Californian Vin de Soif: An Interview with Chris Brockway

1/30/12 -

In a region where 15% alcohol is the norm, we consider a wine like Broc Cellars’ “Cuvée 12.5” (a reference to the alcohol content) a relief and a joy to drink. The first time we tasted the wine at CSW several members of staff raised their eyebrows and smacked their lips. Here was a Rhône-varietal red wine with cheeky acidity, vibrant fruit, a hint of saline mineral and low alcohol. It was time to talk to the Berkley-based negociant-winemaker, Chris Brockway, to find out how he makes wines that are refreshingly easy to drink.

CSW: How many growers do you work with?

BROCKWAY: I work with about ten different growers and about fifteen grape varieties. The vineyards stretch from Mendocino to Santa Ynez to the El Dorado Foothills

CSW: Where is your winery situated?

BROCKWAY: In the flatlands of West Berkeley.

CSW: How did you get such low alcohol, by California standards, in the “Cuvée 12.5”? 

BROCKWAY: The Syrah comes from a vineyard in the middle of the Santa Lucia Highlands, between Pisoni and Rosella's vineyards, both known for making bigger-style wines. I usually hang a slightly larger crop to get the energy dispersed to more clusters but I still pick weeks earlier than anyone picks their Syrah (or Pinot Noir).

CSW: How did you make the wine?

BROCKWAY: I chose not to use much whole cluster, maybe ten percent. I’m not a fan of whole cluster fermentation from Santa Lucia because it always comes out green to me. I de-stemmed into one large tronique (a tank that slants inward at a 7-10 % angle, some are more extreme if looking for more extraction by keeping more of the cap in contact with the juice) and one small stainless steel fermenter. I also added 6% Counoise for the spice and four percent Grenache for body.

CSW: We managed to get our hands on a few bottles of your 2010 “Whole Cluster” Cabernet Franc from Santa Barbara. This wine has caused some buzz, especially on the West Coast.

BROCKWAY: I feel like I got pretty lucky with this wine.The vineyard fell into my lap. Because it was such a cool year the producers dropped the vineyard – it wasn't going to get ripe enough for them, which was perfect for me. It has low extraction, low tannins, low alcohol (11.9%) and was done 100% whole cluster in 15 year old open-top tronique outside.

CSW: What is your stance on (and use of) sulfur?

BROCKWAY: I don't mind sulfur, I just don't add it as a part of a regimen. It doesn't seem to make much sense to add sulfur to a fermentation if you're trying to use native yeast as you're killing or subduing what you’re supposed to be using. If you have clean grapes it shouldn't be a worry.

CSW: Why the decision to let your wines ferment with native yeasts?

BROCKWAY: My first job in the wine business was with a winery that used up to ten different types of yeast, various bacteria strains, liquid enzymes, powdered tannins, and multiple types of nutrients. In 2005 I started to become disillusioned with the whole process. So for the 2006 vintage I decided to go it on my own, basically teaching myself to do the opposite of everything I learned. So I'm basically an expert in all things I don't do.

CSW: We urge our customers to try these wines and support delicious, low-interventionist wine-making in California!- P.G.

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