If you think you know what uninterventionist, organic farming is, you need to update your understanding of what this term really means in a vineyard and go see Hank Beckmeyer's parcels : here are vines that aren't trained on wires and grow on a soil that is never plowed, along a farming philosophy which is close to Fukuoka's, with basically plants that grow almost as free as wild bushes. Another thing that puts Hank on another playing field compared to many winegrowers is that he wants to vinify a vineyard per se, even if this vineyard is planted with apparently unpaired varieties. For example he makes a wine from his estate vines planted around his house and you get all these varieties together that express through the blend the character of the terroir.
There must be few visitors at La Clarine, because like Clos Saron it's quite remote from the beaten path, it's samely deep there in the Sierra foothills, just that it is on the other side of Sacramento in what was known as the Goldrush country, and if the roads of the region are far to be overloaded it's still sometimes arduous to find a given location. But thanks to Gideon who had lent me a spare GPS navigation device, I could now drivre wherever I wanted, even taking side roads randomly just to see what you find en route, and be sure to backtrack safely to my destination route. Next time I visit, I go straight to Walmart (yes, Dove !) and buy one of these devices (car rental companies rip you off for a GPS)...
Anyway, here we are on Snowbird lane (pic on left), the beautiful dirt road leading up to the wine farm, it's a hot California summer and this garrigue smells so good...
He chose this area because they like the region, the topography, these gentle hills and the vegetation type and trees, it was a fun region to explore. It's already beautiful and full of nice smells now but in spring between march and june it's all covered with flowers.
Otherwise after he took the scrub away from the intended parcels, he decided to make experiments and planted vines on their own roots (no rootstocks), which carried some risk even though until now there has been no obvious sign of occurrences of phylloxera near the property. Still , the vines struggle and they take time before being really productive. They planted tempranillo first, which does OK but in spots seems to be slow, then Syrah, Grenache, Tannat. He irrigates a couple of times a year because the depth of the soil here is not very deep, but otherwise the vines are pretty much left by themselves, there's no trellising, they stand relatively low above the ground. The soil is partly sandy here. Near the woods at the end of the property, hank shows us the cabernet sauvignon, which grows pretty slowly too, possibly because this part of the block used to be a road long time ago.
they've been working organic from the start, doing some biodynamy too at the biginning but they stopped since and they kept the organic farming solely, with a focus on Fukuoka's teachings which imply a rigorous non-interventionist soil management : they don't do any plowing, leaving the soil's surface as is, and they tend the vines pretty much without any intervention. Asked about how the other growers in the area reacted in the face of this type of vineyard management, Hank says that there's been quite a bit of head scratching, it definitely was unusual for them to see vines being left by themselves this way. But the other growers he works with are really good and very receptive to the experience he's conducting here, and they like the wines he's making, which counts a lot in their whole understanding of his work.
What strikes me is the plentiful indigenous herbs around here on the slopes, the grass road and between the rows, among them the wild sage which smells so good, even as you just walk over it, I ask if they use this sage in the kitchen but he says it's too strong for that, which underlines how strong the fragrance is. There's a particular herb I'm checking in my fingers at one point, serious, I had thought that I had spotted certain plant with very-recognizable star-shaped, long and thin leaves but the shape was a bit different and this wasn't smelling what I expected, alas (I swear I wouldn't have said a word if it had been the case, Hank). Hank laughs and says that he doesn't know what this plant is, just that when they give it to their goats they get crazy over it, so they call it goat pot (there may have been some truth in my guess, at last)...
Walking just a short distance from the facility, we reach a point where the view over the area is gorgeous, the valley, the hills far away, and I can understand why Hank and Caroline said : « this is it ! »
There's lots of pressure from birds obviously and I spot the green nets at the end of the rows waiting for the right time to be put in place over the vines in order to prevent the birds to eat all the harvest. Hank says that the area is very dry and that the birds target the grapes for their water content too. Unfolding these nets carefully over the rows takes a while, Hank says, something like a week.
