Satellite Wine Club, August 2022
$40 Retail, $480/Case $384/Case for Members ($32/Bottle)
$39 Retail, $468/Case $374/Case for Members ($31.20/Bottle)
Howdy everyone. Welcome to summer. Finally, sunlight before noon. Sunsets to die for. Egg confetti coating hot pavement. Revelers of questionable age shouting in the streets. There’s excitement and moisture in the air, and it’s no coincidence we’re on the precipice of harvest. Things are changing in the fields as in the streets. Underneath a naked sun, vines grow fat as their leafy arms reach to the sky, and veraison, the onset of ripening, is a stealthy graffiti artist, revisiting its canvas night after night to paint green grapes splashes of chartreuse yellow and sangria purple. Before long they’ll have all been picked.
But as we look forward, let’s also remember times past. With Old Spanish Days this month, it seems only fitting we turn back the clock with two producers embracing old-is-new school techniques. That’s right – minimalist farming and blending a bunch of grapes. Grapes of all colors and persuasions, unified. It’s hot. It’s chill. It’s history. The clarete express is here to shuttle us back to the California of yesteryear, and underneath a muggy mop of hair, I’m clamoring to get aboard. We touched on this beautiful style of white-meets-red back in May, with the Satellite x Âmevive Quasar Clarete, and like that boisterous, unconventional blend of marsanne and tempranillo, this month’s selections are fresh and dynamic and boldly adventurous. They defy the tired “white or red?” question.
They’re also inherently rebellious, like James Dean throwing a red towel into a load of whites. But Iruai and Old World are not without a cause. Nurse that Fiesta hangover, then let these two wild children knock your pink socks off.
$40 Retail, $480/Case $384/Case for Members ($32/Bottle)
Iruai straddles the California/Oregon border and the ridgeline of mountain winegrowing. Chasing practically uncharted territory, founders Chad and Michelle Westbrook Hinds are channeling the Alps in a changing climate. While the area is better known for its volcanoes, gold and Weed (the city, not the plant), the artists formerly known as Methode Sauvage see a prime spot for hip, cool-climate varieties like mondeuse, trousseau and savagnin. If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Picture syrah, gamay and chardonnay, freezing their butts off in the snow, before adapting with rusticity and grit. That’s kind of what you get with this trio. Chad recognizes their mystery. As well as their inexperience. There’s no historical reference for the grapes in this area.
Equally green is Iruai’s approach to farming. Buzz words abound. Natural farming. Permaculture. Chaos organics. However you define them, these are all pieces of the same vehicle, with one destination: self-sustenance. The goals are lofty. But Chad and Michelle aren’t winging it. Drawing heavily from the playbook of Masanobu Fukouka, author of One Straw Revolution and godfather of the “do-nothing farming” movement, these two rebuke fertilizers, pesticides, tilling, weeding and almost any human intervention.
A vineyard like this is a brambly path, wildflowers and weeds flourishing between rows of vines, an ecosystem that must be carefully balanced to benefit all. Gathering native plants that border the vineyard to bring inside it fits these two, who find beauty on the fringes.
Chad calls it “re-enchanting the land”. As one half of a self-described gypsy wine project, it’s a theme he returns to often. Eroding the man-made walls between agriculture and nature, person and plant. Challenging conventional norms with experimental vineyard planting techniques. Rehabilitating and re-invigorating forgotten spaces, then letting them be. As a detoxing Keith Richards shakily crooned while coming clean: “I wanna walk before they make me run”. This will take some time.
It’s hard to say if these vineyards will have the stamina of the hard-living guitarist of the Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World, six decades in, but I’m not sure that’s the point. What’s taking place now is the same non-conformist, anti-consumerist statement made by (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. And it’s as magical and mystical as this label, which looks like young Gandalf tucked away in an alpine lake along the Misty Mountains, preparing a tincture. Call me a sucker for idealism, and cool packaging.
While the couple buys fruit from the Shasta-Cascade border region (hence this bottling’s name), their quest for the wild led to a piece of land near Etna, California. The town, aptly named after the Sicilian volcano of Greek mythology, lies in the shadow of fiery Mount Shasta, and it’s here where they aim to guide their do-nothing grapes into wine by doing, well, very little.
