Wine History

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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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:

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Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre

Chateau La Barre Vineyards

climate meter at Chateau La Barre Vineyards

It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.

My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.

His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.

Meeting the Picards

Jean Luc Picard inspecting his vines

inspecting the vines with Jean-Luc Picard

Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.

Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.

Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.

We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.

Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.

Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.

Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.

Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties

Jean Luc in his vineyards

Jean-Luc Picard standing in his Eline Vineyard

Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.

Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.

During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.

Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.

With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir, and restart sections of his vineyard with them. It is the area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.

Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.

I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.


Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.

Thank you to Annemarie for suggesting the interview.

Thank you to Jeremy Parzen for having the background to hopefully get it.

Happy April 1, Everybody!

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Visiting Lagier-Meredith: Driving to the top of Mt. Veeder

Carole and Stephen

Carole Meredith and Stephen Lagier at their home on top of Mt Veeder

It’s mid-December on a clouded day, the first of several visits to Lagier-Meredith Vineyards over a couple of months. At the top of Mt Veeder, the fog has shielded our view from the other side of the valley. We can still make out the general direction towards the house in which Robert Mondavi once lived, and the nearby (rather flat) peak of Mt Veeder itself, but the Bay, and mountains in every direction hide behind the cold weather. I’ve driven to the house of Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith after getting the guts to write and ask for an interview a couple weeks before.

The story of Lagier-Meredith fascinates me for multiple reasons. The pair were among the very first to plant Syrah in Napa Valley at a time it was even more defined by Cabernet Sauvignon. When they purchased the land that would become their home and vineyard, Mt Veeder was not yet an appellation (the area still today not burgeoning with development as the creased and rolling tree covered mountain AVA makes too much growth difficult). Before realizing they had fruit good enough to sell wine from they were a two career couple.

Stephen Lagier made wine for Robert Mondavi, after first managing the company’s lab. But prior to that he’d also helped perform research at UC Davis on the chemical effects of vineyard practices before significant knowledge was to be had on the subject. Carole Meredith’s career at the same university focused on the genetic relationships between grape types, leading to the landmark discovery that Cabernet Sauvignon was the off-spring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, information now almost taken for granted.

Talking with Lagier and Meredith

Lagier-Meredith art

art display outside the entrance to Lagier’s and Meredith’s home–Stephen made the frogs, Carole the telephone

Talking with the twosome proves both entertaining and insightful. The couple enjoy not only bragging about each other’s successes, but sharing in the fun of how they met.

In Fall 1980, both began work at UC Davis in the Viticulture and Oenology department. Lagier had done his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and recognized most graduate students spent their study years broke, often also going into debt. Unwilling to follow suit, he started his Master’s degree in Winemaking (before the program shifted to a single Viticulture and Oenology Master’s degree) with a full-time job. Over five years, Lagier ran the research program for a professor doing chemical analysis of the effects of training vines on grape composition. At the same time, Lagier purchased his own home, then rented rooms out to other students to help with expenses.

The same Fall brought Meredith to the University as a Professor. She’d applied her PhD in Genetics in the private sector, until realizing she didn’t like having a daily boss. At the time Davis accepted Meredith’s application, she was actually a finalist in two different positions in plant genetics–lettuce and grapes. There had also been a third position in beans Meredith didn’t get. The time period marked the start of retirement for men that had returned from World War II, completed advanced science training, and then effectively reshaped American education. Meredith was hired as the start of a new generation of educators. With multiple plants up for research, the hiring committees negotiated to decide who would get which candidate, thus securing Meredith’s future in genetic research history.

Her beginning with the parentage of Cabernet was rooted in first developing the technology and toolkit to do so. She fostered the work of brilliant research students that helped solve how to apply insights from the use of DNA markers in human genetics to grape vines. But she also helped establish a multi-national genetics cooperative through which researchers from all over the world pooled their findings on those same DNA markers in grape vines. Doing so allowed an explosion in both identifying individual grapes genetic identity, and then afterwards the relationships between grape types.

Discussion of their UC Davis years quickly leads to the two of them smiling, telling me about how they met. Meredith was often working weekends to get ahead on some of the lab projects she had operating, and Lagier would be in his office having negotiated to switch his work day schedule so he could downhill ski during the week. Those days the mountain was quieter. He’d often come in showing signs of sun from the slopes, which gave the pair reason to talk. As Meredith explained, she wanted to have fun and go skiing too. So, Lagier invited her to join a group that often went downhilling together. Then, one outing, it turned out the two of them were the only ones able to go. “We had to spend the whole day together,” Meredith laughs. “I wanted to have fun, and Stephen is fun.”

