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Considering California Sparkling Wine

Michael CruseMichael Cruse at Cruse Wine Co. smelling his pet-nat Valdiguie, November 2014

“We really want to make a California sparkling wine with all that entails,” Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co, and Ultramarine sparkling wine, tells me. All it entails includes the ripe fruit flavors characteristic of California’s sun, a feature that historically has tended to work against quality sparkling wine in the state.

California sparkling wine remains a difficult category. The California conundrum of too much sun and not enough acidity has so far largely kept it from achieving the balance and brightness in the glass wine geeks love. It’s never achieved the respectability Champagne immediately garners, and wine lovers rarely brag about it.

However, in recent years a shift has been happening. Boutique size wineries all over the state have begun popping open small scale sparkling projects. Last year the Pet-Nat craze coming from France began taking over California wineries.

Pet-Nat style sparkling wine seems more do-able for small production wineries. The approach offers the advantage of far less intervention, little equipment, and far less time to get those bubbles in the bottle than methode traditionnelle style wines. You can turn around a pet-nat wine in as little as a year, versus the several years required by the other approach. But most pet-nat bottlings remain incredibly hard to find. One of the tastiest versions to come from California last year, J. Brix 2013 Cobolorum sparkling riesling, for example, only had 17 cases made. It’s hard to start a quality revolution with such small numbers.

At the other side of the category, methode traditionnelle (that is, the same method used to make champagne) examples rely on far more input from the producer. Thanks to the work and expertise required, many of today’s champenoise style sparkling wines found in the state are made by large scale wineries. Such wineries do successfully churn out bottles but most California examples blend grapes from multiple locations producing wines with the state’s clear fruit expression but little character.

In reality, California has had little of its own sparkling tradition. The closest we’ve come was with the work of Paul Masson on the cool slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Masson’s work with California sparkling wine brought international attention to the category. He was able to continue his work through Prohibition selling his wines for sacrament and medicinal purposes, but after Masson’s retirement, his vineyards shifted to still wine production.

The difficulty with sparkling wine rests in its technical elements. Elevating the category truly to the level of fine wine depends upon an expertise grown not just from transferring knowledge but also in hands on experience. Even the apparently approachable style of pet-nat suffers at the same point it gains popularity. While it seems far easier to make, in truth making clean pleasurable versions depends upon yeast health, numbers, and viability that doesn’t consistently come from simply throwing wine in the bottle.

The improvement of any craft depends on a sense of critical mass intersecting with critical brilliance. Critical mass offers the foundation of interest to support development of knowledge and maintain its momentum. Critical brilliance brings together creativity with the backbone of experience to give it traction. For California sparkling wine, the coalescing of all these elements brings the opportunity of elevating the category to a level that truly means fine wine.

Enter Michael Cruse.

Tasting with Michael Cruse

Michael CruseDiscussing Methode Traditionnelle w Michael Cruse in front of his 2010 Ultramarine Sparkling Wine, Nov 2014

Though it’s only just starting to be released this month, Cruse’s sparkling label, Ultramarine, has already achieved a kind of cult status. That’s saying something as he explains not more than twelve people have even tasted it yet. From those twelve, however, its secured distribution through California, as well as within the tricky New York market.

Cruse’s cult status rests not only in the wine itself, but also his perhaps still hidden influence. Thanks to the underdeveloped history of California sparkling, few in the state could be considered consultants in the category. Those few with the knowledge tend to be secured by larger houses. With Cruse’s experience and custom crush facility, Cruse Wine Co., he’s become the go-to sparkling winemaker for several well-respected clients throughout the state. Over the next several years, sparkling projects Cruse has helped give focus will begin appearing across California.

Finding a Passion for Sparkling

Cruse’s path hasn’t always pointed towards sparkling wine. With an undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellar Biology, emphasizing Biochemisty, from UC Berkeley, Cruse was certain he’d continue to a PhD. Stepping into research through labs at Berkeley, and UCSF, while also publishing, his path to graduate work seemed certain. Then something changed. He began to recognize others he met doing post-docs in science proved unhappy. Over time, the shift in perspective meant he began wondering if he could apply his love for lab work in another field.

