Cépage

Setting the Right Pace

An Afternoon with McPrice Myers

By R.H. Drexel

Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.

-Seamus Heany

Dressed from head-to-toe in solid black Dickies and a black baseball cap, vigneron McPrice Myers stands beneath a Ted Lasso-inspired, hand-made sign that hangs above the cellar door in his eponymously named Paso Robles winery: "Believe," hand-drawn in Sharpie ink. AC/DC’s "Highway to Hell" blasts through the speakers as a forklift revs by with a barrel aloft.

Myers waves me through the cellar and outside again, where his vineyard truck is parked out back on the crush pad. He motions for me to hop in. He’s cordial but a bit reserved at first. When Myers gets behind the wheel, I get the sense it’s the first time he’s been off his feet since daybreak. He heaves a deep breath as he puts the truck in gear. "Most of this ranch is east and north-facing, which is what I prefer. It’s part of why I fell in love with this property." We are entering his hillside estate vineyard in the Adelaida district of Paso Robles. "It took longer to rehab this vineyard than I’d anticipated, but that’s okay." Though Myers, 48, is now in his 23rd harvest, he’s relatively new to this estate, which he acquired in 2017. 

Discovering the vines had been neglected, he had two additional wells dug at the property, though he’s quick to tell me that they only water the vineyards "as needed. Just enough to have healthier vines and good shoot growth. The freshness and vibrancy we get in the wines now is really nice," he says. "There’s structure here. Density. Power, but there’s all the freshness in the background that keeps it honest." 

I first met Myers back in 2002 when he was in his twenties, a young buck just starting out at the then collegiate and popular Central Coast Wine Services in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County, making wines with his buddy, Russell P. From, under the Barrel 27 label. I’d often swing by to visit friends making wine there, but I never conversed much with Myers. He was quiet and kept mostly to himself. 

"Back then, the CCWS was an incubator of talent. You had Paul Lato (Paul Lato Wines), Lane Tanner (Lane Tanner Wines), Curt Schaclin (Sans Liege), Gary Burke (Costa de Oro), the late Seth Kunin (Kunin Wines), Joe Davis (Arcadian), Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley (Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Wines), all there making wine. It was the perfect situation," he says. "That was going to school. I’m so grateful for my time there."

We drive through slippery vineyard roads, past a dense forest that surrounds the estate, and emerge atop a hill where he’s eager to show me their new VIP tasting digs, shipping containers painted in earth tones to better blend into the natural setting. The view is spectacular from the top of the estate. Myers deftly points out the territory below, a vast country expanse that includes "San Miguel. Ranchita Canyon. Hog Canyon," he says, listing sites and sub-appellations enthusiastically. "Estrella. There’s J. Lohr winery, the Power Road corridor. Hwy. 46 east. Geneseo. Past that, it’s the Shandon District. Over here, you’ve got El Pomar. That’s Black Mountain. And, on this side is Creston. And there’s Templeton Gap. You can see all the way to the Eastern Pinnacles in Monterey County."  

"The first time I came up here, I was like, Holy Shit!"

He’s animated as he describes the landscape below and beyond. "The first time I came up here, I was like, Holy Shit! You don’t realize the view until you come here. It’s amazing. It’s steep terroir," he continues, "with not much topsoil, so yields are low. The vines are responding well to just simple things. Enough water. Compost. Little things to give them a little extra, and they’re grateful." 

As we wind our way back down towards the winery, he points to a mountainside where he hopes to dig caves. "That will probably begin in 2027. It will be 5,000 feet of barrel storage." He plans to expand his production area, as well. "We’ll have more vessels that will be more conducive to what we want to do. I love small open-top fermenters, just because that’s where I started, and I do appreciate them, but having more concrete, even for aging, and more stainless steel; that will be a game changer production-wise. Our growth is measured and thoughtful. We want to make sure that what we do we do well and right."

When we reach the winery, Myers walks ahead purposefully, waving me in and pointing to a table and benches. It’s a busy day in the cellar, with a bottling date just around the corner. He talks to his staff for a bit, then grabs a few bottles from storage for us to taste. 

"Stress is a good motivator."

Myers has about 20 employees. "We’re all rowing in the same direction, and it’s a good feeling, but there’s a tremendous amount of stress. Stress is a good motivator. You’re always really paying attention to the details because there’s so much riding on the decisions we make. I still pinch myself that I get to do this for a living. I didn’t grow up in the wine business. I wasn’t the son that was going to take over. Back when I started, I thought, ‘If I could just make an honest living, pay my bills and be able to do this.’ That was all I was hoping for. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. I pinch myself. Am I really doing this?" We are joined at our tasting by his Associate Winemaker, Adrian Perez, a former McPrice Myers wine club member and organic farmer whose family maintains an organic farming business on the Central Coast. When he was hired, he had no previous winemaking experience. There’s a jovial yet respectful vibe between them. 

Myers was born in Bellflower, California, to Irish parents. His family roots are in County Cork, Galway, and Waterford. Myers pays tribute to his roots with the Claddagh symbol, which was present throughout his house growing up. It now appears on his wine labels and is painted on the side of his winery. Though his mother wore a broach of the Claddagh symbol, he didn’t start paying attention to the symbol until he became a winemaker. "I like what it stands for. Love, loyalty, and friendship. You have to love what you do. You have to be loyal to the process and craft. And grateful for the amazing friendships wine creates; whether I’m there or not, a bottle of wine is the best thing when sitting around and having a chat with friends. It just is." 

He was raised in the suburban town of Whittier in Southern California, where his father worked for the youth authority (a now-defunct organization). "All the government workers had their kids at Kaiser Hospital. Me, my brother and all my friends were born at the same hospital. We were a bunch of wild kids running the streets. It was the city version of "Lord of the Flies", but maybe not that violent. Skateboarding, BMXing, playing sports. I enjoyed my childhood. My parents’ generation was the generation where we were kind of let go of. We were wild children. Go outside when the sun rises and come home when the sun sets. You were gone all day, and there was no contact. Now, if I don’t hear from my son by the time he gets out of school at 3:05, I start to panic." 

When he was growing up his parents didn’t drink wine, but he says of his vocation, "I had this need to do this. I don’t know where that came from, but I was completely intrigued by wine." At the age of 19, while working at Trader Joe’s, he began learning about wines. "This was when they were a small company and had an incredible selection. My boss thought I had a passion for it." By the time he was 21 years old, he was visiting wine shops all over Southern California, from The Wine House to Hi-Times. "I would leave a wine shop with a case of wine and maybe a wine book to read. I was just saving money like crazy so that if I had the opportunity to make wine, I could do it." 

When he was 24, he and his now-wife began dating, exploring Paso Robles and Santa Barbara Wine Country. "She was very supportive. It’s such an unobtainable thing from the outside. Who can just go and make wine? I just didn’t know how to go about it."

Then, fortuitously, an acquaintance showed him a contract for custom-crushing at Central Coast Wine Services, and after learning that he didn’t need credentials or to be vetted to lease space there, he bought a few used barrels and purchased a little bit of fruit. By the time he was 25, he was making wine full-time. 

The first red wine he ever made was the 2002 Larner Vineyard Syrah, from Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon appellation. He still makes that wine today. "I was super intrigued at that time with single-vineyard Syrahs from the Northern Rhone. I was entrenched in that world. Syrah sang to me. I remember the first time I had the Jean Louis Chave, St. Joseph, Offerus. I was like, ‘How can a wine taste like this? Lavender. Violets. Cured olives. Then I started to get into 100% Grenaches. From the Colombis by Famille Isabel to Janesse "Chaupin," to Bosquet des Papes, Gloire de Mon Grand-Pere—I love those. They’re so inspiring." Once Myers became enchanted with the Northern Rhone, he also discovered Condrieu.

"I had a Condrieu, and I thought ‘Oh fuck! Viognier is an insanely unique, singular grape. It’s captivating. You can’t get your nose out of the glass." 

Myers has never taken classes for winemaking and admits that he is sometimes plagued by imposter syndrome. "I’ve heard this so many times from people who haven’t gone to traditional school for this or didn’t grow up in a wine family; they sometimes get imposter syndrome. Just like with some actors and comedians…they don’t feel like they’re part of the club. It’s a common thing to think about: ‘If I’m not book-trained or classically trained, I don’t have a certain knowledge they have.’ What I do is purely intuitive. I’ve educated myself, but ultimately, it’s more of a feeling. People ask me all the time if I use more science now than I did at the beginning. No. It’s the same. It’s taste and feel. That’s something you can’t learn. You can go to school until the cows come home, but if you don’t have a great palate, and if there’s not an intuitive element to it, it’s really an uphill battle. Either you have it, or you don’t. When I smell, taste, feel something, and when I watch it grow, it’s very natural to me." 

When I tell Myers he’s articulate and that I enjoy his engaged manner of speaking, he says, "I’m barely high school educated, and I quit college at a very young age, so that’s not one of my strong suits, in my opinion."

"Once you become rigid, it’s so hard to begin to think about solutions."

As we taste through his vineyard-designated wines, his estate wine, and his "Beautiful Earth" brand, an affordably priced lineup of fresh, crunchy, lively wines, he constantly has vintage variation in mind. "Being dogmatic in any way, especially with winemaking, is the death knell. Being nimble, being able to take every block, every variety, for what it is, and trying to do your best in every vintage, that is where it’s at. We know that we have so many issues with climate change. Once you become rigid, it’s so hard to begin to think about solutions. The profession of winemaking, if you follow history, is all about being stewards of wine and doing what you can to make sure that wine stays pristine. From pruning to the bottle, your job is to limit the mistakes. Those are the principles I cherish about winemaking. It’s a lifetime voyage, but still, you want to get better with every vintage. You never want to say, ‘This is what we do. We perfected our process, and that’s it.’ That’s a silly thing to do with a living product and, now, with climate change."