Lagier smiles. “I crack Carole up everyday. I feel like it’s my job.”

Lagier-Meredith's young Mondeuse Vineyards

looking into the young Mondeuse vineyard at Lagier-Meredith

Lagier’s support of Meredith isn’t limited to his good humor, however. Meredith and I take at least an hour to talk through the work she accomplished in genetic relationships–how she helped find the parentage of Syrah (sire: Dureza, mother: Mondeuse Blanc; thus leading to Lagier-Meredith planting Mondeuse Noir, “Syrah’s crazy uncle,” as the couple call it), how she helped successfully find the original vine and homeland of America’s pride, Zinfandel (it’s the Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski). But when Lagier comes back inside from clearing a tree that’s collapsed from a winter storm, he brings up an accomplishment Meredith hasn’t discussed yet. “Did she tell you about her paper in SCIENCE?”

“We were talking about ZInfandel.” Meredith responds. The Zinfandel discovery was significant for how it brought together people in the United States, in Italy (Primitivo is also of the same original grape vine), with researchers in Crotia. But also because the discovery that Zinfandel comes from the motherland of Croatia actually helped improve tourism to the region, showing that wines and their history from there could deserve respect for higher quality than previously expected internationally. The Zinfandel discovery also stands as significant, however, because it was Meredith’s final large project before retiring to focus on the Lagier-Meredith wine label.

The grape Zinfandel had long been suspected of having International origins. It’s a plant with visible characteristics unlike those native to North America, so it must have been brought in from elsewhere. But at the same time it’s wine history so shaped California it had become the adopted champion of a country’s pride. After completing the research that led to Zinfandel’s proper naming, Meredith had also reached the early cutoff for potential retirement. Ready to shift to their wine label, she stopped her commute from Mt Veeder to Davis, making Crjenak Kaštelanski her genetic’s career swan song, effectively leaving at the top of her genetics game.

Lagier agrees the Zinfandel discovery was significant, but it’s the paper in SCIENCE he wants to make sure I know before we finish our first interview. Meredith’s work on grape relationships led to the discovery that Pinot Noir and Goulaise Blanc together parent at least 16 grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligote, Gamay, and Melon. The conclusion was celebrated not only because of its scientific importance, but also because with such popular varieties considered, the discovery becomes relevant beyond the walls of science to other disciplines as well. Lagier looks at me directly and explains, “It was one of the proudest moments for me that my wife got a paper in that magazine. It’s like the Grand Slam of science. It brought tears to my eyes.” Doing a little bit of research, it appears Meredith is the only professor in the history of Davis’s Viticulture & Oenology program to have gotten a paper in the prestigious magazine.

The Beginning of a Wine Label

They make wine and olives

By Meredith’s retirement, Lagier was already working full-time on their label, having retired from Mondavi in 1999. His time at the company was significant, as he managed the Mondavi winery lab, established their first program to track and determine projected fruit availability from the vineyards, and then served as one of the Mondavi Coastal brand winemakers.

Though Lagier and Meredith had intended all along to plant vines on their hilltop, it took years before they realized they could turn that fruit into a bonded winery. Upon purchasing the property, it had to be thoroughly cleaned and cleared to rid the soils of Oak root fungus that would impact Vitis Vinifera. Once the seven years to accomplish that were up, the twosome placed their first vines in 1994. The year before, one of Meredith’s students, Jean-Louis Chave, the 15th, of Hermitage fame, had agreed the property would be perfect for planting Syrah as “Syrah loves a view.”

The grape was unheard of in Napa Valley at the time, with the pinnacles of the industry almost completely focused on the success of Cabernet Sauvignon. But the pair love Rhone wine and decided to plant what suited the slope and cooler climate of the site, as well as their palate interest. 1996 was their first press. By 1998 friends were commenting enthusiastically on the quality of wine, and the couple realized it was good enough they could consider selling it publicly. In 2000 they released it, inciting quick response that would herald them as one of the first labels in the region to showcase a marriage of French Aesthetic with California fruit.