“It took into my mid-20s to realize I could get paid for a real job.” Cruse laughs. Working through a formal education includes its disadvantages. Students rarely or barely earn money during their degree training. Then continuing into academic life, researchers learn to sustain themselves through minimal pay while doing loads of unpaid research under the umbrella of advancing their expertise and education. But for the curious, that same environment supports their passions.

“What I love about academia is that no one is ever telling you that isn’t how you should be spending your time,” Cruse explains. “People are always studying, writing, researching, working on something. I had a lot of kinship with that kind of work.”

When Cruse did make the leap out of academia, the transition wasn’t immediately easy. “Moving into a regular job as a lab oenologist,” Cruse tells me, “I would have night terrors because I didn’t know what to do with my brain.” The continuous problem solving of a research laboratory differed from the more repetitive work in a wine lab but the challenge of the transition eventually led him to his work with sparkling wine.

The mechanics of Cruse’s research work rested in reviving lab techniques established in the 1980s, but forgotten by the end of the last century. “I was in the library,” Cruse says, “looking at transcripts and papers from the 1980s figuring out how they were doing their work so we could apply it.” The library research provided solutions where lab knowledge otherwise failed. Such a lesson eventually became the salve for his night terrors as well.

While transitioning from oenologist, into cellar work, and then to assistant winemaker for red wine wineries, Cruse got curious about sparkling wine. Doing library research on old methods, then applying them to sparkling home wine experiments became his after work project.

“I was in the library looking at books from the 1880s, from before people had these [contemporary winemaking] machines to see how they made sparkling wine.” He explains. In 2010, he would make his first bonded California sparkling wine, the current release Ultramarine.

Natural and Sparkling?

Michael CruseMichael Cruse discussing site and technique, Nov 2014

Through his still table wines, and pet-nat Valdiguie for Cruse Wine Co., it looks easy to describe Cruse’s work as happily fitting with the family of natural wines. He avoids additives, doesn’t cold stabilize, and minimizes or avoids sulfur when the wine will remain stable.

His unsulfured Cruse Wine Co. 2014 Pet-nat Valdiguié is made with an interest in affordability put alongside admirable vineyards. Tasting it, the wine proves to be the cleanest example I’ve tasted of a new world pet-nat, all rose blossom aromatics cut with a leafy, herbal freshness that fills the palate through a delicate foam.

Indeed, with Ultramarine too, relying on older texts as he did, also bolstered his more minimalist approach to winemaking. But there he becomes reticent to describe his approach as natural.

“Sparkling wine is a very techniques driven wine,” he explains. He’s referring to making wine through methode traditionnelle. “Whether you agree with a natural wine approach or not, you’re going to use the same technique.” For Ultramarine, Cruse avoids additives, cold stabilization, and innoculation as well.

“But am I going to use a riddling aid? Yes. Will I add dosage? Yes. A dash of sulfur at disgorgement? Yes. Trying to claim sparkling is a natural wine becomes a stretch.” Still, the wine is undoubtedly unique — single vineyard, single vintage with each bottle hand riddled, and disgorged. When I push him he finally responds, “I guess you could say we’re minimalist.”

Finally, I ask him to further explain his earlier comment about California sparkling wine with all it entails.

“For me, I want the wine to be noticeably California. That doesn’t have to be flamboyantly fruity.” He explains. “It is intense, and flavorful, and strong. That is the site.” He says. It’s an answer that exemplifies the quiet humility he somehow couples with certainty.

Inspired by the grower producers of Champagne, Cruse focuses Ultramarine production on fruit only from the Charles Heintz Vineyard. It’s a site he believes offers exceptional farming for sparkling wine.

The lemon curd and pastry elements of the bubbles resemble flavors found in still chardonnays familiar to lovers of the vineyard. But the graceful long finish, and cut mineral edge speak to a fine wine elegance brought by the hands of its producer. And there we discover the California balance of Michael Cruse.

