Orange Wine

For the Love of Wine

Alice Feiring For the Love of Wine

My great grandfather died in the Spring. He was buried in remote Alaska. At his request, we clothed him in the gilded robe he wore as reader for the Russian Orthodox Church, a role he prided himself in, assisting the Priest during service.

His funeral was held in the Orthodox tradition. Incense burned during prayer and filled the air with the scent of amber and smokey beeswax with blossoms. At the graveside, Aleut and Yupik women from the oldest generation sang prayers in a language whose words I couldn’t understand. The tones of grief, and spiritual hope were familiar to me. We lowered his coffin and threw clumps of dirt on top. The first handfuls from the family hit the lidded metal box with echoing thumps.

My grandfather’s part of remote Alaska has long been an intersection of Alaska Native and Orthodox traditions. By now the two are so intertwined I have a hard time telling them apart. Some of my stories of Alaska Native life I cannot distinguish between traditions of the Church or traditions of the people. For my family the two were the same.

This is the way with older ethnic cultures, an inter-braiding of traditions that is the texture and life breath of every day. It’s a layering and complexity that differs from newer cultures like the mainstream United States. In a global economy we are greeted by flavors and imports from around the world. It’s a dynamic process that means our culture can seem complex, but the difference is a matter of what we hold onto and live through daily life, versus what we greet as yet another flash of another something new.

Alice Feiring‘s new book, For the Love of Wine: My odyssey through the world’s most ancient wine culture, offers us intimacy, albeit in the temporary way of a well-invested traveler, with a long-standing culture. Through her writing she shares an intricately inter-braided world, the culture of Georgia in which food, wine, farming, friendship, Orthodox religion, mysticism, a turbulent long-term and recent history, economic struggle, the effect of totalitarian politics, resilience, its grief and its stamina all weave as the textural richness of everyday life. In this way, her writing in this book is brilliant. At the same time, it also feels new.

Feiring brings to her writing on Georgia a simultaneous freshness and refinement that surpasses that of her previous books. Through it she has not lost the self-certainty and sense of righteousness that can flare in her other writing when she stomps against the homogenizing force of industrialized winemaking or the dumbing influence of globalization. It is that here the love that fuels her willingness to fight has deepened and we are seeing Feiring even more honestly than before. It is through her judicious use of memoir to deliver the story that we discover our intimacy with the place of which she writes.

For the Love of Wine follows Feiring through a series of visits in Georgia. Chapters, loosely speaking, showcase a different producer and a different region of her discovery. Each installment, then, becomes a kind of character study of the producers of Georgia, as well as Feiring’s travelogue, at the same time that she delivers facts on the country’s history and winemaking. Finally, each chapter ends with a recipe.

The recipe: it’s a move that in most cases, when used as a chapter endnote like this, becomes the marker of a less serious book. A moment when we find the writing is charming, and leave it at that. But Feiring pulls off the risk. Here in the recipe chapter-close the stories she tells us become tangible. We as readers peer through the distance into the meals she shares with winemakers and their families, and then are invited into the experience by seeing how to make the food they ate. In most cases wines to pair are also suggested, either by implication via the chapter’s content or directly. Whether we choose to execute the dishes or not, Feiring has, in a sense, offered us a way to bridge the gap of distance. The winemakers have not just poured her their wine, and shared their stories, they have given us the warmth of their own traditional recipes. And here I find an implicit tension in Feiring’s writing.

By sharing the culture of Georgia, Feiring seeks to help preserve it. In this way, she mobilizes a kind of cultural jujutsu using the force of globalization — writing a book that will be read internationally, encouraging international distribution of artisanal wines, inspiring international tourism by sharing insights of a unique place — to help make the winemakers’ economy strong enough to support its own local aims and afford its long-standing traditions. Where her writing before has rallied against the homogenizing force of globalization, here she has found a means to use that power for the sake of what she believes in.

Feiring is not naive to the gamble.

Integral to the tone of the entire book is the intricacy of grief. For the Love of Wine is dedicated to her brother, who we discover early in the text has been diagnosed with cancer. Through the course of Feiring’s travels we come to know the story of their relationship, and follow the progression of his illness as she comes to know it herself. At its first introduction, the inclusion of such a private matter comes as a starkly personal incursion in the midst of a book apparently written about wine. But as the story continues, the feeling of Feiring’s grief begins to echo the bass note harmonic that thrums in the background of any such long-standing culture.

A people that have survived wars, famines, epidemics, and colonization by an outside power forever hum in their song the chord of grief. It becomes not a mere burden but an even inspiring part of the culture’s life force. Inspiration — the sixth stage of grief after acceptance, when that bass note harmonic thrums us, not loose, but back into living. Feiring’s willingness to let us grieve with her, then, actually helps us more readily recognize the feeling of Georgia.

Ultimately, it is here in the thrum we find Feiring drinking in her love of wine. For it is the thrum that makes wine more than merely part of a meal. We see this in the Christian tradition where communal wine becomes the blood of Christ thus offering us new life through the forgiveness of sins. Or, as Feiring points out, in Jewish tradition, where wine serves as the blessing in a meal “from weddings to births” (43). Or for Georgians, where “the strength of the Georgian wine” rises from “the blood of […] ancestors” (21). In each case as we raise the cup, or in the case of Feiring and her friends, the Georgian horn, we enjoy not merely wine, but a drink that contains tradition, friendship, forgiveness, blessing, food, history, elixir.


For the Love of Wine
My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture
Alice Feiring
208 pp
19 recipes, 22 illustrations, 1 map

This book was received for the purpose of review from the University of Nebraska Press. 

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Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the 15 March 2013 edition of The New York Times, Diner’s Journal, “What We’re Reading” :


The Role of the Vineyard in Technique Choices

Jared Brandt

Jared Brandt

In El Dorado, Donkey & Goat source Roussanne from the Ellen Ridge Vineyard. It’s a dry site edged by trees and brush on rocky soils along the edge of the American River Canyon. The vineyard hosts 10 to 12-year old vines that have served as the source of their Stone Crusher Roussanne. It’s fruit that struggles to ferment after harvest.

Winemakers Jared and Tracey Brandt began working with the site in in 2006, committed to natural fermentation, without the addition of nutrients. Pressing the fruit after harvest, the juice took almost a year to ferment to dryness. Jared explained, “it kept going, but slowly.” The following vintage the fruit was treated similarly, and again, the wine took 8 or 9 months.

In 2008, the duo decided to experiment with skin contact techniques, moving half to three-quarters of the fruit on a macerated ferment. The wine fermented in 14 days. Jared explains that since 2008, the skin contact lots have consistently fermented as quickly. He comments too, “the more whole cluster we use, the faster it goes.” The reason, it appears, rests in the nutrients offered by the presence of skins and stems not available from this more barren site otherwise.

Donkey & Goat have continued to play with the way they interact with the grapes from Ellen Vineyard, honing their understanding of its best site expression. In 2010, the Stone Crusher received what Jared now sees as more foot tred than he’d prefer. He took that lesson forward into the following vintage and was more delicate with the grapes’ treatment in the winery. By comparison, the 2011 offers a lighter, more cohesive floral and toasted walnut shell presentation to the 2010s more cidery tang. The 2012, though not yet released, was treated similarly to the 2011.

Part of what’s interesting here, is that Donkey & Goat also work with Roussanne from the Fenati vineyard, a site about 1/4-mile from the Ellen, with more fertile soils, and less exposure along the ridge edge. Jared explains, Fenati’s a more tannic site, and the crops don’t struggle there in the way they do at Ellen. In Jared’s view, the fruit at Fenati “doesn’t like skin contact.” The tannins resulting are harsher, flavors less pretty, and the change in fermentation time and effectiveness is far less dramatic. Tasting side by side examples of straight to press fruit from each site, the flavors are also just different. The Fenati has sweet floral notes where the Ellen gives white herbs. The wines also give differing color, even from straight-to-press, the Fenati more white to the Ellen’s yellow.

