Oregon House, California Sierra Foothills
Aaron and Cara Mockrish who now run Frenchtown Farms are of a new generation of winemakers who spend most of their attention and care in the vineyard. They're passionate about the vineyard and the farming, Aaron says that they want to do it all by themselves because they love it, and if he begins to have to manage people for the vineyard work and do some saleswork, he'll lose the fun and excitement of his job. Both of them had been managing a farm in the area before getting in contact with wine in 2014. At the time they were living 30 minutes from here, growing vegetables and raising sheep, and ended up growing vines too although they had no experience in that part of agriculture or with winemaking. One friend brought them one day a bottle of Clos Saron which he told them was made nearby and this was an awakening experience, that such a wine of this quality was made right here in Oregon House, it shifted something in them, Cara says... That's how they came in contact with Gideon Beinstock (the winemaker behind this wine) who has an extensive experience in the region for both viticulture and winemaking. This region is the North Yuba AVA in central California north of Sacramento, a tiny wine region where natural winemaking and organic viticulture thrives. Aaron is from New York and Cara from Connecticut, But Cara's grandmother grew up in Placerville 2 hours from here and she came over here quite a few times, it's funny, she says, that her grandmother moved to connecticut to get married and she (Cara) did it samely but the other way around, moving here in Oregon House to get married (this took place shortly after our visit).
Aaron and Cara have a lot of friends in the restaurant industry, they were interested in wine but lacked the experience, so they began working with Gideon to learn, which led them unexpectedly to have the opportunity to harvest the fruit next door at Renaissance, where a large surface of vineyard was sitting idle with no one getting the fruit. In 2016 they moved closer to Renaissance to a place named Frenchtown on the outskirts of Oregon House (itself a very small place) where they lived in a large house and worked with a partner. They didn't follow a formal training at a wine school, all they learned was from working with Gideon. They also learn from their friend Dani Rozman (La Onda) who makes wines not far from here and has also a good experience
This area of the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento is home to what we could call a new wine region in the State of California, its origin is rooted in the creation in the early 1970s' by the Fellowship of Friends (a New-Age group) of the first winery of the region following massive plantings on the Fellowship of Friends' Compound at Apollo, near Oregon House, CA. Renaissance, the winery of the Fellowship (which I was lucky to visit back in 2006) was born and the volunteers of the group made a titanesque work, landscaping terraces all over the surrounding hills, planting thousands of vines, building a facility, even welding metal vats and fermenters themselves.
Under the guidance of Gideon Beinstock they made a real pioneer work in terms of viticulture, selecting the right varietal for the right terroir, this was a totally new region in terms of vine growing, you had to experiment which variety suits best this or that slope, plus the wines at Renaissance were vinified on a non-interventionist way and spent many years in the cellar, the philosophy here was not commercial or with returns in mind, and this resulted in wines that were applauded for their quality when they at last were released. The North Yuba AVA (the American Viticultural Appellation or Area) was established in 1985 thanks to Renaissance's work. While Apollo still stands with its neat paved roads lined with trees and its golden Greek statues circled with flags, the winery part has all but stopped as they didn't find the right person at time to continue the job of managing such a big estate. Much of the vineyard has been uprooted since, the naked terraces overgrown with dry grass (see pic lower right) reminding us of a vibrant viticulture past.
Read Jenny Eagleton's article on Renaissance and Gideon's work, lots of informations there.
On the picture above and on left you can see the big building of the former winery facility for Renaissance's winemaking and cellaring, it is now unused, there is just a caretaker who looks over the building and the cellared wine (there are certainly great bottles here that would make wine lovers happy). The vats and
winemaking tools have for the most been taken away.
Right now Cara and Aaron vinify at Gideon's Clos Saron a short distance from here but they will soon make some room in the house they rent for a small facility and cellar. Cara says that it's been so nice to learn with him, he has this completely pared-down method that seems so simple to them and which is the only method they know now and it works. When they speak to other winemakers they're asked if they're not worried about this or that and it seems that's what the winemakers were taught in the wine school, be afraid, she says she doesn't even know what she might be afraid of, it's alien to her training with Gideon...