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To sign up for the Ultramarine mailing list: http://www.ultramarinewines.com/joinus/

For more on Cruse Wine Co.: http://www.crusewineco.com/

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Next Wednesday‘s column here: “In Defense of Natural Wine.” Post update: Wednesday Nov 12 article will post Thursday Nov 13 due to travel delays.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

1

Harvesting the Ricci VIneyard St Laurent, Carneros

Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines champions unusual grape varieties, from uncommon appellations made in small lots, each described by him appropriately as “another rare creature.” One such example, his Ost-Intrigen, arises from 90 vines of St Laurent planted in the Ricci Vineyard of Carneros. With so few vines, Rorick harvests the fruit himself, rather than hiring a picking crew.

As some of you know, I have been following Rorick’s work with the St Laurent, visiting the harvest last year, barrel tasting it pre-bottling, and speaking about the wine on a panel when Rorick was unable to do so due to the 2013 harvest starting surprisingly early.

Starting his work with the Ricci Vineyard St Laurent in 2006, Rorick was able to encourage Dale Ricci to expand the planting of the fruit two years ago to several hundred more vines. 2013 is the first year the newer vines will be ready to harvest effectively tripling his Ost-Intrigen production. Though they grow directly beside the original 90 vines, the younger plants are progressing through ripening more slowly than the originals.

Monday of this week Rorick and his team, Alex Athens and Julia van der Vink, picked the original 90 vines. Following are photos from the harvest, and the prep work done afterwards at the winery. Harvesting St Laurent

The Ricci Vineyard welcomes daily morning fog from the cooling influence of San Pablo Bay. The moist environment challenges growers with potential mold issues, with botrytis setting in early some years. At the same time, the cooler conditions serve the Austrian red grape, St Laurent, by discouraging too-fast ripening and heat damage.

Harvesting St Laurent

The original 90 vines grow side by side in two rows.
from left: Matthew Rorick steps in to harvest one row while Alex Athens and Julia van der Vink begin harvest on the other.

Harvesting St Laurent

The St Laurent is among Forlorn Hope’s last fruit to pick this year. The younger vines are still approaching their harvest point, and will be brought in later. Rorick is also awaiting harvest of his Alvarelho, the fruit for his popular Suspiro del Moro, out of Lodi.

Harvesting St Laurent

The site offered incredibly healthy fruit this year, with great size consistency. In previous years the vines have suffered loss of fruit both from poor early fruit set, and extensive shot berry, with the smaller berries simply falling off at harvest. The 2013 harvest offered beautifully consistent fruit size.

Harvesting St Laurent

long morning shadows fall over Alex Athens and Julia van der Vink as they harvest

Harvesting St Laurent

looking into the healthy 2013 Ricci Vineyard St Laurent clusters

Harvesting St Laurent

Matthew Rorick picking his St Laurent (i love this photo)

Preparing the St Laurent for Fermentation, Tenbrink Winery, Suisun Valley

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

Back at Rorick’s Tenbrink Winery (which he shares with the Tenbrink family and Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project) Monday’s St Laurent pick weighed in at 969 pounds (not including the macrobin).

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

Rorick’s preferred approach for the St Laurent fermentation begins when the fruit is scooped whole cluster into a neutral oak puncheon for fermentation. The puncheon allows all of the fruit from the 90 vines to ferment in one environment, with some textural influence, but no flavor influence from the wood.

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

Small amounts of dry ice were layered into the fruit to help slow the initial fermentation stages and increase the carbon dioxide (CO2) environment around the grapes. By increasing the CO2, Oxygen levels are reduced thereby also slowing the chances of any aerobic bacteria activity during cold soak or fermentation.

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

For Rorick’s approach, while the fruit is fed into the puncheon it is also foot tred lightly to break up some of the berries and allow juice to come in contact with the rest of the bunch. The method also keeps some berries intact, allowing fermentation to occur within the berry itself. Cooling the early temperatures of the fruit also extends soak time for the juice with its skins and stems, supporting more flavor and structure in the final wine without relying on over extraction.