In considering the idea of terroir in wine, the conversation often sticks on the side of flavor recognition with the wine itself, thinking of place in terms of what qualities it gives to the wine’s final presentation. The point is certainly relevant. But the concept of terroir carries no straight line from place to bottle, as the choices made in vineyard and with winemaking dictate the wine that can ultimately be received.

Winemakers that speak of listening to the vines sound more believable with examples like Ellen Vineyard versus Fenati. Such examples, though too, highlight the relevance of knowing the vineyard, and developing a relationship with it over time. It’s an approach harder to find in a bulk-fruit focused market such as California, compared to some grower-winemaker models of the so-called Old World.

Thinking Briefly on Terroir: the relevance of vine age

Talking with Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the idea of terroir, he expresses a willingness to challenge, though not dismiss the notion. His point rests in the youth of the American wine industry, and also the role of vine development over time. Both drivers arise too, from, the mechanisms of the U.S. West Coast bulk fruit market–grapes sold more often by weight, then made into wine by its vineyard owner.

As viticulturists describe, the role of site becomes more relevant to fruit quality and flavor as vines age. Younger plants regulate their chemical processes and distribution through the plant more erratically before acclimating to their site. Vineyard Manager and Winemaker, Steve Matthiasson, explains that its as if vines develop memory over time of how to respond to varying climate and soil conditions. Younger vines just don’t have that experience. As a result, the younger the vine, the more relevant the plant’s age and clone are to the fruit expression. As the vine develops, however, the clonal distinctions seems to lessen. The plant gets older, acclimating to and expressing more site character.

In considering, then, the relevance of terroir in New World wines, the idea of vine age must be addressed. The reality of vineyards in the United States, however, is that most are rather young. Younger vines also generally produce more fruit. The flavors seem to become more concentrated and complex with older vines, but the production level also diminishes. In a market run by the price of fruit by weight, vineyard owners tend to pull vines before production levels decrease.

The question, then, of whether so-called Orange wines express terroir, would seem to rest not only in the technique itself, but also in the source of the wines’ fruit. As Bonné points out, “terroir examples from New World wines, generally can be found from people working with vines over 20-years old.” As examples, we talk through some of the winemakers featured at the event In Pursuit of Balance, many of whom are able to work with older vines–Varner, Sandhi, Wind Gap, and Hanzell, to name just under a handful. In each case, the labels are producing white wines that also seem to show unique site expression from vines at least 2-decades old with a hands on approach in the vineyards. Wind Gap also produces several examples of skin contact whites.

Bonné considers the history of skin contact whites in California, and points out that it begins not simply in grabbing a technique but in a matter of emphasis and innovation. As Bonné describes it, the history arises from first making white wines a central focus. John Konsgaard with his unfiltered Chardonnays from Newton Vineyard offers one such example. His devotion to Pinot Grigio with George Vare through Luna Vineyards gives another. In both examples, just taking white wines so seriously stands as a moment of being radical with wine.

“What I love about all this,” Bonné highlights, referencing Vare and Kongsgaard, is that “these people wanted to explore what happened when white wine became the most important thing you did.” One result is that by turning the attention to whites as central, exploration of technical options became paramount. Eventually, this also led winemakers to explore older traditions resulting in the re-introduction of macerated ferments, and extended macerations, what we now call Orange wines.

Bonné also points out, that in his view, giving such attention to whites amounts to making a strong statement. Orange wines generally need time to resolve their tannin structure before release, then again more time in bottle before drinking. “In our culture where even reds are opened quickly,” Bonné tells me, “it’s a strong economic statement to make wines that are meant to be held for 5-years after release.”

Innovation of Technique

La Clarine Farm Viognier

In addition to consideration of the vineyard itself, there is also the relationship of winemakers to their vineyards. Many winemakers producing Orange wines in California are not intimately connected to their vineyard sources, relying instead on the work of vineyard managers that communicate primarily about picking times. To the extent that such a relationship defines any particular label’s approach, the discussion would seem to focus not on a cultivation of relationship with terroir, but simply on an exploration of technique.

Speaking as a matter of emphasis, Bonné comments, “in the New World it is entirely a discussion of technique,” not terroir. For Bonné, what is exciting about the exploration of macerated ferments, and extended maceration on white grapes is less about the direct results in the wines themselves, and more about the explosion of the white wine category. “The best part of winemakers experimenting with the approach,” he tells me, is that “they’ve pulled out useful lessons on how to enhance texture, and enhance expression in white wines.”

Hank Beckmeyer, owner and winemaker of La Clarine Farm offers one such example. (Beckmeyer, however, works intimately with his vineyards as well.) In 2009, he decided to purposefully “do it all wrong” when working with Viognier. He wanted to see what the grape would do if fermented and treated like a red wine.

The result, at the time, he thought was very nice aromatically but rough on the palate. Still, he took a lesson from the experiment and began using short skin contact durations at the start of all his white wine ferments to bring textural interest, and those increased aromatics he liked. He also started playing with using skin contact on one grape lot going into a white blend so that “only a portion of the blend has that kooky texture” he likes but doesn’t want to dominate.

For Beckmeyer, the result has been finding that he appreciates the use of skin contact on varieties with lower tannin in the skins, and higher natural acidity. Skin contact is known to increase potassium levels in the must, leading to a decrease in overall acidity depending on contact duration. The necessity becomes, then, keeping a balance on use of the technique in relation to the overall composition of the wine. On grapes with higher natural acidity the use of skin contact can modulate what could otherwise be too much of a good thing. In Beckmeyer’s view, including some skin contact serves as a way “to bring some zing to the wine.”

This Spring, as part of my exploration of U.S. Orange wines, Beckmeyer shipped me a bottle of his 2009 Viognier he hadn’t tasted in a couple years. The roughness he’d described was no longer there. Instead, the tannins had lengthened and smoothed, offering a sensual texture. The wine also carried a mix of pleasing aromatics not always typical to the variety–passionfruit, and kumquat, alongside backnotes of oregano, lichen and bark. In the mouth it carried through also rich with fig, cocoa, and olive. That zing was definitely there, a wine full of sapidity.


Donkey & Goat also play with other small lot fermentations of skin contact, most often producing blends that have some small textural influence from macerated fermentation, rather than full Orange wines. Their 2011 release of Grenache Blanc is one such example. Their 2011 Coupe d’Or is another–a 50/50 Roussanne/Marsanne blend that utilizes 1/4 of its fruit from skin-contact Roussanne of the Ellen Vineyard.

The next installment of this series will consider the roles of tradition and technology in terroir and technique.


To read previous installments of this series:

Part 1: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 1: Considering Recent History

Part 2: 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

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The Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla Vineyard

Steve Matthiasson

Steve Matthiasson standing in the Vare Vineyard, harvest day 2012

In early 2002, Steve Matthiasson began doing vineyard consulting in Napa Valley with Premier Viticulture Services, connecting, as a result, almost immediately with George Vare, as well as Vare’s home vineyard of Ribolla Gialla and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2.5 acres of Ribolla promised new insights for Matthiasson into the care of whites, as the grape’s vine needs differ from those of other varieties.

Vare had connected already with winegrower’s through Friuli and Slovenia that worked with Ribolla, having brought his suitcase clone from Italy at the start of the new century. Sharing their advice with Matthiasson, Vare and Matthiasson explored the European guidance, and some trial and error on what the grape needed in the vineyard. In the mid-2000s, the pair, along with winemaker Abe Schoener, and Vare’s wife, Elsa, traveled to Friuli, and met too with winemakers in Slovenia.

It was Alek Simcic, Matthiasson explains, that brought he and Vare out into the vines to show them directly how to thin the grape. Ribolla Gialla offers a unique blend of fussy in its early season vine care, but hearty there after. Unlike other varieties, the leaves of Ribolla must be pulled to expose the newly formed clusters to sunlight immediately. As Matthiasson explains, if leaf pull is done early, the clusters form their true yellow color without sunburn. Without sun exposure, the clusters can burn later, or stay green, never adequately ripening and never reaching their enjoyable flavor. The vine also regularly shows extra clusters, with two or three smaller ones on top that never fully ripen, and thus should be removed early to allow the larger, true-ripening formations to grow properly.