Of course they adapted, they definitely have a different style than Gideon, but they learnt the fundamentals with him, the building blocks on how to make wine are very similar. At the beginning when they met Gideon it was just an approach, Gideon wanted to know them better, saw they were raising lamb and were already doing farm work, he had lambs himself and it was nice to experience each other's products.
Then Aaron asked to spend some time in the vineyard with Gideon in order to learn; Cara was still doing some consulting work from home on her laptop, as a day job, so she was still busy at the time, but Gideon was happy to teach Aaron and it's just how it started. At the same time, in an unrelated way, through their taking part to the Farmers Market where they were selling vegetables, Aaron & Cara began to be acquainted with a few people in the Fellowship and trust was built between each other and eventually in 2015 they received a call asking them if they were interested in picking some fruit on Renaissance vineyard to make their wine or sell the grapes. They were not really prepared when it happened but they said yes, as young winemakers and having gone through some training with Gideon, this offer allowed them to try their skills and make a decisive step in the direction of growing vines and making wine.
They hadn't farmed these vines in 2015 but they could pick the fruit and vinify it. Renaissance had downsized considerably its vineyard surface since the heydays of the winery, just consider it was once a 365-acre vineyard surface (148 hectares) of unrooted (ungrafted) vines (all done in a pioneering way withh all kind of varieties on different expositions) and today only 30 acres (12 hectares) remain, and in 2015 the managers of the Fellowship needed to further make another pause and see what was next, stopping the viticulture completely or not. So with this unexpected offer 2015 was the first year Aaron and Cara began to make wine from a small part of the fruit they picked (they sold the rest), on these few acres on the hills of Renaissance. For the 1st vintage due to the timing of the call they picked later than they would have normally but in the following years they could manage things in advance including for the farming. They made 100 cases total in this 1st vintage of 2015. And for me they were instrumental to save the last terraced vineyards of Renaissance. I asked why didn't they try to find some grower to take back the other vineyards before uprooting them, but there aren't many people around here able to handle this type of work and contracted vineyards, all the winemakers want to be near San Francisco or in more sought-after areas, plus the young people with grower capability around here prefer to grow marijuana which is now legal and more profitable. We indeed smelled it quite a few times while driving through California, the unmistakable smell sneaked in even with closed windows, through the air inflow of the AC I guess...
For this first vintage with a vineyard to pick the fruit from for themselves, they were pretty busy because they were still working with Gideon, they didn't own barrels so they made an arrangement with Gideon regarding the apprenticeship, making wine in return in his facility. They'd pick the fruit but Gideon would use most of it. In 2016 they increased their volume to 400 cases and in 2017 700 cases. In 2018 they hope to reach 900 or 1000 cases. Because they started so slowly, Aaron says, they haven't been in a position so far where they have a lot of wine and don't know what to do with it. Gideon shared his connections and they sold most of their wine in New York City so far, very little locally, except a few cases in San Francisco and Oakland. Ordinaire, the wine bar in Oakland has always been very supportive.Gideon taught them to start small and grow little by little, and they're learning all along, they want to be careful. They're selling the fruit they don't use but the yields are so low they don't really make money by selling fruit. The area is naturally low yield, especially with the dry farming, also the plantings are very low density, like 250 or 300 vines per acre, this is due to the terracing and the wide spacing of the vines.
Aaron had gone to work very early that day (the temperature was to be in the high 90s that day) and at one point we had to bring him some fuel for the tractor, so we just drove to the nearby farm (where we initially drove into when we arrived because of a GPS error) which is an old-fashioned, low-key farm in spite of the large surface they manage. They have an arrangement with this farm for their fuel needs, otherwise they'd have to drive quite a distance, and Cara just filled a couple of tanks at the farm. We later saw one of the guys from this farm who was looking for a few cows that had escaped through the sketchy fence (he didn't seem that worried, like, he'll find them one day or another...), this was for us very impressive because through all these anodine details you could have a feel of the country life around here, in the Sierra Foothills, which is both occasionnal hard work and very relaxed (and in an awsome landscape throughout all seasons) and I understand why people around here would never exchange it for the sophisticated pleasures of urban centers.
