André Durrmann is a winegrower who is making wine from his old family house in the middle of Andlau, a beautiful village nestled on the first slopes of the Vosges mountains south-west of Strasbourg. A mere half an hour drive from downtown Strabourg, this village provides an immersion experience into the quiet Alsatian countryside, and as it is
less tourist-oriented than the wine-route hot spots of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, you have a
more authentic feel there.
André Durrmann took over the family winery in 1979 following the steps of his father and after a few years he has been exploring new ways to farm his surface, not only converting to organic but also doing things (-or not doing, in this matter) on the edge of permaculture, that is, leaving the ground unplowed and with all its grass, and training some of his vineyards on lyre for a better balance between the fruit load, the vines and the grass. He is now working on a total surface of 7 hectares.
His facility is not big, and he's having some interior remodeling done these days on the 17th century building so that the space can be optimized. The village houses have no underground cellars here because there's lots of water beneath, so the vinification rooms and cellars are on the street level. They work in two adjacent houses plus one on the other side of the narrow street and they live upstairs. These houses where he and his family are working were already registred in a plan dating from 1736 as being farm houses located outside of the Abbey of Andlau which was founded in 880 and protected by thick walls against invaders. Because of this abbey, viticulture and winemaking have of course very deep roots here.
Enderle & Moll is a fairly new winery set up by two young Germans in the Baden region, namely in the Black Forest foothills between Offenburg and Freiburg im Breisgau. Working from a 2-hectare surface, they're pretty isolated in the region regarding their approach to winemaking and viticulture,
choosing to let the vineyard live its life without fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and somehow taking parcels that
commercially-driven family wineries tend to abandon because of lower yields. On the cellar side they also work very differently from most of the trade around here, the wines are basically left by themselves uncorrected, including for the color of the Pinot Noir, and because of the striking difference with the "traditional" corrected wines of the area, they fearlessly bottle their wines as Deutscher Tafelwein (you understand German here, I guess) , an unprecedent rebellion in Germany. This reminds us of similarly demanding winegrowing work in France being rewarded by getting the supposedly-untouchable status of table wine (which has now almost become a blinker for real wines there).
I was tipped about Sven and Florian by my friend Surk-ki who runs the wine shop La Vincaillerie in Köln, thank you Sur-ki !
Münchweier is a charming village sitting on the first slopes of the Black Forest range, a region that mirrors Alsace's own Vosges foothills, and here like in Alsace the villages have deep winemaking roots, every old house having had in the past its own micto winery and tools. Some villages are particularly worth the detour, like Gengenbach a few kilometers north, a gem of a village where I used to go regularly (and occasionally drink wine) when I was living in Strasbourg a few years ago.
Cravant-les-Coteaux, Chinon (Loire)
The Domaine de l'R is a fairly new, it was founded by Frédéric Sigonneau in 2007, and it is already counted by Chinon amateurs among the ones where cabernet franc shines. Frédéric and his parents have been living next door to Bernard Baudry, he was by the way a childhood friend of Mathieu, Bernard's son. Frédéric, whose family owned vineyards but rented them to different wineries,
began to work at Patrick Baudry in 1997, staying two years
there until 1999. He then worked at Fabrice Gasnier, an organic (and now biodynamic) vigneron 4 km away. Then at the end of the wine school in 2002 he went to Spain where he stayed 2 years, working on biodynamicly-farmed ungrafted vineyards. Back in France, he had an interlude of 2 years working in a conventional domaine before setting up his own domaine in 2007. His wines, which were then still under the radar by the mainstream wine media, were discovered by Olivier Grosjean, an out-of-the-box French wine writer during his visit at the Salon d'Angers in 2009.
Cravant-les-Coteaux is a village located 8 km east of Chinon, at the foot of the hills running along the Vienne river. The AOC Chinon is spread over 19 villages and as of 2005, the AOC had 254 growers among which 238 wineries (221 domaines, 1 coop and 16 négoces). Chinon is of course Cabernet Franc country but the wines of the AOC are not always exciting when you source your bottles in the wine aisle of a supermarket. Happily, there is now a good number of wineries doing an excellent job at setting the bar high for what Cabernet Franc can offer.