Ribolla Gialla's unusual cluster formation

Matthiasson showing me the unusual cluster formation of Ribolla Gialla. The two lower formations, near his hands at the base of the photo are properly ripening clusters. The two upper ones are dummies that detract from fruit quality, and never fully ripen.

With Vare’s support, and small winery space, Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson began their own Matthiasson label, starting their wine business with only 120 cases in 2003. The Matthiasson’s red blend has relied on a truly classic approach to a Bordeaux blend, using the same vineyard too from its inception. Vare also encouraged Matthiasson to use the Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla. The suggestion led to the Matthiasson’s establishing their white blend, based always in a combination of four grapes–Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Friulano–brought together in an utterly clean, straight-to-press style for the sake of freshness.

With the label’s foundation in such an uncommon grape as Ribolla Gialla, Matthiasson realized he needed to secure his label’s future by planting more. With Vare’s permission, then, Matthiasson took cuttings from Vare Vineyard and established about an acre of Ribolla Gialla on the family’s then newly purchased home property. The Matthiasson’s had just moved onto the land in 2007, and the first thing they did was establish the new Ribolla vines. The intention for the Matthiasson Ribolla plantings includes becoming the backbone of the Matthiasson white blend should the label ever need a new source for Ribolla Gialla.

Looking over the Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla

looking over the Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla

The Ribolla at Matthiasson Vineyard was grafted onto roots originally planted in 1997, allowing harvest to be taken as quickly as 2008. With the Vare Vineyard secured for the Matthiasson white blend at the time, Steve chose to keep his own home vineyard fruit for another purpose. That year, Matthiasson made his first single varietal Ribolla Gialla from the Matthiasson fruit. His method was to simply pick, and ferment the wine directly in the vineyard using whole clusters, then pressed at about dryness and aged in barrel in the family barn at vineyard side. The 2008 through 2011 vintages of Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla varietal were each made this way, though the family did not keep the results of the 2009 vintage.

In 2012, however, Matthiasson decided to change his approach. There he chose instead to ferment and age the fruit in winery, striving to make a truly non-reductive, non-oxidative wine of white grapes in a red wine style. For ’12, then, he fermented whole clusters in tank, then pressing it at dryness to age in continuously topped-up barrels. In Matthiasson’s view, the new approach allows for a better focus on site and variety, which he wants. The 2012 will age for at least 20 months in barrel.

Looking over the Matthiasson garden, towards the family barn

looking across the Matthiasson garden, towards the barn

Comparison of the Vare to the Matthiasson fruit depends on examining both the flavoral differences, and the site contrasts. Where the Vare fruit consistently offers baking spice notes (it shows up regularly to me as fermented yellow raisins), the Matthiasson site instead gives a saline expression of celery–Ribolla’s version of herbalness. There is also a more intense concentration of flavors in Vare fruit compared to a more high tone element in the Matthiasson’s,

Differences in concentration are due partially to vineyard planting. Where Vare utilized a traditional Guyot style, 1 cane per vine approach, Matthiasson’s site relies on a Lyre arrangement. To put it simply, one vine at Matthiasson’s Vineyard is doing 4 times the work a vine at Vare’s has to do.

Steve and Koda examining the Ribolla at Matthiasson Vineyard

Steve and Koda examining the Ribolla vines at Matthiasson Vineyard

Site specifics also differ in soil and temperature. Vare Vineyard rests at the base of Mt Veeder, pooling with cool air and fog at night, while heating more during the day. Matthiasson’s, on the other hand, sits in more open valley floor, thus staying a touch cooler in day time, a touch warmer at night. Where Vare soils are truly rocky and volcanic challenging the vines through ample drainage, Matthiasson’s are a mixed loam.

Finally, Matthiasson explains he also manages the Vare Vineyard site differently than he does his own. The reason is simply because of Vare’s own style preferences. At the Vare site the fruit is more thoroughly thinned, a practice Matthiasson tends more to avoid at home.

Tasting the Matthiasson 2010 Ribolla at Friuli Fest 2012

tasting the Matthiasson Ribolla at Friuli Fest 2012

The current release of the Matthiasson Vineyard Ribolla is the 2010. It comes in at outrageously low alcohol of 10.9% with a bit of pleasing funk on the nose alongside fresh greenery and citrus salt. The palate is dance-y showing ground almond cake, with yeast bread elements and a bit of tang on the finish. The wine has viscosity but smooth slippery, ultra light tannin, and a long glow-bright finish.


George and Elsa had long intended to sell their Napa home and vineyard property. Though Matthiasson currently manages the care of the Vare vineyard, there is no lease agreement. As a result, when Elsa succeeds at selling their home, the new owners will determine the future of the Vare Vineyard fruit.


Thank you to Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson.

Pets to Koda.

Thank you to George and Elsa Vare. Blessings to the Vare family.


For previous posts in this series:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 1: Meeting George Vare:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: (A Life in Wine) George Vare, Friuli and Slovenia:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3: Friuli Fest 2012, Ribolla Gialla Tasting and Discussion:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 4: Harvest of the George Vare Vineyard with Steve Matthiasson:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting, Arlequin Wine Merchant: Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting, Arlequin Wine Merchant

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Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, July 2012

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla Vineyard, July 2012

This post is part of an ongoing series titled “Attending Ribolla Gialla University” that I began last summer as a tracing of the grape in California. The title was originally, to be honest, a sort of joke–there is no such thing as R.G. Uni, I made it up–while simultaneously meant to take seriously the work started here in California by George Vare. He studied the potentials of the grape through on going conversations with winemakers in Slovenia and Friuli, tastings of their wines, and then experimentation with picking times, and winemaking techniques on his own fruit. The name is also a reflection of my own following Ribolla Gialla around, having fallen in love with it (and at least one of its winemakers) in Friuli, later also finding myself within it’s few acres in California.

George Vare examining his Ribolla clusters, July 2012

George Vare examining his Ribolla Gialla clusters, July 2012

I was lucky enough to spend time talking with George about how he fell in love with the grape, as well as what he hoped for it, and to taste multiple examples and vintages of the wine under his own label, Vare. I don’t want to overstate my connection to George, he is someone I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with several times, as well as to email with on occasion. I can only say that, even with this small connection, George was someone that meant a lot to me. His generosity of spirit, and his encouragement to follow one’s own enthusiasm are irreplaceable. Somehow in the midst of everything, George was an ongoing source of encouragement for me. I say this because I know he played such a role for very many people. It is truly a gift.

George Vare and Steve Matthiasson discussing the Vare Vineyard

George Vare and Steve Matthiasson discussing Vare Vineyard fruit, July 2012

The following post is a write-up of a recent tasting held at Arlequin Wine Merchants focused on the wines made from Ribolla Gialla of the Vare Vineyard. Besides a recent barrel sample brought by Forlorn Hope of his 2012 version, the wines I had tasted and enjoyed before. In gratefulness for George’s sense of community, and in recognition of the work these winemakers were able to do, I am happy to have attended. It is a gift to be with friends. Thank you to Arlequin for hosting.

Following are notes on each of the Vare Vineyard wines from the tasting (other wines were also poured. Those notes are not included here). One of the things I understood about George’s love for Ribolla was the range of possible styles it had to offer, its unique history, and its place as a bit of an underdog. With that in mind I have chosen to write up the wines of the Arlequin tasting within a frame considering the grape’s history and various styles. The tasting notes are shown in drawing, with any additional information about vinification in italics following. Each of the vinification comments is also summarized with a comment on when each particular style is most appropriate, or for what sort of palate.

The diversity of styles represented below is something George celebrated about the work done with his vineyard–the wines give example to the great range possible with this noble grape as well as expression of what’s possible with thirsty curiosity.