The wines Myers makes range in price from $ 20.00 to $ 100.00. He tells me his pricing philosophy has always been simple. "I never want anyone to have a bottle of my wine and say, ‘Holy Fuck! I paid $50.00 for this?’ I need it to over-perform. I got into wine because I was able to get wines that were well-priced that I was able to learn from, and that got me into drinking wine. Even if a bottle is $100.00, it’s got to over-deliver. And I do think I’m leaving money on the table, but I’d rather have that feeling of over-delivering. I had a $300.00 bottle of white wine---a Rayas white, which is a unicorn---that I still think about today. I got it on the cheap for $300.00. It was a life-changing experience with white wine. It over-delivered for the price." 

"In the wine business, success means you’re still here."

I wonder aloud how he measures his success these days. "In the wine business, success means you’re still here," he says, laughing. "It’s important to me that people realize that if you don’t have good people, it’s never going to work. In any successful organization, that’s what it’s all about. And it’s important to be a part of the community. It’s all about the community. It provides a great support system for everyone and lifts up the area. That’s why people are so intrigued by Paso Robles right now. I travel all over the country, and it’s really becoming well-known. And I attribute a lot of that to the people here. They put Paso first." 

What do his parents think of his winemaking career? "In the beginning, they were just happy I was putting my energy into something positive. I was getting in a lot of fucking trouble, and they saw my personality change when I got into wine. When I discovered wine, I spent all my free time learning about it, tasting it. My parents felt my passion for it. The furthest thing from their minds was me being a winemaker, but they love it now, and, as parents, they love that I’m doing something I love." His father, Pat, often works the room during wine club events. "He loves to chat people up." 

Observing the many opened bottles we’ve tasted on the table, I’m impressed with how unfatigued my palate feels. My tongue isn’t tired and numb but energized and ready for lunch. "We don’t want our wines to be cumbersome," Myers says. "There may be some that lean a little bit more on power, density, and depth, but there’s still an underlying energy that keeps it all lifted."

"People don’t think about the pace of a wine. How does it flow? Some wines are very quick. They zip by too fast. And there are some wines that linger too long. They’re heavy on the front. But, when you hit the pace right, and the height, it brings the wine together."


Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

TWI Top 50 QPR Wines of 2023

We aren’t doing a "Best Wines of the Year" list. Let’s face it: many of these critics’ end-of-year wine lists are covert marketing exercises supporting wineries that pay to play. Or it’s a critic listing all the wines they loved throughout the year. There’s nothing wrong with such lists, but that’s not us. We don’t have sponsorship agendas. And what we love is of less importance than helping you find the best value wines of the styles you love.

As we come to the end of our first full year of The Wine Independent, for the last article of the year, we’re expanding on the list of top QPR (Quality/Price Ratio) wines of the year. This year, we’re featuring 50 of the best value wines reviewed this past year, broken down into five price categories: Under $25, $26-50, $51-100, $101-200, and $200-400.

Quality/price ratio (QPR) is a way of calculating value for money. Our formula uses 87 points as the lowest score for QPR consideration. For greater accuracy regarding the added value attached to quality, bonus points are added to wines scoring 90-95 points and higher bonuses to those scoring 96-100. 

And the results can be assessed thus:

 

QPR 10 = The Bargain of a lifetime

QPR 9 = Outstanding value

QPR 8 = Excellent value

QPR 7 = Very good value

QPR 6 = Good value

QPR 5 = Above average value

QPR 4 = Fair market price

QPR 3 = The price is a little steep

QPR 2 = Expensive for what it is

QPR 1 = Forget it

Thus, the formula looks like this: 

 

(Wine Score ÷ Retail Price in $USD) + Bonus = QPR Rating

 

For the QPR bonus calculation, add 0.5 bonus points to a score of 90 and then add an extra 0.5 to each score above 90 until 96 points. At 96 and above, scores receive an incremental 1-point bonus. So, the scoring bonuses are:

 

87-89: No Bonus

90: add 0.5

91: add 1

92: add 1.5

93: add 2

94: add 2.5

95: add 3

96: add 4

97: add 5

98: add 6

99: add 7

100: add 8

You may have noticed that this bonus allocation assumes that 100-point wines start at "Excellent value," regardless of price. Because this is true only up to a certain price, we filtered out 100-point wines reviewed on our website with an average global price on Wine-Searcher of over $400. Also, we only included current releases in bottles (no barrel samples), which are readily available to purchase.

This year, we reviewed over 5000 wines from 13 countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, China, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Although most of our reviews this year were from Bordeaux, California, Italy, and Champagne, this QPR list represents the top 1% of bargains across this set of rigorously scrutinized fine wines from around the world.

The final list of this year’s top QPR wines was eye-opening even for me. Bordeaux is the unqualified winner at the "Under $25" end. In fact, the best value for quality wine across all price categories is available at an average global cost of $14 on Wine-Searcher. It’s the 2020 Château Marjosse Rouge.

I was blown away by the quality of Marjosse when tasting the 2020s earlier this year, and even more so when I saw the price. This compelled me to visit the estate to learn more about the terroir and gradual changes there since owner Pierre Lurton (also the director of Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem) started making wine from Marjosse in 1991. This is an impressively placed vineyard with carefully preserved old vines perched atop a limestone hill in the Entre-Deux-Mers. The full story behind the TWI Top QPR Wine of 2023 can be found here.

As far as collectables go, 2019 Canon, 2019 Montrose, and 2020 Figeac continue to offer fantastic value. Keen collectors will want to snap some (more) bottles up now, while the price is still a relative bargain, and avoid kicking themselves in ten years’ time.

Apart from Bordeaux, this list highlights the extraordinary quality of Chardonnays from Northern California (especially Sonoma Coast) and the value for money these offer. Italy continues to offer top-end bargains, as does Australia. Napa Valley has some under-the-radar Cabernet Sauvignon gems, including Salvestrin, Spottswoode, and Vangone Estate, that won’t break the bank. Two wines from California Central Coast made the TWI Overall Top 10 QPR Performing Wines of 2023 list: 2019 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Rocket Block and Andremily’s stunning 2020 Mourvedre.

We reviewed a lot of Champagnes last year, but none made our Top 50 QPR list, demonstrating how market demand has pushed prices up. However, for those curious about the top Champagne bargain we discovered (which is a very good buy for its quality level), here it is:

Jacquesson Cuvee 741 DT, Champagne – 97+ / $130 / QPR = 5.75

On behalf of everyone at The Wine Independent, I’d like to wish the wine-loving world a healthy, prosperous, and fun 2024. Happy wine hunting & Happy New Year!

TWI Overall Top 10 QPR Performing Wines of 2023

2020 Marjosse, Bordeaux Rouge– 94 / $14 / QPR 9.21

2019 Château Canon, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux – 100 / $170 / QPR 8.59

2020 Andremily Mourvedre, Santa Barbara County, California – 100 / $170 / QPR 8.59

2019 Montrose, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux – 100 / $200 / QPR 8.5

2021 Aubert Larry Hyde & Sons Chardonnay, Los Carneros, Napa Valley – 100 / $240 / QPR 8.42

2019 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley – 100 / $255 / QPR 8.39

2019 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Rocket Block, Paso Robles, California – 100 / $272 / QPR 8.38

2021 Aubert Lauren Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California – 100 / $269 / QPR 8.37

2021 Giaconda Chardonnay, Beechworth, Australia – 100 / $278 / QPR 8.36

2020 Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux – 100 / $289 / QPR 8.35

TWI Top QPR Performing Wines of 2023 by Price Category

Under $25

 

2020 Marjosse, Bordeaux Rouge – 94 / $14 / QPR 9.21

2021 Marjosse Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux 91 / $13 / QPR 8

2019 Fourcas-Hosten, Listrac-Moulis, Bordeaux - 93 / $19 / QPR 6.89

2020 Fontenil, Fronsac, Bordeaux – 95 / $25 / QPR 6.8

2020 Château Alcee, Castillon-Cotes de Bordeaux – 93 / $20 / QPR 6.65

2020 Marsau, Francs-Cotes de Bordeaux – 94 / $23 / QPR 6.59

2020 Les Trois Croix, Fronsac, Bordeaux – 94 / $24 / QPR 6.41

2020 Les Gravieres, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux – 94 / $25 / QPR 6.26

2020 Montlandrie, Castillon-Cotes de Bordeaux – 93 / $25 / QPR 5.72

2020 Grand Village, Bordeaux Superieur 93 / $25 / QPR 5.72

$26-50

 

2020 Laroque, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux – 97 / $39 / QPR 7.48

2021 Casanova di Neri Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy – 94 / $27 / QPR 5.98

2020 Clos Lunelles, Castillon-Cotes de Bordeaux – 94 / $27 / QPR 5.98

2020 Villemaurine, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux – 96 / $49 / QPR 5.96

2020 Poesia, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux – 95 / $33 / QPR 5.88

2021 Podere Grattamacco Bolgheri Rosso, Tuscany, Italy – 94 / $29 / QPR 5.74

2021 Materra Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley – 94 / $30 / QPR 5.63

2020 Grand Corbin-Despagne, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux – 95 / $37 / QPR 5.57

2021 Orma Passi di Orma, Bolgheri, Italy – 94 / $32 / QPR 5.44

2020 Grand Village Blanc, Bordeaux – 94 / $33 / QPR 5.35

$51-100

 

