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.
Valor winery is a very unusual winery in the sense that what brought these men together in a chai and the vineyard was a shared experience in the Army or in other Corps on foreign theaters of operation, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. They built this project to help other veterans readjust to the civilian life, learn a job and feel support from their fellow service members.
I had visited a
few years ago the vineyard managed by the French Foreign Legion in Puyloubier, Provence, a surprising institution
where Legion veterans are housed and can work together with active-duty légionnaires, helping tend the vines from which the Foreign Legion wines are made. When I heard of a small, private winery in California with a similar focus on helping veterans to adapt and cope with the civil life I thought this was worth reporting on, and recent news reminded us of the urgent need to relieve the silent burden of those who want to readjust to normal life after fighting tough wars to remove bloody regimes and bring democracy in regions where people seem to prefer ethnic/sectarian infighting to the challenges of democratic tolerance and building prosperity.
Livermore is a quiet small town in the valley east of the Bay Area, it's definitely hotter here than in San Francisco and Berkeley where the breeze from the sea keeps you cool. The main street (pic on left) is an enjoyable walk with a few restaurants and terraces, and before visting Valor Winery we had lunch in an excellent Mexican Taqueria, Las Caporales, very good value and authentic, and right on main street.
San Francisco, California
Terroir is known as THE wine bar not to miss in San Francisco, it was the first to take the risk to offer a natural-wine-only list in California, a region which was late to embrace the uncorrected wines compared to New York or Montreal, and this article in
the San Francisco Chronicle praised the opening of the venue in 2007, when Terroir slipped quietly through the back door of the city's wine scene. This was friday and Terroir was open from noon to 2am but I had called Luc and said I'd be there at around 5pm so as not to disturb in the peak hours.
We avoided the high costs of staying downtown San Francisco by staying a couple of nights just outside of the city, namely in the very nice Lake Chabot campground near Oakland, a suprising haven of peace just at the door of the Bay Area's tumult (see picture at bottom). The heart of the city was just a few minutes away through the majestic Oakland Bay bridge.
Terroir is centrally located and we found a convenient and affordable parking nearby for the day, the Silver Parking on 7th street (12 $), with all of this vibrant city of San Francisco at walking distance. As this was the morning we had a breakfast in a relaxed coffee shop near Terroir, the SoMa Inn Café, for me it was a short stack (3 pancakes) at 5,5 $ (didn't I suspect this city to be expensive ?). Their lunch and dinner menu is also very diverse and good value, it seemed to me from reading the menu (but for the wines I suggest you go to Terroir...).
Somerset, California (Sierra Foothills)
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...
Oregon House, Sierra foothills (California)
It doesn't take long to Gideon Beinstock to reach his vineyard : his house sits in the middle of it along the gentle slope of his property in the heavenly peace and remoteness of the Sierra foothills. The whole region is also very different than the more inhabited coastal region, you drive along winding roads through woods, dry-grass prairies patched with trees, and isolated farms, with no malls in sight and the only shopping spot in Oregon House
being the local general store/gas station (pictured on right)
where we had our breakfast. Oregon House Grocery & Deli is the American general store as you dream it, groceries, drinks, local newspapers, coffee shop, even ATM, and gas station. Who needs malls ?
This region of California is also very remote compared to other mainstream wine regions like Napa and Sonoma, and it is also very new to winegrowing; there are only a handful of wineries around here, including the New-Age community Renaissance which was the pioneer in experimenting in a large scale with planting different varieties in different type of expositions here. Gideon worked a few years for Renaissance (he quit since) and his time there helped him advance his understanding on the arduous issue of "what variety fares best on this soil and under this climate", something very important in a wine region with many micro-climates. No wine investor in his own mind would have put money in this virgin region at the time and proceeded therough these lengthy trials and plantings but Renaissance didn't work on business-minded schemes, it is some sort of New Age spiritual group which setlled here in 1971 and its founders wanted I guess to dig roots and make something, so they planted a very large surface of vineyard and built a winery, making wine on a minimalist approach, without intervention or additives.
Arnot-Roberts is a young winery managed by two childhood friends, Duncan Arnot-Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, who in some way are typical of the new turn being made in California, where people set up wineries not based on mainstream assumptions regarding wine styles and what
sells well and easily, but set up their business with their sight on the wines they like, not wines
that could please easily to the general public.
They started making wine together in 2002, they're mostly into a négociant structure, they don't own vineyards but contract and lease parcels from different growers instead. they started with little money, not big financial support, using their own savings, slowly growing and adding more parcels to their portfolio as years passed by. The first couple of years they made their wines under the roof of a larger winery which spared the expenses on financing a facility and kept them focused on the wines. Then they moved their operations in a small town nearby, Forestville, sharing a facility from 2008 to 2010 before ended up moving here in Healdsburg in 2011 where both of them live with their family. They both have young children and with this warehouse on main street in Healdsburg they could work closer from home.
For once, finding the winery was not arduous, it is located in a small business development along Healdsburg Avenue, in other words main street, just a few hundred meters from downtown. We had time to look around and I was surprised at how Healdsburg had changed in only 7 years, the city grew a lot it seems to me, lots more fancy shops and also land-devouring suburban sprawl compared with the time B. and I dropped there in 2006. Lots of people from elsewhere want to live in this part of California and it fuels a construction boom that worries the city planners who notice that Healdsburg is becoming too visitor-oriented and want to keep growth in control (but isn't it too late?).