The Arlequin Tasting of Vare Vineyard

Arnot-Roberts 2010 and 2011 Ribolla Gialla

click on comic to enlarge; notes on Arnot-Roberts Ribolla Gialla: Nathan and Duncan have chosen to play with their approach to vinification of RIbolla each year, while maintaining earlier picking times, and thus also up acidity. In the 2010 vintage the wine was made going immediately to press, thus offering a linear ultra clean version of the fruit. The 2011, on the other hand, was kept intentionally on skins, after foot treading, for six hours, gaining a bit of the textural richness, and some slightly medicinal elements typical of the grape with skin contact. Both 2010 and 2011 were fermented in steel, and aged in neutral oak. In 2012 (not tasted at Arlequin), the pair have also chosen to age the Ribolla in tinajas, Spanish clay vessel (aka. anfora, in the Italian). If your interest is in a juicy, linear expression of Ribolla Gialla, both the 2010 and 2011 Arnot-Roberts offers that wine.

Arlequin Wine Merchants hosted a tasting of the wines made from fruit of Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla this last week, with six producers present, all in honor of George Vare himself, who died a little over a week ago.

A fellow attendee asked me which wine I thought had “the greatest varietal typicity of the tasting.” It’s a common view to take–that there must be some core of type to any particular grape, and, as such, one of the questions we can or should ask is which wine comes closest to that standard of measure. I believe in the case of Vare Ribolla Gialla, however, such a view is misleading. To put it simply, making a claim of a grape’s typicity based on wines made from only 2.5 acres in an area on the other side of the planet from the grape’s primary region seems out of place. But further, even in its homeland Ribolla Gialla has never been a grape with only one style.

One of the beautiful aspects of the wines made from Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla is that they represent a true expression of range for the grape, moving from ultra clear, vibrantly acidic examples on the one hand, all the way through to darkly colored, textural tannin-focused versions on the other, with a full arc of picking variation, and oak influence in between. This fan of expression–Arbe Garbe, and Vare himself previously as well–celebrates the variety’s true typicity–the ability to offer a wide band of possible structural expressions.

Considering History

Grassi 2011 Ribolla Gialla

click on comic to enlarge; notes on Grassi 2011 Ribolla Gialla: to keep the lightness of a white wine while gaining some of the aromatic and textural advantages of Ribolla Gialla, the Grassi is whole cluster pressed, then the juice is poured back over the skins. George Vare said that in blind trials he and Grassi winemaker, Robbie Meyer, agreed that such a practice gave a similar effect as leaving the juice to soak on skins for 48 hours before pressing. The juice is then put into neutral barrels for aging. Mark Grassi explained that they choose to pick when the fruit has reached a full yellow color, giving a richer weight and presentation of flavors in the final wine, without heaviness. Grassi’s 2011 offers richer flavor with a deft touch. This is the wine when you want a full palate presentation without heaviness.

Ribolla Gialla grows almost exclusively along the borderland of Friuli and Slovenia, with only very small plantings found outside this zone. Though its origins reach back to Greece, documentation of the grape in Friuli begins as early as the 13th century with it quickly found almost exclusively in Fruili-Slovenia’s intersection zone. History shows it as the definitive white of Friuli for centuries, with royal decree demanding payment through Ribolla during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and laws established prohibiting the blending of Ribolla with wines from outside the region in the 15th century. The grape, then, has a long narrative of respect and adoration. With the timing of phylloxera, however, many growers chose to ignore Indigenous varieties in their replantings, turning instead to established International red grapes with the hope of economic boon. The noble grape of Friuli, then, suffered a massive decrease in attention, and acreage in the last hundred plus years.

The historical reality of white grapes through Northeast Italy, and the Balkans is rooted in a technique now thought of as fringe–skin contact fermentations. Technology until the last several decades simply did not allow for the cleaner straight-to-press style seen as typical for white wines today. Part of what this means, then, is that the Ribolla wine celebrated in historical texts would often be closer to the murky, textural style of what we now call orange wines, than it would be to the beautifully clear straight-to-press examples also made with the grape.

Considering Recent Origins

Forlorn Hope Sihaya, 2011 and 2012

click on comic to enlarge; notes on Forlorn Hope’s Sihaya Ribolla Gialla: Forlorn Hope’s Sihaya offers a balance of heightened aromatics and texture generated by skin contact, coupled with a lighter body achieved through shorter maceration duration (14 days). While the 2011 was filtered, giving a lighter, cleaner presentation compared to the 2012, both offer a pleasing touch of funk that comes alongside the nuttier aspects of the wine smoothly. The 2011 vintage is also a more focused linear year compared to the breadth of 2012. The tannin on both wines is still young and textural, and will continue smoothing out in bottle. Forlorn Hopes Sihaya brings prettiness and dance-y feet to the orange wine style, a choice for an introduction to skin contact wines, or when you simply want a lighter version.

In Friuli and Slovenia today, a current of interest in Indigenous varieties helps ground a wine industry still also focused on International grapes. The quality of land through the area, with its unique soil type, known there as ponca, along with the high acidity driving climate, gives even non-native grapes a form of expression unusual for their type.

In a recent interview with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey he explained his view of the terroir of the region. As he describes it, whether macerated ferments, or straight to press wines, “The wines of Friuli have their own vibe.” As he puts it, they have an edge to them that differs from wines in other parts of Italy. “You can taste the ponca. It has a little more bitterness, a little more edge to it.” The wines of Alto Adige, as a counter example, also give the linear focus of the region’s cooler climate, but do not show the slightly bitter-saline bite of the calcareous marl characteristic to Friuli. Stuckey also emphasizes Friuli’s climate, however, pointing out that thanks to the cool nights their wines can marry both ripeness of flavors, and still high acidity.

One of the unique gifts of Ribolla Gialla is what Talia Baiocchi describes as its ability “to transport the minerality of its ground.” The grape acts as a direct conduit between the flavors of the soil in which it’s grown and your palate, as though all the mineral ions of the earth are pouring over your tongue in the wine (whether that is ever literally true or not, as is so oft argued over these days).

In Friuli, then, Ribolla carries the edge Stuckey refers to, ushering in the seabed salinity and freshness of sedimentary rock. At Vare Vineyard, however, the plants rest at the base of Mt Veeder, in a cool zone of Napa Valley, giving vines root within gravelly loam full of volcanic soils. Where the fruit at harvest in Friuli tastes briny and bright off the vine, at Vare it gives a fresh slurry of wet rocks followed by hot wet concrete and steel. Aspects of these flavors follow from fruit through fermentation.

The Choice of Harvest Differences

Ryme 2010 Ribolla Gialla

click on comic to enlarge; notes on the Ryme 2010 Ribolla Gialla: Ryme offers a full quality example of Ribolla Gialla from a macerated ferment, leaving the fruit on skins a full month, thus extending skin contact beyond fermentation. Such a practice demands giving the wine time for the tannin to resolve. Ribolla is a highly tannic white, but is also known to offer smooth polished tannin when given time to barrel and bottle age. The 2010 Ryme wine has arrived at these polished tannin and well integrated flavors. It also shows the positive aspect of a medicinal note that Ribolla carries from skin contact, with it integrated into the overall presentation as a refreshing light spearmint lift. The tannin, acid balance here is also well struck, making this a wine to pair with food (I want brown rice and salmon here). For the full orange wine presentation, Ryme is the wine.

Winemakers of Vare Ribolla also represent a wide span of picking decisions, with two weeks to a month separating harvest dates between the earliest and latest of picks depending on vintage.