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

2013 shows a lot more juice from the larger berry size, with still pretty red cherry and spice notes. Rorick brought the fruit in this year around 22 brix.

Preparing the St Laurent for ferment

After preparing the fruit it was covered to maintain the CO2 environment. Rorick also names each individual ferment to make it easier to communicate with his team about which ferments need to be tested and how each is doing (and cause it’s fun. duh.). After spending the day with Matthew, Alex, and Julia, I walked into the winery to discover they named their original vine St Laurent ferment after me. hee! (Dear Lord, I hope I behave.)

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To see last year’s St Laurent harvest photos:

http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/17/harvesting-california-st-laurent-matthew-rorick-and-forlorn-hope-wine/

To see the barrel tasting preview post on the Ost-Intrigen:

http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/06/18/forlorn-hope-2012-st-laurent-a-preview/

To see a goofy photo series of running around Alaska with Forlorn Hope and Dirty & Rowdy:

http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/08/14/how-to-live-alaska-with-forlorn-hope-dirty-rowdy/

***

Thank you to Matthew Rorick.

Thank you to Julia van der Vink, and Alex Athens.

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

3

Kelly Fleming Vineyards & Winery

Approaching Kelly Fleming Winery

approaching Kelly Fleming winery

In the Northern portion of Napa Valley, East of Calistoga, Simmons Canyon holds 12 acres planted to Cabernet at Kelly Fleming Vineyards & Winery. In 1998, Fleming purchased the then-undeveloped property selecting the blocks appropriate for planting. As she explains, she’d considered Oregon as well but she loves Cabernet, and both she and Cabernet love sun. North Napa Valley was the spot.

Kelly Fleming WInery

By 2003, Fleming was able to relocate to Simmons Canyon, also releasing their first vintage.

Summer wines from Kelly Fleming

The Kelly Fleming label focuses on Cabernet, sourced from the estate vineyards, but also makes Sauvignon Blanc from the Oakville region in a lighter, more mineral focused style. The 2011 offers a balance of textural interest with crispness and good juicy length. As of 2011, the label has also started producing a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon rosé captured during production of the red wine. The 2012 gave a smooth palate presentation with a fresh light focus on dried rose, and herbal touches. Pleasant.

Kelly Fleming reds

Alongside the 100% Cabernet program, the label produces a red blend meant to offer wine in a fun, flavorful style. To preserve brand clarity, the blend is offered under the Big Pour label. BIg Pour also offers the winery the opportunity to preserve the quality of the Cabernet program by selecting the best quality barrels, then integrating other barrels into Big Pour program. The Cabernet comes entirely from the Simmons Canyon property, and as a result has offered new insight into previously undeveloped ground. Fleming participates in blending trials and enjoys the shifts in vine maturity reflected through vertical tastings. As the vines have aged, the wines have shown more sophistication and age-ability. In 2012, the label made their first reserve wine.

Becky George barrel tasting

As Becky George, assistant winemaker, explained, 2012 was a unique vintage in terms of growing conditions, but some of the blocks simply showed a new level of maturity and prettiness they didn’t want to blend away into the Estate. The expectation is to find a similar effect with 2013, but they will decide on producing a Reserve once the wines have begun to show later in they year. Tasting through the wines in bottle and out of barrel, the character of the house maintains a focus on pretty while earthy elegance, a balance of plush flavors with graphite lines.

the friendly Martian tank fermenter

I was charmed by this little Martian tank fermenter. We’re going to hang out later.

Looking up over Block 3

The vineyards are organized into 4 blocks with 6 Cabernet clones on 5 different rootstocks, all surrounded by the walls of Simmons Canyon.

Block 3

The canyon gives an old alluvial fan, with boulders mixed throughout. In block-3 an old oak marries a large rock outcropping the team planted around.

Colleen and Kelly

Colleen and Kelly Fleming with their pups, Lesko and Sally (I love this photo)

Colleen and Kelly

Colleen has been working with her mom directing hospitality for the winery the last two years. The overall winery team is small, keeping the focus on a handful of people managing the operations.

