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, 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 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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