2021 DuMOL Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, Los Carneros, Napa Valley - 99 / $83 / QPR 8.19

2020 Larcis Ducasse, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux – 99 / $100 / QPR 7.99

2020 La Gaffeliere, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux – 98 / $91 / QPR 7.08

2021 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California – 98 / $95 / QPR 7.03

2020 Suduiraut, Sauternes, Bordeaux – 97 / $70 / QPR 6.39

2022 Penfolds Reserve Bin 22A Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, Australia – 97 / $80 / QPR 6.21

2021 Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia – 96 / $58 / QPR 5.66

2020 Phelan Segur, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux – 96 / $60 / QPR 5.6

2020 Doisy Daene, Barsac, Bordeaux – 96 / $62 / QPR 5.55

2021 CARO, Mendoza, Argentina – 96 / $62 / QPR 5.55

$101-200

 

2019 Château Canon, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux - 100 / $170 / QPR 8.59

2020 Andremily Mourvedre, Santa Barbara County, California – 100 / $170 / QPR 8.59

2019 Montrose, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux - 100 / $200 / QPR 8.5

2021 DuMOL Pinot Noir Finn, Sonoma Coast, California – 99 / $130 / QPR 7.76

2019 Pontet-Canet, Pauillac, Bordeaux - 99 / $137 / QPR 7.72

2020 Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux - 99 / $159 / QPR 7.62

2020 Belair-Monange, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux - 99 / $176 / QPR 7.56

2019 Salvestrin "Three D" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley – 99 / $198 / QPR 7.5

2019 Pichon Baron, Pauillac, Bordeaux - 99 / $200 / QPR 7.50

2020 Léoville Barton, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux – 98 / $109 / QPR 6.90

$201-400

 

2021 Aubert Larry Hyde & Sons Chardonnay, Los Carneros, Napa Valley – 100 / $240 / QPR 8.42

2019 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley – 100 / $255 / QPR 8.39

2019 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Rocket Block, Paso Robles, California – 100 / $272 / QPR 8.38

2021 Aubert Lauren Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California – 100 / $269 / QPR 8.37

2021 Giaconda Chardonnay, Beechworth, Australia – 100 / $278 / QPR 8.36

2020 Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, Bordeaux – 100 / $289 / QPR 8.35

2020 Trotanoy, Pomerol, Bordeaux – 100 / $369 / QPR 8.27

2020 Vieux Chateau Certan, Pomerol, Bordeaux – 100 / $400 / QPR 8.25

2019 Vangone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – 99 / $201 / QPR 7.49

2021 Bibi Graetz Colore, Toscana, Italy – 99 / $204 / QPR 7.49

All these wines are linked to comprehensive tasting notes, which include important details describing the styles of the wines including body level, alcohol level, and major grape variety. These components can all be filtered on our website, putting you in the driving seat so that you can find the styles you love.

-
Article and reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown
Photography by Johan Berglund

‘Tis the Champagne Season!

Top 30 Champagnes for Under $100.

The pop of a cork during the holidays almost instantly triggers a joyful and festive emotional response. The sound alone portends a light-hearted and fun couple of hours ahead and may well make you instantly gleek for a sip. More exciting still is when the bubbly that flows into the glass is wonderfully tasty and not cost-prohibitive! Consider that the goal of this article. To help find a not-too-pricey bottle to trigger festive joy while taking the mystery out of what might be discovered in the glass.  

Style is everything with Champagne.

Gone are the outdated vinous days when a glass of bubbly was a monochromatic libation served only for a toast. Now, Champagne is the perfect choice for everything from aperitifs through to the main courses, and yes, it is still used for celebratory toasts and parties. While the Champagne region adheres to a lot of collective rules around harvest dates, yields, production volumes, and reserves, etc., Champagne producers themselves have free creative rein to imprint their personality and style on a wine with viticulture, vinification, aging, blending, and dosage choices. This is the substance part of Champagne that dictates the ultimate style.

I will follow Lisa’s lead from her 2022 article on Champagne, where she took time to tease out and explain the stylistic differences in Champagne so readers could sort through the choices to find what they enjoy. Readers should know I come from the WSET school of tasting assessment, no doubt my tasting notes confirm this. I learned to apply the same scoring criteria to each individual wine regardless of style and rate it within the context of balance. In other words, no Champagne is scored higher or lower based on style. To me, style preference is a lot like viewing each Champagne through a kaleidoscopic lens that displays a unique array of colors and shapes at every slight turn of the wrist. While a lot are pretty and colorful, and yes – hopefully balance, one person might dislike the color green even though I love green. There is a rainbow of colors in Champagne, so you just need to find the ones you love.

Enough of tasting theory - on to the bubbles! I have recommendations for readers in five stylistic categories: Classic, Lively, Opulent, Gastronomic, and Rosé. Many of these non-vintage cuvées are based on the warmer 2019 and 2020 vintages and are ideal for near-term drinking, like right now. Also included are a couple of well-priced vintage Champagnes, particularly from 2013, that I found scintillating and elegant. 

Classic styles are not surprisingly classic blends of at least two, or perhaps all three of Champagne’s primary grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. In a general sense, these are vibrant, fruit-rich, and supple wines that should be crowd-pleasing and very attractive, and not just because of price. These include, in no particular order:

 

·       De Sousa 3A and Paul Bara Brut Millésime 2016 both possess incredible fruit purity and poise.

·       Philipponnat Royale Reserve Brut and Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut offer refinement and finesse.

·       Lanson Black Creation 257 and Gosset Grand Reserve Brut both deliver exceptional quality for the price.  These are fresh and fun choices for a party.

·       Nicolas Maillart Platine Premier Cru, Henri Goutorbe Cuvée Millesime 2013, and Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale 2013 Brut are all three elegant, refreshing and drink above their price point.

Lively styles are mostly Blanc de Blancs, though not exclusively, that are fresh and ebullient, a little racier and energized on the palate but not at the expense of balancing fruit intensity. Sophisticated and smart value suggestions include:

 

·       R.H Coutier Blanc de Blancs NV 

·       Varnier Fanniere Cuvee Saint Denis

·       Laherte Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs NV

·       Guiborat Prisme. 18 NV

·       Egrot et Filles Millésime 2016

·       Franck Bonville Pur Oger Blanc de Blancs 2016

·       Henriot Blanc de Blancs NV

Gastronomic may seem a haughty way to describe a Champagne, but to me, it marks a coming-of-age that places Champagne squarely as the first choice of wine to enjoy with a meal. Not to pigeonhole this style either, as it makes a great aperitif; however, gastronomic champagnes have a bright, vinous texture and dryness and are distinctly enjoyable with food. Generally finished Brut Nature or Extra Brut (low to no dosage), sometimes made with extended aging, which gives an autolytic, bready, and sometimes a faint oxidative character on the nose, this style is full of personality, intrigue, and finesse. Pricewise, most of these wines sneak under the $100 mark. I recommend:

 

·       Benoit Déhu L’Initiation NV

·       A. Margaine l’Extra Brut

·       Etienne Calsac L’Exhapee Belle Blanc de Blancs NV

·       Jacquesson Cuvée 746 Extra Brut NV

·       Dhondt-Grellet Dans un Premier Temps NV

Opulent styles are just what the word suggests – wines with a rich presence that are textural, weighty, and are often Pinot Noir or Meunier dominant, perhaps vinified in oak barrels, and likely have extended aging. These wines have wonderful amplitude and power that is well-balanced by excellent freshness:

    

·       Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois NV 

·       Dehours Grand Reserve Brut NV

·       Bruno Paillard Cuvée 72 Brut NV 

·       Henri Giraud Hommage au Pinot Noir NV

Rosé is defined categorically more by color than actual style, given that producers make them in different ways. I’ve selected five that I think represent the four styles above:

 

·       Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut NV (Classic)

·       Gosset Grand Rosé Brut NV (Classic)

·       Varnier Fanniere Rosé Zéro NV (Lively)

·       Charles Heidsieck Rosé Reserve Brut (Opulent)

·       JM Labruyere Anthologie Rose 2018 (Gastronomic)

I want to add a quick note about back labels. Providing detailed information on the blend, vinification, dosage, and disgorgement is becoming standard, particularly for grower (récoltant-manipulant) producers. This is great news for Champagne lovers at the bottle shop as it gives clues (not answers) to what style the Champagne might be.

‘Tis the Champagne season, and I always say the most important ingredient in any style is joy. I hope these recommendations bring you, and those you share them with, an abundance of joy and plenty of happiness for the holidays, too!

Santé

-
Article and reviews by Sarah Mayo
Photography by Johan Berglund

The Sanguine Terroir of Terre et Sang 

"When you set out to do things a specific way, and you’re telling people you do things a specific way, and you want to appeal to people in that way, if you fall short of the mark, you’re going to look awfully stupid."

- Winemaker Duncan Harmon

Winemaker Duncan Harmon caught the wine bug when he was just 11 years old. During a family vacation in Florence, Italy, he found himself asking questions of the wine director at a local restaurant. Amused by the inquisitive young boy, the wine director offered to show him the wine cellar, and the young Harmon’s imagination was sparked. He looked around and saw "well-dressed people enjoying wine. I remember thinking this is super cool. That was the AHA moment. There was this elevated culinary experience that caught my attention."