This is a last story to make you dream. When we saw this place and the people who live there, I thought that if a movie director had put it on screen for a story I'd have found that a complete idealized fiction and too nice to be true. But it isn't fiction, here are
a man and a woman who live in an old stone/wood cabin (dating from the late 30s') in the California backcountry, living off their vegetables and without many common amenities like air-conditioning and TV,
This is in a remote corner of California (no further location details, no need to bother Jonathan and his wife with visitors), and if the property is fenced it's not to fight off paparazzi or crime but to keep wild animals from coming in and eating the vegetables they grow, because the region being very dry they wouldn't have much left if they didn't close their lot. The area seems to have been inhabited even before the first settlers came in, because they found stones that had the patterns of human work near this house, probably Chumash natives.
I didn't shoot more pictures of the house itself by discretion but it was a marvel of a rustic house in the wilderness, the large living room was, how to say, extremely simple and at the same time so welcoming and imbued with timeless beauty, that's how I imagine the house of an ermit (or a couple of ermits in that case) where you root back to the important things in life, peel off the useless gadgets and connect to mother nature.
There's still room for people to live their dream in the United States, and wandering into the backcountry of Oregon and California convinced me of this, although it's certainly true in other parts of the country from what my past travels taught me. The hippie era may be behind us, but this is the Land of the Free and there's lots of room, both geographically and in the national psyche, for non-conventional individuals who want to follow their own route.
This story will be again an ode the USFS, the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, which made it possible for us to camp in unique settings and a pristine
environment , in forests, lakes and wide expanses of wilderness. What I like in the USFS' web of campgrouds is that some of them are above radar, easy to
find through a web search (and often full in summer) while others
seem to be intentionally hidden from a superficial search, and you discover them only by daringly venturing deep into the given forests and wilderness, be they state managed, regional or national. Thanks to these unsuspected facilities, we found several times a place to stay at the last minute when every listed campground had the feared sign "campground full" at its door (weekends near the bay area or major cities for
example). We not only found unexpected vacancy in these discreet campgrounds (home at last!) but also havens of peace that would have been fully booked
if advertised some way or another on the Internet.
This story is also an ode to craft beer, as instead of wine we mostly had beer in the evening with our barbecue, and that was the opportunity
to sample the large choice of craft beer found now in the United States. It was hot and anyway for the same budget we'd have had a poor selection of wines, so beer made more sense. We'd buy routinely corn, vegetables, beer and beef in the evening and put it all in the styrofoam icebox in the back of the car, a deserved evening treat after a long road. Beef in America is much more tasty than what we get in a basic retail in France. Safeway was our main source, and I even took my first supermarket customer card here in the U.S. (I never took any in France in spite of the pushy cashiers), as the rebates are so important there, like 7,2, $ for a big piece of meat without the card (already a good value for the weight compared to what you'd get in France) and 4,3 with the card. Kudos to Safeway !
Camping is not only cheaper than motels, it's like an unfiltered, uncorrected drink, you get all the breeze, the smell of dew on the bushes and the positive vibes from the telluric depths, and it all makes for a great sleep in the midst of mother Nature. You can look back at those wonderful places and say, I was there, I was part of this magic. So, let's pack the camping gear into the car, put the music on, and take the road !
Santa Maria Mesa Road, Santa Maria, California
A last winery story in the U.S. (3rd week of july)
If Jim Clendened hadn't become the now-famous winemaker/owner of Au Bon Climat, he'd be a cook for sure, and certainly as successful. Here is a man who in spite of the charge to run a winery and make wines, prepares lunch for his staff almost every day, from what I understood, and
Jim Clendenen's lunch is indeed something you must have gone through at least once, because
it's at the same time a daily routine and a prized epicurian ritual for the visitors, be they other winemakers or journalists, in the sober setting of a winery facility and barrel cellar.
