As the drought deepens guests have been asking us how we as retailers have been responding to the growing crisis. We work hard to curtail water use at the markets on a daily basis, and we go a step further to support producers who practice sustainable water usage. In the wine department, we talk a lot about dry-farmed vineyards, and will be showcasing four of our favorite dry-farmed wines this month that are perfect for pairing with summer barbecues.
The first vines planted in California were not irrigated; Spanish settlers and later Italian immigrants planted vines that were drought-resistant, like Zinfandel and the old Mission variety. Even some of the first Chardonnay vineyards like Stony Hill in Calistoga were dry-farmed. But for the variety to take hold in the way that it did after the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 irrigation had to become the norm (even though all of those wines came from dry-farmed vineyards!). Chardonnay is originally from Burgundy, a very wet place. Once it became widespread, we, the consumer, and the vines were addicted. You can’t just turn off the spigot on vines that have been continuously irrigated, the shock could kill them. Even dry-farmed vineyards need to be watered for the first couple of years in order for the vines to successfully take hold.
So here we are in quite a pickle: the market demands from California varieties that cannot be produced without irrigation. When a farmer decides to plant a vineyard he or she is going to think first about what sells, but the price of water is becoming an increasingly important consideration. Our job, then, is to promote producers who we feel are already doing it right. Alex Krause and John Locke from Birichino make delicious Grenache from extremely old vineyards just east of Santa Cruz. The site is called the Besson vineyard and it was planted in 1910 to Grenache. They look more like small trees than vines, and they produce a miniscule amount of concentrated fruit each year. What makes old, dry-farmed vines so special? Alex shared his perspective: “I think that vines are like people and that with the benefit of a century or more, they’ve figured out what to do with the available resources – whether we’re talking nutrients from the soil, available water and sunlight, or the crop levels they set. They find their own rhythm and balance.”
If vines are like people then there is some hope for us after all. While each of us figures out how to deal with this crisis, at least there are drought-friendly wines to drink. We all play our part!
Birichino Besson Vineyard Grenache ($19.99)
Birichino was founded by two friends (John Locke and Alex Krause) who both worked at Bonny Doon. This bottling is from 102 year-old dry-farmed, own-rooted Grenache fermented with native yeast, aged in neutral French barrels, bottled unfiltered. A rosehip-like aspect dominates the wild berry fruit. Modest and bright, with a bit more tannin than up-front fruit and a pleasant dried-herb aspect – perfect for a weeknight.
Bucklin “Bambino” Old Hill Ranch ($21.99)
Old Hill Ranch is an historic jewel. It was founded by William McPherson Hill in 1851. Will Bucklin’s mother and stepfather, Anne and Otto Teller, purchased the vineyard in 1981 and sold grapes to Joel Peterson at Ravenswood Winery for their top tier vineyard designate Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel. Bucklin and Ravenswood are the sole producers of wine from the vineyard. The “Bambino” comes from a 10-acre block that was planted on Old Hill in 1998. This young vine field-blend is patterned after the ancient vine field-blend for which Old Hill is known; it is a blend of several grape varieties, principally Zinfandel, but also Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet and Grenache to name a few.
Bucklin Rosé Old Hill Ranch Sonoma ($19.99)
Sourced from the Old Hill Ranch Vineyard, this Rosé is made from Grenache, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Carignane. Whole cluster pressed and finished dry. Beautiful floral aromas with a crisp finish.
Calder Wine Company Charbono ($24.99)
Calder Wine Company was founded by Rory Williams, who grew up in a wine family, with his dad, John Williams who started Frog’s Leap. Part of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, Charbono has a long and wending history in California. Only 70 acres remain here, and it is extinct in its native land of France’s Savoie. After arriving in the mid-1800s (imported, it is believed, by the same man who provided the famed botanist Luther Burbank with the source material for his gardens), it was alternately mistaken for Pinot Noir and Barbera until the mid-20th century, when Inglenook’s John Daniel began making it famous. Some of these mid-century examples still survive, and serve as inspiration for makers of Charbono today, to whom Charbono stands as a lasting connection to the heritage and history of winemaking in Napa Valley. This Charbono features vibrant aromas of cherry cola and ripe plums, backed by intense secondary flavors of forest floor, mustard flowers, dark chocolate, sour cherries and bee pollen. A soft, plummy texture blends with bright acidity and dusty tannins to provide a backbone to the intense aromatics.