This place is so remote, it doesn’t fall within any of California’s 150-ish federally-designated growing regions. From Eureka to El Centro, the state is packed with vines, and we’re reaching max capacity - almost one AVA per year of statehood reflects that. To land outside one of them is no easy feat. Technically, California claims its own AVA, so anything made within state lines can bear that name. But labels that do are often blends from multiple counties, frantically pieced together like a game of Operation, and in general, stay away. It’s safe to say most don’t get much TLC. On the other hand, the AVA system tells us that what we’re drinking comes from a specific place; somewhere battle-tested and proven to yield distinct wines. But it doesn’t cover everything.
Given their grapes and gumption, it’s no surprise Chad and Michelle find themselves somewhere between the spleen and sternum of the state, without a local style or federal limb to latch onto. That’s just how they like it.
There’s no roadmap, or neighbors. How deep in the boonies are we? The nearby Seiad Valley AVA holds just three acres of vines. That’s far smaller than the average vineyard anywhere in the state, and it’s still an established growing region. Bottlings from Chad and Michelle’s plot, designated as California wines, are forging a new frontier. Not to mention the own-rooted plantings on that Western Siskiyou estate. It’s a shot in the dark with both arms tied behind the back, in bear country. But these two are equipped for la vie sauvage.
Amongst a small town in a proposed secessionist state, Chad and Michelle zagged their Berkeley urban winery zig. Far from carpetbaggers, the couple honor the land they’ve been lucky enough to steward, and donate 1% of profits to the Shasta Indian Nation. Iruai is Shasta for the Scott Valley, their home.
With traditional Japanese ukiyo-e-meets-Lord of the Rings-inspired labels and a Spotify playlist to pair with each one, these are my kind of winemakers. The Shasta-Cascade playlist leads with Wayne Shorter, The Flying Burrito Brothers and my favorite Bob Dylan track, Isis, so there’s no question how I’ll be spending my evening.
The Shasta-Cascade is a kitchen sink of grapes hailing from every nook of eastern France… with some blaüfrankisch thrown in for good measure. In cahoots with the blue French one, (which is actually Austrian), we’ve got trousseau, mondeuse, pinot noir and pinot gris sourced from Trinity Lakes, California, and Rogue Valley, Oregon. Like winemaker Joe Swick’s punchy PNW blends, often a half-dozen grapes from Oregon and Washington jammed into one bottle, this inter-state cuvée hops the borderline like a nomad skipping sales tax.
That’s not to say the wine lacks a sense of place. It bursts with the coniferous trees of the Klamath Mountains, which bind the Trinity Lakes and Rogue Valley AVAs as if pine resin on a wound. That resin, along with sea salt, iris and Framboise, dominates the nose. Think cleaning your room with Pine-Sol as a kid, mom giving a perfumed hug before heading out the door. The palate is intensely savory, maraschino cherry and cured meats braced by leafy herbs and bright acidity. There’s a Crest Whitestrip of tannin that hangs on, offering long-lasting brambly fruit and flower stems. It’s intriguing and alpine and unfurls more with time open.
This month, growers and winemakers fastidiously prowl their vineyards, tasting fruit and eagle-eyeing sugar levels. Whether they irrigate or dry-farm, blast weed-killer or bury cow poop, this exercise, along with purple digits and bee stings, is the great equalizer of harvest. These two will be patrolling the vines with an olive (or native manzanita) branch, not a baton.
They’re not the only ones. But when conventional farming is clutching a Farmers’ Almanac in one hand and Roundup canister in the other, seeking nature’s providence while shirking its care, Iruai’s laissez-faire attitude is as refreshing as its wines. When it comes to economics, the invisible hand theory may be more full of shit than biodynamic preparation #500. But it’s onto something here. The proof is in the juice, which sings.
I think Chad and Michelle would say that a wine, and a philosophy, is never late. Nor is it early. It arrives precisely when it means to.
