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.
There's still a charming ambiance in the city and here and there you even feel like you're in the 70s with old cars parked along leafy streets, and wood utility poles with telephone cables hanging overhead (the picture on left was shot on 5th street, just at a small distance from the winery.
When Jared and Tracey settled in California to start a winery, they began to make wine in a friend's basement in San Francisco, then they rented an industrial space for 2 years, also in San Francisco, then they moved the operation to Berkeley not far from here and 2 years ago they found this empty facility and converted it into a winery. They like Berkeley because of the moderate temperatures, it's basically always in the 60s ° Farenheit (15,5 to 21 ° C), not too hot not too cold, which is good for a winemaking facility.
Speaking of wine in California, Jared tells me that one of the owners of the natural-wine bar The Punchdown in Oakland happens to be an intern who worked for him before he embraced the wine trail, and he suggests to visit them, but I tell him that I went there but failed to find a parking spot the other evening, so it'll be for next time.
This sparked a change of career and they decided to do something in wine (they both loved wine of course); Jared had relatives working in wine in California but his then-girlfriend Tracey suggested they go to France to learn, and they flew there and trained with Eric Texier, a non-interventionist winemaker in the Rhône, this was in in 2002 and 2003. They had been introduced to Eric by Joe Dressner and Texier accepted, they came over and did cellar work as well as a fair amount of vineyard work and also the harvest, living through the whole thing. This training was their base to start making wine in California, he had never read a book on winemaking. when back he still took adult-education classes on weekends at Davis to understand better the chemistry part of winemaking. He was not really interested into their winemaking teaching but more on how to do the lab stuff, the checks and analysis of the juice and what the data means. The ironic thing, he says, is that he doesn't even use his skills on this field today, he sends a sample to the lab in Napa, it's easier.
Jared says that when he first moved to California in 1993 he loved California wines but over the following 8 years his palate really shifted toward European style of wines, maybe because he likes the acidity in the wine. His wine culture had been developped by discovering new wines and maintaining his wine cellar, plus he had travel a couple of times to the Rhône and also to Burgundy, adding that he never really drank much Bordeaux but mainly because he couldn't afford it.
For the grapes what they do is they lease sections of vineyards belonging to growers or they share with other people, they have the yield they want and pick when they want, which is very important for the end wine.
Donkey and Goat wines have made their way out of the dark over the years if I can judge from the articles about the winery that I found online, and jared says that their production has expanded to maybe 5000 to 6000 cases this year, and that's about the production pace he wants to get. He's planting vines on leased land this year, in El Dorado, to make a claret. They're doing more and more whites; when they started, Tracey was making the whites and he the reds, and now they somehow switched, now they make maybe 60 % reds and the rest in whites. They also drink a lot of white wines
Asked how many cuvées they make, he says about 20, and last year Tracey, his wife, said we need to make fewer cuvées, but the irony is she added a cuvée (the skin-contact grenache blanc)... He pauses a second and says that he wants his wines to be reflective of the places they're from and he'd rather make 20 cuvées than blending the batches, he wants this job to still be fun and bring pleasure, which is the case with doing these parcel cuvées. Otherwise he doesn't have fun he'd go back to working in IT because there's much more money there. Every year they try to make fewer cuvées but they always find something interesting to do with a parcel. Asked if he'll try Trousseau, he says no for now, but he has plans to try Fiano, a white grape from Italy, from a 5-year-old plot.
The list of sourced vineyards in the office is impressive and it got clearly bigger in the last 4 vintages.
When they found this unused industrial site, Jared was seduced by the building, it was only a cement shell but a beautiful one, there was nothing inside except a huge vintage fan embedded into the roof structure, and it happened that it was actually working. There was graffiti but otherwise the cement structure was pretty good, and it provided a good temperature shock absorber with the outside.
__ Donkey & Goat Chardonnay Improbable, El Dorado. Made from ungrafted vines in the El Dorado region. Jared says he called the cuvée "Improbable" because he never thought he'd find a chardonnay in the Eldorado region which he'd like, his other chardonnays being in the Anderson Valley which is known for its chardonnay, but El Dorado was a bet because its climate is so different, much warmer. The 1st year he took 2 rows only (out of the maybe 1-hectare block) for a try and he made one barrel. He liked the resulting wine though, even if it's not a cool-climate chardonnay. He expanded the contracted surface and now he has half the surface (0,5 hectare).