Vare preferred to judge his pick based on the grape color, as in his view the grape’s best arrived when the fruit was a full round yellow (as reflected by its name “Gialla” meaning “yellow”). Mark Grassi, of Grassi wine chooses his picking times in a way that resembles George’s practice. George claimed to have learned this from his friends in Italy and Slovenia. Stuckey too explains that Stanko Radikon, a friend of Vare’s and someone he relied on for insights into the grape, also gives the fruit longer hang time, allowing it to fully ripen before picking. In Stuckey’s view, the longer hang time is partially possible thanks to the cooler nights of the region (which keep acidity up even with sugar gains), and are also more desirable for the macerated ferments Radikon is now known for. The location of Vare Vineyard rests in a cooler zone of Napa Valley, supporting the fruit with cooler nights as well. To play with the advantages of the developed skin, Vare explained that once harvested he preferred at least 48 hours of skin contact on his Ribolla, even as he also played with making the grape in a wealth of other styles.

Dan Petroski, winemaker of Massican, on the other hand, selects his picking time for Ribolla based on aromatics, wanting to find a balance point on the earlier side of the ripeness window when aromatics are perfumed and lifted and acidity is higher, while still reaching physiological readiness for harvest. Along with Petroski, Steve Matthaisson, manager of the Vare Vineyard, and winemaker of Matthiasson Wines, as well as Nathan Roberts, and Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts, have traditionally picked earliest of the winemakers drawing from Vare Ribolla. The result in their wines is a focus on acidity drive that brings freshness and verve to a wine.

The Election of Vinification

Massican Annia 2012 and 2011

click on comic to enlarge; notes from the Massican Annia white blend: Inspired by the textural, aromatic white blends of Friuli and Campania, Massican plays with the ideal blend of Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay from each vintage. The 2012 brings 46% Ribolla Gialla with fruit from both the Vare Vineyard, and the Bowland Vineyard. Bowland Vineyard is a younger, virus free planting of Ribolla that gives ultra clean juice, and a lighter wash of flavors. The 2011 Annia relies on only Vare Ribolla, though a smaller portion, also showing a bit more texture when compared to the 2012. 2012 is also simply a rounder palate vintage than 2011, giving more open flavors, and a slightly softer structure in general. The Massican Annia is the wine to choose for textural focus, and perfumed aromatics, with refreshing acidity.

Ribolla Gialla is known as one of the most tannic of white grape varieties, offering unique opportunities for shifts in mouthfeel, and food pairing as a result. By playing with skin contact techniques, the tannin influence shifts in the wine. Robbie Meyer, winemaker of Grassi, and George both utilized a technique of pressing the fruit, then pouring the juice back through the skins to draw more tannin into the wine without having to let it sit directly on skins. Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines brings up the tannin elements of the grape by giving it some extended skin contact time–two weeks in both 2011 and 2012 (about the duration of his Sihaya’s (the name of his Ribolla bottling) fermentation). Megan and Ryan Glaab, of Ryme Cellars, on the other hand commit to not only macerated fermentation, but also extended maceration keeping their Ribolla on skins for a month followed by two years in barrel to allow the tannins to resolve.

Other attentions brought to the grape through vessel selection show through previous and not yet released vintages, not presented at the Arlequin tasting. In the two harvests that Enrico Bertoz of Arbe Garbe worked with Vare Ribolla (2009 and 2010), he brought some small oak influence, a practice known in Friuli and that those wines plus Bertoz’s has shown the fruit can readily carry by offering greater breadth of body and some spiced flavor. Incorporating an entirely new direction for California, Arnot-Roberts vinified their Ribolla Gialla in tinjas, a Spanish clay vessel for the 2012 vintage, not yet released.

George had tasted me too on a macerated ferment project of his in which he’d left the Ribolla for an entire year on skins, a design he’d taken from some early experiments by Josko Gravner the winemaker showed George during a visit in Italy. On George’s version, the tannin when we tasted it was both wonderfully present and utterly smooth–giving the wine a polished textural weight. He also played with a less discussed approach of making sparkling wine with the grape. In Friuli, it is more common to blend Ribolla with Chardonnay, while in Slovenia winemakers do a straight Ribolla sparkling, so George bottled it both ways.

Ribolla Gialla is more commonly seen as a blending grape through its home region. It gives a sense of body to a wine without overly impacting the blend’s flavor. Such examples from Friuli celebrate white wine with a sense of freshness and lift. From Vare fruit both Massican and Matthaisson offer the fresh white blend expression. In 2011, Petroski offered his white blend with 33% Vare Ribolla, shifting in 2012 to a higher portion of Ribolla also including juice from the newer Ribolla planting at Chris Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard in Russian River Valley.

Re-Considering Typicity

Matthiasson White Blend, 2010 and 2011

click on comic to enlarge; notes on the Matthiasson white blend: Inspired by the fresh juiciness of white blends from Friuli, Matthiasson focuses on making clean, light, almost delicate ferments consistently bringing together Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Friulano for the white blend. Both vintages offer light aromatics, pleasing lightly-viscous palate presence, with juicy flavors, and a long finish. The 2010 shows lightly deepened character with a slightly more open presentation to the 2011, which also gives a very light tang in the finish. Matthiasson white blend is the wine to choose for freshness and refreshing-ness.

What is common through the wines of Vare Ribolla is a kind of flavoral family resemblence, and liveliness. They each show themselves as RIbolla Gialla but the range of styles present expresses what I believe to be the grape’s true type–it is not a vine that reduces to one single best expression, but instead gives itself in generosity to the curiosity of the winemaker.


George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla Vineyard

With thanks, most especially, to George.

Thank you to Steve Matthiasson, Matthew Rorick, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts, Mark Grassi, Robbie Meyers, Dan Petroski, Ryan and Megan Glaab.

Thank you to the good folks of Arlequin Wine Merchants.


For previous posts in this series:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 1: Meeting George Vare:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: (A Life in Wine) George Vare, Friuli and Slovenia:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3: Friuli Fest 2012, Ribolla Gialla Tasting and Discussion:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 4: Harvest of the George Vare Vineyard with Steve Matthiasson:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa:

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

for George, with gratefulness

Danger, and Excitement: Giving Time to Wine

Bobby Stuckey

Bobby Stuckey

“A new approach or trend in wine is not exciting right off.” Bobby Stuckey tells me, “first it’s dangerous.” Stuckey is a Master Sommelier with a wealth of experience in Northeastern Italy (and elsewhere), as well as co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, and the wine label Scarpetta. Stuckey’s idea of danger and excitement are meant to point out the challenge that a new discovery in wine carries with it.

The first introduction to a brand new style can offer such a break with previous expectations of wine that, as Ryme winemaker Ryan Glaab put it, the experience “is mind scrambling.” The feeling is dangerous when put up against old standards for judging wine that have grown inflexible. For those that remain malleable, however, an encounter with what’s new moves us past the danger zone into excitement–the first glimpses of new information giving charge to experience.

We’re discussing the idea of responsibility in the wine world when Stuckey touches on the role that knowledge and education plays. In order to make his point, Stuckey compares the oft discussed orange wine phenomenon to the surge in interest on Alsace that occurred in the mid-90s United States. When attention first turned to Alsace, a lot of sommeliers didn’t adequately understand the region–sweet wines? dry wines? what grapes? “It took a couple years for people to figure out what was going on,” he says. “We’re doing that right now with orange wines.”

The point behind Stuckey’s comparison, is that it takes time to genuinely understand new regions, or approaches to wine, let alone to simply gather basic knowledge. “Wine buyers need to take time to figure it out.” A mistake occurs, in other words, when people are quick to judge without having first put care into their study.

The time required to gain depth of understanding works against the pace of a world where it’s more common to quickly name drop wine styles, winemakers, or regions currently considered cool simply because trends too often equal street cred and attention. “We get buzz word trend focused, then go off the deep end.” Stuckey comments. “But,” when tasting wine, or trying something new we need to take the time and “ask, why did that work well there.” Stuckey characterizes this more in depth approach as “the craft of tasting a wine.” As he describes it, it’s a craft that develops with time and experience, and depends not just on sensory awareness, but intelligence and interest.

Answering Stuckey’s question “why did that work” depends too on recognizing the role of time for the winemaker. He points out that when it comes to exploring a new technique to making wine, “even great winemakers, 10 to 12 years before getting it, didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.” The best winemakers need multiple vintages to dial in their understanding of a new approach. In the process of trying out new techniques, there is also the risk of not knowing how the wine will be received.