I ask Lagier about this critical history of their wine, and if they’d intended to make wines that allude to the Northern Rhone. “There are hints of a Northern Rhone character in some of our vintages.” he responds. “To say more than that is just complete speculation.” He continues. “That was not our goal. Our goal was to reduce our influence on the wine, to capture the character of the fruit from here and get it into bottle. We’re just pleased this place makes this wine, and people enjoy it, which allows us to make a living. So pleased.” He pauses, then continues. “I do enjoy the hell out of the wine. Both of us feel incredibly blessed we found this land, and managed to pull this off.”

Thank you to Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith for taking so much time to meet with me. I have plenty more moose meat whenever you’re ready.


To read more on Zinfandel, Carole’s work on its genetic history, and Lagier-Meredith’s foray into making it, read the recent article by Jon Bonné:

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Historic and Quality Wine at Best’s Great Western

The Gold Rush hit Victoria, Australia in the 1850s bringing incredible wealth through the region, as well as increased settlements and immigration. With the larger population other services were also required. Brothers Joseph and Henry Best worked as butchers, supplying meat to the region. However, as the gold supply started to wain, so did the demand for food businesses. Not everyone that rushed for gold stayed.

Joseph and Henry had befriended a French pair, Troutte and Blampied, growing vines sourced from the original Busby collection brought into Australia in 1833 from France and Spain. The Busby collection is considered one of the most diverse, and serious of the various waves of vine imports to the country. Turning to the offer of fate, the Best brothers decided to take up a new industry both to themselves and the region of Great Western. The district had had some small early success in planting vines, but it was not yet thoroughly developed.

In the late 1860s, each brother purchased property on which to root their vines. While Joseph’s vineyards later moved into corporate ownership (a small number of these original vines remain but they are blended in with other wine. Most were pulled for the sake of production levels.), Henry Best’s vineyards remain intact, owned by the same family, the Thompsons, that bought the land originally following Henry’s death in 1920.

The original nursery block at Best's, planted in 1866

In the 1860s, Henry planted 39 varieties over 22 hectares. The types were planted side by side on own roots, and left to discover which would best succeed in the conditions of the Best property. Incredibly, those same plantings exist today in what is known as Best’s Nursery Block. The winery also bottles both a white and red field blend from the Nursery Block, available at the Cellar Door.

8 of the varieties present in the Nursery Block remain unidentified. The Thompson family has allowed genetic samples of the original plantings to be taken in order to accurately name the grape types. However, even with extensive research and genetic matching attempts, eight of the vines remain unknown.

I find these 8 vines mind blowing–no one knows where they originated, or how prevalent they may have been elsewhere when first brought to Australia. They represent a small glimmer into the indiscernible element of wine’s past. The field blend wines from the Nursery Block are both strange and wonderful to taste, offering a lightness of foot while also hard to grasp flavors. In both cases, I enjoyed the delicate while rustic aromas offered through a lighter-side-of-medium bodied wine.

Today genetic researchers still regularly request cuttings and study of the Best’s Nursery Block, as the isolation of the plantings, as well as the integrity they show with age (pre-phylloxera plantings on their own roots) make them a unique library of information.

Some of the nursery vines

close up of vines from the 1860s Nursery Block

In 1867 and 1868 the Thompson Family Block was established, fifteen rows of dry farmed, own rooted Shiraz planted in sandy loam. Those plantings exist today and are still bottled, when possible, in a separate Thompson Family Shiraz.

They grow everything here (and old)

Best also identified what are now known as Dolcetto and Pinot Meunier as appropriate matches to the region. As a result, the vineyards include a block of Pinot Meunier from 1867, also dry farmed. In 1971, cuttings were taken from the Pinot Meunier portion of this block and established as what they now call the “Young Vine” Pinot Meunier vineyard.

Going through the Pinot Meunier block, 15% of the historic vines turn out to be Pinot Noir. In 1868, some of the Pinot Noir was planted in a block now bottled as Best’s “Old Clone.”  At the time of planting, the vine was simply understood as an unidentified Burgundian clone.

In 1869, a 12-row block of Dolcetto was also established, though the vine was not well known at the time, today still intact on their own roots as planted. However, the juice from these wines is generally blended with fruit from 1971 plantings established from the original vines.