At 14, Harmon visited his first winery in Montelcino and sipped a Brunello di Montelcino from his mother’s glass. "I was tasting wine at a castle," he says, bright-eyed. From that day forward, he began perusing wine lists whenever the family dined out, asking questions of wine directors and, in later years, choosing wines for the table.  

Harmon and his mother, Dalita, own and operate Terre et Sang winery in Santa Barbara County, California. I’m usually hesitant to write about brand-new producers. The business is fickle, and wineries come and go. But, right out of the gate, Terre et Sang has garnered favorable reviews from top critics and attracts a steady stream of visitors to its small tasting room in Los Olivos, California. Though the whole family enjoys wine, the winery and tasting room are owned solely by the mother-and-son duo.  

Harmon, now 33, credits international travel and being surrounded by fine wines since his youth as inspirations for his vocation. As a young man, "he didn’t talk about pursuing wine," Dalita says. "There was nothing intentional until towards the end of college." At Penn State, Harmon says, he studied "having a good time. I went to that school to have the experience of going to that school. It was interesting and fun, but as soon as I was done, I was done." He graduated as a communications major.

When he was in his early 20s, his interest in wine accelerated after visiting his mother in Arroyo Grande, in San Luis Obispo County. "I flew out, landed at night. When I woke up in the morning, I could see Alban Vineyard from my mom’s living room. I realized during that trip that the Central Coast is the place for me." At 24 years of age, Duncan decided he wanted to be a winemaker. 

He found work nearby, holding down a couple of part-time jobs, one at a real estate office and the other at a wine bar next door. For the following two months, nearly five days a week, Harmon tasted throughout Paso Robles wine country whenever he had a chance. "It brought back everything I remembered about Italy. The food and wine scene. I got sucked in." He became a "gate crasher," he tells me, standing outside hard-to-get into wineries like Saxum and L’ Aventure. "I’d ring and ring until they’d buzz me in." 

Dalita and Duncan Harmon launched Terre et Sang in 2019. Duncan was 29 years old when he first tried his hand at winemaking. "We started doing this for fun in 2018 and then seriously in 2019. We approached it with a mindset that was serious," he says. He’s had no formal training and has learned the ropes from a series of mentors, both in the vineyard and the cellar. "A lot of the people I’ve learned the most from I’ve never met," he says. "I have never met Manfred and Elaine Krankl. However, I have done every bit of research, reading everything I can to pull snippets out about what their X factor is. And, with them, it’s attention to detail. Nik Krankl, of Fingers Crossed, told me, ‘Dad once said, the trick is to do to all the things all the other wineries say they do.’ It’s not just the decision you make but how you execute it. You learn from the greats that it can be fun, but the seriousness and intention must be there." 

The first meet-up with the Harmons is at Kimsey Vineyard, a little gem of a designate at the intersection of where the cool and coastal Sta. Rita Hills appellation breezes meet the influence of the more temperate and inland Ballard Canyon appellation. His mother tells me that "Duncan was constantly asking questions. He was deep-diving into methodologies and putting them together. And that enhanced my commitment. He very quickly established some great relationships with some great winemakers. One of the best surprises in all of this is how open people were with Duncan. How willing they were to help. But I give Duncan a lot of credit for having crammed a lot of knowledge into his head, such that he could engage and understand what they were saying. Then it’s about tweaking. Someone can tell you, ‘This is exactly how you make wine,’ but then there are other decisions that are ultimately up to you that give you the wine you want." The day is bright and clear as Harmon and Dalita walk the vineyard rows delegated to them. They exchange knowing glances as they observe their blocks but don’t say much to each other. There’s an easy, comfortable silence between them. 

Harmon credits vineyard owner Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon with helping them enter the wine business. "He was the first person to take a chance on us," he says. "We had had the 2015 Homage to Steven Larner by MacPrice Meyers, and I thought, ‘I need to go to Santa Barbara.’" Following Larner, they quickly forged relationships with other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, including Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley), Kimsey (Ballard Canyon), Peake (Sta. Rita Hills) and the Moulds Vineyard in the Napa Valley, from which they produce a Cabernet Sauvignon, the only non-Rhone-varietal wine in the Terre et Sang lineup. 

Dalita was raised in rural Indiana. "My mom’s from Crawfordsville, which is a town of about 12 people. I grew up in Newmarket and Lafayette, near rural Indianapolis. My dad was a stock car racer back in the day, so I went to the Indy 500 a lot. I grew up racing and sitting on a tractor. We grew all our own stuff. I’m an Indiana farm girl. So, the growing side of this really appealed to me and struck a chord with me."

The first wine Harmon made was from fruit off his mother’s vineyard in Arroyo Grande. The vintage was 2018, and they managed the vineyard and the harvest entirely on their own. "It was an exploration," Dalita says. "By this point, Duncan was interested, so we were testing ourselves. We had a backyard vineyard, and we started enjoying the farming side of that. We got some other grapes from Happy Canyon (in Santa Barbara County), and we made a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc from there, and from my backyard vineyard, an estate Blanc. We loved it, loved everything about it, especially talking to vineyard managers." 

Harmon is tall and lean, with dark hair and a youthful yet intense aspect. He listens intently as his mother speaks, but he’s anxious to add his own thoughts. "All of the work was done just by us," he says. "We had to learn it all. We wanted it to be good, whatever it was going to be, so all the shoot-tying, pruning, spraying, soil nutrients everything became a research project for us. Then it’s the application, and we did it! One of my favorite days was when we were shoot-tying and doing a green drop and playing Black Sabbath and having a great day in the vineyard. It was 90 degrees, and we were sweating, and just talking, having fun. We very much enjoyed the work and realized that we loved it. You have to love it. Otherwise, it’s just too much work."

The next time I meet up with the mother-son duo, they’re awaiting me on the front porch of their tasting room in Los Olivos, one of Santa Barbara County’s small agricultural towns. It’s just a couple of doors down from the town’s only market. Sleek and modern, the interior was designed by the pair, who have similar aesthetic sensibilities. "We’re always pursuing something that’s extremely well-made," he says. "We’re obsessed with denim. We’ll research how a place is making their denim. It doesn’t matter what it is. We are the kind of people who love things made by hand, with intention and attention to detail. We love finely made things. The craft and dedication to things." 

When they’re not visiting their vineyards or working out of their small winery located off the Santa Rosa Road corridor of Sta. Rita Hills, not far from the famed Hilt Estate, Dalita says, they "travel to Napa frequently. We’re there doing homework. Checking out wineries, vineyards, tasting rooms. We’re always on the hunt to add to our knowledge," she says. Harmon adds they’ve just recently returned from a trip to Napa to "see Shawn Johnson at Amulet because they’re making single-vineyard designated Cabs that are all made the same way. They’re a kindred spirit. That same afternoon, we saw Graham and Alex McDonald. We go with purpose, and we love to meet growers and winemakers who have done things in an organic way." 

Dalita adds that "everything that got us here was an organic process. We looked at the great wines we loved and recognized what it was about them that we liked. All our decisions are based on our palate. It’s been just a trust of that, a trust of knowing what we want to make, and we’ll figure out how to make that by testing all these theories and applications and ways of doing things. I’ve always believed that if you feel you have an instinct, trust it. If you go through life doing that, you learn to trust it more and more as you go along. You reinforce your ability to trust your instinct. When you go forward and trust your instinct, that’s what makes the difference."

They are perhaps best known for "Kissing Vipers", their critically acclaimed Grenache from Bien Nacido Vineyards. It’s grown on Block 39, a southeast-facing hillside comprised of mostly Monterey shale and loam. A lush, rich wine, it also shows restraint and balance and an impossibly long finish, suggesting age-worthiness. More recently, they’ve locked down Z Block, formerly sourced by both Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyard and Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non. When they were informed that they’d get Z Block fruit, Dalita tells me, "Duncan started crying. He was so happy. We had lobbied for it constantly." 

Though they work closely with vineyard managers, they call their own picks "100% on taste," Dalita tells me. I’ve now had a couple of vintages of their core wines, and, refreshingly, they’re not monochromatic. When I tell Dalita this, she says, "We enjoy vintage variation. We let them be what they are." Harmon credits vineyard managers like Chris Hammell at Bien Nacido Vineyards with teaching them how to yield the best results from their vineyard blocks and vine rows. "We ask him questions. We don’t tell him what to do. It’s collaborative. He has a huge wealth of knowledge, and he’s also fun." Harmon says. 

The duo is keen on experimentation and are currently playing with Chardonnay and Roussanne they harvested in 2021. "We might make a white blend of some kind." Though the rest of the family remains uninvolved in the day-to-day operations, they find ways to be helpful. "Fred, my husband, brings pizza and drinks out to us when we’re working late. And sometimes family will help on the sorting table. I love it more than I ever expected. It’s grueling, but I love it so much. And doing it with Duncan is meaningful. People say we’re intense, but I think we’re passionate. With what we’re trying to achieve, I think it takes a level of intense passion."


Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

2023

Harvest

Northern California

Photo Essay by

Svante Örnberg

This year’s Northern California harvest is fashionably late. 