In a U.S. context, Pax Mahle offers one such example. He began experimenting with using white wine maceration in 2003, but, as Mahle tells me, “it wasn’t until 2007 that one came to fruition.” Mahle was looking for texture and tannin without having to use oak or high alcohol, but wasn’t willing to bottle a wine until he was happy to put his name on it. Prior to that Mahle would find ways to blend his skin contact batches in to other wines. It was a way of allowing experimentation while mitigating the risk, maintaining credibility and quality.

Recognizing Responsibility and Hearing Voices

Levi Dalton

Levi Dalton

The responsibility piece kicks in in that it is generally wine professionals that are charged with greater access to a range of wines, as well as the position of representing the world of wine to consumers with less knowledge or experience. As proselytizers of the esoteric, wine professionals can slide into the more Catholic approach of acting as strict gatekeepers–a priest between the common and god–or take the more varied protestant approach of recognizing the people can talk to god directly. From the protestant view, anyone can learn about wine. As metaphorical spiritual leaders, we get to choose how we want to interact with that.

Levi Dalton takes the position of what I’m calling the more protestant aesthetic but counters it instead to an image of the Magician Sommelier. Dalton is a Sommelier in New York City, now working as the Wine Editor for Eater New York, and the voice of the interview podcast series, I’ll Drink to That. “Magician Sommeliers,” he tells me, “don’t want you to know the answers. They want to keep the illusion.” It’s a practice Dalton opposes. “You should want people to know things. You can’t stop them from googling stuff.”

Behind Dalton’s view is a similar consideration of time as that given by Stuckey.  “Engage with something or someone on a real level,” Dalton suggests, comparing the process of getting to know a wine as that of having a genuine conversation with someone. When encountering a new wine, Dalton suggests, “sit down, try to treat the wine right, and try to hear something.”

In hearing something from a wine, Dalton is pointing out too that the responsibility for recognizing what a wine might have to offer rests in the person drinking it, rather than simply in the wine itself being immediately likeable. Recognizing the important role of the taster allows that not every wine will speak to every person. “If I find this interesting,” Dalton points out, “maybe other people will find it interesting. Not everyone but some people.”

Dalton’s openness to differing experiences with wine pulls the compulsion away from trends and shifts value back to individual wines, and particular markets. If not everyone is going to “hear” a particular wine, the need for supporting variation in the wine world comes to the fore of importance. It also makes the embracing of differences not only important, but fundamental to the overall ethic, not to mention integral to providing good service. That is, I may not like a wine, but my satisfaction in helping you find one you like depends on me listening to where you might differ from me, and valuing that.

The Relevance of Orange Wines

Stuckey and Dalton are both known, at least partially, for their insights on what are now called orange wines, macerated ferments of white grapes. Throughout our conversation, Stuckey demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the vintages of Radikon, as well as producers from throughout Italy. Dalton carries thorough experience of Italy as well, and developed the wine program of two Italian focused New York restaurants with an emphasis on integrating accessibility, education, and lesser known wines through the design of the menu. In this way, Dalton helped introduce the U.S. market to the phenomenon. Though orange wines as an approach reach to the techniques preserved in Georgian culture, Italian producers that drew from Georgia’s heritage brought the wine style to the fore of attention.

Dalton considers the meaning of the differing structure and texture of orange wines. “Orange wines,” he tells me, “make people think about how wines are constructed. It breaks the illusion.” With the illusion lifted, suddenly the winemaker’s trick is revealed, it gives the wine drinker access to the wine in a new way. The wine drinker has a new opportunity to start asking questions.

For many winemakers, playing with macerated ferments is a parallel process of asking questions. Back again in the U.S. context, Sonja Magdevski, winemaker for the label Casa Dumetz, describes that exploration, “the more I do, the more I learn. There are so many ways to make wine.”

Magdevski understands herself as early in the winemaking learning process after starting her label in 2009. It’s a view of winemaking she seems likely to carry far into her career, being committed to the process of exploration. She has begun playing with skin contact trials on Gewurtztraminer, so far expecting to use them as integral to a Gewurtztraminer blend. For Magdevski, the barrel that was left on skins for 21 days through fermentation was fascinating, but she recognizes too the limit in getting pulled into a wine only because it’s intriguing. “I wanted to do the skin lot as a separate bottling because it’s interesting,” she tells me. “But I realized, if the wine is not also pretty, and attractive to others, what’s the point?”

As a winemaker, Magdevski sees her responsibility as bringing together her learning process with the desire to share the wine with others in a pleasurable way. Playing with the two versions of Gewurtztraminer barrel side, a blend of the two draws on the heightened aromatics and pleasing texture of the skin contact, with the lift and purity of flavors from the pressed lot, together each gaining greater dimensionality.

In considering again the role of the wine professional, Stuckey emphasizes the importance of recognizing the winemakers learning curve. As he puts it, “if you’re doing something different, it takes a minute.” The winemaker learns their craft over timel. But ultimately he brings the point back again to the wine professional and their ability to facilitate for a patron. “Our responsibility as a wine buyer is to learn, and know what is going on, not wild west it on the customer.”


To read previous installments of this series:

Part 1: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 1: Considering Recent History

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

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


The next installment will further consider the interplay of technique and terroir.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

To read the first post in this series: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 1: Considering Recent History


A Visit to the Egg with Hardy Wallace

Hardy Wallace

We’re standing in front of a concrete egg filled with fermented straight-to-press Semillon harvested alongside the Napa River during the 2012 harvest. It’s fruit grown in a rocky vineyard directly beside the water. The egg holds the answer to a question we’re there to consider–how does its wine compare to the same fruit fermented during skin contact? Wallace processed the white grape both ways.

In discussions of macerated fermentations, claims are often made that such techniques obscure terroir. Side by side lots offer some insight into the validity of such an assertion. Going deep enough points out another consideration. In conjunction with the idea of terroir, the variety of the fruit also has to be considered.

Considering Wallace’s Mentor, Kevin Kelley

Wallace started his label, Dirty and Rowdy, with a close friend only three vintages ago, their work in white wine beginning in their second vintage. But Wallace stepped into the project thanks to the encouragement of winemakers Kevin Kelley, of Salinia and NPA, and Angela Osborne, of A Tribute to Grace and Farmer Jane.

The Venture reaches back to a chance flight in 2009 to San Francisco when Wallace decided to take a quick trip to the Bay Area to visit with friends he’d made online in wine, thanks to his popular wine blog, Dirty South Wines. Having gotten to know Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, the two decided to meet at Terroir SF, a popular wine bar in the city. There Bonné suggested they purchase a bottle of Kevin Kelley’s 2008 skin-contact Chardonnay. As Wallace explains, he’d had skin contact wines before but none “necessarily as heart warming.” Kelley’s Chardonnay “wasn’t just a funky glass of wine, not just a puzzle or intellectual stimulation.” He pauses, “what a core of joy it had. Other examples I’d had at that point were beautiful but didn’t move me like that.”

Kelley’s Chardonnay changed Wallace’s perspective on domestic wines and he returned again to spend a week touring Sonoma and Napa wine specifically hoping to meet with Kelley.

When asking Wallace to think through what it was about that particular wine that so affected his view, he considers the grape itself. He responds, “It’s an example that changes the way you feel about wine, and what it can express. Kevin’s wine…” He thinks on the question again, then continues, “it was chardonnay, a grape that has so much baggage that comes with it, and here is this experience that redefines the grape.”

That wine by Kelley was made with Heintz Chardonnay, a well-known, quality vineyard, but it was a distinctly different expression of the the site–fruit fully fermented on skins and sold in a stainless steel thermos.

By Spring of 2010, Wallace had moved to Sonoma and was working with Kelley helping to market the NPA project, and create the weekly blends ordered for local delivery.