There's an open side on the chai and Hank says that they do the fermentations outside in these red fermenters plus others. The hand picked grapes arrive here, for the reds they work with whole clusters, doing foot stomping at the beginning then once a day. I spot a press, a Xpro8 Bücher Vaslin, a good little press, Hank says, with eady loading, works really well. They used to have a basket (vertical) press but that's a lot of work to operate. I spot another fermenter with a volume of 3 tons ; discovering the various shapes of fermenters in America is interesting from a French point of view because the containers are sometimes very different and unexpected. Hank found one of his fermenters after watching Frank Cornelissen at work, he tracked it down and ordered one of these 1000-liter containers for himself. It looks like a giant trash bin or like the containers we use in France to keep rain water. They're easy to clean and easy to move around, even full when on a pallet.
__ La Clarine Farm rosé Sierra Foothills ; from a bottle with a screw cap like on all his cuvées. Asked why he doesn't print El Dorado on the label, the appellation on which the property suits, he says he's not sure why, just that El Dorado has so many appellations and soil types in its area that it doesn't help much. The wine is a direct-press rosé, he doesn't do any saignée, this is primarily syrah which is planted on north and east-faced slope and that never really ripes enough for the growers to make a red but as it has really good flavors for rosé. They press and taste the juice along, stopping when it seems right. The wine is light and easy drinking, Hank nods and says it's a summer wine to go with food. Doesn't seem a strong wine but it's still a bit under 13 ° in alcohol (tastes more like 11,5 or 12). He says he lets his white go through malolactic too because he likes the texture of the wine when it completed its malo. He likes this ripe fruit with the acidity which kicks in at the end ; plus if he stopped the malo he'd have to use S02 which he prefers not to. They don 't add any SO2 during the fermentation and very rarely add some during the élevage (almost never) and the only adding they make is for bottling, about 20 parts. This makes probably no free SO2 left after 3 months.
The labels of La Clarine are very nice, the author is Jad Fair, he is a musician and artist who was in this band named Half Japanese where Hank was himself a musician, and while they were on tour driving to their next performance Jad always used to do big paper cuts instead of reading, making intricate paper designs months after months, it was some sort of second minor passion for him, making these inspired paper cuttings. So when Hank and his wife started this winery thing, they thought to him and asked him to do something for the future label, and here it is... Jad also designed these nice labels for Caroline's goat cheeses (pics on the side).
This white as well as the rosé are unfiltered, something I think is important to notice because the unfiltered approach is not very common on whites or rosés, and Hank put a notice on the labels so that customers aren't surprised about the possible turbidity.
__ La Clarine Viognier and Marsanne 2012, the kind of Rhone white that Hank says he's doing usually here, sample taken from a FlexTank vat. Just finishing its fermentation. Both varieties are purchased grapes from the Sumu Kaw vineyard, Sumu Kaw being a word from the California native Maidu tribe meaning "Place of the sugar pines" and the parcel is really a cool spot in the middle of the woods, Hank says. The growers are a couple living in the midst of this wilderness, "off the grids", without electrical hookup and using only solar power for their energy...
Asked if he uses a pied de cuve to start his fermentation (a starter with early juice and wild yeast), he says he used to, but now he doesn't need, there is a good population out there in the facility.
__ La Clarine, Sierra Foothills red Jambalaia 2012, a red and an experimentation : Mourvèdre 60 %, Marsanne 20 %, Grenache 15 % and Viognier 5 %. The intent through this wine is again to take everything from a given parcel, as all these varieties grow together in a neighbor's vineyard. The pickings are not synchron and the vinification are separate with a later blend. This year (2013) he'd like to pick all of them at once and try make a single vinification of the 4 varieties, he's not fully decided yet but he may try it, he'll see when picking time gets close. I'm trying to feel the white varieties here in the wine, Hank says that they play a role in the structure of the wine.