It’s late because it was a cooler growing season following a late budburst. A very wet winter and spring kept the vines dormant for a couple of weeks longer than usual. So, everything was tracking late from the get-go. June, July, and August were just moderate regarding heat and sunshine. Less than a handful of days barely spiked over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Many mornings started out foggy, keeping conditions cool until around 11 a.m. each day, further slowing berry development.

- Night Harvesting Pinot Noir in Sonoma County with Paul Hobbs

Although the harvest is late, it’s shaping up to be a winemaker’s dream in terms of wine style. The fruit thus far remains pure and bright with good acidity. Yet many sites will require more hang time to achieve full phenolic and flavor ripeness. Meanwhile, the brix levels suggest that alcohols should, for the most part, come closer to 14% than 15%.

Optimal ripening conditions are holding out thus far. And yields are looking good for Napa Cabernet, but it was essential to drop fruit early to match the moderate sun and heat resources. It is just this week (first week of October) that the Napa harvest has gained momentum, and next week promises to be even busier, especially since we have a few warm days coming up at the end of this week and over the weekend. Still, the way things look, some Napa and Sonoma vintners will likely be harvesting into November.

Our photographer, Svante Örnberg, was in Napa Valley and Sonoma County in mid-September and beautifully captured some early harvest images and emotions. Enjoy!

- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- Spottswoode (St. Helena)
- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- Mark Aubert (Calistoga)
- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- La Pelle (Napa)
- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- Spottswoode (St. Helena)
- Aubert (Calistoga)
- Paul Hobbs (Sonoma)
- Château Cheval Blanc

2023

Harvest

Bordeaux

Photo Essay by

Johan Berglund

Johan Berglund visited Bordeaux during the first half of September when the Merlot was coming in thick and fast. A precocious budbreak meant harvest has been tracking early from the beginning of the growing season. This year, plenty of rain, heat, and sunshine allowed the vines to ripen at a swift, steady pace. Relentless mildew outbreaks kept growers on their toes with evasive maneuvers, but early reports do not suggest that yields will be down significantly. Meanwhile, winemakers appear happy with the quality thus far, but, as with all things wine, the proof is in the pudding.

- Château Canon
- Château Figeac
- Château Palmer
- Château Figeac
- Château Barde Haut
- Château Figeac
- Château Clinet
- Château l'Eglise-Clinet
- Château l'Eglise-Clinet
- Château Canon
- Château l'Eglise Clinet
- Château Barde Haut
- Château Clos Fourtet
- Château Cheval Blanc
- Château Palmer
- Château Canon

Doing
The
Right
Thing

The MAHA Estate

Cris Cherry is on a mission. He’s offered to cook lunch today, and we’re in his electric truck headed to a couple of different businesses in Paso Robles, where we’ll procure ingredients for lunch. First stop: Etto, an Italian marketplace known for its homemade pastas and broad selection of Italian goods, owned by locals Stephanie and Brian Terrizzi. They’ve got their own Cal-Italian wine brand called Giornata. "She’s such a sharp, holistic viticulturalist," Cris tells me of Stephanie, who’s known on California’s Central Coast as an intelligent grape farmer.

Inside, he’s greeted with enthusiastic hellos from the staff and from Matt Dusi, Janell Dusi’s (J. Dusi Wines) brother and a local multi-generational grape grower. They shake hands and catch up briefly while Cris picks up some freshly made spaghetti noodles. He tells me he’ll be making us tuna poached in olive oil with pasta. 

Back inside his almost too-quiet electric truck, he puts on some music. "It Runs Through Me," by Tom Misch, featuring De La Sol. "I’m really into this guy." We make our way to Pier 46, a locally owned seafood market, where we’ll pick up the tuna. "They have a lot of wild-caught stuff, and they’re good people. And I like to support good people."

Afterward, we wind our way back up the foothills of Paso, leaving downtown behind for lush, heavily forested Peachy Canyon Road, home of the MAHA Estate, where he and his wife JoAnn reside and where they make the Villa Creek and MAHA wines. Another favorite of his comes over the stereo, Rufus du Sol. His playlist includes "a lot of 80’s dance shit, New Wave, Althouse, Thievery Corporation, Polo, and Pan. We love to see live music."

I’ve been keen to talk to him for some time now, as I’m intrigued by artists who continue to forge new pathways and refine their craft. His wines have evolved over the years, from big and extracted, to bright, balanced, and fresh. This is particularly true of his brilliant MAHA estate wines. They’re among my favorites from the United States, and his Clairette Blanche, called BAE (Before Anyone Else) is a revelation of floral and feral aromatics. Clean and balanced, yet somehow wild and unexpected. 

"Our early wines were 16% alcohol, all day long, with maybe a little bit of sugar to cover up that booze."

"Our early wines were 16% alcohol, all day long, with maybe a little bit of sugar to cover up that booze. And, out of the shoot, those wines are showy, flashy, and sexy. But that’s a short fuse. Wines like that are good until they’re not. If there’s sugar, it’s just a matter of time…it’s not if, it’s when. ‘Finesse is elusive and restraint is hard to practice.’ The thing I’m most pleased about is that the MAHA estate and Villa Creek wines are elegant. Our early wines may have been considered big and monolithic. At this point, I am striving for complexity and nuance with the wines showing their sense of place."

The Cherrys don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk

The Cherrys have long been environmentally conscious, and their estate reflects their commitment to their core beliefs. Though many in the wine industry claim to farm sustainably, organically, or biodynamically, mostly for marketing purposes and to virtue-signal, the Cherrys don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. The entire MAHA estate is farmed biodynamically and organically, and they adhere to these principles closely. The property is certified by ROA (regenerative), CCOF organic and Demeter Biodynamic. JoAnn has recently been appointed to the board of directors of the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) organization.

They farm this way because, Cris says, "we feel it makes the best wine…a wine that is the truest expression of the site. And it absolutely ensures that anyone who works in, on, or around the property is not going to be exposed to harmful things. Just think if you could make that proposition to some of the bigger guys to farm organically: They could reduce their farming costs over time and grow better fruit, require less additives in the winery, and make better wine. At the end of the day, you’re going to make more money, and you’ll be doing the right thing."

We gossip a bit about the social scene in the wine business. He explains that his wife JoAnn isn’t always fond of attending Cris’s mostly male winemaker "sausage fest" hangouts. "A gathering of a bunch of guys sharing their most expensive bottles is not her thing. Her interests lie in wines and conversations that are a little outside that box. We like to hang out with more mixed crowds." He cites a few long-time producer friends like Justin and Heather Smith (Saxum), Tyler Russell (helming an upcoming, unnamed project), Hillary and Anthony Yount (Royal Nonesuch Farms), Matt and Maureen Trevisan (Linne Calodo), Neil and Marcie Collins (Lone Madrone), Scott and Viquel Hawley (Torrin), as producing wines he finds interesting, and as people whose company they both enjoy.

When we pull up, Cris hops out of the truck energetically. At 57, he is tall, lean, and confident, with closely shorn hair and an impish grin. Land prices in Paso Robles, as is the case in most of California, have risen dramatically in the last decade. "The opportunity we had to acquire this piece of property on the west side of Paso Robles is gone. We were so fortunate."

We’re greeted at their front door by JoAnn Cherry and a herd of dogs she’s trying to corral as we enter. Tall herself, warm and winsome, she welcomes us in. 

They met in San Diego during their first year of college. "It was love at first sight for sure," she says. But she’d just left a boyfriend at home and didn’t want to get into another relationship right away, so, after dating briefly, they parted ways but remained friends. No romance blossomed for a decade. "We were never single at the same time. I was seventeen when we first met, and we got back together when I was twenty-seven," she adds. 

The interior design of their home is not unlike the aesthetic behind their MAHA Estate wine labels. JoAnn, who is the designer behind both aesthetics, favors a minimalist approach, with a tendency towards outsider art. "I’m not much into trends," she says. A pleasant, fragrant blown-grass breeze enters through an opened window as we congregate around the island in their kitchen. He busies himself preparing lunch. 

Cris has recently returned from Chateauneuf where he was on a barrel junket with Anthony Yount, Don Burns, and a handful of other producers. "We tasted some old Pure. Had a nice visit with Anne Charlotte of Font Du Loup. But the highlight was half a day with Louis Barroul. A Grenache master, for sure, in Gigondas."

The Cherrys met Barroul in 1998, before they started making wine. At the time, they owned a popular restaurant, also called Villa Creek, on the square in downtown Paso Robles. "That was our first trip to France together," JoAnn says. This was when their son, Henri, was 2, and Camille, their daughter, was 4. "We went to Louis’ place, and he had a field of grass in his front yard as big as a soccer field, and his kids were similar in age to ours. He said his neighbors questioned his judgment because he hadn’t planted that space to vines, but he told us, ‘Our kids would have no place to play.’"

Cris grew up in the restaurant business in Colorado. After getting "sick of the snow," he moved west to attend University of San Diego. His parents followed him out to San Diego and purchased a restaurant there. "I decided to get into the family business when all of my friends were wearing suits on a sunny day like today, and I thought to myself, nah…"

The Cherrys moved to Paso Robles in 1996 and opened their restaurant two years later. The 2002 earthquake, during which the entire Paso Robles town square was cordoned off with chain link fencing, set their business back some, as did the economic downturn of 2008, just a few years later. They’d heard that Paso is "the next Napa," but that’s been slow to happen. "Napa is a brand. Tulum, where we were last year, in Riviera Maya, is a brand," he says. "Paso Robles is becoming a brand, but it’s not there yet." JoAnn adds, "Maybe when it becomes a brand, it loses its charm?"