While working with Kelley, and Osborne as his assistant, Wallace realized he wanted to step into making his own skin contact white wine. But, after securing a vineyard source, an incredible heat spike hit. It was Labor Day 2010, right before harvest, and the fruit was entirely lost to sunburn. Having to find a new grape source, with a lot of vineyards lost from the weather, that year Dirty & Rowdy started by shifting to red fruit and making Mourvedre. In 2011, they were able to locate a white grape again, and return to their original interest in making skin contact Semillon alongside the red wine project.

Ryme Cellars Mind Scrambles

Ryme Cellars Ribolla Gialla

Ryan and Megan Glaab of Ryme Cellars began making two of their white wines with skin fermentation after an experience analogous to Wallace’s first contact with Kelley’s Chardonnay. 2006, Ryan explains, was the first time he had an orange wine, tasting Ribolla Gialla from both Radikon and Gravner in one night. The experience, he explains, “was mind scrambling. I’d never tasted anything like it.” He continues, “I like to be really surprised by wines. That experience sparked a fascination.”

Within a couple years, Megan and Ryan were able to visit Stanko Radikon in Fruili, and see first hand how he made his wines, fermenting on skins in open top wood containers, then storing for extended periods often still on skins. During the visit, the Glaabs were told by Radikon that a friend of his, George Vare, was growing Ribolla in Napa, and making wines with macerated fermentations too. In 2009, the Glaabs heard from their friend Dan Petroski that Vare might have fruit they could purchase. That year, inspired by their visit with Radikon, they started making Ribolla Gialla with incredibly extended macerations. The next year, they followed suit with a skin contact Vermentino, keeping the contact time shorter there out of consideration for the differing characters of the grapes.

The Role of Tannin, Flavor, and Mouthfeel

The differing fermentation choices between Ribolla Gialla and Vermentino made by the Glaab’s highlight an obvious but oft overlooked point–when it comes to orange wines, it depends on the grape.

Tannin structure of grapes resides primarily in the skin, rather than the pulp of the fruit. As Wallace likes to illustrate, the skin of the grape acts as the tea bag, with the pulp giving water for the tea. The longer you steep tea, the stronger the beverage. Similarly with grapes–the longer the skins are in contact with the juice, the greater the effect. However, different white grape types have differing levels of tannin in their skins. The amount of tannin available helps determine whether its worth leaving the juice in longer contact or not. As Ryan explains, other varietal factors such as smell, flavor, and weight also come into consideration.

Ryan offers insight by contrasting their Ryme his Vermentino (they also have a hers presentation of the grape that is made straight-to-press) versus their Ribolla Gialla. “The grapes have different things to give. With Vermentino it isn’t beneficial to use long maceration. The grape is more sensitive to oxidation, and volatility, but I like the richness it gets from skins.” The grape also has comparatively little tannin, offering less structural alteration in the wine from extending maceration. So, to protect the wine, while balancing structural benefits, the Glaabs press off their his Vermentino after two weeks maceration, then allow it to finish ferment to dryness.

Ryan then discusses the Ribolla, “Ribolla requires a lot of patience. It has a very tannic structure.” Ribolla Gialla is considered one of the most tannic white grapes, in fact. He continues, “I like the evolution of tannin you get from long maceration with Ribolla.” In working with the Ryme Ribolla Gialla, the Glaab’s patience isn’t just kept through extended maceration (their 2012 is still on skins after harvesting the fruit in September), but after bottling as well. Their 2010 Ribolla Gialla will be released later this Spring.

The Glaab’s experience with macerated fermentations is extended too by Ryan’s work with Pax Mahle at Wind Gap Wines, where Ryan is Assistant Winemaker. There the team has experimented with Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Chardonnay on skins, thus witnessing the effect of using the technique on differing grape types over a number of years.

Glaab explains that when it comes to skin contact “variety is a key piece.” With some types, extended macerations can make the wines too heavy. Scientific studies have shown that extended skin contact increases the potassium levels of the wine (Ramey et al 1986), effectively raising the pH, thus making the wine heavier on the palate. This is true with as little as twenty-four hours of contact (Darias-Martin et all 2000). Skin contact also increases the aromatic and flavoral elements of a wine (Singleton et al 1983). But as Glaab explains, this has to be considered in relation to the characteristics of the particular variety. For some varieties, he points out, “the aroma and flavor are too singular, very strong and direct, almost thick” thus working against the potential advantages of time on skins. This isn’t to say you can’t successfully make an orange wine with those varieties. It is to say you may have to think about different factors in their treatment. As a result, in considering what will be heightened by fermenting on skins, the use of the technique has to be judged in balance with the overall characteristics of the particular grape type–structure and flavor, aroma and mouthfeel.

Tasting Rocky: Dirty and Rowdy’s Semillon

Hardy Wallace pours Semillon

Wallace has pulled samples from three lots of Semillon. The first comes directly from the concrete egg we’re standing beside–fruit harvested then put straight to press and into concrete for fermentation followed by aging. The second two lots were fermented on skins in a large stainless steel fermenter. After fermentation, the fruit was pressed with half going into old oak barrels, and the rest being kept in steel.

We taste the straight-to-press wine first. It is pretty while also light. As Wallace describes, “more pretty than wild.” It carries at this stage very light sleeping fruit, dried grasses, and white sage with a long tang finish. We move to the wine from barrel. It has a stimulating, vivacious nose, with refreshing lifted elements. The palate is rocky and stimulating. The flavors of the press lot are present, but richer, with more charisma. This rendition is pretty with substance. The third lot, also skin fermented, is tasted. It has the wildest edge to it, but with a more focused texture than the barrel aged wine. Finally, we quickly mix the three together in rough proportions. The blend immediately offers a river bed nose. It is multi-layered, grassy, herbal, and hits in stages. The palate too is multi-dimensional, and multi-staged, rocky. This wine opens to gorgeous.


To read Part 3 in this series: 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


As this series continues specific grape varieties and other examples of both Oregon and California wines will also be explored. The question of terroir will also be more centrally addressed in a future post in this series.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

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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Harvesting Ribolla Gialla

Steve Matthiasson manages the George Vare Vineyard in Napa, which includes 2 1/2 acres of Ribolla Gialla, the first plantings of the variety in California. This morning was the initial harvest of the fruit for the 2012 vintage, selecting Ribolla for the Massican label, Arnot-Roberts, and Matthiasson’s own label of the same name. Early next week others that source Ribolla from the Vare Vineyard will pursue their picking. Steve was kind enough to invite me along for today’s morning harvest.

This morning’s Ribolla will be used by both Massican and Matthaisson for their white blends. In each case, the labels pick early to take advantage of the higher acidity of the fruit at this stage. As Dan Petroski of Massican explains, he picks early, selecting fruit for varietal typicity, thereby drawing out more of the grape’s unique aromatics. Ribolla is also known for offering pleasing texture and weight in a white blend.

Tasting fresh Ribolla fruit with Steve Matthiasson, he describes the flavors. What he is impressed by with Ribolla Gialla is the way that the fruit itself tastes of mineral qualities. As he explains it, wines that show so-called minerality often do so because of choices made in the wine making process, without the original fruit necessarily offering those same flavoral components. Ribolla, on the other hand, shows the mineral flavors right off the vine. Matthaisson describes what he tastes from the fruit of the Vare Vineyard–a taste of wet stone, followed by a long finishing smell of rain on hot concrete. Minutes later I can still taste the steam and a slight tang from the pop of the grapes.

The last three years Arnot-Roberts have sourced Ribolla from the Vare vineyard making small bottlings of a full varietal with the fruit. In 2009 and 2010 they brought the fruit straight to press, making an ultra clean version of the wine. 2011 they chose to foot tred the grapes, leaving six hours of skin contact for a little more texture and phenolic presence. This morning’s pick will bring something new for the winemakers. They have recently purchased a new Spanish-made Amphora, in which they intend to make Ribolla Gialla for the 2012 vintage. The Spanish Amphorae are made with denser sides than traditional to Georgian-style Kveri. The difference is that wine makers using the Spanish Amphora, such as Alto Adige based Elisabetta Foradori, often choose both not to bury the clay vessel, and also not to line it. Georgian-style Amphora, on the other hand, are both buried in the ground, and lined with beeswax before being filed with fruit for wine. Nathan Roberts and Duncan Arnot intend to follow the practice particular to the Spanish style vessels. post edit: Spanish made clay wine vessels are called there Tinajas. Georgian style vessels, kveri, or qveri. In Italy, anfora. In English these are all generally called Amphora.

