Hank got into wine when he was down in Cannes for a weeklong music festival in the 90s, supposedly an industry gathering but really an excuse for hobnobbing and debauchery in the South of France in the dead of winter. He got curious about some of the local wines and went rogue, sticking around an extra week to go knockin’ on doors: Domaine Tempier, Chateau Simone, Thierry Allemand. With lightning speed, he was importing his discoveries to the German market, before anyone there cared.
1. GET HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY
He didn’t give a damn. He and Caro ended up drinking most of ‘em themselves.
What drew him to these people, we wondered.
“It seems like I gravitated toward the folks who were doing stuff hands-off,” he says. “There was no natural wine back then. It was just, people made wine. And some people made wine like their fathers and their fathers’ fathers did. Other people were into using technology.”
Makes sense, because natural wine is a relatively new term but it’s the oldest way of doin’ the damn thing.
“Exactly. And I tended to gravitate toward those kinds of people that had a long heritage of doing things the same way.”
“Right,” Caro says. “Get it right the first time instead of having to manipulate it later.”
Hell if we could argue with that. Who wouldn’t want the old school stuff, pure and uncut? Also, the wines were interesting and so were the people, damn it! There seemed to be a correlation between that. They weren’t making wine like all the other squares, just to sell. The wine they made was the wine they wanted to drink! They were scratching their own itch, just like Hank and Caro are doing here, in a secluded pocket of wilderness clear across the globe.
“Not everybody has to be into natural wines,” he adds, in earnest. “It doesn’t really matter. There are more people that are into Kendall-Jackson or Rombauer Chardonnay than will ever even taste La Clarine Farm, ever. And that’s ok. But if you’re curious about how wine’s made, and why does this wine taste so different than that wine, then it’s there to discover, but you have to actively want to discover it. That’s different than saying, you really need to drink this wine cus it’s organically made and there’s no sulfites in it.” To hell with dogma!
When he and Caro set up shop in Somerset, they told themselves they’d get their feet wet and if nobody liked their wine, fuck it, they could drink it all. They started with Mourvèdre and some other Rhône grape strains, things took off, and everything they made they’d just reinvest as they looked for other suppliers (vineyards, that is). Once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
2. MAKE AN APOCALYPSE ROSE
Hank got hooked in the South of France. Caro got hooked as a kid in the Savoie (as far as we can tell, the legal drinking age in France is three). But the Loire Valley is most people’s gateway to “natural” wine (some other drugs, too, but easy there cowboy). There are constraints Mother Nature puts in place. It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s gray. Not exactly the recipe for fat, juicy wines, and thank baby Jesus, because that’s the opposite of what we like to swill.
In the Loire, “the wine can’t be overripe,” Caro says. “Not gonna happen. Whereas in the South of France, it can be hot. And then California is even hotter. Here you’re challenged if you’re not trying to make ‘big’ wine. You have to
really be careful and decide, hey I’ll pick now, unless you’re gonna be manipulating later.”
We’re in the cellar at the foot of their driveway, sucking in cold mountain air between sips of Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise, picked three months ago, fermented in barrel, then blended. It’s tasting like psychedelic grapefruit, or at the very least like juice we wished we’d guzzled at breakfast. Our tongues are damn near lolling out of our mouths.
“We started delaying the release of this rosé by a year because we don’t want to manipulate it. The only way we’d have it out by February [two months from now] is by doing something to it,” Caro tells us as we lick our lips.
Hank says it’ll probably still be fermenting when most wineries are bottling and getting ready to ship for spring, when rosé hits the shelves at suppliers across the country. Instead, he’s planning to bottle in the summer and release the spring of next year, in ’18.
Who in holy hell knows where the world will be then.
“Yeah, that’s the plan.”
3. MARRY THE SAME PERSON TWICE
If you met Caro you’d wanna marry her twice, too. Metaphors can’t do this woman justice. She’s sweet as a pie of Georgia peaches, if the peaches had sass and a French accent. She’s cultured as can be, yet she’s got the true grit of a gal who’s spent years managing all-male construction crews in rural Amurika. She’s got a laugh as sparkling as the Albariño we’re swigging.