On the winemaking side, he lets the malolactic go through, he says he tries not to intervened, picking the grapes with the right acidity, and the acidity is more important than ripeness because when you loose acidity it's not coming back. What they do is bring it in, they sort it, foot-stomp it, press it and then let it settle for 24 hours usually and then they get the juice into barrels for the fermentation, using older barrels. They source their barrels from Helen Turley at Marcassin who is making different wines than theirs but take cares of her wines and barrels. He doesn't like using stainless-steel it yields something sharp, not round. He does 2 or 3 stirring of the lees only.
The chardonnay has a lovely mouthfeel and substance with a smooth touch, and its unfiltered mode probably plays a role. Jared says he doesn't filter anything, the winery doesn't have any temperature control, it doesn't get hot, it just swings and this also helps into not needing to filter. Before bottling he checks for malolactic and residual sugar, and as long as they're fine he doesn't filter. Asked about when he adds some sulfites, Jared says that he does some sometimes in the barrel but mostly it's only near the bottling stage, and never when the grapes come in. And for certain cuvées he just skips the SO2 adding, like for the syrah. For the bottles with a screw cap (like this chard) he has 15 ppm free SO2 and total 20 or 25 ppm which is low. Retail price for this chardonnay is 24 $.
They've been using this basket press but it doesn't have enough pressure, he's buying a new press soon for the whites, he's targetting an Italian one (Della Toffola) which is very gentle with the bladder working from the center, the pressure required is half of these basket presses and the resulting juice is better handled. He'll keep, using the basket press for the reds.
We taste another bottle :
__ Donkey & Goat Grenache Blanc El Dorado 2012. From head-pruned vines that the grower planted for them. This wine was 18 % fermented on the skins after destemming. The vineyard which is on rootstock is very stony and the mouthfeel is indeed very mineral, with like a taste of rocks, the tannins of the skin contact enhancing the feel I guess. Speaking of his ungrafted vineyards, he has some chardonnay, a grenache noir and a grenache gris. Asked about irrigation he says that this particular vineyard is on drip irrigation but they don't use it that much. they did use it during the first 3 years when the vines were planted and this year they haven't yet irrigated. The soil holds the water well and there's been lots of rain a couple years ago. He says growers don't always have access to cheap or free water and when they do, the typical irrigation they'll do will be 4 to 5 gallons per vine of water every other week. He says he's not anti-watering although he thinks that in California most people over-water their vines. His approach is when a vine doesn't need it, he doesn't water it.
__ Donkey & Goat Grenache blanc 2012, El Dorado, 100% skin fermented. 13,1 alcohol. Depends of the vintage, 2011 was 11 % in alcohol. The color is really orange here. Pretty interesting tannins here too. Tasted blind I feel it could pass for a red, a light red.
__ Donkey & Goat Grenache Noir 2012 Eldorado, unfiltered (and unfined), 14,2 alc. Same vineyard as the Blanc. Screw cap because he thinks it's good to drink early, even if it can age 3 or 4 years. Very clear color. 20 % whole clusters, the rest is destemmed, nothing is crushed (they don't have a crusher). Fermented in an open-top fermenter like the one below I guess, adding CO2 at the beginning. When they went back to the US and started to make wine they were often criticized for not using commercial yeast but he doesn't think you need to add anything to make a great wine, at least the one he wants to make.
Pic on the side : topping-up containers
__ Donkey & Goat, Pourquoi Pas ? 2011 Merlot Anderson Valley. Unfiltered, 12,6 alc. This vineyard is close to Lazy Creek and its too cold for Merlot actually, and he found the vineyard because he leases ungrafted chardonnay there and as there was also a bit of Merlot on the block, the grower had in mind to make a Bordeaux-style wine but it's too cold and he gave up. but since he leased the whole surface he had the Merlot too and he played around with the rows finding an interesting expression of Merlot here. The 2011 is his 3rd vintage of it. He is not a big drinker of Merlot so he was curious to see what it yielded. The vines are trellised in the pergola style up high for some reason. Fruity nose, he says it's very different from California Merlot.