Harvesting Ribolla Gialla, George Vare Vineyard, Sept 14 a.m. 2012

The 2012 vintage shows the greatest consistency of fruit for the life of the Ribolla Gialla plantings in this vineyard. In past vintages, there has been a higher proportion of chicks, smaller grapes, caused by a virus present in the Ribolla vines. In Chardonnay, hens and chicks (large and small size fruit) are prized for the textural addition offered by the size variation. The smaller fruit in Chardonnay add a waxier quality to the body of the wine because of the higher skin-to-juice ratio that many wine makers and drinkers appreciate. Steve Matthiasson explains that he likes finding hens and chicks in Ribolla too both for the textural benefit it offers, but also for the flavor complexity generated by the size differences. Others that prefer a riper style to their Ribolla, on the other hand, sometimes seek more consistency in the fruit size as a way of decreasing the potential for heaviness they believe could come with the extra phenolic content of the skins.

Harvesting Ribolla Gialla, George Vare Vineyard, Sept 14 a.m. 2012

Ribolla Gialla picked and ready to be weighed, and delivered

Sharpening the Hook Knife used for harvesting the grape clusters

Gathering the picked fruit into bins for delivery

Ribolla Gialla picked and gathered into bins


For previous installments in this series, visit the following links:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 1: Meeting George Vare:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: (A Life in Wine) George Vare, Friuli and Slovenia:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3: Friuli Fest 2012, Ribolla Gialla Tasting and Discussion:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard:

Attending Ribollat Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting, Arlequin Wine Merchant:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa:


Thank you to Steve Matthiasson for including me in the harvest this morning.

Thank you to George Vare and Matthew Rorick for keeping me informed on harvest dates.

Thank you to Dan Petroski and Nathan Roberts.

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

Together, Hardy Wallace and Matt, along with Kate Graham and Amy, have started and today release Dirty & Rowdy [Family] Wines. Hardy and Matt share the overall demands of the business, and all of the high level wine making decisions, while Hardy is on site through the year to maintain the hands on wine making. The family is of affection. In June, I was lucky enough to spend time with Wallace and Graham, tasting their Mourvedre and Semillon, while talking about how they understand the work they do.

Tasting Dirty & Rowdy Wines

The 2010 Dirty & Rowdy Mourvedre

The 2010 Dirty & Rowdy Mourvedre comes in at 12.8% with a lighter bodied presentation of the dark elements classic to the grape.The wine carries a dusty fineness of dark berries, with a balance of freshness and earthiness both, very light petrol and powdered sage, and a long toast with light tang finish.

Wallace explains his inspiration for this wine is the lighter style of Cru Beaujolais, with its combination of refreshing body carrying a depth of stoniness and character. At the same time, his interest in making the Mourvedre comes from his love of whites, with their ability to offer a transparency of the dirt from which they originate. His goal, then, is to create a wine with rich flavoral components, a transparency of the place in which it is grown, and at the same time a lighter weight in the mouth.

Wallace illustrates that his favorite wines can be understood as an analog to sushi. “The wines I love most have had the least amount of touch. Every time a wine is touched [in production], it is one step further from where it’s from.” Sushi, on the other hand, offers the least intervention for food–as raw fish, it is dealt with only in as much as will make it safe to consume, and as much as it takes to cut and place it on the plate. The paradox of this wine arises in that Mourvedre, as a variety, offers a great weight in its character, but Wallace manages to draw on the heft of the Mourvedre in a lighter frame of presentation. Traditionally the grape has been dealt with in red blends to bring darker notes. It is less often treated as a straight varietal.

To deliver his vision, Wallace created the 2010 Mourvedre with Santa Barbara Highlands fruit, 100% whole cluster, and only enough punch downs to push the cap during fermentation.

The 2011 Dirty & Rowdy Mourvedre

For the 2011 vintage, Wallace wanted to create an even lighter presentation for the Mourvedre. He chose to pick the fruit earlier for a little more freshness, and during fermentation was even lighter in his pushing on the clusters. He’d push the cap down once a day in 2011, “just enough to see my feet in there.”

In getting Wallace to discuss his views on wine, conversation comes around eventually to a profoundly spiritual heart focus. In the way he discusses wine and wine making, what shows is a belief that inasmuch as any of us have a spiritual life, it is right here in our everyday. The choice comes in whether we be open to it. “When fermentation gets going… [he pauses] I want to be present for it. That process… the center of the earth is connected to the center of the universe, hopefully with gentle hands between.” Wallace’s devotion and focus comes too from more than 17 years studying, and playing North Indian Classical music, a form that brings together incredible discipline and clarity with the understanding that any of us are, and can be conduits for that spiritual life force just mentioned.

Wallace explains that his views of wine overlap his understanding of music. “Music communicates the things we don’t have language for. Wine does this as well.” Kate agrees, nodding, “What Hardy is doing, it’s all about the heart. [Engaging in wine and music, or any of our other projects] they’re a way of noticing, what does it do to you? And, also, of paying attention to, what are you doing?” Revealed in these questions is a simultaneous awareness of surrender to what can’t be controlled, and recognition of the power of personal choices. It is in the midst of this understanding that the seriousness shows something more. Wallace spells it out. “We’re trying to make it as fun as possible, by taking a light hearted approach. It should be fun. It is our life.”

The 2011 utilizes fruit of Shake Ridge Vineyard, and carries a greener, toastier nose, with light green melon and wild berry. The palate again shows that powdered touch on an earthy pepper palate and a berry tang finish. This wine is juicy in the mouth, with a drying finish. It does drink with the lightness of white wine, showing, compared to the 2010, a younger, stronger structure with pleasant lift, and a freshness and liveliness pumping through it.

The 2011 Dirty & Rowdy Semillon

In 2011 Hardy & Matt added Semillon from Yountville to their portfolio. Interested, again, in generating a wine with the mixed qualities not necessarily typical of the grape, they chose to do two separate fermentations that would be blended after.

The ton of Semillon was split into two lots, half de-stemmed and fermented in an open top with vigorous tred. The wine fermented easily and was never racked generating a lot of juice. The second lot was half pressed, with everything going into a concrete egg. The fermentation, however, was slow to start so Wallace took a small portion of juice from the first lot and added it in. Fermentation then took off, and when complete the wine was racked into barrels. After, both lots were blended back together.

The 2011 Semillon shows a nose of dusty, citrus brightness with apricot, and very light pineapple hints. The palate is vibrant, totally avoiding Semillon’s potential for fattiness in the mouth. The wine carries a dusty, grippy finish.


Congratulations to the Dirty & Rowdy family on the birth of their wine label TO-DAY. (p.s. Yours is my favorite wine t-shirt. I wore it all over Oregon yesterday to boost the love in anticipation of your release.)

If you are interested in purchasing Dirty & Rowdy wines they are available via mailing list. You can sign up with your name and address via email to: info (at) dirtyandrowdy (dot) com.

They are also being distributed in New York by Jenny & Francois Selections.

Thank you so much to Hardy Wallace and Kate Graham.

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


Tasting with Webster Marquez

Webster Marquez met me at Bluxome Street Winery in downtown San Francisco to taste from three labels through which he makes wine–Anthill Farms, which he started with two of his wine maker friends, Bluxome Street Wines, which he consults for, and C. Donatiello, for whom he serves as wine maker. All three labels, beautiful wines.

Write-up to follow.

Thank you to Webster Marquez for taking time to meet with me. (I love your dog too.)

Thank you to Dan Petroski.

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