road section of Sta Rita Hills, Moorman describes the contrast between the North [S&B] and South [Mt Carmel] facing slopes, “from Mt Carmel you really taste the sun. In S&B you taste the soil.” Tank tasting Sandhi Chardonnays with him it’s easy to agree with his description. Considering barrel samples from the wines of Highway 246 the third note becomes visible. There you taste the ocean.


Thank you to Sashi Moorman, and John Faulkner for taking the time to meet with me.

Thank you to Matt Dees for spending the morning touring me on the vineyards of Santa Rosa Road. Thank you to Drew Pickering.

Thank you to Greg Brewer, Steve Clifton, Blair Pence, Andy Alba, Jim Dierberg, Meredith Elliot, Lacey Fussell, and Sao Anash.

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Thank you to the judges of The Wine Blog Awards 2013 for selecting this post as a finalist for the Best Blog Post of the Year, 2013 award.


Meeting Greg Brewer

Greg Brewer

My first step into the vineyard with Greg Brewer I collapse into a puff of sand. The ground is so soft I’ve sunk several inches lower than anticipated and I can’t help but laugh at the surprise.

The Sta Rita Hills are dominated by sand, the entire region previously oceanic bed now full of diatomaceous soils. Diatoms, I learn, are small phytoplankton with cell walls made of silica. As they die they fall to the seafloor and fossilize into sedimentary rock. In the ocean retreating from the Sta Rita Hills, the soils made of these algae were left behind. Now we are walking through their history.

Brewer takes me up to the vines and explains what he appreciates about this vineyard. It is a flat section of land in the midst of a cold, sea blown appellation. The trees lining the front of the winery are taller than the building’s roof, and lean East, a sign of their growing in a persistent inland wind. Common discussion prizes hillside vineyards, and in their proper place they do challenge vines in a desirable way. But Brewer is describing to me the advantages of what Ted Lemon also emphasized, protected vineyards in extreme areas. Brewer adds his own spin to the notion, “it’s like being in the bosom of something. It’s cold outside and warm against the chest.” The vines on these flats, then, are held dear in the midst of otherwise harsh conditions. The sand provides little water or nutrient on its own. The wind pushes against the plants almost continually, and cools what is already a cool climate. With such circumstances the extremity of a slope side is unnecessary for pushing the vines.

The relationship expressed of protection within challenge is the first glimpse of a dynamic I’ll later come to recognize as definitive for Brewer. He loves the subtle complexity exemplified through a delicate circumstance–apparently differing ideas acting in harmony thanks to the right context. The focus on context reveals what seems to me a fundamental value for him, the importance of difference. He comments on this as we look at the winter vines. When it comes to wine “there are so many beautiful approaches,” Brewer tells me. “I like a celebration of difference.”

For Brewer the question of quality wine is not as simple as what your alcohol levels come out at, or if you use new oak. Instead, it’s a matter of a person’s “execution of intent.” That is, new oak or alcohol levels might be a matter of stylistic choice. Within any particular style a winemaker can create quality or not. Brewer turns the attention instead to choice and belief. “If [winemakers] believe in what they do for the right reasons, chances are it will turn out well.” Behind this view is a conception of alignment between intention and action. If a person really means what they do it comes more naturally.

Preparing to Taste Diatom

Vine growing in Sand, Sta Rita Hills

Two weeks later I’ve returned to Santa Barbara. There are a few people I want to do follow up visits with but it’s Greg Brewer that has stuck in my head. In our first meeting he’d described his winemaking techniques as subtractive in nature. The statement has been echoing for me.

Before meeting with Brewer again I am again researching the Sta Rita Hills and diatoms, the silica based algae. Brewer’s personal label is named for these creatures, an intentional homage to the place from which the wines are grown.

The silica-based ground is of the ocean, now only miles from it. The climate of the appellation is dominated by the ocean as well. Both climate and ground find their origin there in the water. Suddenly I am struck by the intensity of that–in any literal sense the ocean has retreated from the Sta Rita Hills, finding refuge in the deeper places, yet it remains throughout by its vestiges of earth, air, temperature, atmosphere. The region, then, answers a strange riddle–what would it look like for the ocean to retreat and yet remain?

Though they are atypical in their manner of doing so, Diatom wines are a deep representation of the place in which they find providence. It is respect for this oceanic dependence that I believe both characterizes the Sta Rita Hills AVA, and Brewer’s expression of it through his label Diatom.

The next morning I wake up early before my meeting with Brewer and begin eating seaweed.

