Foot of the Bed Cellars in the Cave with Dave!

I tasted through nearly all my barreled wines with Martin and Luc from Foot of the Bed Cellars in San Francisco. Tasting with different palates and different backgrounds can be much more enriching of an experience than doing all the work in solitude.

Photo courtesy of founders Luc and Martin, Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo courtesy of founders Luc and Martin, Foot of the Bed Cellars

Don’t get me wrong, I like solitude, the opportunity to block out everything and focus on the task; I always have. However, the inputs from others in a controlled setting are enlightening and the nuances others pick up can be more attuned than my own senses.

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Take for instance my Merlot from 2017. Merlot happens to be one of Martin’s favorite varietals (I found out that morning). I didn’t really have a planned experiment in mind when we starting tasting the four barrels of 17 Merlot, but it soon became one of our longest discussions of the tasting. I barreled the merlot down to three new oak barrels, Gamba, Kelvin and Nadale and one neutral. The merlot came from Galloway Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, harvested and fermented exactly the same, so the only variation is barrel time.

Many in the wine business use the term ‘American oak’ generically and homogenously, which does the American cooper a disservice. American oak is unique, as is French or Hungarian; as are American cooperages and the craftsmen that work the cooperage. In this micro tasting of Merlot, Kelvin cooperage in Kentucky is an American cooperage using American oak exclusively. Gamba is an Italian cooperage using French oak and Nadalie is a French cooperage operating in the United States using American oak. Quite the combination of styles and raw product, but that’s what can help finish a wine, just as one would use mesquite wood to finish a steak instead of cherry or apple wood.

Martin really focused on the Kelvin 36 month medium long Hydra barrel. Kelvin uses a steaming processes during barrel toasting that is incorporated to lengthen the open fire toasting process, thus penetrating deeper into the oak and mellowing harsher oak tannins such as vanillin or the aromatic coconut picked up in many American oak barrels, in the process, greater complexity is achieved for the American oak. I’ve been using Kelvin since 2010 on many a Bordeaux varietal and have been very happy with the results. There are greater baking spice notes, wisps of mocha, and not nearly as much sweet vanilla as you’d get from 24 month Kentucky or Virginia oak.

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

While Martin was pondering Kelvin, I was obsessing over the Gamba oak barrel. I initially put the new Gamba Allier forest oak on my 2017 Lencioni Vineyard dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon for about 6 months, I racked it off and took the Gamba and put it on my Merlot to finish. The Gamba is opulent and silky with both the Cabernet and the Merlot. Gamba does pack a punch though, and doing some research on Italian cellar technique, brought me to the idea of using the new oak twice in a single vintage, gradually moving from the strongest varietal, Cabernet, to something with less tannin, Merlot. I’ve even considered using this same Gamba barrel a third time in the vintage and aging some Barbera on it for a few months.

The Nadalie barrel was from their proprietary Symphony American oak line. A combination of various American oak forests, the oak is aged in a Pennsylvania yard 36 months minimum, which is the minimum aging that I use for American oak in my program and then final cooperage and toasting is completed in Napa. The barrel is toasted in a long and slow process, just as Kelvin, but without any steam applications. The results on the Merlot show more subtlety of oak on the fruit of the three cooperages, not overpowering the Merlot, but rounding out every edge. It’s likely that the Merlot on Nadalie Symphony is bound for blending and complimenting anything it’s blended with, especially Cabernet or Barbera.

Tasting with different people at various times during the wine aging process gives me a gift of insight I might not otherwise have, noticing nuance. Perhaps tasting with others who appreciate wine as I do also forces me to look at my own barrel program with a more critical perspective, verbalizing the decisions I’ve made and compelling me to make objective judgements about my own winemaking. Wine making is a lifelong learning process of both objective and subjective measures, the clichéd art and science of wine that many aspire to comprehend.

Where can I make natural wine?

You want to make a natural wine? Good. But where are you allowed to make it?

I make a few natural/low/no intervention wines each season. One of my more popular wines is Sangiovese. It will typically (because nothing is typical in a native ferment) start native fermentation within 24 hours of being destemmed. After fermentation and press out, the wine is placed in clean (steam cleaned), neutral oak for a period of between 9-20 months, where it will be racked once, regularly topped and minimally sulfured during that time. That’s it.

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Sangiovese was the first native fermentation I ever allowed to complete. I was scared to have a native fermentation go poorly or just plain bad. As a boutique winery under 2000 cases, I can ill-afford mistakes for such a substantial part of my winemaking program. Throwing away 5 tons of fruit is simply not an option for me.