"Paso Robles is becoming a brand, but it’s not there yet."

When they still lived in San Diego, they both got into wine. They enjoyed eating out and exploring wines at the fine dining establishments that popped up in San Diego, but those spots were fleeting. At that time, Cris says, "People weren’t eating out a lot in San Diego. They were spending their money on bikinis and running shoes." Neither of them grew up "in the wine business or on a farm or anything like that," she adds. "We had a half-acre with a garden, but winemaking was never something we thought we could get into. I always just thought, you’re born into it."

When they moved to Paso Robles, the wine business suddenly seemed doable.

Their friends Justin Smith and Matt Trevisan started making wine with some left-over James Berry Vineyard fruit while they were still cellar workers. She says, "We started helping them out. We’d grab the kids, and it’d be 11:00 o’clock at night. It was amazing. We got the bug."

Friends helped the Cherrys acquire a little local fruit, and they ordered their first barrel. "One barrel turned into seven," he says. They secured some Grenache from Denner Vineyard on the advice of Justin Smith. "All of a sudden, I had more Grenache than anybody in the area. I was an outlier." The first Villa Creek bottling was 2001. 

JoAnn and Cris have worked side by side since establishing their restaurant and later, their winery. At times, he says, "we’ve driven each other crazy." During the restaurant years, JoAnn says she was "as involved as I could be. We didn’t have any family here and I didn’t want to leave my kids with anybody. I was the pastry chef. I did the website, the menu. Cris was doing the wine-buying. I was still breastfeeding, so couldn’t really drink a lot, so I was watching him evolve in his wine knowledge and I was just getting left in the dust. I had a lot of catching up to do."

When they started making wine, she did punch-downs at night while he was working at the restaurant. "We had occasional conflicts. Creative differences, but for the most part, we vibe off each other," she tells me. "If we’re ever disagreeing about something, we eventually find out we’re on the same page. We’ll go, ‘Why are we even arguing about this?’"

She references these differences as part of their creative exploration. When their kids went off to college, she could finally work a harvest all the way through. "I came in and started asserting my opinion on how I thought certain protocols could be improved. Cris didn’t so much care for that but eventually we found our groove." JoAnn says with a chuckle. 

Some of those creative differences included their approach to blending. She was of the mind that they needed to be "more systematic about blending. We needed to take notes." She seems to have won that argument, and they now blind taste every barrel, judiciously taking detailed notes on each wine’s elevage. 

"We taste differently. We cook differently," he says. JoAnn likes recipes for inspiration, whereas Cris cooks by feel. Here, he jokingly mimics some of the more boastful winemakers, "Well, you know," he says, in an intentionally exaggerated professorial tone, impersonating them, "we blend over 7 weeks. And we taste meticulously. And 1/3 of 1% of this viognier changed the whole thing. 1/3 of 1%!" He laughs. "I think across the entire food and beverage platform there is a baffling amount of bullshit. It gets so annoying. The douche factor is something you have to navigate."

"There are no magic techno-wizard winemaking tricks."

Camille, 29, now works full-time for the family business. "It’s just the three of us in the office, JoAnn says. "During Covid, Henri was here. Henri is me. Camille is Cris," she says while Cris laughs in the background. "It was nice to have an ally when Henri was here. Now I’m outnumbered, and it can be challenging, but we are always working on improving our communication skills."

When the Cherry kids were growing up, they were always around the winery. "They know what it is to be in the family business," she says. They were "both feral children and ran around in the dirt a lot and were always out in nature. We always had a garden." Both kids, she says, are creative. They did alternative schooling, attending the local Montessori school, but Camille didn’t find her academic groove until she went to public school. She likes structure. She’s a plant lover and studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly and is the in-house landscape designer. "Henri was more adaptive when it came to academics," she continues. "He now lives in Santa Barbara, where he attended UCSB on a volleyball scholarship, works for Patagonia, and has his own small natural wine brand called Daft Punch, under which he makes pet nat and piquet. He is also a talented musician and continues to add songs to his Spotify portfolio under Julian Cherry."

Villa Creek shot to notoriety early on. "That surprised us for sure," he says. "We got a "New Wines, New Faces" article in the Wine Spectator (like any well-tuned couple, they finish each other’s sentences frequently.) "The phone started ringing off the hook," she says. "We didn’t even have a mailing list, so we started taking down all of these numbers."

They sold the restaurant in 2017 to focus exclusively on wine. He tells me that, in hindsight, they’d do things differently today. They started at very low-price points just to gain exposure to the wines. "It took us 12 years to get our wines priced to where everyone else’s were." With the MAHA Estate wines, they’ve entered the market with higher price points. Still, their BAE Clairette Blanche, even at $100.00 a bottle, over-delivers at that price point and may be a benchmark in the making. 

More recently, they’ve launched Cherry House, an entry-level selection of wines priced at about $25.00 a bottle, made from organic grapes. "I love that it’s all organic and well made at an affordable price point," JoAnn says. 

We move outside to enjoy our lunch al fresco. We’re joined by Camille, who is the Director of Customer Relations, and Oliver Mikkelsen, whom they’ve recently promoted to winemaker (Cris remains Director of Winemaking). Young, energetic, and polite, they catch up with each other briefly, discussing Camille and her husband, Kenton’s, next Dungeons and Dragons gameShe and Kenton also enjoy cosplay, attending Renaissance festivals as their schedules permit. Married late last year, they produce mead and organic honey together at the MAHA estate under the name Maddox Meadery. 

We enjoy a few Villa Creek Cellars and MAHA Estate wines with lunch. For all intents and purposes, these wines could be classified as natural, at least according to the requirements of the Natural Coast Wine Festival in Santa Barbara, which they’ll be attending in a few days. According to the festival’s website, "all wine must be farmed organically as a minimum. Whether certified or not, vineyards must be farmed without any synthetic pesticides. Certification from CCOF, Demeter Biodynamic, etc., is welcome and appreciated. All wines must be fermented natively - whether spontaneously or using a pied-de-cuve. Sparkling wines may be accepted when fermented with non-native yeast if noted in the technical information. No sterile filtration, no fining. Absolutely no additives except for SO2 with a maximum total SO2 below 70 ppm, regardless of wine style. No magic techno-wizard winemaking tricks. This includes reverse-osmosis, cryo-extraction, spinning cone filtration, etc. None of these rules are negotiable."

Occasionally, the table falls quiet. The resplendent surroundings, fresh air, and birdsong compel us to take in the nature around us. The estate vineyards blanket the hillsides above where we’re seated. "I would love to be out there more," Cris says. "It would be great to not have to work on sales or the financial equation of the business, but that has its call. I continue to learn and be inspired by lots of people that are in the vineyards all the time, here and abroad. As we now have the MAHA estate, I really don’t want to go anywhere else for fruit. It’s the most fun fruit to work with. The ferments are the soundest. The fruit is the most complex. MAHA fruit makes the best wine because the vineyard is farmed the way it’s farmed."


Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

Playing the Long Game

A Visit with Sea Smoke

The city of Lompoc is idiosyncratic.

It’s an amalgam of worn-down strip malls, cannabis dispensaries, donut shops, nail salons, coin laundries, dry cleaners, and neighborhoods that range from tidy and quaint to dicey and neglected. The only movie theatre of note, The Lompoc Theatre, hasn’t run a movie since 1987, when it closed; despite numerous fundraising attempts, it remains shuttered. At the opposite end of town, a long-defunct Drive-In screen stands in a field of overgrown weeds. 

It’s home to the Vandenberg Space Force Base, a federal correctional institution, a diatomaceous earth mine, and the La Purisima Mission, one of the least manicured yet beautiful missions in all of California, with a working farm, extensive hiking trails, and numerous mission buildings. An urban wine trail nearby draws some attention, but the sister city to Namwon, South Korea; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Inca, Spain; Lake Placid, Florida, and Locarno, Switzerland, is an otherwise economically challenged, often over-looked agricultural and military town. 

On the outskirts, leaning into the city, is the Sta. Rita Hills winegrowing region, one of California’s most celebrated coastal appellations. It stands in stark contrast to Lompoc, with its lush, oak-dotted hilltops and vast canyon lands, alive with bobcats, roadrunners, mountain lions, coyotes, redtail hawks, and owls. The roster of producers making wine in this region reads like a Who’s Who of fine wine producers: Eleven Confessions (Sine Qua Non), The Hilt (Jonata), LaBarge, Melville, diatom, Brewer-Clifton, Donnachadh, Joy Fantastic, Tyler, Pence, Peake Ranch, Sanford & Benedict, and Sea Smoke, among others. 

The Sea Smoke Estate 

Upon entering the Sea Smoke estate, I spot a large Turkey Vulture sitting atop a fence post. The 2023 growing season has been abundant with rain, which has produced more of everything, including more for ground squirrels and gophers to eat, which means more ground squirrels and more gophers. 

As a result, there are more raptors. Eighty owl boxes throughout the estate, and raptor perches at its perimeter, help mitigate the population of ground squirrels and gophers, as do these carrion birds. 

I’m greeted by Julian Malone, Director of Vineyard Operations at Sea Smoke. He hops out of a muddy farm truck, wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, but grabs a jacket before too long. It’s a clear but cold day at the estate. He’s got an easy smile and old-fashioned manners. After providing formal introductions to the Great Pyrenees watch dogs circling my legs, Freckles and Samson, we hop in the truck for a tour. 