$39 Retail, $468/Case $374/Case for Members ($31.20/Bottle)
Darek Trowbridge never thought he’d see the day natural wine clicked. The fourth-generation farmer and no-frills winemaker began tending vines in his teens, and watched the wine world for three decades as aggressive farming ruled the day, huge brands gobbled up small ones, and winemakers chased contrived styles and point scores. In the midst of it all, he learned to believe in old vines, organics, and soil health. The man who calls himself a soil farmer worked and waited on his audience. Now, it seems the great unwashed could be seeing the upside to playing in dirt. Darek’s hoping we don’t spit it out.
Under the supervision of his grandfather Leno and uncle Lee Martinelli, of Martinelli Vineyards and Winery, Darek walked the vines his great-grandfather Giuseppe planted in the 1880s and 1890s as a wide-eyed kid. This apprenticeship would set the course of his life. He shipped off to Cal Poly SLO, preceding Mikey and Gina Giugni, Alice Anderson, Stephen Searle and Carter Hallman, winemakers who earned their stripes at the wine/engineering hub before gracing the shelves of Satellite and pages of these write-ups.
A robust, if rigid education in the fundamentals gave these up-and-comers the tools to build the box. Experience brought them outside it, and into vin nature. Darek went onto Fresno State for a Masters in enology, but like his fellow Cal Poly alum, a penchant for low intervention suggests studies in the sunshine of the vines better-informed his thinking. Winemaking by rote wasn’t for the young soil farmer. He knew the important stuff, and could go his own way.
He sure as hell did. When Old World set sail in 1998, the concept of natural wine hadn’t just missed American shores. It hardly existed. Of course, wine was made naturally for eons, but somewhere along the way we fell from grace and gave ourselves over to chemicals. In the late 1970s, a group of producers from the Beaujolais region of France decided enough was enough. Jules Chauvet and the “Gang of Four” began a revolution that rippled across the country, from Paris wine bars to Roussillon hillsides. By the new millennium the wave had caught.
But in California, at the height of big Napa cabs and celebrity wine critic Robert Parker’s kingmaking palate, Darek found himself an anomaly. Tastes at that time, arguably dictated by Parker, called for ripe, over-oaked and over-manipulated wines designed to look like prune juice and taste like vanilla (or look like liquid butter and taste like liquid butter). So that’s what was churned out. Sure, there were a couple of other like-minded producers in his neck of the woods, Coturri Winery quite literally with their redwood fermenters of old-vine zinfandel, and Frey Vineyards, biodynamic since the 1980s. But carrying the day were wines stuffed with cultured yeasts, enzymes and sulfur, stemming (no pun, they never used stems) from vines treated as a commodity.
He mentions a rough period lasting nearly 15 years as if it were a mosquito in his ear. I guess when you’ve been farming since Guns N’ Roses hit the scene, perspective, and the mission, are everything. Humorously self-deprecating and blunt, he’s not one to wax poetic or seem bitter about his life’s work. Yet calling it an uphill battle would be calling Aconcagua a climb. While the organic food movement hit its stride in the mid-aughts, Darek was met with bewilderment upon selling his wines as “natural”. How could a product made from grapes be anything but? He had to plug the farming. Re-imagining his role as that of a shepherd, Darek coined the term pastoral winemaker and hit the streets with the new moniker. But this brought religious connotations to mind; his customers thought he was a pastor.
What’s more, the American chasm between vine and vintner had no bridge to bring the Old World founder to the New. Land prices, dog-eat-dog individualism and corporatized education have left us so disconnected from the vines that few winemakers in the states actually grow their fruit. This leads to wine-engineering. Growers study viticulture, winemakers study enology. It’s a two-headed beast raised on formulas to pump out the most wine. Not so across the pond. There’s actually no French word for “winemaker”. Vigneron, winegrower, comes close. But vignerons and vigneronnes are not just growers.
In Europe, they farm, and alongside the cellar team makes their wine. It’s all part of the same job. You wouldn’t pulverize the baby tomato plants whose fruit will feed your family. And you wouldn’t blanket the tomatoes with useless crap at the dinner table. There’s a symbiosis that informs the process, an intrinsic labor of love. It’s a different mentality. No wonder natural wine first caught on there, and Darek had a battle here. Few drinkers considered that the farmer and winemaker could be the same person, even fewer that the wines they enjoyed were chemically assembled. How were they supposed to know?