Are you new around here?

Suppose you’re a new winemaker in Sonoma County who would like to make a natural rose’, white and red wine. You have your vision and your manifesto for making a great natural wine. You want to use ancient fermenting vessels like amphora, egg shaped fermenters, and 500 liter wood barrels. You want spontaneous native fermentations and in-barrel malolactic fermentations.

The boutique winemaker has three choices:

1.       Make wine at your own facility (lucky you that you have all the equipment)

2.       Make wine at a custom crush facility (Alternating Proprietor Type 2)

3.       Make wine on the side at the winery you probably work for (You probably have a nice employer)

A brief break during Harvest 2017 of dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley

A brief break during Harvest 2017 of dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley

Everyone has access to a concrete egg fermenter, right?

The debate about natural wine often misses the point of what’s practical in making, storing and maintaining the actual wine in a modern custom crush facility, (aka a facility you don’t own and make wine with as many as 40 other winemakers). As a winemaker with a Type 2 license I am an alternating proprietor at the custom crush facility and abide by the rules of the host facilities wine making protocols or suffer the consequences. For instance, I can't operate the forklift or bring in barrels that have tested for brettanomyces.

Here’s a quick list of 5 things you might want to know about custom crush facilities before you embark on your natural wine journey:

1.       Regularly testing of oak barrels for brettanomyces and volatile acidity by the cellar master. The Cellar Master may remove barrels with unacceptable levels or not allow used barrels you’ve purchased into the cellar. Consolidating your natural wines into a single facility for bottling and efficiency may be stopped at the door after laboratory testing because your existing bulk inventory may have unacceptable levels of VA or brett detected and are rejected by the cellar master. Unacceptable levels may be determined by the custom crush facility, not you. Remember, there may be other winemakers in the custom crush that don’t want any hint of brett in their wines.

2.       Does the cellar master use a combination steam/ozone/SO2 to clean their barrels and yours before filling them?  Standard protocols in many custom crush facilities require monthly monitoring of free sulfur levels in finished wines and regular sulfur (SO2) additions to finished wines in barrel. Topping schedules are completed monthly.

3.       Access to amphoras, concrete cone fermenters, large format exotic wooden casks or other non-standard fermenters. The facility may not have use or budget for less common fermentation vessels.  As the start-up winemaker, you may not have the budget to buy your own less common fermentation vessel, therefore, you will use standard plastic macro bins for small lots. If you buy your own fermentation vessel and use it at a custom crush facility, who holds liability for the proper care, use and potential damage to a concrete egg or clay amphora?

4.      Extended macerations on white wines take up tank space, add time and labor costs to production

5.       Gravity feeding wines without the use of a pumps takes more time, which means more labor and not all facilities are built for “100% gravity fed” wines.

Just some food for thought for those considering the natural wine route.

Tasting the Top 100 Wines

I've been to a lot of wine tastings over the years but none have compared to tasting the Top 100 wines of 2017, as rated by Wine Spectator. It's true, all 100 wines were available to taste over a 4 hour period. Special thanks to my friend (since grammar school!) Joe and his friend Janet for asking me to join them.

The end of the Wine Spectator Top 100 Tasting

The end of the Wine Spectator Top 100 Tasting

Where does one start?

Our host, Brander Winery, starts guests off with opening the white wine section first, then, an hour later, opens up the red wine area. Many of the participants tasted in numerical order, from highest to lowest rated whites (without regard to varietal) then immediately moving to the highest to lowest rated red wines, again, without regard to varietal.

I took a different approach, sampling the wines by varietal, lightest to heaviest, regardless of score, starting with lighter bodied white wine, such as Albarino and finishing with heavier, oak-laden, malolactic Chardonnay. Same process for the reds, starting with Pinot and graduating to things like Tannat near the end of the journey. 

It's tougher with reds on a progression from light to heavy bodied structures. Fully developed Zinfandel with a solid punch of oak can be a palate wrecker just as easily as Touriga Nacional late in the game.

For many, simply tasting the Top 10 wines was the most important duty. I tried the Number 1 wine, Duckhorn Merlot. It's $50 retail per bottle. There was another merlot in the group from Oberon in the Top 100. Between the two, I favored the Oberon, ranked 77 with a retail price of $23. These lists really come down to a matter of taste.