All these vines are ungrafted which is for us Europeans extraordinary (we'd put the info on the labels for sure). But Aaron says so far their approach on labels has been very minimalist, they try to tell their story on Instagram or Facebok, but labels end up being everything in the wine business and for their part they feel they just begin and learn, and want people to just experience the wine with sort of a blank slate, and then if they want more information he's happy to tell about the vineyard, the blocks, he could talk all day about the vineyard life, that's what he's passionate about.
They just spray sulfur dust on the vineyard, but no copper because they don't need to, there's no mildew. It's thus an organic farming without the copper part, something many organic farms in Europe can't do. These parcels are on the North Yuba AVA area (Appellation) because we're on the Renaissance hills but there are now some parcels that stand just outside of the AVA limits although with a similar terroir, like for example Gideon Beinstock's Clos Saron, which is ironic because Gideon, through his years at Renaissance is kind of the originator of this new AVA. Happily wine lovers in this country aren't as much tied to formal appellations, and this is especially true for those looking for real, uncorrected wines, they'll put more value on how Gideon, Dani and Aaaron/Cara tend their vines.
They farm 20 acres (8 hectares) at Renaissance, this sounds a lot for 2 people but with the very low density it's possible. In Napa or Sonoma yjey make 4 tons of fruit per acre, in the Central Valley and Lodi it's more like 5 or 7, 9 or 10 tons per acres, here on these vineyard they make on a very good year a maximum of 2 tons per acre. Also since Cara and himself took over it's 100 % dry farming (it was irrigated until they took over) and it's a decision that works in both ways, they accept that sometimes the vines have difficulty maturing the fruit, sometimes the yields are drastically low, however they benefit in the concentration of fruit. Asked if the vines overnight could adapt, Aaron says that they watched carefully, they watched the vines, the stress level, the energy, and happily they made it through after 3 years they're sure the vines will be fine and have adapted to their new diet. Anyway what Renaissance did before was a heavy irrigation but no more than twice or three times a year, like if a few heavy rainfalls had occured, this wasn't the continuous drop irrigation you see in other parts of California. And because of the severity of the land the vines, the terroir is so difficult, dry & rocky that they either drive their roots down or die, Aaron says there's no shallow root system here, and there's not even enough water to create such a system (drop irrigation can create one). Aaron says that you can see that these vines have power, but they still feel some stress, even if facing it with bravery.
Aaron loves the Syrah, he loves working there and it's his favorite wine among the ones he products.
Cara does some work on the vines while showing us around, like leafing and taking out some shoots that pump too much energy from the vine, she does it by hand, having left her tool, her secator in the car, she obviously knows the vines and what needs to be done on each, and every vine being different it's never exactly the same thing. She and Aaaron learned all they know from Gideon, certainly the best teacher in the area, plus during his years overlooking Renaissance he has accumulated a perfect knowledge on how these vines behave, parcel per parcel. Both Aaron and Cara went a long way before settling here, first they were living on the East Coast, then before that Aaron spent much of his life overseas (Kenya, India and Japan), his parents having moved to different countries as educators in American schools, and Cara studied abroad a few semesters, in London and then Kenya. This all brought some experiences that built their taste along and yes, some of it may translate into a different approch to winemaking than just following a typical California style, they look for something leaner, which can be difficult for Syrah in California, Aaron adds with a laugh, but they try. Mostly they focus on making wine that they like themselves.
They keep a small flock of sheep behind the house, guarded by two lovely Pyrennean dogs, they've considerably downsized their sheep compared to when it was their main activity with vegetable growing, but with the work on the vineyard they had to. Their house still has this farm feem with the sheep and also the hens and chicken which they feed with vegetable peelings and other compost-type stuff.