The same goes for farming. The sustainability song and dance plagues the wine industry like any other. Sexy vineyard shots and website platitudes cover for vineyard care that makes the WWE look like Sesame Street. Many talk a good game, some mean it. If anyone’s about that life, it’s Darek. Unsatisfied with simple winegrowing and making, the guy wanted to take things a step further.
Enter the Soil Carbon Management Company. Its aim is to create a new compost that sequesters carbon while encouraging nutrient uptake in wounded soils. In short, wildfire prevention is leaving an ocean of wood chips in its wake, and Darek realized that by treating the pieces of dead tree with organic material, in this case mycorrhizal (plant root-partnering) fungi, the shroom-y chips could tap into food sources for plants, while microorganisms munch and flourish, leaving carbon behind as the roots do.
It’s with this dedication to conscious farming and hands-off winemaking that Old World took shape. Darek named the winery after Giuseppe’s voyage from Tuscany to a small nook in the Russian River Valley, which reminded the immigrant of the old country. Inspired by his great-grandfather’s plantings, he subsidized the project by managing 115 acres for a larger winery, and a decade later kismet came knocking. He was given the opportunity to farm the now century-old vineyards his great-grandfather planted, the same vineyards he roamed two decades earlier with his grandfather Leno. They’re now being resurrected by the fourth generation.
This is where we pivot. I’m not sure if the website just needs updating, but it’s tough to tell where the petite sirah, merlot and chardonnay in this starry bottle came from. Labeled North Coast, there’s a number of possibilities, but noticing Darek’s preferred locales, I’m thinking this is a Sonoma-meets-Napa and/or Lake County affair. For a laidback clarete like the Shasta-Cascade, and for a long-time farmer with plenty of contacts, it makes sense to source from a couple of sites. Knowing what we do about the guy, we can trust they’re being shepherded, not body-slammed. So let’s briefly talk big picture with claretes.
As we discussed in May’s write-up, the word and its many spellings lead to confusion, but the idea is simple: a co-ferment of white and red grapes somewhere between rosé and red. This style offers more than just glou-glou chugability. Claretes can be herbaceous, savory and they turn heads for good reason. Chilled and complex, there’s something for everyone.
They hail from an old-school technique that for practical reasons just kind of happened. You pick a mixed bag of grapes from the same vineyard on the same day, there’s only so much space to make your wine, why not throw things in the same pot and see what happens? Thinking of wine tribally, red team vs. white team, is a pretty recent phenomenon. Champagne has been produced with red and white grapes for centuries. So have classic syrahs from the Northern Rhône Valley. In fact, the upside to that American wine problem of less communal tradition is more freedom to craft these blends. They have history here as well. The winemakers at the missions made them. I’m not one to glorify the past, but in this case, going back is good news.
As is this clarete’s gorgeous color. A murky purple in the glass, the Impulse is saline and herbaceous on the nose, rife with cornichon, forest floor, Red Vines and salted pretzel. Acid, wet earth and iodine rip through tart red and blue berries on the palate. The whole-cluster is real – bell pepper and leafy berries season an unmistakably savory wine. Like the Shasta-Cascade, the tannins are present, but finer, leaner.
Darek, once the odd man out, is still making the same case he was a generation ago. Lately, it seems the audience is listening. He’ll remain patient. Even if the soil farmer is still a small fish in a big pond, there’s a school beside him, and the water’s a little cleaner.
A famous Sonoma olive oil-turned-wine mogul once said – “Sustainable means sustainable for the farmer”. Meaning he or she needs to turn a profit, too. That’s why we’re so stoked on these vignerons and vigneronnes. Whether it be Chad and Darek, Alice Anderson and the deLaskis here in California, the Saahs in Austria or Loïc Roure in France, when organic and biodynamic farmers foment these radical projects, we all win. The planet included. These makers, whose stories and bottles we’ve shared over the past several months, offer an alternative choice to industrialized wine. How fortunate that it’s as delicious as it is thoughtful.
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