It's also not a good idea to drink French Bordeaux side-by-side with California Cabernet. Sure, Bordeaux/Napa wines are based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot but they are vastly different in terms of style and construction. Take for instance the #7 wine, Château Canon-La Gaffelière St.-Emilion which is Merlot dominant at 55% versus the #8 wine, Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley which is generally Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. Both the Château Canon-La Gaffelière and the Meyer rated 95 points, so there is no loser.

I loved the Château Canon-La Gaffelière and tasted it twice, both early and late in the tasting to check on my palate fatigue. It was one of my favorite wines of the day. It's classic, layered, elegant and young for a wine. The Meyer was a rich, opulent Napa style from the warmer climate (same warm climate my grapes come from) It's easy to reconcile, sweet fruit tastes good young, and Meyer delivers. 

While sharing common varietals, Bordeaux and Napa Cab/Merlot based wines are grown on different continents. They might as well grow on different planets. One should enjoy each of these regional wines, but not compare them. Too often, toe-to-toe comparisons happen with ratings. I purposely picked two Bordeaux varietal wines at similar price points and exactly the same rating to make the point. You can like them both equally for very different reasons.

There are notes on several of my favorite wines from the tasting in the gallery of pictures. Incredibly educational, it was a privilege to participate in the event.

Micro Winemakers Under Threat

Jon Bonne’s book The New California Wine gave voice to many winemakers. He wrote more recently in PunchDrink, questioning what the future looks like for winemakers such as me.

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You can’t make a living on 500 cases.

Winemakers who are adaptable, not doctrinaire have the greatest chance for success. The trouble is, if your hit eclectic varietal is limited in acreage or is planted in a distant part of the state, how does a New Californian style winemaker follow up their big local winemaking hit if their resources are limited to 2 tons or roughly 100 cases? Or even 500 cases? You can’t make a living on 500 cases.

The next generation of start-up winemakers will have to have a portfolio of adaptable skills, both boutique and industrial. Winemakers have to be well versed in wine style, interventionist and non-interventionist, what sells to distributors, direct to bottle shops, sommelier driven restaurants and in the tasting room. The approach is practical, not dogmatic and not out of step with some of the winemakers in New California. Defining the terms natural and industrial seems to be the hottest topic in wine making these days, when only 5 years ago wine making was all about balance, as in pursuit of. How will natural be re-defined in 5 more years? How will the broad California appellation evolve?

Cabernet in Sonoma Vs. Barbera in Mendo

We as winemakers have to be both aggressive and flexible in simply finding fruit. I can find Cabernet in Sonoma County pretty easily if I can afford it. But I can’t find Sangiovese and Barbera, at least not at the price I’d like. I could go to the Foothills, but good luck if they deliver in 2 ton lots to Cloverdale. I could go to Lake or Mendocino County for a couple tons, but I’ll have to pick it up and prices aren’t $500/ton any more for small lots. Try closer to $1500/ton and many growers won’t sell 2 tons lots.

A wine sold at $25/bottle full retail is not a sustainable model for a stand-alone winery if the fruit alone sells for $2500/ton, not including crush fees. $2500 per ton and higher is not uncommon for many varietals in Sonoma County, my backyard. Winemaking can work as a side-hobby, but not as a self-sustaining business with a 500 case production, so don’t quit your day job.

Sure, there are pockets of small vineyards in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley looking to sell to “home winemakers”, but fruit quality and consistency can be painfully erratic. I know; I purchase from small farms every season. As winemaker, I have to be part time vineyard manager and viticulturist.

Mechanization

Lodi is already dealing with lower yields on old-vine Zinfandel and increases in labor and facility costs. Much of that planted acreage will sell to the highest bidder or simply be torn out and replaced with younger, more vigorous varietals and planted for mechanized harvesting. Recent articles show the increasing economic concerns of growers dealing with decreasing yields and increasing labor or skills costs. Mechanization is here and is growing.

There was (past tense) a wave of New Californian winemaker using forgotten varietals at cheap prices. Now, everyone is using them (again). Unfortunately, those varietals are more expensive as demand has increased, or simply, those vines have been ripped out in favor of more vigorous and popular varietals that demand higher prices.

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Small vineyards with eclectic varietals lack scale. Custom crush fees have increased from the time The New California Wine book was written. Today, with more elaborate “cooperative” spaces that require higher fees for smaller lots and minimum sizes of 10 or 20 tons crushed, not a grand total of 5 tons for a micro winery. Increases in varietal price and crush fees have squeezed margins on the entire boutique winemaking industry. Prices for Cabernet and Sangiovese are going up, not down, in premium wine growing regions.