They have a big wooden open-top fermenter made by the Rousseau Cooperage in France, plus these two others on the picture above which they bought from Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California, this winery only used them once and the winemaker left, the following winemaker didn't know what to do with them and wanted to throw them away, so he recovered them, they were tanks at the time (closed) and he had them open to use them as fermenters.
For smaller volumes he uses also puncheons (pictured on left) from which he took off one end, using them as fermenters only from then on. They're protected by plastic until the harvest to keep the sulfur (from the sulfur wick) inside, then he waters them to make them tight and rinse them.
__ Donkey & Goat Syrah Fenaughty vineyard 2010. Unfiltered, 14,1 alc. Jared says that there's a bit ov Viognier in the Syrah, 35 % whole-clustered, the rest with destemmed whole berries, all being fermented in open-top vat, some punchdown by hand (no pumpover, he found out it speeds the fermentation, which he doesn't wish). I look at the plastic bins in the courtyard (where we're tasting these reds) but he says he only uses wood, these bins are for the picking (and I remember his manifesto underlines his use of wood only). He hates the fermenting in these bins, you get flavors that you wouldn't have in another container.
tHe wine has a generous nose with plenty of things, red fruits, skin of ripe pear maybe. I the mouth the tannins are very gentle, not forward at all, make kind of a smooth feel. He says with the syrah the tannins get smoother after a year usually. This one is not yet on the market, it was bottled a year ago (2012) and they'll release it in the fall of 2013 only. They started working with this vineyard in 2005. About the picking time he says that he picks usually earlier than other people but it's funny because they pick this syrah always about september 20th and even on cold years (like 2011) it was at this date, and they just decide by tasting the grapes. These are old vines and it looks like the older vineyards want to be picked the same day no matter what the year is.
Asked about how the consumers regard this wine, he says it's very popular in new York. They also sell some here at the winery. The share of direct sale at the winery is 1/3 and the rest is through the distribution.
The alcohol is pretty low here, with this cold terroir. I azsk if with the reverse of the trend in California wineries try shortcuts to get theit alcohol levels down, he says that different methods are routinely used, like hosing the vats to dilute the juice (they call it the Jesus machine because Jesus turned water into wine), otherwise the wineries get their wines dealcoholized using spinning cones or reverse osmosis. Read on this subject Alan Godfarb's insightfut article on the de-alcoholization (or dealcing) which he writes is done by a a couple of companies for wineries of California, processing more than 42 million cases of wine from 1600 wineries, typically to reduce the alcohol from, say, 15,5 % to 14,4...
__ Donkey & Goat Wayward 2011 Late Harvest Chardonnay, Eldorado. 14,1 alc. White with residual sugar. Back label : Wayward is unfiltered and alive, so keep it cool and enjoy... This comes from a huge vineyard (20 acres) wich he usually doesn't buy grapes from but through his vineyard manager he had the opportunity to make a try that year, because there was lots of botrytis (the only time in 30 years on that block) and the grapes still retained their acidity, so he made 4 barrels this with the ones he picked. It's not a typical desert wine, the mouthfeel is quite dry actually, Jared says that it has a lot of acidity to counterbalance, here is a nice wine.
Picture on right : picking bins
Jared shows me in the office an old vintage of California wine which he opened a while ago and which was terrific : California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon "special selection" 1970 by Louis M. Martini, St Helena, Napa County California. He says it was very very smooth and it was still alive, very surprising. I look at the upper left of the label and it reads 12 % Alcohol. Not that common in California today...
Before leaving I ask about Chez Panisse, the famous restaurant in Berkeley, wether they carry the wines of donkey & goat, and he says yes, actually they have a Café also now attached to the restaurant, upstairs, and they have several of their wines on the wine list (plus, there's a reseve list with more labels). A quick look at the wine list makes me pensive, like I was when I was leafing Sammy's Cowboy Bistro wine book. I guess here for much of their wines they just have to extend their arm and reach for Kermit Lynch's riches...
San Francisco Chronicle story on Donkey & Goat (2010)
Donkey & Goat profile on the Washington Post
Piece on Donkey and Goat by Berkeley Side (2011)