Hank chose to bottles these wines in a Bordeaux-shaped bottle with colorless glass
Asked how this particular wine is received in California, Hank says that among his clients it's quite popular even if unusual. Even mainstream Wine Enthusiast's Virginie Boone sees here an incredible (and yet affordable) example of what Mourvèdre can be in certain nooks and crannies of the Sierra Foothills and in certain hands. Winemaker/Owner Hank Beckmeyer has made a silk mountain out of a tough vintage, taking organically farmed Mourvèdre from the folks over at Cedarville and making a gorgeous, pure and rich Rhône with perfumed notes of plum, smooth spice and a good dose of earth. It’s easy on the palate, with fresh acidity and a velvety texture. Very little sulfur was used (Link to the Wine Enthusiast article). I follow her on the praise, very enjoyable and exciting wine. Asked about the price of the wine which seems to me very affordable compared to the quality, Hank says that he tries to keep the prices a a level he feels fair, and again it makes me think to Eric Pfifferling who keep his Domaine de L'Anglore's wines at a fair price even though they sell out very fast.
The wine should be bottled in november (2013), Hank says. He began to make this cuvée in 2007, he adds that it's actually the first wine they ever made. The grapes are purchased from a winery that had planted this parcel with a Rhone blend in mind but it never really fit in their plans. I ask him if the growers (who make wine themselves) might decide to keep their grapes after tasting this wine but Hank says that they're happy that he's been doing this nice job with their grapes. the soil for this Cedarville vineyard mourvèdre is decomposed granite, much like here on the property but a bit deeper.
Bottled unfiltered with a 4-spout gravity filler, very simple and soft on the wine I guess. The wine makes 11,7 ° in alcohol, yes, no typo here, this is amazing.
__ La Clarine, Piedi Grandi 2012, a red taken from a caged plastic tank. Nebbiolo (50 to 60 %), Mourvèdre plus a bit of Syrah. The nebbiolo is growing near where Hanks gets his syrah and he used to see the vineyard all the time he'd drive by, marvelling at their outlook, and his wife Caroline one day asked why don't you just buy some, and that's what he did for a try. They made a try with a small amout, it was OK but not much more than that, he was thinking nebbiolo and California was not maybe the best combination. At the time he was reading a book about John Cage and he thought about designing a game with coins and decide through them which wines he'd choose for a blends and (through other coins) which percentage with which variety and he had decided to take whatever result of the game and apply it, and believe it or not, this is the way he found this blend and it worked...
Very appealing nose, Hanks says it has orange peel notes, the color is lightly evolved and quite light. In the mouth it's just going down very pleasantly with a bit of tannic feel that goes very well in the whole experience. Hanks says that it goes well with the food. Asked about alcohol, Hank says that it's about 14 °, when I'd have said about 12,5 ° by the taste and swallow. Vinified in one of these caged plastic tanks. 150 cases in total, bottled next winter. 2nd vintage of this blend. Will sell for 25 $.
__ La Clarine Piedi Grandi 2011, from a bottle, the 2nd vintage of this blend. This vintage has more of Nebbiolo, Hank says, with more rose aromas, Hank says, and tarry notes. The mouth is more intense, but very lovely. there are spices in this intensity feel.
__ La Clarine Grenache (75 %) & Mourvèdre (25 %) 2012 on a same parcel on slate/shist soil atop a hill. Sample taken from a caged tank. This wine is raised both in this plastic tank and in wood (puncheon), and we take the neutral vessel right now. Discreet nose, not overwhelmingly expressive but still with things to say. Hank says there's a wet rock feel in this wine. so different than the other mourvèdre, completely different, the minerality being forward here. The color is not so dark, you see through it. Astringency but with a stony character, tight minerality. Will cost in the upper 20s' too. Hanks says he's very excited about this blend, this is the first vintage of it.
There's a little bit of mourvèdre on this block too (pic on left and above), which goes into the Piedi Grandi cuvée. There is also a few rows of Nebbiolo in this block (pic on right). The vine seem to make a good shade over the fruit, on the nebbiolo. Hank says that this particular vineyard produces very aromatic wines, whatever variety is being used, this is because of the fine decomposed granite of its soil.