Before founding Au Bon Climat in 1982 with associate Adam Tolmach (who now runs Ojai), Jim Clendenen worked a few years at Zaca Mesa where Adam was a fellow employee.
Born in Ohio in a family that was not familiar with wine, he eventually moved to Santa Barbara, attending the University there. Getting to visit Bordeaux in a junior year, he discovered the wine world and came back in France in 1977, this time in Burgundy where winegrowers are closer to their land than in Bordeaux, and working on smaller surfaces. Back in California he worked at Zaca Mesa, then did the harvest in Australia and Burgundy, helped by Becky Wasserman for whom he realized the interviews of 40 prominent winemakers of the region (beginning with Henri Jayer), as he was fluent in French. He and Adam had a great time in Burgundy and it helped forge the winemaking culture that they'd put to work later in California.
Having tasted and loved the pinot noir of Au Bon Climat during a wine tasting event organized at the U.S. Embassy a few years ago, I wanted to see him here in California.
AmByth Estate is pretty unique in California, it's as far as I know the only winery making wine from estate vineyards that are 100 % dry farmed, that is, non-irrigated. Most vineyards in California have these black hoses underneath and the vines get a regular dose of water, even in some places that are not desperately dry, like this vineyard near Healdsburg (Westside road).
Considering the punishingly-dry climate in the area where AmByth is located, south of Paso Robles, this was quite daring. the Wikipedia page for Templeton designates the region as having dry summers, with the rain falling
between november and march and
tapering off almost completely by the en of april, temperatures going from 10-15 ° F (minus 9 °C) in winter and up to 115 °F (46 °C) in summer. This was indeed hot when this visit took place a few weeks ago in july, and walking through vineyards that hadn't the ubiquitous
drip black hoses was a very interesting experience.
Pioneers are passionate people whose drive is more passion than profit, and Philip Hart took
risks on his own funds to build this winery and plant these vineyards from scratch and without the security of dripping, but the resulting wines prove that he made the right bet.
Templeton (pic on left) is a small community located roughly between Santa Barbara and Monterey, 23 miles from the Pacific Ocean by road but much less as the crow flies. To quote the Expedia page again, Templeton will occasionally receive fog due to its proximity with the California Coastal Range, the Pacific Ocean, and the higher valley temperatures of Templeton itself : the differential in density between the warm rising air in the valley causes it to be displaced with the descent of the cooler marine air layer. This means that even though we're here in a hot area, there's a strong influence from cooler air and this has a positive effect on the vineyard.
We reached AmByth driving from Santa Barbara, and thanks to the GPS we found the remote corner of a valley where the property sits. As soon as we parked the car in the shade, we were greeted by Frederic whom I knew when he was still working at Champagne Krug, with whom I had kept in touch along the years, and who has been working here for a year. We refreshed ourselves with a glass of water in the shade, Philip Hart and his wife Mary were on a trip that week and Frederic Ballario was the one who would show us around.
Oak View is a small town located roughly between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, this is a very beautiful area, lots of hills and trees. This picture shot in the middle of the wine farms tells it all : simple, scattered buildings among the trees, the quietness under the scorching sun, and these sort of big fishing nets to provide some shade on what I call the open workspace and the press protected by a tarpaulin. A magic place.
Adam Tolmach who created the Ojai Vineyardis a relatively long-time player in
the California wine trade, he began to make wine with Associate Jim Clendenen in their common project, Au Bon Climat in 1982, both being trained in Burgundy, and then he came back to his family land and started his own label in 1991. His wines there were praised by the critic Robert Parker and were selling well but in a rare move for such a successful vintner he said that his wines had become way different from the wines he liked, too high in alcohol, too powerful, and that he didn't drink his own wines. Trapped by the critic high scores and the resulting success of his wines, he had let the alcohol of his wines slip to 15° and beyond. So in 2008 he announced a significant shift in that regard and changed dramatically his approach in terms of vineyard management, picking dates and vinification in order to come back to fresher wines with lower alcohol, and this he said, without watering the juice or using reverse osmosis, which are common practices in California.