It’s a sprawling estate---1,100 acres---but only 170 of those are planted to vines. The balance of the land is a beguiling mix of organic apple orchards (the apples are sold for cider), cattle grazing land, forests, an idyllic pond, and fields of organically grown hay. We’re barely out of winter, and the vines are just now awakening. There’s some early shoot and leaf growth. 

"I’m a child of the world."

"I’m a child of the world," Malone says. "This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Ten years in Santa Barbara County. Seven years with Sea Smoke. This is the best farming gig I will ever have. I’m privileged to take care of such a great property." He spent time living in New Orleans and received his undergraduate degree in Agricultural Science from the University of Adelaide in Australia. 

Malone oversees a big team: ten tractor drivers, four irrigators, two shepherds, two technicians, two hundred goats, one hundred and fifty chickens, and four dogs. In addition to Samson and Freckles, Malone is now training two young Anatolian Shepherds, Rocky and Rita, whom he says are "very good at their jobs." They protect the many animals living on the estate in keeping with the guidelines of biodynamic farming.  

The cover crops below the vines are a veritable insectary, with bursts of calendula, poppies, Icelandic poppies, and Lady Phacelia, sweetening the air. "We release a bunch of beneficial insects every year," Malone says. "Green Lacewings are a generalist predator, a beneficial insect for us. They’re a Mealy Bug destroyer. Drones sprinkle them around the ranch. They’re able to cover 70 acres in about an hour. We are leaning on the idea that beneficial insects have a pollen source in their adult life. When they’re adults, they’re not predatory. They need some sort of feeding mechanism. And then, when they’re in their larval stages, they’re actively feeding on the bad bugs. The flower sources are an attractant and provide food for them in their adult stages."

"Farming organically and biodynamically, you have to be nimble, flexible, aware of your surroundings at all times because no season is the same."

As we explore the estate, Malone expertly tackles steep, loose terrain up sloped hillsides. It’s apparent he’s driven these dirt roads many times. At one point, we drive up to the estate’s highest hilltop, Rita’s Crown, just under 1000 feet in elevation. 

When we arrive at Monkey Rock, a nearly four-story high mossy boulder covered with goats, we’re greeted by Rocky the Anatolian. The goats pluck leaves from trees and climb the steep face of Monkey Rock with ease. "Goats clear the outside perimeter, which would otherwise be a favorable habitat for sharpshooters," Malone tells me as we exit the truck momentarily to pet a few goats greeting us at the fence line. The goats have dramatically reduced disease pressure at the estate through weed control. A mobile chicken run in the distance delivers chickens to different vineyard blocks. "The chickens help mitigate the population of harmful bugs, too."

"Farming organically and biodynamically, you have to be nimble, flexible, aware of your surroundings at all times because no season is the same," he continues. "This year, we started working in March. During January through March, we had 30 inches of rain. That’s new for us. Normally we’re farming in early January and hauling ass the remainder of the year. This year, we watched the weather, watched how things were growing, and in March we rolled into it."

As we climb onto the horizon, we see fields of hay blanketing the estate below. The team organically farms about 12 acres of hay to supplement their cows, whose waste is used for biodynamic preparations and to help build their compost. "We also take waste from our pond, mulch from trees that have fallen---we’re working on our recipe. We’re not there 100% yet, but in another season or two we’ll figure out that piece of the puzzle. We make our own biochar, which we incorporate into our compost."

He drives me to a series of gigantic, conical pits from which stacking lattices rise; the same shape you see at the bottom is the same shape you see at the top. They look a little like giant ice cream cones. "We do top-down burns, so they’re very hot. The fire at the top consumes the smoke that is generated below, so it’s essentially a smokeless burn, and a very clean burn. Right before it turns to ash, we harvest it, put out the fire, and set it aside." The remaining little pieces of charcoal are then feathered into the compost, soaking up all the good stuff, all the nutrients, and biological life. Acting like slow-release pellets, they help return carbon and nutrients to the estate’s soil. "We’re seeing improvements in the vineyard on an annual basis, and hopefully an improvement in the bottle year after year."

The Winery

I’m impossibly lost inside Sea Smoke’s production facility on the outskirts of Lompoc. It’s dark and cold. I pull my sweater tighter around me as I try to locate one human that might point me in the right direction.

I finally see a tall man in a baseball cap, slightly hunched over, walking towards me. Maybe he’s an HVAC guy? Surely, he’ll be able to help. I say hello and tell him I’m looking for the winemaker. 

"I’m Don," he says. That would be Don Schroeder, 43, whose been with Sea Smoke for 20 years. He started out as assistant winemaker and assumed the winemaker position in early 2008. Modest of baring and soft-spoken, he leads me to the room where we’ll taste, but before we sit down, he resolves to begin the day with a glass of sparkling wine. "Twist my lips," I tell him. I don’t need any convincing when it comes to imbibing sparkling wine at the top of the morning. 

As he brings over a couple of glasses, I mention the various rooms I’ve walked through to find him, including the barrel room, which is impeccably clean and organized. He explains that they use laser lines to line the barrels up precisely. We’re enjoying their 2016 Sea Spray Blanc de Noir. "It was disgorged in 2021," he says. "It spent a year in the barrel, three years in tirage. Ten months on the cork. It’s a five-year process."

Sea Smoke is one of those rare wineries that achieved greatness very early on. Founded in 1999 by Bob Davids, the 2001 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, its debut vintage, quickly became a darling of the critics, with the Wine Spectator naming it one of the top 100 wines of the world. The next three consecutive vintages would repeat that distinction, with magazine covers and countless accolades to follow. However, Davids, whose Radica toy company, once the third largest toy company in the world, was later sold to Mattel, remained largely unknown in the wine world. "He said, ‘I don’t feel like I have to be in the spotlight,’" Schroeder tells me, "And I like that."

"Do one thing and do it right."

The same could be said for Schroeder, who is private and rarely attends larger wine events, save for the World of Pinot Noir, the only public wine festival at which Sea Smoke is poured. 

We next taste through a couple of vintages of the trifecta for which Sea Smoke is best known: the Southing, Ten, and Botella Pinot Noirs. Each wine is different, expressing with great transparency and purity of fruit the terroir of its provenance. Each wine is an exercise in balance, length, energy, and tension. We finish our tasting with the estate Chardonnay. His style is best described as minimal intervention, with the quality of fruit highlighted more than the human hand. As a result, the wines are site- rather than style-driven.

He credits Sea Smoke’s vice president and general manager, Victor Gallegos, with their consistency. "He’s always saying, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ Do one thing and do it right. Every new year is an opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with the vineyard. No amount of winemaking expertise can compare to the connection you gain working with the same vineyard year after year consistently. Over 85% of my career has been dedicated to this vineyard, and I have been fortunate to walk through the vines in the early years with Kris or bump into Billy Wathen (of Foxen fame) as he jogged around our vineyard and gave his insights." The Kris he refers to is winemaker Kris Curran, who was the first winemaker at Sea Smoke. 

The Sea Smoke team is small, and Schroeder tells me, tight-knit. "Julian, Victor, and I all have a great work relationship, and we all think alike when it comes to quality improvements. We have weekly meetings as a team to go over everything going on, and the vineyard is always a large focus. Our entire team has great synergy together, and we are all discussing potential tweaks and improvements frequently. Ultimately, it comes back to strong communication channels, which is the reason we have one main office with everyone’s desk in the same room."

"You inevitably to consider yourself a steward of a magical piece of dirt."

Pico Los Alamos

It’s late April, and I’m in Los Alamos, a small country town about forty-six miles north of Santa Barbara, distinguished for its uncommonly bustling Main Street and colorful locals. I’m at Pico Los Alamos for one of their "Know Thy Farmer" lunches, a series that pairs local organically/ biodynamically farmed wine producers with like-minded farmers for al fresco meals hosted by the purveyors. Founded by restauranteur Will Henry, the series is popular along the Central Coast, so I’ve purchased one of the last tickets available, as Sea Smoke will be featured alongside Motley Crew Ranch, first-generation farmers working in Lompoc and known for their humanely raised meats and eggs. 

I meet back up with Malone, who is there to speak about regenerative farming. Schroeder is there, seated alongside his wife. Gallant and elegant, Victor Gallegos, speaking flawless Spanish with a few table mates, sits at the head of one of the long, wooden farmhouse tables. 

Gallegos rises to greet the small, intimate gathering of diners. "We spend a lot of time and effort, at least in my family, thinking about organic fruit and fruits and vegetables, but we don’t spend quite as much time thinking about the wine we put in our body. How you farm is a reflection of your belief system."

At Sea Smoke, he says, they believe in"a concept called terroir, and it’s an overused term. For us, it means: if you believe you have an amazing piece of dirt, then everything you do should point to the wine that comes from that piece of dirt tasting like that place. Terroir encompasses soil, micro-, and meso- climates, aspects or exposure, and altitude, but importantly, and this is often overlooked, it’s the people and their energies that farm and make decisions on that piece of property that also define terroir. If you believe that, then it leads you inevitably to consider yourself a steward of that magical piece of dirt, because it’s going to be there a hell of a lot longer than we are. Our highest and best activity is to guard it for the future." The Sea Smoke estate has been farmed organically since 2005 and biodynamically since 2013. 

