|a dog and ducks: what every winery needs|
La ClarineLocated on the edge of the Eldorado National Forest (nearly a three-hour drive from Napa), the farm at La Clarine has about a hectare of vines planted, with the rest of the grapes bought in from neighbouring vineyards. It's run by Hank Beckmeyer, who worked in the music business with his French wife but got out before the industry could make him "into too big of an asshole." The two of them fell in love with wine on business trips to Provence, making their first wine in a flat in Hamburg. They bought this property in 2001, with the aim not of making wine but cheese. Although there are plenty of goats still grazing on the farm, they abandoned the cheesemaking project after three years because it was too hard and expensive to produce commercially.
Despite that goal, there is a definite methodology to his practices. The black grapes are crushed by foot and fermented in the "ambient temperatures" outdoors, while the whites are fermented indoors where fermentation can take six months. Sulphur is not used except in bottling, "as you just don't know what will happen" when the bottle reaches the consumer. There's no filtering or fining.
La Clarine make 2,000 cases a year, distributed to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, as well as Chicago and Boston. They have also just started distributing to Australia. Hank's distribution policy is simple and one I would follow: sell the wine where he and his wife want to visit.
the winesvisiting in February, most of the wines I tasted were still in barrel
2014 Jamabalaia WhiteAn anarchic blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Petit Manseng, Arneis, and Fiano, this is a wine that Hank has been playing around with over the years, experimenting with skin contact, different sites, and grape varieties as they become available. This is an appealing, edgy wine with lots of complexity. As good as it was, however, there was clearly a "natural" aspect to it: it was very nutty, with some oxidation, and a slight sherry nose. For me, that just added to the appeal, but for most drinkers that would be an issue. Hank's take was that most drinkers seeking out his wine expect some funkiness on the nose or a haziness in the glass, but anyone coming to the wine knowing nothing about it would likely to be troubled - something he seemed quite relaxed about.
2014 Counoise RoséOak is too much of an intervention between grape and bottle, so almost none of La Clarine's wines are aged in oak, either new or old. However, the one wine that is aged in oak is the style that usually least sees oak: rosé. Both fermented and matured in old oak barrels, this rosé is a surprisingly pale golden colour, with a yeasty nose, but with a balanced creamy texture: a very interesting wine that I'd like to taste once it was ready to be bottled.
2013 Syrah Sumu Kawr ($28)The one wine I tasted from bottle, this is a superb raw expression of Syrah - a grape that the rest of California has trouble figuring out. The name of the wine means "place of the summer pines" - there's a pine tree in the middle of the vineyard. There's no new oak: the tannins come from whole cluster fermentation. Wild and bitter, the wine has intense black fruits, black pepper, and liquorice aromas, with a strange but enticing bark and quinine element. The wine is different, intense, but compelling, and one that will age well for many years.
Clos SaronNearly another three hours north of La Clarine lies Clos Saron, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The winemaker here is Gideon Beinstock, a French-Israeli who became captivated by wine when living in Paris in the late 1970s. Then an artist, he became friends with Steven Spurrier as well as taking the opportunity to visit some of the best wineries in France.
A softly-spoken, engaging character, Gideon is at pains to express his discomfort with the concept of natural wine, which he describes as controversial and ambiguous. Most interestingly, he criticises natural wine as being "low in terroir" as winemakers are too interested in the winemaking methodology rather than the soils, grapes, and climate that produce the taste of wine. He told me that the way he makes wine has nothing to do with philosophy, but about how the wine tastes. Like Hank at La Clarine, he believes in stripping the winemaking process as far back as possible so that the wine expresses the grapes and soil it came from. He does, however, spray some sulphur on the vines - "about a third of what is normal" - and the wines are aged in old oak barrels.
The plantings at Clos Saron are small, though undergoing expansion. The new, young vines take time to develop as they are ungrafted - therefore not receiving the high vigour of American rootstocks - and the phylloxera-free soil is difficult and infertile. Despite this and the ongoing drought, the young vines are watered just four times a year, while the older Pinot Noir vines from the 1970s haven't been watered in four years. With sheep grazing in the vineyards and ducks, geese, rabbits, and vegetables serving as food, Clos Saron is a largely self-sustaining farm - Gideon may be sceptical of the notion of the natural wine, but it's no surprise that supporters of the movement have tried to herald him as a leading light.
2014 Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah
|young Viognier vines|
2011 Old Block Pinot Noir ($75)From ungrafted, phylloxera-free vines is Clos Saron's most intense, expressive, and developed wine. It's a young and intense, earthy wine, with wild strawberries on the nose. It has a beautiful mouthfeel, with elegant dry tannins and complex red berry fruits, flowers, pepper, and spices. A difficult wine that may take some years to express itself fully, but one whose intensity and closed structure mark it out from even many of the other best Californian Pinots.
|the thick vines are older, from the 1970s; the thinner ones from the 1990s|
As at any winery, tasting the wines from these two producers was a mixed bag (especially as so many of them were still in the barrel developing), but constant throughout was a willingness to experiment and a profound ambition to express the nature of the land. There was also a healthy scepticism towards the idea of natural as well as commercial wine: these were two winemakers doing their own thing rather than following any movement.
I think as the wines age, the differences between them and more standard wines will become less noticeable - instead the character of the wines, rather than the winemaking philosophy, will express itself further. However, the lack of sulphites and general intervention may cause difficulties: Gideon admitted that his wines had not shown well in France and the UK unless they had been given a month to settle. These are sometimes difficult and particular wines but ones that deserve respect - no less than any wine should.