Adam Tolmach being away when I visited, Fabien Castel, who is a Frenchman and the right-hand man of Adam, walked me around and helped me discover the winery.
Oak View near which the wine farm is located is about 10 miles from Ojai (pic on left), a nice small town with Spanish colonial architecture and lined up with an impressive mountain range and a nice vegetation. The property sits on a remote corner of the Ojai valley and the GPS was again useful to reach our destination.
It's ironic that as were were cruising along the streets of Berkeley looking for Donkey & Goat's facility we fell upon a wood-panelled building with the golden sentence :Good Wine is a Necessity of Life (Thomas Jefferson) - Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant... Kermit Lynch (which is 0,7 mile away from Donkey & Goat) was the first to import artisan wines in California, many falling unknowingly in the natural wine category, and he paved the way for the dramatic change of direction that many wine lovers and winemakers alike have
embarked upon. I didn't
visit the iconic importer but I leave that for the next time...
To sum up
Jared and Tracey Brandt's winemaking philosophy you better read their manifesto, it's more detailed and straightforward than my prose could be :
We add nothing at the vat after crush save the occasional minuscule dose of SO2 if we have a rainy year where rot is an issue. That means no enzymes to enhance color and extraction, no tannin, no commercial yeast, no nutrients to feed the super yeast and 95% of the time no SO2 (until after MLF completes). We can control temperature via manipulating ambient temperature with a refrigerated container and warm rooms within the winery. That's it.[...] the only time we've ever had a problem was in 2004 when we inoculated a few vats as an experiment to prove our wild yeast preference. The inoculated vats had stuck fermentations and we later dumped the wine rather than fall down the slippery slope of additions to correct additions (we dumped the equivalent of 50 cases).
That is one of the problems we have with inoculations. Winemakers choose cultured yeast for various attributes that include performance and aromatic profile. But the lab yeast need huge amounts of food. So the regimen becomes, kill the microbial life with SO2 & Lysozyme, add super yeast, add vitamins and nitrogen (DAP or diammonium phosphate being very popular) to feed these hungry microbes. Then hope the yeast don't put off any off aromas like H2S because of the imbalance in their diet. If they do, add Copper. Then rack and filter and add more SO2... it never stops. And don't get me started on the great irony of adding vast amounts of DAP to the vat to feed yeast. Guess which yeast also LOVES DAP and for that matter any additive rich in thiamin. Read the ingredients on most wine additives and you'll see thiamin at the front. That would be brettanomyces, the dark angel.
I don't know if it's just an impression or if there's a definitive statistical basis for it, but I felt that there are a lot of women winemakers in America, and I again visited two of them in Napa, California.
Like Kelley and Rebecca in Carlton OR, Helen Keplingerand Marguerite Ryan are working under the roof of a large winery, Cuvaison. Each of them make their own wines independently under their own labels and they have achieved a certain notoriety with their respective cuvées.
Cuvaison is located on the historic Silverado Trail in northern Napa Valley has been a long-time player in Napa, it's around since 1969, it's mostly known for its chardonnay, it was located initially in Calistoga and it moved to this modern location near Napa around 2004. I can't but stress out once more the pragmatism of U.S. law in wine-producing states thanks to which small-size operations can be housed under the roof of large wineries that see an advantage in both the financial contributions and the flow in experience and skills that can result for the benefit of the two parties. It varies from year to year but on average Cuvaison hosts 5 or 6 independant, small-size operations like Helen's and Peggy's.
Another common trait between these two women winemakers is that they embraced the winemaking trail after starting carrers in completely different fields : medicine for Helen and Law for Peggy (Marguerite). America lost a doctor and a lawyer but their wines helped smooth this loss I guess.