This block of cleared land is where Aaron and Cara will plant their first parcel, it's a long-term lease if i remember, the lot is not part of the Renaissance compound (while at a very short distance as the crow flies) and they'll plant it on their own designs and plans. They hired a service company for the clearing work and from now on Aaron should be able to continue by himself until for the plantings, which they'll do gradually. This future parcel is right near the house they rent and they'll be able to go there easily.
Here are the baby vines they intend to plant later on their new parcel (If I'm right), there is a range of varietals, Gamay, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc and Counoise, and they had it prepared by Guillaume nursery in Knights Landing, CA it's a local subsidiary opened in 2006 by a French nursery (based in Charcenne, Franche Comté) and Aaron works with them because they were open minded about the experiments he wanted to do, I don't remember if it was about the sourced wood or the type of grafting, need to ask Aaron again.
We drove to Clos Saron (I said hello briefly to Gideon there) because that's where they keep their cellar; soon hopefully they'll set up their own chai and cellar at their house. They've been making small volumes of wine until then, so it was not too difficult for Gideon to house tem temporarily.
__ Mourvèdre majority, We taste a red from the barrel, this is Cotillion 2017 which they wre to bottle two weeks later, it's a blend of Mourvèdre (70 % roughly), Syrah and Grenache, grapes purchased in the Sierra Foothills, light, sandy soil. They may cool down the grapes if necessary. Full mouth, very enjoyable all the way down the throat, juicy feel. The reds get 3 or 4 days maceration after fermentation starts. All the wines (including rosé and whites) are on their gross lees all the time and these lees are really a reduction engine, Aaron says, and the only racking they get is happening the day before bottling. That's really what I'd call non-intervention winemaking, the wine being kept by itself all its vinification and élevage time, not even stirring (batonnage).
__ Syrah 2017, made from Grapes picked at Renaissance, with 5% Roussanne (adjacent block). Darker color, dark-red-fruits aromas, more tannic, Aaron says that's the rocky soil of Renaissance. Relatively light press and rather low alcohol for a Syrah, it was picked at 21,5-22,5 Brix, so the final alcohol will be around 12,8 or 12,9.
__ Cabernet [Sauvignon] (60 %), Merlot (35 %) 2017, Semillon (5 %), all from Renaissance as well, Merlot pickec a week earlier, they don't ferment together at the beginning but they get together in the barrel where they merge their fermentation, this gives a good integration this way, Aaron says. Great acidity, lovely chew, and Cara laughs because she saw the wine was still outwardly acidic, she says let's try the 2016 in comparison. But I love it that way although I guess the wine is indded vibrantly acidic (Cara knows the young horse will get wiser in a few months), and there is this mouthfeel with the chalky tannins that is so nice either, this is really my type of wine, good job. Also there's an astringency on the side of the cheeks, but I remain a fan. All natural acidity, my stomach loves it noisily too, it lets me know it voted thumbs up, this is liquid food !
__ Same wine in 2016, except that the blend proportions on that vintage are upside down it's 60 % Merlot, 35 % Cabernet & 5 % Semillon. The name of the cuvée, Indigeaux, is kind of the result of a mistake they made in their choice of spelling, they say with a laugh, the original cuvée in 2015 was made from grapes from another farm and there was a horse there named Indigo but they thought they could spell it also like Indigeaux in a kind of French or Bordeaux reference but they learnt too late that in French "geaux" gets pronounced like "jo", not "go", whatever, they keep it that way, and I'm sure this will turn to be a blessing...
Here also, noticeable astringency, Aaron says he's sure a lot of it comes from the stems, and the fact they pick early, with not-quite-ripe stems.