As lunch is served---Cornbread and Honey Butter with Motley Crew Ranch Lamb tartare, paired with the 2016 Sea Spray, to start, followed by three more courses that will be paired with the 2020 Chardonnay and the three 2020 Pinot Noirs, the lunch guests settle into a comfortable afternoon, alternative folk music playing over the speakers. Malone and his wife chat softly nearby. I get to know a couple seated across from me who are enjoying their first outing since their baby was born. We raise a glass to each other across the table while the young mother checks her phone for text updates on their newborn.


Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

2022

En Primeur

Photo Essay by Johan Berglund

- Château Calon Ségur
- Christian Seely, Château Pichon Baron
- Château Angélus
- Guillaume Pouthier, Château Carmes Haut-Brion
- Henri Lurton, Château Brane-Cantenac

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

– William Shakespeare

- Château Canon
- Lisa Perrotti Brown at Château Lagrange
- Château Cheval Blanc
- Château Haut-Bailly
- Diana Garcia Berrouet, Le Pin
- Alfred Tesseron, Château Pontet-Canet
- Louis Mitjavile, Tertre Roteboeuf
- Château Lynch-Bages
- Olivier Berrouet, Petrus
- Edouard Moueix, Château Bélair-Monange
- Noëmie Durantou and Olivier Gautrat, Château L'Eglise-Clinet
- Château Margaux
- Château Lascombes
- Château Gruaud Larose
- Virginie Sallette, Château Gruaud Larose
- Nicolas Audebert, Château Rauzan-Ségla
- Château Troplong Mondot
- Château d'Issan
- Château Latour
- Damien Barton, Château Léoville Barton
- Pierre Graffeuille, Château Montrose
- Thomas Duroux, Château Palmer
- Daniel Cathiard, Château Smith Haut Lafitte
- Laure and Gerard de Lambert, Château Sigalas Rabaud
- Selfie at Château Lascombes

The Mermaids in the Basement

Visiting Haliotide

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me.

-Emily Dickinson 

Atop a gently sloping hillside overlooking the small country town of Templeton, California, surrounded by orchards and a walnut grove, sits an unassuming red barn. Inside that barn lives Haliotide, one of the most exciting sparkling wine programs in the United States.

A herd of deer, startled by my car, lope through an orchard nearby, their footsteps audible as they run through thick grasses. Nicole Pope, tall, lean, and elegant of baring, is the project’s winemaker and co-founder, along with her husband, Luke. She greets me outside, and for a beat, we look out at the rural land before entering the winery. 

Haliotide is small, clean, and tidy, with a tight set of rooms providing an efficiently organized facility within which to make sparkling wine. There’s a barrel room where the base wines are aged. There’s a small room with walls adorned in their three children’s chalk artwork, where large wooden boxes store bottles undergoing tirage. Another room is lined with riddling racks, slanted bottles catching coins of white light from above. Nicole and Luke do most of the work alone year-round, with family and friends helping during disgorging, bottling, and labeling, which are all done by hand. 

Haliotide’s identity is manifested in a suite of daring, mythologically informed labels. New labels are created with each vintage. Though the paper and photos upon which they’re printed are one-dimensional, the labels have profound dimension and character. They are conceptualized and designed by artistic partners Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, Nicole’s sister. In collaboration since 2013, the pair is perhaps best known for their large-scale installations, namely Photo Chapel (2013) and Confessions (2015), which they created for Burning Man, a process that concludes in their burning in the remote sands of Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles outside Reno. Their wine label work employs photography, collage, and costume, the resultant aesthetic that of dreamscapes and folktales. 

Nicole first got her start in sparkling wine production in 2007 at Domaine Carneros, where she worked as a lab intern. By the time she left in 2010, she’d worked her way up to assistant winemaker. “I just learned that I really love sparkling wine. I always had sparkling wine in the fridge. It became our favorite wine to drink. We drink it multiple times a week now. I love how delicate and bright it is. Some producers will make sparkling wines out of anything,” she says. “They’re just picking grapes early. But if you have a cooler climate with an extended growing season, you can let the grapes hang until September. In hotter climates, people are picking for sparkling wine in August. On the coolest edge of the cool climates is where you’re going to get the best quality fruit for sparkling wine, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in those climates.”

Intentionally, all their vineyard sources are coastal. “We really want the ocean to influence our wines. Haliotide means abalone in French. We used to go abalone diving in Mendocino when the season was still open. Sparkling wine, it just has that ocean air smell. That bright freshness. We love it with oysters, sushi….”

As if on cue, Nicole’s husband, Luke, arrives with our lunch. While he’s unpacking an assortment of sashimi, nigiri, rolls, and a side of shiso leaves, the wind around us kicks up, calling into action wind chimes hanging from a nearby tree. Luke Pope, a grape farmer by day for Coastal Vineyard Services, tells me he moonlights at Haliotide. “I’m Nicole’s cellar rat. And we taste dosage trials together. I’m busiest during harvest time. Transportation of fruit. Arranging the picks. While she’s out visiting and tasting the sites, I talk to the farmers about the logistics of when and how we can get the fruit off. How much fruit can I haul on a given Saturday or Sunday? Maybe I’m the Logistics Manager, too?” “And the machine guy,” she adds.

Haliotide currently sources from the Derbyshire Vineyard in San Simeon, home of the Hearst Castle and the Bassi and Topotero Vineyards, both located just over a mile from the Pacific in the seaside town of Avila. “The entire SLO Coast AVA is very cool, but that particular spot on the SLO Coast is even colder,” she says. 

“We are not a large house, so we’re not going to be making something that tastes the same year to year. We’re going to have single vineyard, single vintage wines. We’re not blending away place and vintages.” 

The Popes were inspired by the grower champagne model and, even though they don’t own any of their own vineyard sources, work closely with growers. “The aha wine for me was a 2002 Salon, for sure,” Luke says. “And we both love Champagne Doyard.”

In 2016, during off hours, Pope made a Blancs de Blancs with chardonnay from the Stolo Vineyard in Cambria, where she was winemaker at the time. It was disgorged after four years of aging and then cellared. That 2016 Blancs de Blancs became the first Haliotide wine, which wouldn’t be released until 2021. “There was no grand plan,” she says. “We thought, ‘let’s just make one ton and, if it’s not sales worthy, we’ll keep it for ourselves, and between family and friends, we’ll be able to drink it.’ We didn’t have a mailing list, so we just put together a website quickly, and a lot of industry people signed up and bought the wine. It was a small amount. Only 40 cases, and we kept eight of those.” 

Those 40 cases sold out rapidly, and the 2017 vintage that followed sold out within two weeks. That’s when they decided to commit to future vintages and to purchasing more fruit. They moved into their winery in 2021 but have no plans for a tasting room. “I’m not comfortable schmoozing very much, and I’m not good at selling,” she says. They’ve been able to gain exposure for their brand by collaborating with brands like Saxum and the Maha Estate in Paso Robles, who, when hosting progressive wine dinners, enlist the Popes to kick off the evening with a glass of sparkling wine. 

With the 2022 vintage, they began sourcing from the Davenport Vineyard near Edna Valley. “They’re working with the Roederer Pinot Noir clone. We’d like to make Blancs de Noir from this site. It’s in barrel right now. We’ll wait to bottle it to see how it comes out. We’re still experimenting with it. I don’t mind trying new things, but it’s such a commitment to then buy the glass, put it in the bottle.” 

Even as she is enumerating the costs associated with experimentation, she quickly remembers to mention the possibility of working with a chardonnay site in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. Though the Popes had initially committed to sourcing solely from the SLO Coast AVA, they remain open to exploring other coastal regions. 

“The owner of Coastal Vineyard Services, Kevin, has been super generous, allowing us to use his trailers. This would be a big endeavor if we had to have the entire investment for everything we need, but people have been really nice to us, and they want to see us succeed. They’ve been generous with their tools, equipment, and time. It’s an ‘us’ project, but it’s a “community project,” too. That’s the thing about Paso Robles. People here are very cooperative. It has a special feel. We all rise together.” 

Perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive business ventures, launching a wine brand requires cash flow up front, followed by herculean amounts of patience before any wine can be sold. Knowing the perils of the business, why did they forge ahead? Luke says, “I have one client who is ultra-wealthy, bought a big property. He said: talk me into doing it. I asked him if he had any passion for it. He said, ‘No, it’s a dollar and cents game.’ So I told him, ‘It’s not for you. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You must find it exciting.’ I think about that all the time. Ultimately, we have luxury products. Is this really a good use of water? Is it a good use of the resources we have? Is growing grapes responsible? Farmers all over need to think about water use. I think about the side effects of these luxury products on the environment.” Though he is conscientious, making efforts to farm responsibly and sustainably, he remains concerned. “We are causal agents of these side effects, but we try to find meaning in the joy Haliotide brings to the people who enjoy our wines.”

It’s got to be challenging living and working with the same person, day in and day out. He says, “The kids probably bring the most stress. Because it’s just constant. Basketball. Gymnastics. Tap dancing. That’s why we have a minivan now. There are so many things on my checklist I don’t get to, but that’s life now. We were working together at Stolo. She was making the wine, and I was farming. We work well together.”

As we’re finishing up lunch, Luke excuses himself. He has kids to pick up and drop off at their various destinations. I stay behind with Nicole, and we revisit the flight of wines before us. They’ve opened, sharing a signature of balance, freshness, elegance. It’s getting chilly, so we both bundle up. We raise our glasses and toast. The bubbles compel us, though the only celebration at hand appears to be this moment. “It’s been fun,” she says, casually.


Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!