For our most recent runaway-from-home excursion, we rented a cottage in Guerneville for a couple of nights.
A lovely place, reached by many steps, it was tree-house living at its most sophisticated. The owners clearly cared about furnishing it simply but beautifully — with lots of wood and original art and luxurious bed linens.
On a tiny deck, Rebecca noticed an old wine crate that could be commandeered as a table for coffee, tea or wine. It bore the name “Vichon,” a Napa winery that flourished in the late ’80s and early ’90s. You can still buy bottles of old Vichon cab, some for hundreds of dollars. (Mondavi acquired the winery and then closed it in 1996.)
What interested us particularly was the year printed on the crate — 1987 — and the alcohol content — 13 percent.
One of my pet peeves (yes, I know, you’ve read this rant in “Wineaux” several times) is the California winery that assures me the high alcohol — often 15 percent — has to do not with winemaking decisions but with the “terroir.” What they seem to mean is that California’s hot. (I always wonder if they’ve ever been to Italy, where low-alcohol wine is the norm — in July.) Were that true, how could Vichon make such acclaimed cabs at only 13 percent just 20 years ago? Yes, climate change is real, but, again, Italy? France?
Even Karen Culler (a UC Davis alum, of course), who made Vichon wines in its heyday is now making her own cabs — under the Casaeda label — at 14.2 percent. While this may be at the lower end of 21st century Napa cabs it’s significantly higher than her earlier efforts. Rather than global warming, I’m more inclined to blame it, in large part, on the “more and bigger is better” mentality and the fact that high-alcohol wines taste great on first sip and therefore win more prizes and higher scores than their subtler and more food-oriented siblings.
Happily — from my point of view — a few up-and-coming California winemakers agree with me.
One of them, whom I’ve mentioned several times, is Berkeley-based Chris Brocway. Rumor has it that if you don’t know what to do with some rows of weird grapes, the vines possibly abandoned for years, you call Chris. He loves the challenge of making wine from “marginal climate” grapes, especially those grapes that really had to struggle to survive because of steep slopes, less-than-ideal temperatures and lack of water.
When he gets hold of interesting grapes — almost always grown organically or biodynamically, he pitchforks them whole cluster into his fermenters and lets nature do its work. His 2010 Carbonic Carignane, for example, came from 120-year-old dry-farmed vines, and was made without yeast inoculation or additives. So far, I’ve had three of Chris’ red wines and loved them all. Only one exceeded 13 percent alcohol and that came in at 13.3 percent.
Chris, who studied at both UCD and Fresno State and worked for years at a commercial winery — clearly knows how to use commercial yeast and sulfur dioxide and new oak. As he says, “It’s funny — I’m an expert in all the things I don’t use.” If his wines don’t, for example, ferment in stainless steel or concrete, they go into decapitated five-ton wood casks he got free from Domaine Chandon (the larger and older the cask, the less oak flavor is imparted to the wine).
I concluded the last column with a teaser that I was thinking of joining an (unnamed) wine club, in fact, trying to decide between two. The first is Chris’ Broc Cellars, a wine club that’s only been going for a few months. But since Chris makes wine in such small batches, the whole first shipment has already sold out. I’m especially disappointed to have missed his lightly sparking wine made from picpoul grapes grown in a vineyard in Paso Robles. Shipment No. 2, though, is in the works.
The club offers three shipments a year (each costing a bit over $100), four bottles each, free tasting for members and guest, member-only events, and half off the winery’s annual summer party. Joining would not only guarantee me access to Chris’ small production wines but also support a great local wine project.
The other serious contender is Donkey and Goat, a small winery right down the street from Broc Cellars — an easy walk from the Berkeley Amtrak station. Owners/winemakers Tracey and Jared Brandt are equally committed to “natural” winemaking and lower alcohol. I tasted a fabulous Syrah there last week that came in at only 12.6 percent. Possibly the most exciting wine I’ve tried this year. I say “possibly” because its $40 price tag meant I wouldn’t be buying a bottle and thus subjecting it to the crucial Leonardi-Pope dinner test.
Wine club members receive a discount, but I’m inclined to put off a Donkey and Goat membership until next year, since several of the current releases — those from their El Dorado vineyards — came from grapes that the assistant winemaker admitted “got away from us.” The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the higher the sugar content and, eventually, the alcohol content will be. So they ended up with a higher alcohol content than they wanted. At about 14 percent, though, it’s still entirely moderate by California standards.
Both Broc Cellars and Donkey and Goat, by the way, were featured in Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine column the day before we visited.
I’m also encouraged by our very local winemakers who value food-friendly wines over make-a-splash fruit bombs. I mentioned a few months ago, for example, that Davis winery Sundstrom Hill’s latest reds are considerably lower in alcohol than their first releases.
And Bob Marr’s (Marr Cellars) latest Grenache at 13.3 percent is not only significantly down from his previous Grenache but is — to my mind and his — a much more elegant wine. Really delicious, in fact. You can buy it by the glass at Monticello ($10). And the Marr Cellars ’07 Zin, which came in at 16.1 percent, was followed by the ’08 at 14.4 percent — not “low” but quite a bit lower and reasonable for a Zin.
The Simas Family have been making low-alcohol wines since the beginning. My “house red” is the Simas Family ’09 Capay Red that’s 12.6 percent and a perfect partner for the vegetable and grain dishes that dominate my cooking and eating. (The ’08 — at 13.1 percent — is available at the Co-op for $11 and by the glass at Monticello. You have to get the ’09 from Bob Simas himself — [email protected]). And the Simas Mourvèdre, which sells for $14 at the Co-op, is 12.4 percent and excellent.
Nice work, Bobs.
Speaking of local wines, all four of the wines that Putah Creek submitted this year to the California State Fair won significant medals — two golds, two silvers and three “best of class of region.”
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com