Their 2015s like the Syrah and the Cabernet were released and sold out and for the 2016s, the Syrah was bottled but unreleased and the Cabernet is still in barrel. Everything is bottle-aged but also they don't bottle the wine before the it kind of says "I'm ready", and that's why the Cabernet is still in barrel. There is no fixed schedule, they just taste and see. They follow the moon stages of course for bottling and use a gravity filler. In the past years they used a peristaltic pump during harvest with the idea that active juice can stand more easily the abuse, especially the reds, but this year they're thinking about using gravity at this early stage also and eschew the use of the pump. Step by step they try to implement simple procedures. Plus they don't hire a service company for bottling, and another issue behind doing it themselves is that there are different understandings of what clean means : of course they do their bottling with hygiene and cleanliness in mind but bor a bottling service company it implies bleaching everything and Aaron says he can't agree with that because it's not neutral on the wine. And even if there'd be no bleach residues in the bottles, it's simply that he doesn't believe in such a thing as surgically-clean bottles, and the best place to get sick and catch an infection is the hospital where everything is bleached year around. They learned to feel intuitively with Gideon that the wines [at least the way they make their wines] are alive and can stand by their own energy; they do use a bit of sulfur, but so little before bottling (and none before) that the wine remains alive, the wines are not killed by that process.They do make experiment on the side with wine in demijohns where they don't even put the tiny amount of sulfites, there can be wonderful results but on a significant percentage of the trials they get some flaws like mousiness so they prefer to keep on adding these small amounts at bottling.
Speaking of their number of cuvées they plan to expand to 7, some smaller, some larger, purchasing the fruit for 2 of them (including one with Pinot Noir from Oregon which they're having since 2017). Aaron says he looks for having a better acidity level in the wine, they tend to push the limit in terms of when they pick, and of course you have the potential problems of greenness and unripe flavors to handle but they look for the lowest sugar as possible, and faced with the resulting acidity in the wine they see people being responsive even when they're not used to acidity in wine, they find it. The odd thing here is that many winemakers de-acidify intentionally, because en though they pick later they have what they think is too much acidity. Aaron says acidity is similar to tannins or oak, it's a structural element on which a wine can age, even bitterness can be a structural element, and acidity, if showing a bit agressive when young, is what allows these wines to age, that's why Renaissance made these outstanding wines that people first discovered after years of cellar time. Aaron says that he and Cara just want it to let be itself.
One of the things that Gideon told him when they began to know each other and which made a lasting impression on him is that when you meet a wine young or a wine middle-aged or a wine at the end of its life, it's still the same wine which you can recognize throufgh the years even though the character smoothened along the years, like for a person, the conversation will not ne the same when 5 years old compared to 30 or 60 but it's the same person, and the enjoyment will just be different. So he also likes the wines when they're at their agressive stage with this particular vibrancy, but he loves also the mature wines, even though his own vertical is 3 years, he can already spot the change, he has an idea of what they're going to.
This area where they live is superb, it's from what I saw (and it's actually the 3rd time I come to this precise little town) a moderately-hilly ranch-country type of landscape with lots of trees and prairies, the yellow grass making a beautiful contrast with the trees, it's sparsely populated and 'm told there are quite a good number of families around here but the houses are out of view from the roads. As we were relaxing on the terrace I spotted a large flock of pelicans that were travelling through, and i think they spotted the few ponds of the area (including the one at Apollo, next door) and began to circle around as if hesitating to stop there for the night. This lasted very long, maybe half an hour and at one point we stopped watching to go inside. Never seen so many pelicans in one glance.
__ The Pearl Thief 2016, white, from a bottle. Blend 40 % Sauvignon Blanc (from Renaissance) and 60 % Viognier from Lodi (interesting terroir in this region with some of the oldest vines), Aaron warns that the Sauvignon kind of overpowers the Viognier here. Nice texture & tannin feel on the palate, particular to a white, good acidity, nice enjoyable wine although serving temperature too high (this was the beginning of some heat wave). Unfiltered; nothing is filtered anyway.
Aaron says that this region is one of the little dirty secrets of American wine, it's mostly flat and a lot of Napa and Sonoma wineries are farming as much Lodi wine as they can, it's cheaper than anything you find around because the yields there are 7 tons per acre [I even read somewhere 8 to 12 tons per acre].