The History of Diatom

Diatom 2006 Clos Pepe and Huber

The earliest influences of the Diatom project for Brewer connect to his work with Melville. There he began making an austere, highly focused rendition of Chardonnay called Inox.

In many winemaking traditions the best fruit gets the highest treatment, being given new oak, more aging, a closer consideration of technique in order to be bottled as Reserve wine. Lesser quality fruit, then, would be bottled with less attention to be sold for less. Brewer’s thought though was that in a California climate, where even in a cooler region the vines offer genuine fruit character, the better quality bunch could be left to speak for itself.

In making Inox, then, Brewer keeps the fruit from oak influence, fermenting and aging it instead in stainless steel, and also avoiding malolactic fermentation (ML), a process that in Brewer’s view takes fruit through a secondary stage further from its original form (It isn’t that Brewer is against ML. He uses it elsewhere. He simply doesn’t use it in these more subtractive approaches to Chardonnay). What is left is stark, primary fruit flavor resounding with acidity. The Diatom project carries some family resemblence to Inox.

In the genesis of the Diatom project is a recognition of place. “The landscape is stark. I wanted the wines to be stark.” Connected to that idea of barrenness is Brewer’s view too of the wines architecture. In making Diatom, the goal is to offer “structure found from within, not imposed from without.” The idea is one he compares to sushi. “I like doing something pure and stripped down. With sushi, the fish must stand on its own.” In Brewer’s approach to these wines the idea is to let the fruit stand on its own.

Brewer considers the history of California Chardonnay. Many understand it as a neutral grape, with older winemakers still sometimes calling it a blank canvas. They were able to show their technique intentionally on the fruit. Reflecting on the artistic metaphor, led Brewer to a different insight. What would happen if instead he left the canvas blank?

In this way, Diatom is an attempt to directly experience subtle differences. The art of Udo Noger could be seen as an analogy to Brewer’s wine project, and indeed Brewer himself names Noger as inspiration. Noger focuses on an intersection of light and space to investigate what is possible with something as simple as the color white. The recalibration of awareness offers insight into simplicity. Something otherwise seen as minimal becomes obvious.

In Diatom, Brewer approaches Chardonnay as a parallel to Noger’s method. The wines are fermented slowly and cold for the first months, then warmed only enough to allow fermentation to complete. The process, and aging occur in stainless steel. In such an approach, the wines offer austere presentation with significant structure. The alcohol levels are often high, as is the acidity.

With their focused style, the wines deliver a snapshot of Brewer’s aesthetic of silence and open space. As winemaker, he understands these wines are his particular expression, and names some of the roots of his inspiration in foreign cultures and artists. But standing in the sandy vineyard with him, only a few miles from the ocean, it’s clear his aesthetic is also rooted in the barren places of the California coast. And it’s that conscious intersection in Brewer’s work that fascinates me. He comments, “an important part of site display is allowing the human element to be there.”

Remeeting Greg Brewer

Diatom 2011 Kazaoto and Miya

We have gone inside and are tasting Diatom wine. We begin with two from 2011.

The wines are so focused it is hard for me to think words at first. I taste instead impressions. Wind blowing over flat land. Sand. Resonant silence. As flavors unfurl so do feelings. The wines carry emotion. The wines feel at home in silence to me, as if they are focused elsewhere and at ease in solitude. They are structurally lean and energized. The Kazaoto giving flavors of winter forest, pine and menthol opening finally to pink and white grapefruit, followed by a long sandy seaweed finish. All blowing and cool in the mouth. The Miya comes later in winter when the cold is lifting but it is not yet Spring–silent, distant, and focused as well, but wind blowing with a softer voice of white sage and evergreen lifting into pear and hints of beeswax.

We follow our tasting into two from 2006. They are more lush and open, carrying a richness the 2011 does not entertain. Still, to call these wines rich is to mislead, as they may be broader than the 2011s but are still focused and taut on the palate. The wines taste of late summer when we have not yet begun to think of Fall. On the Clos Pepe, citrus oils fall into tall grasses and very light mint. The Huber is slightly hotter with more acidity, carrying dried white herbs alongside dried soils, dried flowers, citrus oils and methol. With these two wines I am grief stricken and honestly feel that pain in my chest. They are a reminder. Summer reaches its zenith only to curl back down to winter.

I turn back to taste again the 2011s and it occurs to me.

Greg Brewer’s work is the answer to a fundamental question. What would happen if we took what we love, what we want to do, seriously and made that love our life?


Thank you to Greg Brewer for taking the time to meet with me.

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