__ La Clarine Syrah Sumu kaw vineyard 2012, from a puncheon. Hank says he used to blend a bit of mourvèdre with it but he opted not to after a couple vintages. Now he sort of understood it needed to be vinified alone. Syrah sourced from this pine-forest vineyard (pictured above) at some distance from the property, near Pleasant Valley 6 miles away. Very fruity wine, this year particularly, Hank says. He's not sure it finished ferment, there's some sweetness that could hint of residual sugar. the vintage of 2012 is very friendly and very easy. He picked this probably early october, which is overall pretty normal as a picking date.
__ La Clarine Sumu Kaw vineyard Syrah 2011, from a bottle. 12,4 ° in alcohol, quite low indeed. The one from 2012 (puncheon) was probably 14. Very different nose, different style. Hank says it's smoky, meaty like what he encountered in the older-style Côte-Rôtie Rhones, fermented with stems and this sort of aromatics, like a liquid campfire with this smoke and meat. Looks like less extracted compared with the previous wine but of course Hank didn't do anything different I guess, this is just the vintage. Asked about the fermentation temperature, Hank says that he doesn't influence the temperature, it's all fermenting outside anyway and it can be cool then. He and his wife Caroline stomp the grapes with their feet and it keeps a good temperature exchange between the grapes and the autumn air.
__ La Clarine, Home Vineyard 2012, from a Burgundy-sized cask, the home blend made with all the varieties growing on the property : Tempranillo, Tannat, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet, a couple of Roussanne vines. Very appealing nose, very open and friendly-looking wine, the nose can't lie, that seems good. Very nice wine to swallow indeed. Hank says that the tannins are a little bit dusty, there's a particular structure that this wine has every year, it's like the signature of the whole vineyard with all of its varieties. He still has bottles from 2004 (the 1st such vintage, it was Tempranillo and Syrah back then) and it still bears this tannic-feel signature, very distinctive from this vineyard. After years and adding a few varieties the wine keeps this character, it's impressive. It should be around 14 % in alcohol or a bit under, Hank says, and for me this is way over what you feel when you actually drink this wine. The retail price of this wine is about 30 $.
__ La Clarine Home Vineyard 2011, from a bottle. Tempranillo 34 %, grenache 25 %, Tannat 23 %, Syrah 16 %, Cabernet Sauvignon 2 %. 13,8 % in alcohol. I'm impressed at this home-vineyard wine adding varieties and keeping it's terroir character. A few hundreds bottles produces every year, small cuvée. Also nice nose with dust feel on the nose. hank says that this wine in his mind needs 4 or 5 years before being fully where it will show up its potential. His experience made him understand that, the 2005 is right now very nice for example.
I ask Hank how many he thinks the so-called non-interventionist winemakers are in California, I was actually wondering if they were kind of gathering sometimes for special tastings like the ones we see in France, and he says there may be some 30 or 40 people maybe who are making wines without corrections. there is definitely a small contingent of winemakers with a similar approach but there hasn't been yet a tasting event gathering all of them.
We drove then with Hank and Caroline to one of their favorite restaurant in the region : Allez, in Diamond Springs, it's managed by Christian, a Frenchman from Ardèche who settled here long time ago and seems to have become fully American, serving beautiful and inventive food.
Alice Feiring visits La Clarine (2012)
Article about La Clarine in the San Francisco Chronicle (2009)
Cory Cartwright visits La Clarine (2010)
There's another Goldrush community near there on the way south, it's Coulterville, and this small town even if less photogenic than Angels Camp has also its charm, and a jewel of prize : the oldest saloon in continuous operation (est. 1851) in California, almost unchanged since the Goldrush years as vintage photos can attest (and my picture on left). The Hotel Jeffery where this saloon is located has rooms beginning at 55 $ a single, amazing deal (upper-tier rooms cost 120 $). We stopped for lunch in the saloon at the counter and got here another of these dream-value hamburgers (7,5 $) we've had all along this trip, and in the setting of this hugely deep room, this was very nice.
With the risk of looking ridiculously tourist minded, I'll add that we even saw a shootout reconstitution by local volunteers in the street and at the door of another sort of saloon with only maybe 10 onlookers, that was kind of unexpected. I may shamelessly put a short video online one day...