The featured producers for Natural Wine Week will be Unti Vineyards from the Dry Creek Valley and The Natural Process Alliance.
From Unti Vineyards we will be pouring the Cuvee Foudre, Syrah and Zinfandel by the glass. Mick Unti will be here at Nopa on Wednesday, August 26th to discuss these wines (or any other topics covered in his famous newsletters) with all interested parties. Unti Vineyards is owned and run by Mick and his parents, George and Linda and the resident winemaker, Sebastien Pochan. They have been farming Biodynamically since 2004. They employ native yeast fermentations and generally do not fine or filter their wines. They do use sulfur but in very low doses. They are consistently experimenting with new grape varieties and different techniques to try and find the true expression of their land.
From The Natural Process Alliance we will have the Sonoma Coast skin contact Chardonnay and the Orsi Vineyard Pinot Blanc available by the glass. Kevin Kelley, the winemaker behind this project, will be on the floor at Nopa on Friday, August 28th to present and discuss his project with curious guests. The Natural Process Alliance is a project focused on sustainability. Kevin, his wife Jennifer and their right hand man David Philo are slowly changing the rules. They are pushing against the boundaries and expanding the possibilities. The Chardonnay is farmed organically, the Pinot Blanc Biodynamically. The Chardonnay was fermented with indigenous yeast, on the skins for 18 days. No sulfur has ever been added. The Pinot Blanc was destemmed and pressed directly to tank where it was left alone to make itself. A tiny amount of sulfur was added after fermentation was complete. Both wines are bottled into stainless steel, reusable bottles on demand. Kevin delivers the wine himself in milk crates. No glass, no cardboard, no corks, no waste. Besides the obvious environmental reasons, there is also a financial one here. If Kevin does not have to buy bottles and corks and cardboard, then the consumer doesn't have to fund them. He pays for fruit; we pay for wine. Very smart.
Please come out and try some of these special wines and take advantage of having the men behind these wines at your table.
Natural Wine Week
During the week of August 24th through August 30th, nopa will be taking part in the first annual Natural Wine Week here in San Francisco. We will be featuring two California producers who we feel are adhering to the principals of natural wine making. (This is an officially undefined term, so one topic of discussion for the week will be: What is natural wine?) These producers will be in house to pour their wine and answer any questions one might have about the process. (The specific days of the guest appearances are still to be determined.) We will also be offering a number of natural wines from around the world by the glass and drawing attention to the many producers currently in our wine program who fall in line with natural wine making techniques.
Although I think most of the people participating in this first annual Natural Wine Week have a similar idea about the spirit of natural wine, there are disagreements about what is and what is not allowed in natural wine. I will try and summarize my thoughts on the subject so one might know what to expect when looking for natural wine at Nopa.
When I speak about natural wine, I am envisioning wine made with a gentle hand – wine made with the idea that the fruit has a voice and using chemicals or additives will make that voice more difficult to hear. It makes sense to me that the less you add to a vineyard or to the juice in the winery, the more honestly the fruit will carry the flavors of its time and place. But I also know human decision is part and parcel of time and place. The winemaker must make a number of decisions affecting flavor. It is impossible to remove human influence from terroir. So although I have ideas in my head about the importance of completely organic farming, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeast and the absence of any additives at all, I know better than to tie the hands of the artists with the dogma of the critic. Rather than trust in rules, I prefer to trust in people. Situations will arise that call for the breaking of rules, therefore I look for people who share a common vision – producers who are trying to make the purest, most honest wine possible from a specific site. I try to find people I can stand behind and believe in – not because they are certified in some way but because I have met them or read them or followed them and have come to believe they have integrity. Most of these producers will follow most of the ‘rules’ of natural wine most of the time, but what is more important to me is that they are following the spirit of the law when the letter of the law must give way. Equally important, of course, is the end product. The wine must have integrity and be pleasurable and/or interesting to drink.
Natural wine is a hot topic right now. I encourage you to get out to some of the events being hosted by the various sponsors of Natural Wine Week and find out why.
P.S. Anybody know where the picture is from?
Storybook Mountain Vineyards
I love the northern end of the Napa Valley. I imagine it is more what the entire valley was like 20 years ago. It feels homegrown. Perhaps it is the geography – the way the valley narrows as the mountains close in on both sides, creating a more intimate feeling than the vast, flat fields of grapes farther south. Whatever the reason, I am happy to be heading up there with a van full of Nopa and Nopalito staff members to visit one of my favorite Zinfandel producers, Dr. Jerry Seps at Storybook Mountain Vineyards.
My last visit was nearly 6 years ago. At the time I was a server at Rose Pistola. The then wine director, James Atwood, was at the helm, maneuvering us through the mountains and up to the gate of the winery. I have been back through this part of the valley a number of times since then, but I am still surprised at how twisted and narrow highway 128 becomes north of Calistoga. In my memory, Storybook is on a small, winding, mountain road, not a state highway. They are one and the same here. The other thing that strikes me is the CCOF certification hanging on the gate. I did not realize they had become certified. I know they have been pesticide and herbicide free since inception, but the plaque is news to me. (It became official last year.)
