Meeting with Mike Roth
Mike Roth and I are drinking wine at sunset. Behind him the hillsides are colored purple and ribbon clouds echo the color. We’re sitting outside though it’s January. The year has forgotten to turn cold and trees are already early-blooming in town.
Earlier this year, Roth changed directions. He stepped away from his role as winemaker at Martian Ranch. Under Roth’s direction, the label became a darling of the wine geek community, celebrated by Jon Bonné in both The San Francisco Chronicle, and his recent book The New California Wine. Roth’s style there revealed a focus on freshness, delicacy, lower alcohol levels, and the honesty of vintage variation.
The move has given Roth the opportunity for more time with his family, wife Karen, and boys Eli (11) and Oliver (8). It’s also pushed him into the chance to express his views of wine unhampered through his own singular project. Next month he will launch his own new label, Lo-Fi. The project brings Roth’s focus on freshness front and center, driven by his view that wine is what he calls “a proletariat drink,” a beverage meant for the masses.
Tasting Wine with Mike Roth
My goal in meeting with Roth is less to talk about his history as a winemaker — that story has been told — and more to develop a clearer sense of his palate. I ask if he’ll choose at least three wines he really loves for us to taste together, and talk about. I want to see his new project, Lo-Fi, through a broader framework — Mike Roth’s views of wine — and recognize it there.
I ask Roth to tell me how he started in wine, winding eventually to the story of our particular bottles. “I wanted to be a chef originally, so wine was still that taste kind of idea. I’m from New Jersey, and my mom is from Finland, so not really a hot bed for wine. I found it through food.” Roth’s original connection to wine shows in how he wants to enjoy it now as well.
In telling me how he chose our bottles, Roth first sets up the context. It’s not enough to tell me about each bottle. He wants me to understand where he’s coming from. Roth admits too that the bottles were less an idea of life long favorites, and more about what was appropriate for the evening.
As we taste along, we’ll be snacking with food. “I think of everything as accompaniments. I don’t drink a lot of wine on its own. If I just want alcohol I make myself a cocktail. I think of wine in terms of food,” he says. “I think wine is the ultimate condiment. It makes the food you eat taste better, the conversation more interesting, and the people you’re with more attractive.”
The Question of Beauty in Wine
We begin our tasting with a Loire Valley white made from one of the unsung grapes of that region — Francois Cazin’s Le Petit Chambord made from the grape Romorantin. “I thought with cheese and everything, the rillettes, it would be fun.” The wine tastes to me like Spring sun — bright and full on the palate, a touch musky still from rains, with a hint of sweetness leaning towards summer. It’s meant to get you excited for what’s to come.
We’re both quiet for a minute. “It has a neat kind of honey mushroom thing.” Roth comments. “It’s got that flinty, musty kind of character. That is different. It’s not the standard.” Roth reveals he originally found the Cazin in the midst of a Chenin kick. He purchased the wine assuming it was Chenin, then discovered something else inside the bottle. “The thing I like about Chenin is the same almost oxidative, nutty, musty, waxy character.”
The conversation about Cazin’s Le Petit Chambord rolls into a discussion of Roth’s thoughts on beauty. He refers to the 1970s and the then-common idea of an actress like Bo Derek as a beautiful standard. The point, Roth says, was that she was naturally beautiful. It was something in her uniqueness that elevated her aesthetic.
Roth then reveals his frustration. “When did the idea of beauty go from a real, natural beauty as the perfect 10 to the idea of beauty as perfection through plastic surgery? Wine in some ways has gone through a similar change — with a focus on perfection, and being too polished.” The result becomes a sea of wines that taste almost the same.
The discussion leads to Roth considering the idea of benchmarks in wine. A lot of California winemakers reference analogs in known regions such as Burgundy as a claim to legitimacy in their own approach. Doing so keeps the attention always elsewhere, instead of looking at what California can do. Roth returns the focus to California’s own history. It leads to discussion of his time in Napa Valley.
“I worked at Grgich, and at Saddleback. I am proud I learned from Gus and Nils. Grgich had this real idea of consistency. He made that 1973 Montelena in the Paris tasting. We could say he made that same wine in terms of quality every year.”
Winemaker Gus Brambila worked alongside Mike Grgich first at Montelena, then moved with him to Grgich. Roth worked with Brambila at the Grgich facility, inheriting insights from both mentors. In discussing the work of Brambila, I feel Roth fill with a sense of calm confidence. “As a winemaker in California, we can hold that up as a benchmark. I learned a lot there.”
I ask Roth what he learned through the experience. He returns again to the point of consistency, naming too Nils Venge at Saddleback, and Grgich Oenologist Gary Ecklin, then keeps his answer simple. “If you keep your cellar clean, you don’t have to add a bunch of things to your wines. Everything they did was so clean.”
The Peasant’s Beverage
We open the second wine, Cedric Chignard’s Fleurie Les Moriers. While Roth pours I ask him again about his self-espoused proletariat ideals. “I always wanted to work in a trade. My dad instilled that idea in me. I always thought, if you weren’t tired at the end of the day, you hadn’t worked. Wine is a craft, a trade. It captures that idea.”
We taste as he talks. The wine is a little tight on the palate but it carries that carbonic floral lift through the nose, and an easy juiciness. “A wine like this is meant to be thirst quenching and delicious.” Roth says. “I am not knocking people that want to drink or make show stoppers. I love fresh wine. It’s lower alcohol, and just has a kind of freshness to it. The idea that its just simple, but it’s better than water or soda.”
He smells the wine again, then continues. “I think the perceived pretentiousness of wine in this country goes against it being enjoyed as a beverage.” Roth says. “I like the idea that wine is a peasant’s beverage.” Roth references the history of winemaking in Europe. People that worked the land were often paid with a portion of the crop. Wine, then, was made in a workers’ back yard as a portion of their food for the year. The rustic simplicity of that Roth admires.
Keeping Wine Lo-Fi
Finally we open Roth’s own wine — an unlabeled bottle that’s been winking at me from across the table since we sat down. I tell Roth that the most thrilling thing to me is an unlabeled bottle of wine — who knows what treasure could be inside.
In venturing into his own project, Roth is beginning with a small production release to come out this winter under the name, Lo-Fi. The Lo-Fi wines he describes are classic to the aesthetic he’s revealed through his tasting — light touch winemaking, fresh focused, meant to be drunk young, affordable, for food. There is even a field blend, the ultimate expression of taking grapes as they are.
The Lo-Fi wine Roth has opened is his 2012 Carbonic Cabernet Franc from Coquelicut Vineyard, unsulfured, and made in neutral wood, then bottled by gravity. He makes sure the bottle is good then pours me some. As I taste I can feel Roth quietly smiling, that calm confidence glowing from him again. I nod about the wine, it still on my palate as I push it through with air. The wine is full of dark floral lift, and flowered herbs.
Roth nods back, “if you put it in a blind flight of Cab Franc, I don’t think you’d pick up that it’s a California wine.” It isn’t that Roth wants to deny the California piece. He celebrates benchmarks and possibilities of his state. It’s that he’s excited to have made something delicious that is also a bit surprising — Cab Franc, a grape of natural beauty.
Lo-Fi Wines will be releasing this winter in small quantities.
Thank you to Mike Roth for making time to share wines with me.
Thank you to Karen, Eli, Oliver, and Jason and Angela Osborne.
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