Evolution has become a dirty word in much of this great country, but we’re steering clear of politics here. Keep in mind, we’re back in 2015. This was before the crazies moved from the fringe to invade the mainstream.
Evolution here means evolving your craft to produce maximum depth and pleasure. Which does sound a bit like procreation, I guess.
So I’d better watch it.
Chris: I think everything goes through a process of how far can you push it at the top end of the scale, whether it’s alcohol or THC or hops in beer. Sometimes a major recalibration needs to take place.
You like hanging out with your friends, you like drinking wine, you like shooting the shit, why do you want this big heavy cloying thing where everyone’s just yawning and kind of bored, you know? You want wines that pick you up, not weigh you down.
Glou Glou: So how do you work in the winery to achieve that style of wine?
Chris: We keep it pretty simple. I always say it takes a lot of work to do very little with your wines. No yeast or sulfur in the fermenter, no sulfur during aging, unless there’s the odd time something wants to take the wrong turn and then we just clean it up. Everything sees a little sulfur about four weeks before bottling. Usually it’s just a tiny amount, not for any chemistry stability, but more for flavor. I kinda like a little bit of sulfur in my wines, a tiny amount, because I think it just lifts the wine.
Glou Glou: A little spark.
Chris: Yeah yeah, you can perceive the acid that’s in there a little bit more. But once again, it could be down to almost nothing for you by the time you crack a bottle.
Glou Glou: Was it hard for you to source grapes at first, not having a name?
Chris: You can always find something to get started but I think it takes a while to find what you want. Some vineyards I’ve been working with since 2002, so eleven years in the making, so to speak. It just takes a really long time to figure vineyards out. And I don’t think you ever do but that’s what keeps it exciting. You want to keep returning to these spots, and keep learning a place.
Glou Glou: How do you learn a place? What kind of questions do you ask?
Chris: It depends on how much of the backstory you already know. So definitely with the older vine stuff, which is what we’re working with more—some of these heritage vineyards, getting back to why I moved out here (whether it’s old vine Carignan or Zinfandel, which is obviously not a native grape to California, and the Valdiguié and the Grenache gris)—I’d ask, how’d this get here, why is it still alive, why didn’t this get torn out? Why is it still healthy and producing? What is it about this spot that didn’t get ripped out or didn’t get phylloxera? Where did it come from?
Glou Glou: Do you encounter fierce competition for those sorts of grapes?
Chris: I didn’t use to. Nobody cared. People talked about old vines but there wasn’t this overall concern or push for them. Now you see some of your buddies and you’re like, what are you doing out here? Get! [laughs] Go! Mine! But before 2009 there weren’t that many people interested in the old vine Carignan. It was like, what were you going to do with that? Nobody cared about Valdiguié. Maybe nobody still does. I do.
Most of those vineyards are gone and replaced with something else. I’m just trying to convince people to keep these vineyards around. We’ll buy them. We’ll even farm them. There is a renewed interest with some of these like-minded producers— which is the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. Keeping the rising tides attitude about things make sense.
Glou Glou: What kind of terroirs are you working with?
Chris: Since we’re working with about ten different vineyards right now, that’s quite a few soil types, and a lot of different climates as well.
A lot of the stuff is warm. We are in California. The key thing is trying to find the right varietal in a climate that actually makes sense for it. Obviously with a lot of these old vine vineyards that are still around, the climate works. They were planted there for a reason.
But a lot of that stuff is sandy soils—nothing too extreme. The coolest terroir we’re working is kind of like this raised seabed, very calcaire kind of soil with a lot of slate and fossilized seashells [points to rock resting on table]. That’s out of Paso Robles which I think is some of the best soil down there. There’s a vein that runs through and the way it locks in the acid, with a lot of these calcareous deposits and uplifted sea creatures, makes it my favorite.
Glou Glou: Which grape do you like working with the most?
Chris: I mean the Valdiguié is kind of fun because nobody gives it any respect.
Glou Glou: The underdog.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Working with that was just by chance. Cus I was looking for Gamay. I was like, I want to make Gamay, where is Gamay? So I go out to this guy’s vineyard and he’s like, I have Gamay and I’m like no shit, that’s cool. Awesome. When was it planted? And he was like ah, you know, 1950. Ok, they had Gamay around here, in the 50s? I asked what the weather was like. He’s like, oh it’s hot. I thought oh, that’s weird, cus Gamay likes cooler climates. When he said he picked it mid-October, I was like ah, that’s pretty late… are you sure you don’t have Valdiguié? And he’s like, I’m sure. He’s got the sign posted and everything. He’s like, Gamay. I call it Gamay. My dad called it Gamay. My grandfather called it Gamay. So alright, it’s Gamay. But I’m going to call it Valdiguié.
Glou Glou: And we’ll call it even.
Chris: Yeah yeah, you call it what you want, I’ll call it what I want. But that’s how that kind of came about. But I also remember being in college, having my first bottle of J. Lohr, like, what’s this? Oh, Valdiguié. I kinda had an idea. Cus that’s what I could afford in college. So I had a precedent from 15 years earlier.
Glou Glou: In general what kind of wine are you trying to make?
Chris: There’s no recipe so I think people get a little frustrated when they’re like I wanna learn, I wanna come in and help. And then they come in and I’m asking them questions.
Depending on the grape, we have a lot of different oddball vessels. We have the Picpoul in the concrete, we have some of the old vine Carignan in the oval casks and concrete, and most of the whites are in these Germanic casks.
I don’t make one wine the same way year after year. I work with whatever the vintage is giving me and then I try to make the right decision. It’s the opposite of what many wineries do but I understand both sides to the argument. So we can have 100% whole cluster fermentation one year and then not a stem in sight the next year.
Glou Glou: Now that you have this new space, are you able to make wines you couldn’t before?
Chris: We’re starting to make more white wines, make a more ‘complete side of a record.’ Like the first song, second song...there’s supposed to be a progression when you listen to it, right? So I want to have more interesting whites and sparklings.
Glou Glou: Among the wines you make, what are your favorites to drink?
Chris: Probably whatever I just bottled and released. Right now it’s the Chenin blanc. That’s the one I’m most excited about. But I don’t really drink my own.
Glou Glou: Really?
Chris: Nah. I make a point not to drink my wine. Cus I’ve seen other people get house palates, and that’s the only thing they like, and that’s the only thing they drink, and then it starts to slowly get bigger and bigger and riper and riper. Plus, I taste the wines so much here, you saw all the barrels out there. We just tasted through every single barrel.
Glou Glou: That makes sense. You’re not trying to stack your palate up, you’re trying to expand it.
Chris: So yeah, I just try to always keep my palate calibrated. Whatever that means. You know what I’m saying? I try to drink other places.
Glou Glou: Yeah, it’s like your palate has to travel. Stay active.
Chris: Since I can’t go to France all the time, right.
Glou Glou: What do you want in your glass tonight?
Chris: I don’t know, it depends if the Warriors are playing basketball tonight or not. I guess if I had a craving for one thing, right this moment, it’d probably be a Pineau d’Aunis. Or maybe a Chenin blanc. That’s only cus we were just talking about Chenin blanc.
Glou Glou: You seem to always be thirsty for what you’re talking about.
Chris: Yeah, maybe the Pineau and the Chenin. Probably both.
—Berkeley, CA. April 2, 2015