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There's an exciting new generation of winemakers and vine-growers in California! These winemakers have worked all over the world gathering inspiration, and are both rooted in an "Old World" sensibility and unafraid of experimentation. They firmly believe that each California vineyard or appellation has something unique to say, just as do vineyards across France or Italy. Together their efforts are swinging the pendulum away from wines that are super ripe, enrobed in oak flavors, and back towards a more restrained style with as little added or subtracted as possible. Evan Lewandowski, winemaker of Ruth Lewandowski, puts it rather eloquently when he says "if we've done our jobs farming the wine, we have nothing to be afraid of in the cellar. With balanced fruit and clean practices, we're afforded confidence in the balance of microbial life and that the right organisms will do the right thing and carry out this near alchemical transformation from base grape to purified liquid."
These folks are on a mission to support organic and/or biodynamic farming practices in a region that is rife with irrigated, fertilized, and over-plowed vineyards. I was particularly impressed with Megan Bell of Margins Wines for deliberately seeking out vineyards that are close to, or could viably be, farmed organically and creates a contract with the growers to convert their practices. Her Mourvèdre from Santa Clara is an interesting expression of a grape we see so often as a full-bodied and very structured. This bottling tells the tale of the Sattler's Vineyard whose extreme temperature fluctuations leave this wine with only 10.4% ABV while still having juicy, ripe fruit.
Chris Walsh of The End of Nowhere has a similar mission in Amador County. After moving away to New York City, and inadvertently falling in love with the wine industry, he returned to his hometown and purchased 20 acres of land where he planted a vineyard that he farms organically. While he waits for his own vines to mature he makes wine from purchased fruit from farmers he has worked with in the past and respects. In the cellar he uses spontaneous fermentation, only low doses of sulfur, and never fines or filters the wines. The result is an exuberant showcase of the Sierra Foothills including this bright, herbaceous Verdejo from Clarksburg.
California is no longer just a home to big, buttery, fruit-centric wine (and hasn't been in quite some time). If you have been hesitant to try something new from the Sunshine state, consider this your personal invitation to check out these diverse and fascinating new wines. Michelle DeWyngaert
Winemaker Chris Walsh is able to source fruit from several high-quality, organically farmed vineyards in and around the Amador County area to make his low-intervention wines. The 'Space Oddity' is a refreshing bottling of Verdejo from the Heringer Vineyard in Clarksburg which is currently in conversion to organics. What makes this bottling so interesting is the blend of techniques used. One third of the grapes are fermented on the skins until dryness, 1/3 with the skins for just 12 hours, and 1/3 directly pressed which give this wine a beautiful texture on the palate. The nose is clean and herbaceous; a mix of sage and fresh grass with a bit of ocean breeze, and the palate is crisp and lemony with the sea breeze translated to a creamy, salty finish. Michelle DeWyngaert
Drew Family Cellars was established in 2000 with a mission to create age-worthy, cool climate California Pinot Noir. They settled in the coastal appellation of Mendocino Ridge and planted their own estate in what was once an orchard, at 1250ft elevation. This bottling is a blend of fruit from their organically farmed estate and lots from like-minded farmers at the Valenti, Fashauer, Perli, and Wendling vineyards. The grapes are fermented with 20% whole-cluster bunches and aged in 10% new French oak, with the rest in neutral oak barrels. The nose is fully ripe, wild cherry, with a bit of stewed red fruit, licorice and dried herbs. The proximity to the coast and the abundance of fog keep the acidity well balanced with the richness of the fruit and that kiss of new French oak. MichelleDeWyngaert
Margins Wine is a really exciting project from Megan Bell in Northern and Central California. Megan's mission is to find vineyards who are close to, or working towards becoming fully organic and create incentives for their transition. This bottling is 100% Mourvedre from the Sattler's Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley. Though there was one pass of Roundup used during this growing season, the Sattler's have committed to fully transitioning to organic farming by 2020 because of their agreement with Margins Wine. The wine is bright and juicy, pleasantly candied on the nose, but surprisingly more savory on the palate with notes of umami, salted plum and dried herbs. As it was a cool growing season in 2018 the grapes retained significant acidity and the wine fermented to a pleasant 10.4% ABV making this a perfectly chillable red and a great food pairing. Michelle DeWyngaert
'Honeymoon' is a delightful blend of 85% botrytized Colombard, and 15% Chardonnay leaving this wine ever so slightly off-dry (just 2g R/S). The Colombard comes from 70+ year old vines in the certified organic, dry-farmed Ricetti Vineyard, and the Chardonnay is sourced from the practicing organic Hawkeye Vineyard, both in Redwood Valley, CA. The nose is reminiscent of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc with notes of honey, spiced apple compote and chamomile. On the palate it's even a little savory with a bit of white button mushroom and golden raisins. This wine is a perfect pairing for Thai food, but I look forward to seeing this evolve with a few years in the cellar! Michelle DeWyngaert
This vintage of Nero d'Avola is a blend of two Mendocino vineyards; 14 year-old vines in Benson Ranch Vineyard and 33 year-old vines, the oldest in the state, in Fox Hill Vineyard. Martha Stoumen was inspired by her time working with COS in Sicily when she sought out these inland vineyards with Nero d'Avola. The nose is a compelling mix of damp soil, dried savory herbs and black cherry, and on the palate is nice balance of tannic tension and acidity with notes of black currant and plum, finishing with a lingering taste of amaro and medicinal herbs. Pair this with something briny like a puttanesca sauce! Michelle DeWyngaert
After tasting a lineup of Enfield Co. wines it was easy to see why winemaker John Lockwood is so enamored with this bottling. The Pretty Horses is a co-fermentation of 90% Tempranillo, largely from the Shake Ridge Vineyard, and a bit of Graciano and Pinot Noir to keep this wine a bit lighter on its feet. This wine is made to be enjoyed young and often, though I suspect it has the substance and structure to evolve over the next few years in the bottle. The nose is a savory mix of tobacco leaf, ripe purple plum, stewed raspberry, a touch of smoke and charcuterie. The palate has a nice richness with velvety tannins, but does not feel the least bit heavy. This will make a versatile food pairing for anything from BBQ pork to eggplant parmigiana. Michelle DeWyngaert
The 'Boaz' is a blend of old-vine Carignan, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Testa Ranch planted in 1912. The grapes are fermented together as whole clusters, and then aged in neutral barriques. The wine is made without additives, including SO2, and as with all of the Ruth Lewandowski wines, it is unfined and unfiltered. The winemaker describes this wine as "burly," but "acid-driven and focused."
The 'Naomi' is a 100% Grenache Gris from Gibson Ranch in Mendocino from the oldest known vines of the grape in California; planted around 1900. These ancient vines grown in mineral-rich, gravelly loam soils impart intense flavor to this richer, textural white.
The 'Elimelech' is 100% Riesling from Cole Ranch in Mendocino. Cole Ranch is one of the smallest AVA's in North America, a monopole planted in the 1970's. The high elevation, ~1500ft, keeps the temperature down, and the property gets a solid amount of rain so the vineyard is completely dry-farmed. These conditions, coupled with the warmth of the California sun, led to this bold, 14%ABV dry Riesling that the winemaker describes as, "flashy, fleshy, and flamboyant."