We gather at the winery and are soon met by Rick Williams and Dr. Seps. Rick is in charge of sales and marketing and is a gentle man who makes us feel welcome and right on time despite our tardiness. Dr. Jerry Seps is just who you want the man making your wine to be. He wears shears in a leather holster on his belt, a cowboy hat and work clothes. He joins us straight from the vineyard. He is a retired European History Professor whose love for wine goes back to his college days when he was a sommelier at a restaurant near Yosemite National Park.
The first thing we do is walk up the hill a little ways and look at the vineyards. Flat land at Storybook is in short supply. Everything is hillside. We can see Dr. Seps’ house on top of the hill, above the vineyard to our left. The vineyard to our right drops away and the mountains walling in the other side of the valley, including Mt. St. Helena, are the backdrop. It is a beautiful sight. He tells us about the history of the estate. Two brothers by the name of Grimm, fresh from Germany, originally planted it in the late 1800’s. Dr. Seps and his wife bought the property in 1976. (The fairytale beauty of the property coupled with the name Grimm inspired the name.) The red clay soils prompted them to plant to red varietals, specifically zinfandel. Because they had to replant the entire property, they were able to be very specific about how, where and what to plant. As they have come to know the property more intimately, by working and living with the vines, and learn more about viticulture, they have continued to hone their decisions. This means new root stock in some places, different clones in others, Cabernet instead of Zinfandel in some areas and even some Viognier to play with, Cote Rotie style. The drive to make the best wine possible keeps them evolving. This is exciting to me.
Next we walk back down to the winery and enter the caves. On the way we talk about winemaking. Dr. Seps ferments everything (except the straight Viognier and the Zin Gris) in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. He notes that even the bottoms of the tanks are jacketed. Controlling the temperature of fermentation is another tool to retain the freshness his mountain fruit is famous for. He does not use commercial yeast for any of the zinfandels, only the native yeast on the property. (Another reason not to use chemicals.) The caves were dug in the late 1800’s. The crumbling remnant of the outer wall of the original winery is still visible near the opening of the caves. There is a new, reinforced concrete wall just inside the remains of the old one. This backstop was built in 1982 after the old wall gave way to the waterlogged mountainside.
Inside it is immediately dark and cool. Rows of barrels from various coopers are stacked two high along either wall. The ceiling is low and arched and the effect is that of pulling you deeper into the cave. At the end of the first tunnel is a large oval barrel with a pictograph of the history of the winery carved on the front. It shows the crest of the town in Germany where the original brothers were from with the year the winery was founded, 1887, the family crest of Dr. Seps and that of his wife’s with the year they bought the property, 1976, the fox reaching for the grapes that you see on the label, the three openings for the three caves on the property and a rose climbing up the left side. It is somewhat shrine like, sitting under low light at the end of the long rows of stacked barriques. I like it. Looking up at the ceiling above the oval one can see the pick marks from when the cave was originally dug by hand.
We talk about use of wood for the wines. The zinfandels see about 20 percent new oak and the rest used. It is a mix of French, American and Hungarian. He uses a number of coopers and tries to bring in a new one each year to continually search for better options. One of them has even designed a special barrel using two types of wood to try and meet the flavor specificity that Dr. Seps is looking for. The Cabernet Sauvignon sees 100% new French oak. They make a reserve Zinfandel and an Eastern Exposure Zinfandel as well as the Mayacamas bottling. Both of the former are made from barrels selected for superiority each year. To select these barrels he and his wife and daughter go through and taste each one and grade it. (“Once a professor, always a professor,” he says.) During the barrel selection process, they keep notes on nearly everything. The more they know about which barrels make the cut, the more likely they can reproduce that superior juice the next year. The only way a barrel makes it past the selection process is if they all agree on it’s superiority. As you can imagine, the production is small for both of these bottlings! The Eastern Exposure has a small amount of viognier blended into it to soften the tannins and lift the aromatics. It works on both accounts.
As we taste the wines in the cave, our conversation meanders. We talk about his life on the property, about his past life as a professor, about how he came to be where he is now, about the profile and style of his wine, about decisions he has made and those he will have to make again next year. It is an easygoing conversation that makes me feel good about drinking and buying his wine. It is clear to me that he is a man trying to master his craft. He is transparent about having to sell wine to make a living, but also strict about which rules cannot be broken. He is not dogmatic in his speech, but one can see he is regimented and disciplined in his work. As we leave he wanders back into the vineyard and turns his attention to the vines. I am grateful he takes the time for a group of city folk such as us, and I get the impression that talking to a group about a subject he is well versed in is second nature to an old history professor. But as he disappears into the vines, I feel he is walking back into his element, back among the true objects of his affection. And for this I am grateful as well.
From The Archives more >
Wine Director, nopa
Me and some wine.
To have new entries sent to your inbox, just enter your email address below: