Why Not Take Risks?

It seems, at least to me, that the wine industry is fairly risk-averse. Sure, starting a winery or planting a vineyard are endeavors that are inherently risky, but most winemakers appear to make wine using tried and tested methods.

Utility function of a risk-averse (risk-avoiding) individual. By Qniemiec – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14995559

And that makes sense. Wine is unique: you get one (and only one) chance every year to produce wine that people will hopefully like and buy. It would be wise to go with a formula that has proven to be successful in the past.

Sure, there are some wacky funsters out there that make wine with some obscure varieties  (Kerner, Gros Manseng, or Schiava anyone?) and those can certainly be difficult to sell, but for the most part, they are made in fairly small quantities and eventually find an audience.

What is even rarer, however, are winemakers who risk subjecting their fruit to different vinification processes–out of the mainstream methods that are usually peculiar to particular regions or varieties.

Utility function of a risk-affine (risk-seeking) individual. By Qniemiec – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14995559

[If these graphs give you a headache, give me a call and I will talk you through it.]

One such process, vinification in large clay vessels, known as amphorae and the traditional method to make wine in several Southern Europe countries (Portugal, Greece, Georgia, etc.), has really taken off as late. A few winemakers in California, Oregon, and Washington are importing amphorae and even looking for new producers of the large clay pots.

That’s me, working an amphora in Alentejo, Portugal.

Another process that is more well-known and is used by an entire region of which even the most casual wine drinker has at least a passing knowledge, is rarely seen outside its “home.”

The region? Beaujolais. That process? Carbonic maceration. Without delving too far into the weeds on the process, it is a fairly simple concept. While “normal” winemaking uses yeast (either through inoculation or naturally occurring) to fuel fermentation of the crushed grapes.

Carbonic maceration, on the other hand, uses the whole, uncrushed grape bunches. They are placed in a sealed tank and carbon dioxide is pumped in, removing oxygen. The grapes, starved for oxygen, naturally release enzymes that transform the sugar inside the grape into alcohol.

While almost all producers in Beaujolais use this method to make their wines, as far as I know, it is really rare to find anyone doing it outside of Southern Burgundy.

There is one (well, two) that I know of and he is in Dry Creek Valley. I have known Erik Miller of Kokomo Wines for several years now–I met him, in fact, on my first press trip, a couple of years after starting this blog–and I have always admired his wines.

Erik Miller back in 2015. 

This past Spring, he sent me a couple of bottles of his new Breaking Bread project. Inspired by Cru Beaujolais (the top tier of quality in the region), he wanted to produce wines that highlighted the fruit, were slightly lower in alcohol, and high in crispness and acidity. Based on these two wines, I not only think he succeeded but the risk he took by going with carbonic maceration might just encourage others to do the same.

2018 Breaking Bread Grenache, Redwood Valley, CA: Retail $24. It was a few years ago when I met Erik Miller, the winemaker, and proprietor at Kokomo in Dry Creek Valley. Last year I stopped in to say hello, and he could not wait to talk about this new project: Breaking Bread. Erik wanted to focus on fruit, get away from high alcohol wines with great acidity. Inspired by Cru Beaujolais, but using his favorite varieties Grenache and Zin instead of Gamay, Erik dove in with carbonic maceration. I would have to say it is a success: fruity, bright, tart, light, even refreshing. This is not a wine for long term cellaring, but it certainly one for instant enjoyment. Bravo Erik. Excellent. 90-92 Points.

2018 Breaking Bread Zinfandel, Redwood Valley, CA: Retail $24. As one might expect, this is a fruity and fun wine. It does not cause intense introspection, but it does encourage one to seek food and a group of friends to share. Raspberry and anise with a healthy dose of black pepper, this is not a wine to sip, but one to drink. Heartily. We (and I purposely include myself) tend to over-analyze wine. We try to intellectualize a beverage. We try to give it other-worldly qualities and grant it earth-shattering properties. But, at its core, it’s just a beverage. A tasty beverage that occasionally requires introspection or reflection, but it is still a beverage meant to bring joy to those who drink it. And this wine does. Put down your pen, your pipe, your parchment, and enjoy, hopefully with some dear friends. Very Good. 87-89 Points.



About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Dry Creek Valley, Grenache, Wine, Zinfandel. Bookmark the permalink.

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