__ The Pearl Thief 2017, from 100 % Renaissance grapes, 70 % Sauvignon Blanc & 30 % Roussanne. From now on they will have this blend for trheir white, and while on the previous vintage the Lodi fruit was overpowered by the Renaissance fruit, here it's equal power and thus more balanced in terms of blend. Pressed after 5-6 days of sitting on stems and skins, with foot stomping, but no real maceration, no carbo herre.
Turbid white, gorgeous golden color. Pressed in puncheons, fermented in there, then gets into barrels on march or april. Enjoyable tannin feel, a bit like if some sort of skin contact had taken place, and there's this sweet gentleness although no sugar left. Aaron says the Roussanne changes the viscosity of the wine and makes it waxier, he loves it, he also loves having a bit of reduction in a white.
__ Cecilia 2017, a rosé made from 70 % Syrah and 30 % Sauvignon Blanc; light color, because they press the grapes relatively quickly after a short stomping (if i can read my notes properly , which is not easy here). Fermented in barrel, bottled in march-april. Full mouth, great to swallow, with richness & fruit. 12 % alcohol or less, and very good acidity, they say that when they pick for this wine some grapes are still hard. Now released on the market. This is a rosé for reelaxing, nothing more than having fun with friends. Good job. 26 $. Their wines sell for 26 to 40 $.
In the evening (we stayed a couple of days with Aaron and Cara) we saw Aaron work in the kitchen to prepare dinner, he had asked us in advance if we had any food intolerance or allergy. Here Aaron’s past life in the restaurant sector on the East Coast is put back to use, and no doubt he likes doing things in the kitchen as well. This house (a rent, it was intially built for the people of the Fellowship) in addition to its quietness and view has a very ergonomic kitchen. During dinner, Aaron opened several bottles so that we could further discover their production.
__ Cotillion 2016, a red blend made from 50 % Zinfandel and 50 % Carignan, both from Lodi, these are 118-year-old ungrafted vines. They picked the grapes early, the grower couldn’t believe it, he was surprised because the norm for the picking date was much later among his buyers. Silky tannins, great pleasure to swallow, with a welcome bitterness wrapping the whole thing; alcohol very balanced & moderate, 13 %. They use this cuvée to experience with different varieties every year. __ Pinot Noir 2016, from Carlton Hill Vineyard, Oregon. Outward freshness, the signature of Frenchtown Farms wines, I’d say, I love it ! In addition to freshness, these lovely silky tannins, and a delicate feel overall. They say they have a lot of control themselves in this vineyartd, they have their own chosen rows, they decide when to pick and the pickers were told how to work. They had such good quality of fruit that they could crush right in the vineyard (not really allowed, hope it’s not a problem to print this__ please say I misunderstood if you’re asked about it…). The soil in Oregon is more limestone compared to here where it’s granite.
__ 19 Harts 2015, a red blend, 85 % Syrah, 15 % Roussanne, this is the cuvée with the syrah which Aaron loves so much; One barrel only of this wine. This is the wine he made from their 1stt picking at Renaissance, when they were offered on short notice that they could pick Renaissance’s grapes; the picking date was late compared to what he does, but that’s because they were told pretty late in the season about the availability of the grapes.
Aaron loves Syrah and among the winemakers he admires the most there’s particularly Hervé Souhaut and the way he makes his Syrah wines. Nice complex mouth and swallow, with good length and tension, a pleasure to drink, and even just by itself, I love it. Nose on the empty glass : a killing !
__ Indigeaux 2015, a blend of 72 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 % Merlot, 8 % Cabernet Franc and 4 % Sauvignon Blanc. Also made just after Renaissance offered them to pick the grapes. Lovely nose, dust feel, you already feel the freshness there. 13,5 alcohol. This wine was a great experience to make, the grapes [the Cabernet Sauvignon I guess] were close to underripe but it turned out perfect. In the beginning it tasted horrible but Gideon told him to just wait, and he was right, it turned out beautiful, so it was a good lesson for them in this early training in winemaking : no worry, just wait.