Kelly showing me the almond trees

After visiting some of the vineyards, I asked if Kelly would show me her gardens, and bees. The hives are protected from canyon bears by a little electric fence-house and rests near a mix of forage acclimated to the site (rather than heavily watered). The honey from the site arises from a rotation of seasonal blossoms–almond and apple trees, Manzanita and Madrones, plus the vegetable garden. When we visited the bees were dancing through the flowers surrounding the vegetables as well, lavender and sunflower. Kelly harvests honey once during the year in Fall to ensure the bees have enough for winter. Here Kelly explains almond blossoms to almond fruit. It turns out the green husk is edible (dude) though the almonds were not yet ready.

sunflowers, my favorite

***

Thank you to Kelly Fleming, Colleen Fleming, and Becky George.

Thank you to Julie Ann Kodmur.

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

1

The Ribolla Gialla Seminar Year 4, 2013

As some of you know George Vare started what has become an annual tradition of tasting Ribolla Gialla from all of its regions with the focus of learning and improving quality of Ribolla made in California. Winemakers gather with devoted wine lover supporters to share in depth information about their picking and vinification choices. The group tastes the wine and discusses its successes and potentials for fine tuning.

Year 4 marks the first such celebration without George there to act as Master of Ceremonies for wine made from his 2 1/2 acre Ribolla Gialla planting. Though plantings of Ribolla in California are still under 7 total acres, the grape is slowly rooting in further locations. There are now 2 vineyards in Napa, 1 in Carneros, and another in Russian River.

Following are photos from the event held yesterday at the home of Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson. with love to George. with thanks to Steve and Jill. for friends. such a community of friends are these.

looking into bottles

looking into bottles

Nathan Roberts and son

Nathan Roberts, Arnot-Roberts, and son

Ryan Glaab

Ryan Glaab, Ryme

Matthew Rorick

Matthew Rorick, Forlorn Hope

Steve Matthiasson and Robbie Meyers

Steve Matthiasson and Robbie Meyers open Friuli Fest 2013

Robbie Meyers and Nathan Roberts

Robbie Meyers, Grassi Wine, discusses the 2012 Grassi Vare Ribolla Gialla and making wine with George Vare

listening

Dan Petroski

Dan Petroski, Massican Wines, discusses the 2012 Annia Ribolla Gialla blend, and working with both Vare Vineyard and Bowland Vineyard Ribolla Gialla.

Massican

Matthew Rorick

Duncan and Erin Meyers

Matthew Rorick

Matthew Rorick, Forlorn Hope Wines, discusses the 2011 Forlorn Hope Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla, 14-days on skins

Megan and Ryan Glaab

Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson

Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson, Matthiasson Wines, share their 2011 Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla, and 2010 Matthiasson Vineyard Ribolla Gialla

2 vineyards of Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla

Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts

Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts, Arnot-Roberts, share their 2012 4-hrs on press Vare Ribolla Gialla, and 2012 amphora Ribolla Gialla

Dan Petroski

Megan and Ryan Glaab

Megan and Ryan Glaab, Ryme Cellars, discuss their 2012 barrel sample, and 2010 bottling Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla

Johanna and Jack

California Ribolla Gialla

Grassi 2012 Vare, Massican 2012 Annia, Arnot-Roberts 2012 Press, 2012 Amphora, Matthiasson 2011 Vare, 2010 Matthiasson, Forlorn Hope 2011 Vare, Ryme 2010 Vare

Duncan Meyers

Thank you to Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson for hosting.

Thank you to the winemakers for sharing.

***

For previous posts in this series:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 1: Meeting George Vare: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-1-meeting-george-vare/

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: (A Life in Wine) George Vare, Friuli and Slovenia: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/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: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/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: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/14/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: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/29/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-5-russian-river-valley-ribolla-gialla/

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

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/05/01/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-7-the-matthiasson-vineyard-napa/

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

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

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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

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. Schoerner 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.

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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

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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.

Cheers!

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