Nursery block field blend

a glimpse of the 1860s Nursery Block field blend–white in front, red in the distance

By 1870, the Best Vineyard had established 48,000 vines. The Thompson family has worked to preserve the genetic lineage of their unique site in multiple ways. Cuttings have been taken from each of the nursery block plants and established in a new location with the same basic layout. Similarly, young blocks of the original Pinot Meunier and Shiraz have also been established.

Looking over the Shiraz Vineyards at Best's

The vineyard plantings outside the Nursery Block are known as the Concongella Block, named for the river that neighbors the property. Best’s Great Western Concongella site showcases the characteristics of the region–a more continental climate, considered cool climate, but with warmer days, while still cool nights that allow both a ripeness of flavor and vibrant acidity, also allowing dry farming. The Eucalyptus of the region sneak their flavor into the reds but without being overwhelming. The soils help generate what I think of as melt away tannins–they are present in the mouth, and their effect is sustained on the palate, while being more crumbling than grippy or aggressive. This type of tannin seems characteristic of the Great Western district.  The old barn now the tasting room

The Best’s winery site showcases its history as well. An old work building now serves as the tasting room, or cellar door entrance. The facility allows visitors to take a self-directed tour of the historic aspects of the winery as well, many of them still functioning.

historic bottlings in the historic cellar

In the underground sections older bottles line the walls. The facility includes a complete vintage library going back to 1960.

Large tanks in the historic cellar

large size tanks throughout the historic cellars are used for aging reds before release

The crazy cap to the fermenting room

On the top floor of the historic winery a cap appears in the floor. When you then go downstairs the reason for the cap is revealed. The original cellar housed a massive, rounded room-size fermenter dug into the earth itself. A door has now been cut into the fermenter allowing it to be visible from below (there is no good way to get a picture of it). At the turn of 1800s into the 1900s, wine was made in the room-size fermenter by first lowering a man on a rope through the cap. He would use a large candle to line the entire room with wax. Then the grapes were put directly into the room to ferment in the massive vat underground. Standing inside of it, the room has intensely strange acoustics that make it uncomfortable to remain inside for very long. As a result, the fermenter is now used primarily for storage and display. Guessing, it was at least 20 ft deep, and about 15 ft across.

A bottle of 1976 vintage Pinot Meunier from 1876 vines, still intact

Inside the fermenter years ago some old bottles were found left there and forgotten about as storage materials. One of these was a 1976 Pinot Meunier made from the 1867 planting, which we were able to open. Later we also drank one from 2002, and tasted from the current vintages of Old Vine (planted in 1878), and Young Vine (planted in 1971) Pinot Meuniers. Pinot Meunier is one of my favorite grapes. These were lovely wines. (Thinking of them makes me feel dreamy.)

Best's Shiraz line up

Best’s makes a range of wines, but their central focus is on Shiraz. The Bin 1 bottling serves as the labels work horse with the highest production level, and the greatest overall accessibility. It’s a wonderfully juicy, rich flavored wine. The Bin 0 brings together a blend of the older vineyards, including those planted in 1966, and 1970. The Thompson Family bottling is made from the 15 rows originally planted in 1867, when possible. On years when the fruit from these rows is not appropriate for single vineyard bottling it is blended into Bin 0.

The overall quality of Best’s Great Western wines is solid, with a healthy balance between interesting, pleasurable flavors, and fantastic structure. I like the ruggedness that can be found in the older vine bottlings, but the juicy freshness of Bin 1 is impressive and enjoyable. These are well priced, quality wines. It is also a genuine honor to first visit vines of such age and grace, and then drink their wines. Thank you.


Thank you to Jonathan Mogg and David Fesq.

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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.

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Meeting Ian and June Marks

Ian and June Marks

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

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

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

This vintage marks their 30th anniversary.

The Marks’ Story

Ian Marks, Gembrook Wines

Ian Marks

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

“On the weekends,” June adds.

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

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

From the top of Gembrook Hill

from the top of Gembrook Hill

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

Gembrook Hill still whites

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

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

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

Tasting Gembrook Hill Wines

Gembrook Sparkling Blanc de blancs

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

Gembrook Hill Pinot Noir

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


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

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


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

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

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


George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, July 2012

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla, Friulano vineyard

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

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

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

John Kongsgaard Starts the University

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from Radikon and Gravner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing Skins: the practice moves to California

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Texture: Pax Mahle experiments

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


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

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

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


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

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


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