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Will Work for Grape

Posted by Kerith , December 14, 2009

The most common misconception about Bruliam Wines is that we actually own grapevines.  Contrary to popular belief, one needn’t own vines to produce wine.  Most anyone can buy grapes from farmers and make the kind of wine that they love to drink.  But that seems counterintuitive to folks.  So instead the conversation usually goes something like this:

Kerith is approached by old friend whom she hasn’t seen in a long time.

Old friend: “How are you?  Geez, your kids are getting pretty old.  You must be back to work by now, right?”

Kerith: “I’m not practicing medicine, but we’ve started a wine brand, so I work on that.”

Old friend: “Oh, so you own a vineyard.”

So I launch into a 25 minute treatise about our operation, vineyards, clones, fermentation temperatures, and yeast, which pretty well scares them away until another 20 or so months have passed.  But I can’t help myself.  There is a siren-song allure to crafting a perfect wine.  By that I mean concocting a beverage that reflects a certain growing season in a particular place, truly “time in a bottle.”  (OK, you can gag now).  This heroic quest fuels our insanity, a peripatetic crusade to amass small lots of grapes from a bunch of select locations.  And we’re not alone in our grape grabbing mania.  Outsourcing fruit is becoming increasingly popular, especially in this age of boutique wine producers.  The model we follow aspires to the success of Brian Loring (Loring Wines) or Adam Lee (Siduri Wines).  Both labels produce a number of exceptional pinot noirs from California and Oregon, without owning any vines at all.  In fact Siduri purchases grapes from 20 different vineyards, creating small lots of vineyard specific pinot noir.  Indeed we shared that vision when we opted to purchase grapes from both Monterey County (Santa Lucia Highlands) and Mendocino (Anderson Valley).  We sought to make two distinctly different pinot noirs, products of two very disparate climates, soils, and terroirs.  Unfortunately as you know, Mother Nature got the best of us in 2008, with the smoke taint.  But for the 2009 harvest, we’ve given the Anderson Valley another try, after a terrific, fire-free growing season.  Plus we’ve added a Sonoma Coast offering, from an exceptional vineyard called Gap’s Crown.

The most fantastic success story to date is the modern fairy tale of Kosta Browne.  Once upon a time two guys wanted to make some pinot.  Like Cinderella herself, they worked and toiled, cleared plates and tidied up after dinner service.  When no fairy godmother materialized to bankroll their dream, they pooled their collective tip money (widely acknowledged in urban wine myth as $20 bucks / night) to purchase their first ton of grapes.  This past September, Michael Kosta and Dan Browne sold the controlling interest in their company to Vincraft, a wine-focused private equity group, for almost $40 million.  Their mega cash payout is not exceptional given their insane track record for crafting critically acclaimed wines (43 of 49 pinots scored by Wine Spec ranked 90 points and higher).  What is astounding is that these two “stoked….really excited” guys don’t own a single vine (WS, 9/09).  Vincraft is essentially buying their star power and enology “It-factor,” and I presume full access to the Sebastopol warehouse where their mastery spins grapes to gold.  To top off their can’t-get-any-better year, Wine Spectator has named their 2007 Sonoma Coast pinot noir their #4 wine in the top 100 of 2009.  Oh yeah, did I mention their Sonoma Coast is a blend from 4 vineyards, including Gap’s Crown?

In my very first viticulture lecture, UC Davis professor Dr. Mike Anderson warns students against trying to both grow grapes and vinify them.  He admonishes, “I’m going to now, and probably later, caution you against doing these things.”  He goes on to show a diagram with three bubbles: one surrounds a photo of grapevines, another displays a barrel room, and the third overlaps both with a couple of baseball-capped guys standing on a crusher-destemmer.  The caption reads, “You have to do both, don’t you?”  Dr. Anderson scolds, “I’m gonna tell you again, I think it’s a really bad idea.”  So my first farming lesson proved that even the experts endorse winemakers buying grapes from dedicated farmers.  My second epiphany confirmed the above adage.  Farm science should be left to those better suited than I.  Enduring 4 hours of lecture on irrigation was about as boring to me as your reading my jargon-heavy musings on sugar transporters. 

A few weeks ago my girls’ swim teacher voiced an out of the blue request.  He asked if we ever allowed weddings at our Temecula vineyard.  I said, “We don’t own a vineyard…” 

“But you make wine, right?” he protested.  His delightful presumption was not illogical; if we live in San Diego and make wine then we must own a vineyard in Temecula.  To be magnanimous, I offered up full access to the warehouse in the meth-laden corner of San Francisco where we work, but that wasn’t exactly the idyllic, pastoral setting he’d envisioned.

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