When Hank moved to California from Europe, his better half was nine months behind him. Bureaucracy kept her in Europe, and when she finally scooped up her visa at the embassy in Paris, she was told it didn’t mean a damn thing if her fiancé was American. She’d have to get married and then apply for a change of status before she could work in the US. Goddamn it all! So when Caro landed in California, she said, Hank, we’ve got to get married. Now. The next day they went to Jackson, bought a marriage license, and the first open slot, they got hitched. Then they tied the knot again all proper for family and friends.
Here they are, sixteen years later, breaking bad in the California wilderness. A rock solid duo locked arm in arm with three dogs, two cats, a minimum of twenty-three goats, and exponentially more bottles of wine. Ready for whatever comes their way.
4. IMPROVISE IN SLO-MO
We’re inside now, sitting at their kitchen table downing another bottle of Albariño as hail starts to pelt the roof like a doped-up woodpecker. The goats are screaming bloody murder down the driveway. The buck is ramming his horns on the fence so forcefully we can hear every clash. Everything sounds much more ominous after doomsday (November 8th, if you haven’t been following).
Trying to tune it out, Hank is recounting his days in the band Half Japanese. It’s a righteous tale. The music was loud, improvised. They’d borrow from anything and everything. “If it somehow fit together and seemed appropriate, we would mash up country with anything. Country’s always a good thing to mash up anyway.” God knows it needs it.
Hank says they only had three days of rehearsal for the first tour he went on. Three days! He barely knew the damn song structures. But as the tour went on, it was great because everything evolved on stage and they’d end up incorporating the happy accidents. He loved that. It was like exposing wine to oxygen for the first time.
“You learn and you adjust the way you do things. So I try to bring that into winemaking. I always try to go into every vintage with this improvisational feeling.”
Making wine and music seem to share lots of mind-bending parallels.
“There are a lot, but it’s also not like I’m playing a song. With wine, the improv lasts a long time — it’s like slow motion. You don’t see the result right away.
It’s like you play one show a year and then nobody gets to hear it for 6 months or 10 months or whatever. And by then you’re like, I’m beyond that. I have other ideas now.”
Sometimes he’ll come up with an idea to try at harvest and other times he’ll wing it. Sometimes it’s “yeah, let’s do that. That sounds stupid fun. So…skin contact Marsanne. It’ll be on the skins for at least six months. Then we’ll take it and make a sparkling wine out of it. So, sparkling orange Marsanne. It’s what the world needs.”
“It could be awful,” Caro adds.
We point out that it wouldn’t be the only thing turning out awful right now, so maybe it’s just staying current with the times. If not, it’ll be the remedy.
“I dunno,” Hank says, peering sly as a fox over the top of his glass. “I think people are gonna need a lot of wine in the next four years. If they still let us make it.”
5. TURN BACK THE CLOCK
We might be drinking more wine than ever, it turns out. With the drought in California the last five years, and global warming on track to make matters much fuckin’ worse, orchard owners are thinking of converting to vineyards since grapes require much less water than trees. If you twist your brain and squeeze out some wishful thinking, you might see the upside: the more global warming is denied, the more wine we’ll end up making. Sure beats imagining this place as a goddamn dustbowl.
In ancient times, people made wine when they weren’t sure water was safe to drink.
Now, absent water, we’re back to wine. Just like that! Funny how the universe works.
6. THE ART OF THE DEAL
Take some advice from the fat cats in office. Or don’t:
Hank: I’m kind of a terrible salesperson, which is why we rely on professionals who are good at it to do it for us.
Glou Glou: But terrible salespeople are sometimes the best because you’re not spitting bulshit.
Hank: It’s hard for me to sell my wine because it is kind of a personal thing to me. Then I feel like the only way I can sell my wine is to pump myself up. It’s like ego inflation.
