When I was young there was a very popular TV show called Mork and Mindy, which thrust a certain comic named Robin Williams into the public consciousness. It also thrust my younger sister, Mindy, into a seemingly never-ending predicament of being asked “Where’s Mork?”
I guess the people asking the question must have thought they were pretty clever, since invariably, they would follow the inquiry with a deep belly laugh as if they had just proffered the single most hilarious utterance in human history.
I have never asked my sister how she felt about it since I was fairly certain of her response. Ever since, I have tried to refrain from such obviously inane “observations” since I imagine that the owner of the familiar name must be pretty darned tired of it. (There was a time, however, when I was working at a gas station in high school and a guy handed me a credit card with the name “Luke Skywalker.” I could not help it. I asked him if R2D2 was stashed away in his trunk. He rolled his eyes so hard, I thought he might pass out.)
On my last trip to Napa, I met Faith Armstrong, the winemaker, owner, über-human of Onward wines and I immediately wanted to know whether she, with not one, but two names that might conger up any number of such scintillating connections (Neil, Lance, Louis, etc.) grew tired of the endless “witty” takes on her name.
Knowing that my sister would not approve, I refrained.
I doubt she would have minded though since it turns out that Faith is Canadian, and like almost every Canadian I have ever met, she has the same positive outlook and attitude that made me resent their ilk growing up in Detroit.
Adding to her already delightful character, Faith grew up on a small island in British Columbia where she had to take a small boat just to go to school. That boat, named Onward, not only served as her metaphorical inspiration, it was seemingly the natural choice when it came to naming her brand, which she started in 2009. That first vintage was only 150 cases, but Onward has grown exponentially since, today boasting a 5,000 case production (a 3,300% increase for you math geeks).
As for Faith’s “philosophy”? Above all she believes strongly in sustainable agriculture and is a big fan of dry farming. She realizes, though that dry farming isn’t practical everywhere, so she works with growers to do what makes sense to them.
Once she started bringing out a “few” wines to taste, I realized I was in for the long haul, and I was likely going to be late for my next appointment.
After tasting the first few wines, though, I really didn’t care….
2016 Onward Pétillant Naturel Malvasia Bianca Capp Inn Ranch, Suisun Valley: Retail $24. “Pet Nat” is a naturally occurring sparkling wine, with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle, and it is not disgorged. Really floral and aromatic. Very nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2014 Onward Malvasia Blanc Capp Inn Ranch, Suisun Valley: Retail $20. Less floral than the Pet Nat, but more earthy. Nice. Great acidity. Citrusy. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2015 Onward Malvasia Blanc Capp Inn Ranch, Suisun Valley: Retail $20. Much more floral than the ’14 and fantastic mouthfeel. Best Malvasia I’ve ever had? Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Onward Malvasia Bianca Skin Fermented: Retail $28. Not an “orange wine” as Faith tries to keep all oxygen out. Golden yellow. Wow. Incredible mouthfeel and flavors. Ok whoa. This might be a mind-blower. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2016 Onward Rosé of Pinot Noir Hawkeye Ranch: Retail $22. True Rosé. From 50-year-old vines of the Martini Clone. Aged in neutral oak. Perfumed and floral. Nice acidity. Well done. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2015 Onward Rosé of Pinot Noir Hawkeye Ranch: Retail $22. True Rosé. After my short diatribe about Real Rosé and how they can actually age well (to which Faith agreed 100%), she pulled out this ’15, which is actually drinking better than the ’16. The floral aspect is not there, but plenty of fruit strawberry and tart cherry. Rich on the palate after a bit of tartness? Lovely. See? (Good) Rosé CAN age! Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Onward Pinot Noir, Hawkeye Vineyard, Anderson Valley: Retail $38. Cherry cola upfront and throughout. Earthy and a bit funky even. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
2012 Onward Pinot Noir, Cerise Vineyard, Anderson Valley: Retail $58. Yes, the same vineyard from which Littorai sources fruit. Is it cliché to say there is a lot of cherry here? A year and a half in both barrel and bottle. Ok. Wow. Even Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2015 Onward Zinfandel Knox Vineyard, Redwood Valley: (Wine Club Only). Cool climate Zin. Great cherry nose. On the palate this is luscious, but reserved at same time. A real Pinot lovers Zin. Fantastic. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2014 Onward Carignane Hawkeye Ranch, Redwood Valley: Retail $30. Cool climate. Menthol and bright cherry. On the palate plenty of fruit and still bright. Needs some time. But fantastic. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2014 Onward Carignane Casa Roja Vineyard, Contra Costa County: Retail $30. Funky, blue fruit. On the palate fleshy and spicy. Wow. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2015 Onward Syrah Ledgewood Vineyard, Suisun Valley: (Mailing List Only). Peppery and tannic. This is a big wine for Faith—much bigger than the others. So big, it really needs some meat. Nonetheless, it is quite tasty. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
One would think that over a dozen different wines would be enough for a mother of four small children, but that is not the case. Faith has a second label, Farmstrong, a clever name in and of itself as it represents her commitment to sustainable agriculture and it is a blend of her first initial and her last name. Not coincidentally, Farmstrong is a brand focused on blends that cross AVAs and pairs unusual varietal partners.
As Faith might put it, Farmstrong wines are “Tuesday night wines that don’t require much contemplation—just solid, tasty wines for the mid-week meal.”
2016 Farmstrong Field Rosé: Retail $18. 55% Zinfandel, 45% Carignane. True Rosé. The Zin comes from 65-year-old vine in the Knox Vineyard and the Carignane from 80-year-old Hawkeye Vineyard vines. Co-fermented and aged in neutral French oak. Juicy and tart with some depth. Nice. I am not sure how Faith can make this for under $20. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
2014 Farmstrong Field White: Retail $22. 41% Grenache Blanc, 35% Albariño, 24% Verdehlo. The fruit comes from three different vineyards in Suisun Valley. Tart and a bit funky (which is a good thing), with a bit of depth. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
2014 Farmstrong Field Red: Retail $26. A blend of three varieties (Carignane, Zinfandel, and Syrah) from three appellations (Redwood Valley, Contra Costa County, and Suisun Valley). Peppery and fruity. A quintessential pizza wine. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
As I got up from the tasting, George Michael’s biggest hit started running through my head. I immediately wanted to ask her about it, curious whether she liked the song, or it caused her to hurl violently. Just before I mustered the courage to ask, she gave me a big hug, a toothy smile, and thanked me profusely for coming.
Man, Canadians are irritating.