As a winemaker, I make natural wine from a less popular varietal, Sangiovese. I also make a full-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon with plenty of new oak. I exist in four worlds, the natural and the industrial, the non-interventionist and interventionist. I even have a winemaking manifesto ascribing to a particular belief, Make Great Wine from Great Grapes! I’m a winemaker, playing the hand dealt to me by each season’s harvest and always thinking about the future.

I AM the New California winemaker and proud of it.

Rose of Sangiovese 2016

Rose of Sangiovese 2016 aka The First Rose I've Ever Made!

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Rosé of Sangiovese is a wine I’ve always wanted to create, as I’ve produced various Sangiovese red wines over the last several years. The wine was created using the saignée method, a technique whereby I drain off juice from the main body of the Sangiovese crop, which has had skin contact for a 24 hour period. The resulting juice for this Rose is light pink in color.

The juice was placed in last year’s Sangiovese barrels for primary fermentation for 14 days and stirred twice on the gross lees. The wine was then racked off the gross lees and returned to barrel, where it was stirred again twice, or bâtonnage, adding texture to the wine. The wine was not allowed to go through secondary fermentation.

The result is pale pink in color, with a bit more depth on the palate. The wine was fermented dry, without residual sugar.

For those that want all the technical specs you can find it HERE.

The Jug from 1976 to 2016

A jug of wine is nothing new in my family. Below is a photo from 1976, summer vacation in Aptos, CA. My Dad in the foreground, my Grandma and my brother John in the back; I'm there on the right in the yellow shirt. And in the middle of it all, a big 3 liter jug of red wine with a screw cap. No fancy wine glass, just something to drink with the meal. Let's face it, those old jugs weren't the best red wine in the world or California. They were drinkable.

Fast forward to 2016, I've improved the quality of wine I put in my half-gallon growler. The Mastro Scheidt Jug Red Wine is purposely made, not an afterthought or with 'left-overs'. I blend several varietals from Sonoma County to craft an easily drinkable red wine for the entire table. It is bottled unfined, unfiltered, and without additional sulphites. The Jug is 64 oz or 1.89L of wine, nearly 3 normal size bottles.

Give the Jug a try. Find it online or at your local retailer in Fresno and Bakersfield. Sorry, no out-of-California sales.


My Mastrogiacomo Rosso is a Sonoma County product, filled with top quality, hand-picked fruit. 

My Mastrogiacomo Rosso is a Sonoma County product, filled with top quality, hand-picked fruit. 

Pasta Party (with wine)

Gnocchi and Linguine were on the menu Saturday night. Fresh, hand-made and demonstrated by the bald guy in the center picture (me).

The gnocchi were sauced two different ways:

Gnocchi #1 - browned butter with sage and black pepper
Gnocchi #2 - crispy pancetta with basil and garlic topped with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano

The Linguine was sauced with a Bolognese of lamb, beef and pork.

Wines poured that evening:

2014 Mastro Scheidt Sangiovese
2013 Mastro Scheidt Bordeaux Blend
2013 Denner Syrah
2012 Mastro Scheidt Superstrada
La Marca Prosecco

Most of the photos are courtesy of our hosts, John and Falina Marihart. Thanks for letting everyone get flour on your floor!

David rolls out the pasta dough with friend Trisha

David rolls out the pasta dough with friend Trisha

Comfort food dinner in Healdsburg

Now that Fall has dropped in, the timing was perfect for me to stop being a winemaker for the night and put on the apron to cook a comfort food meal among friends. Warm, hearty, rich foods with copious amounts of Mastro Scheidt red wines, pair perfectly with the Fall season; and yes, I slipped in a barrel sample of Rose, because I can (Rose pairs nicely with the sliders...)

The Grapes of Harvest

Sample. Taste. Repeat.

It's all about the grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sirah, Syrah, Merlot, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat Blanc was harvested by Mastro Scheidt in 2016.

No two seasons are the same and no two varietals are the same. My wines change with the seasons. Winemaking is not an exact science, it's subject to undiversifiable risk, known as Mother Nature.  I'm showing the beautiful pics, the highlight reel. There's a lot, behind the scenes, the day in, day out unromantic reality of what I do with these grapes. There are a lot of steps to get raw grapes from the field to the bottle.

Enjoy the beauty of harvest.