In our May/June 2013 issue, Sarah Karnasiewicz explores the changing terrain of California winemaking, where oddball wine styles are taking root in unexpected places. Winemakers like Ian Brand, Alex Krause and John Locke are bucking tradition by introducing a myriad of these varietals to domestic soils. Recently, Brand sat down with fellow Bonny Doon alums Alex Krause and John Locke to talk low-intervention winemaking, unusual wine varietals and how the Doon influenced them. Here’s what they had to say.
Ian Brand: In the Santa Cruz Mountains, half of the wine paths seem to run through Bonny Doon. It’s an experience that really shapes your post-Doon career. We all began working in the cellar there, but at very different times. I was there during the peak production. Harvest was a really magical time. We were bringing in [grapes like] Lourreiro, Treixadura, Bastardo, various Rhones, and doing stuff like soaking stems in alcohol in the ratty section by the train tracks. I didn’t really care about wine at the time, but the job was way out there, so it drew me in. I liked the experimentation and discovery, the tremendous variety and possibility. John and Alex were there much earlier in the process and were part of the development of that. It was an ideal launching point. I don’t think I would have fallen for winemaking if I had started in a more staid atmosphere. Alex and John, what did the Doon do for you?
Alex Krause: In the early days, I worked in the tasting room. Then I met John and thought it was a good idea to go into the cellar with him for a few years and clean lots of tanks, and bottling equipment, and learn a little about winemaking. I changed jobs six or seven times over two decades at Bonny Doon, even spent some time on the “dark side” (sales and marketing). I learned a lot from Randall [Grahm] and John, for which I remain tremendously grateful.
While I enjoy Randall’s wine, intellect and humor, I think equally valuable has been the number of friends I gained who are part of what John and I call the Great Bonny Doon Diaspora (including people like Ian). To echo Ian’s point, there is something about Randall’s quixotic nature that attracts people that are, in my experience, slightly demented and likely to be doing more interesting things than, say, a random selection of colleagues at a more staid winery. It takes a special kind of person to thrive in the creative ferment and chaos of Bonny Doon.
At Birichino, John and I make wines that we like to drink. Low in alcohol, high-toned in terms of aromatics, brightness from acidity, with very minimal intervention, native yeasts, and stainless steel or neutral barrels. We practice the art of staying the hell out of the way and letting the vineyard do the talking.
John Locke: What did the Doon do for me? The lame, stock Vaudevillian answer is: nothing that can’t be treated with topical antibiotics. But how would this explain the persistent, untreatable itch?
My time at Bonny Doon, as much as anything else, taught me the importance of adding to the global quantum of joy, delight and well-read adolescent humor— three commodities in fairly short supply these days. The wine business certainly delivers its share of pleasure in myriad ways—wine as a tasty beverage, wine as an excuse to have friends over for eating, drinking and goofing around together, wine as the noble product of agriculture. Nothing beats delivering delight and facilitating discovery. Our task at Bonny Doon was to engage and stimulate as many sensory receptors as possible; primarily the palate and the olfactors, but also the eye and brain and the heart and the funny bone.
I spend a lot of time trying to determine when to add and when to subtract. By adding some extra dimension—of flavor or perfume or humor or allusion—perhaps we can take someone to a place they have yet to experience. But we can also unnecessarily complicate things, confuse or over-extract. It is a gift to be able to contemplate these matters and attempt to create the most beautiful and delightful experience possible.
I do have a question for Ian: What percentage of whole clusters do you use in your Syrah? Psych!!! I really don’t particularly care about that at the moment. What I want to know is, in the context of winemaking, what are you most likely doing and what specifically might you be looking at when you are blessed with a feeling of optimal experience, of out-of-body oneness with your surroundings—the feeling of maximum exercise of power without effort?
Ian Brand: The times I am most engaged, alive and energetic come during harvest. That’s the part of winemaking I love—watching the weather come in, knowing the flood gates are about to open, making the winery hum, seeing my guys operate at a top level, getting all the tanks and bins full and rolling. It’s an amazing confluence of creative energy and good, hard (wet) work. That’s how I know the winery is my place. I enjoy the business management, marketing and sales aspects because, done well, they allow me to pursue the winemaking principles and ideas I hold dear, but I don’t get the visceral satisfaction I get during harvest, with its alluring aromas, intense engagement and anticipation.
John and Alex, something I enjoy about your stories of the Doon and weaving your way into the wine business is the link between wine’s roots, the intellectual pursuit, a dash of insolence, and finding new ways that respect your past but develop along their own path. Coming from those roots, where do you see Birichino leading? What’s the driving idea(s) behind your pursuit?
Alex Karuse: It comes down to making wines that are delicious. Though there are many perspectives on what constitutes deliciousness, for us it starts with something as basic as picking the right site, planting the right variety, farming the right way, and then messing with it as little as possible in the winemaking process.
When we started in 2008, we had one wine—Malvasia—and then convinced ourselves that we should probably make a red wine to go along with it. Then, a rosé, and then a couple of Pinot vineyards fell into our lap. Later this year, we’ll have a little Muscat and some old-vine Cinsault. Though we have a clear sense of what we like—wines made from lesser-known varieties and from more moderate climes influenced by the coast—we don’t have the burden of being limited by an appellation or 400 years of winemaking tradition that dictate what direction we will take Birichino. We want to be making wines that leave you wanting another sip, another glass—that enliven, revive and refresh rather than assault and overwhelm. To employ some New Age language, we want to make wines that restore one’s energy, not deplete it and add a little joy to the world.
What about you, Ian? How did things get going for you? How do you find your vineyards, and where do you think you’re headed?
Ian Brand: When looking for vineyards, I use a combination of criteria. I generally limit myself to an 80 or so mile radius because that’s the distance at which I feel I can comfortably keep track of the vineyards. I don’t want to rely on someone else’s samples or weather reports. In that radius, I have identified areas I find interesting, some of which I’m working in pretty extensively, others I’m waiting for the right planting or opportunity. I hold those pretty close to the chest.
The most critical experience in my development as a winemaker was the hands-on farming and wine production I did at Big Basin, where the lesson I took away was that climate is the most critical influence in producing balanced wine, but winegrowing soils lead to interesting or compelling wine, so when searching out new vineyards, I focus on soil, aspect and micro-climate. Around here, the best soils are marine sediments (Monterey Shale in the Santa Lucias and the various limestone and calcareous schists in the Gabilan Mountains) and depleted granitic soils on the east side of the Valley. The soil composition dictates the style of wine I produce as much as any other factor. I avoid loamy soils, sandy soils and non-CaCO3 based clays, although there are particular plantings I covet for reasons other than their soil. A unique factor in the Salinas Valley is the wind. You need to be very conscious of a planting’s relationship to the wind, as exposed vineyards will often shut down for several hours in the prime ripening time of day. This can be a good thing for aromatic whites because it preserves acids and aromatic compounds, but it can make quality red production very difficult. Some varieties, like Viognier, have a very difficult time setting fruit in the wind.
Of course, it’s also a question of finding the right varieties for the area. Farming style can be adapted, trellising can be changed, but if the source material is no good, you’ll never get anywhere. My goal has been to produce wines of place, which is to say, balanced wines that reflect the individual character of their source. I’ve been happy with how far I’ve come in pursuit of this goal, but I have many miles left to travel.