Caro: Trump yourself up?
Hank: Hahah, trump myself up. That phrase has taken on a whole new meaning. And I’m not comfortable doing that, saying look what I’ve done, it’s really fantastic.
7. DO THE RIGHT THING
It’s too bad Hank’s not a narcissist, because he’d make a great fuckin’ president.
Instead of inserting his ego into wine (God knows there’s enough of that in the biz), he’s been on a die-hard quest to take himself out of it. When he arrived in California, he figured he first ought to make wine for other folks. The wineries he apprenticed himself to were commercial, using lots of technology to shore up any bets if Mother Nature dealt a bad hand. Everything was filtered and got a good dose of sulfur on a regular basis.
So when he and Caro started La Clarine, he wanted to “see how far back you could take winemaking, toward zero. And all these things I’d been doing, like regular sulfite additions, and racking the wine every 3-4 months [moving it from barrel to barrel to remove the sediment]… I had the impression most of that was stuff you did just to keep people busy. And I wondered how important it really was for the wine.”
Hell if he was gonna do any of that shit. He’d learnt a thing or two before breaking into the game on his own. He was also gonna use native yeast (found on the skins of the grapes) even though that meant the wine wouldn’t be consistent from year to year. But as much as he tried to take himself out of the game, he soon realized that wine doesn’t make itself. There are times when he needs to step into the ring: mainly, in choosing when to pick and when to bottle. In these moments, he wields huge influence, so he’s gotta act wisely:
“That’s kind of what experience teaches you. Working with vineyards for a number of years and seeing how the fruit is. It’s a matter of learning the personalities of the vineyards and trying to take advantage of that. If you’re making red wine, when do you press it and how aggressive do you want to be with extraction? [Extraction is like making tea — how much flavor, tannin, and color do you want to pull from the grape?] Some vineyards you don’t need as much. Others seem to like it.
When it comes to bottling, there is a time when you taste in the cellar and the wine seems harmonious. And then you go, ok, I want to capture that. In my mind, that’s what you’re doing with bottling. You’re capturing that moment. Like a snapshot. Then of course it changes in the bottle after. Can’t do anything about that. So you hope you get it right.”
Some governments could learn a thing or two from Hank Beckmeyer. If they gave a damn.
8. DON'T BE A *****
Sulfur is front and center in the debate over natural wine. It’s like the MSG of the wine world. It’s everywhere. But are you fuckin’ allergic? Does it actually give you a hangover?
Listen up, health nuts. Sulfur’s added in winemaking to stabilize and extend shelf life. Plain and simple. Over-sulfured wine’s not considered natural because it flattens personality and texture. But not sulfuring enough can create a breeding ground for bacteria. There’s no official word on how much is considered “acceptable,” but purists continue to lab-test wines to determine the exact amount. The problem with that?
“All wines have sulfites,” Hank scoffs, pulling a true Walter White. “They’re produced naturally during fermentation. Yeast can produce on average 5 parts to 90 parts of sulfites depending on the strain. Take Côte-Rôtie [in the Northern Rhone]. Thirty percent of the indigenous yeast strains there produce a lot of sulfites. Plus, there’s a margin of error. The test isn’t accurate below 5 parts anyway, so you can have a zero reading and still have sulfites in the wine.
What people are worried about is added sulfites. But there’s no way to test for that.”
So why is sulfur the black sheep in the race to the purest wine?
“It’s something you can quantify, so it’s easy to demonize it.”
Caro chimes in. “It’s very telling of people’s mindsets. Everything has to be either black or white. All the variations in between…they can’t deal with. It’s the same thing with politics. So that’s why they go from, I can’t vote for Sanders so I’ll go for the opposite. What’s in the middle does not work for them.”
Hank: “Nuance is difficult sometimes. People just take it for what it is. Oh, that’s why I was hungover the last time I went out and drank six bottles of wine. It was the sulfur.”
Caro: Nah, you just drank too much.
—El Dorado County, California.
December 16, 2016