Imagine you're in the middle of nowhere in Southern Oregon and you're told that the nondescript low building with its gravel parking lot along the highway is one of the most acclaimed restaurant with also possibly one of the best wine
list in the United States. You would be skeptic at best, or
think your party is teasing you, especially after you see the name of the venue, the New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, not really the type of name favored by wine geeks and fine cuisine connoisseurs. I suspect that the owner chose the name as a snub to the conventions and I like that, this way he gets the people for whom essence is more important than appearance.
Hidden behind this misleading name and this unexpected location, here is indeed one of top tables of the United States, listed alternatively in Food & Wine as being among America's 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences and in Bon Appetit as being one of the 10 Best New Romantic Getaways. And Getaway is an appropriate word because people who want to experience the venue must prove their word, you don't need courage to go out for fine dining in Berverly Hills or Berkeley, but Talent is quite out of the beaten path for fine-food addicts, you have to drive through back roads and bland villages, not hype at all...
Speaking of Berkeley, Vernon and Charlene met at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse at the occasion of the 7th-anniversary celebration for the restaurant in 1978. Charlene was a trainee cook then in this restaurant which is said to have transformed America's dining and started a gastronomic awakening in the whole country. Vernon for his part was at the time importing wine from France, which could explain his expertise today and the pertinence of his wine list. Meeting at Chez Panisse was a good omen anyway you could say, for this couple who was to manage later one of the most atypical and demanding restaurants and wine venues in this country.
Newberg is a small village in the Willamette valley southwest of Portland. The winding road to there is going through a scenic farming landscape of gentle hills with woods, barns, prairies with horses, orchards
and vineyards. This is the area of the Ribbon Ridge AVA, an appellation part of the Willamette valley appellation.
Doug Tunnell turned to
winemaking after another career as a CBS foreign correspondant. After studying International Affairs at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, he travelled extensively for CBS, covering world events in Europe and the Middle East from 1975 to 1992. But he eventually decided to dig roots in his native Newberg, plant vines there, buying a 40-acre farm near Newberg and founding the Brick House winery, named from the brick farm in the middle of the property (quite rare in the region).
The vineyards of Brick House, which were certified organic very early in 1990 (by Oregon Tilth), are also certified biodynamic (Demeter USA) since 2005. They make just under 30 acres which makes 12 hectares.
Biodynamic certification in the United States is stricter than in other countries as it doesn't only take into account the vineyard management, but also the cellar practices : you can't add acid, sugar, you can't use enzymes or other additives when certified biodynamic. Check this Demeter USA document (page 38 to 42) for the rules : no concentration of must, no micro-ox, no lab yeast, no, pasteurization of juice, no yeast nutrients, no acid or sugar adjustment, no enzymes, tannin, casein, silica dioxide, isinglass, blood, gelatin, gum arabic, carbon, copper, sulfate etc...Reading these rules tells a lot about the extent of corrections elsewhere in the conventional wineries.
Doug Tunnell adds that the organic certification which is Federal also requires the respect of cellar-practice rules. He says though that very few consumers seem to understand the value of that.
SE 6th Avenue & Ash Street, Portland (Oregon)
Fausse Piste is a winery making wine in the middle of Portland. Urban wineries used to be the model in France long time ago in all the French provinces, but most emigrated outside to the open spaces around villages and cities; just think of Beaune where there used to be dozens of wineries and where only 2 wineries remain today downtown, Philippe Pacalet and
Fanny Sabre (but I heard months
ago Fanny was selling). In the United States there seems to be a growing movement of urban wineries, a phenomenon which may be rooted in the fact that many people here began to make wine in their basement.
But here to make our matter a bit more complicated, the Fausse Piste winery is set behind the back doors of a natural-wine bar named Sauvage, a hot spot for Portland's real-wine amateurs. Jessie Skiles (on left) is the man behind this double adventure, and his love for Syrah and Viognier led him to first work in Owen Roe winery in Oregon, which opened the way for making his own wines. It's not usual to sit at the counter of a wine bar and catch sight of a large wooden foudre in the background like on this picture, and I wouldn't have guessed that I'd experience that for the first time in Portland, Oregon.....
And for yet another layer of complexity in this intricate web of relationships, one of the associates, Jeff Vejr, (at right on the picture) uses the place as a front door for his wine importation business, drinkSNOB, and all the foreign wines here come through his channel... The two other people on the picture are Molly Madden and Seth Morgen Long who seem to be both into wine.
Carlton is one of these small villages/communities of America that I love at first glance : it's a simple place with a few businesses and has not yet been remodelled by urban types looking for business opportunities with a wine tourism background. There are still a few buildings reminding the visitor that the place is still a farming community,
and when we drove through with Deborah en
route to Belle Pente, I immediately loved the town, its metal storage silos, brick buildings and vintage old-mercantile style shops (valley Emporium here) with covered sidewalk which are not in wood anymore but the feel remains the same. I must tell you a secret : this trip was probably at least as much about stumbling into such small towns in the back roads of America as visiting wineries, and Carlton (from what it feels in 2013, it may change) was one of these lovely places I loved immediately...
Whatever, what I didn't know is that Deborah would bring me again to this small village to visit a friend of hers who makes wine there : Kelley Fox.
What I didn't know either was that Kelley was making wine precisely in one of these old grain storage silos which had took my eye when we drove through the first time (pic on left, the tall, white construction), reminding me other such silos spotted in small anonymous communities like this one in Ogallalla, Nebraska. That was indeed a good omen for this unexpected visit.