Dinner with Hank & Caroline from La Clarine Farm

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I’ve been a fan of Hank’s winemaking since I met him and Caroline at a Chambers Street Wines tasting a few years ago.

He’s part of a community of California winemakers scattered across the state that have collectively redefined what the craft of making natural wine means in the new world.

This group of first generation winemakers, many nomadically sleuthing out small plots of unique and organic vines, have shifted the idea of natural wine making as less of a passive stewardship of the land to an active and more deterministic approach to the craft.

What I like to think of as improvisational winemaking.

Highly skilled individuals throwing themselves into the process, trusting the outcome and making their own rules as they go along.

I had the good fortune to be given one of twelve seats at a special dinner with Hank and Caroline and the David Bowler wine crew at Racines a few weeks ago to taste through eight vintages of Hank’s Cedarville Mourvedre.

From its first vintage in 2007–in Hank’s words a science experiment- to the 2014 with its big bouquet and a sexy vibrancy that graced my Thanksgiving table this year.

I simply can’t separate the wine from the pleasures of the evening and getting to know this couple a lot better.

La Clarine Farm sits north of Sacramento at 2600 feet in the Sierra foothills.

On one hand this is Hank and Caroline living the Idyllic dream, producing 30 thousand bottles of wine a year surrounded by goats, bees and a gaggle of vineyard cats on their own hillside plot.

On the other hand, he is an astute oenologist, thinking way beyond organic agriculture as the endgame and mashing up pieces of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic theories with the natural farming teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka.

Hank narrated the evolution of his winemaking on the Cedarville plot as we drank and ate. Diving into the foibles of the land, the vagaries of the weather, the nature of the Mourvedre grape itself.

Through the deep pours of each year, I was thinking about the evolution of the quite delicious wine but equally about the narrative. About how we are really talking about terroir and how winemakers themselves learn to trust the process and focus the results through their decisions.

How far this is from the romantic and bombastic ideas of some natural wine populists that the winemakers are simply riding the wave and tending the land.

How the winemaker by intent and by craft, by embracing the natural process is creating something very much their own. Where what they produce on one plot will be quite different from that made on an adjacent one by someone else.

And how what Hank is describing in an almost almanac-like vernacular, echoes very similar conversations I’ve had with Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy in Napa and Scott Frank from Bow & Arrow in Portland.

It was telling as well that sitting with this most wine geeky group for hours, we were talking about philosophy and music in the same breadths as natural approaches to wine.

This haphazard collection of random people–winemakers and trades people, me the tech guy, lawyers and bankers around the table were weaving this together effortlessly. Almost communally.

I came away thinking about how this ties into what I’ve called The Ethos of Taste that is getting ingrained into our very culture.

That while there is certainly a dramatic change in the wine world happening now, there is a true tectonic shifting of how we think about what we eat and our relationship to the world at large.

And a growing mass market comfort in pairing scientific knowledge and natural rhythms not dissimilar to what is occurring in functional medicine.

This is where the evening took me.

If it touched your fancy, I encourage you to look up Hank and Caroline’s wines.

They sell their wine priced to be fair. It is invariably a delight and sells out quickly.

Enjoy them, as they are truly delicious and interesting by any standards.

——————-

Big thanks to my friends David Lille and Ariana Rolich at Chambers Street Wines for saving a seat for me at this very special table.

To Chef Frederic Duca for a brilliant pairing menu and my buddy Arnaud Tronche ( Racine’s co-owner) Arnaud Troche for being the always generous host.

And to whomever deserves credit for the photo that I pulled off the web.

Searching for my own story in wine

I first connected with wine in the early ‘90s living in the Bay Area.

It wasn’t a bottle or particular dinner that was the big aha for me.

It was the human touch that drew me in, bonding with artisanal winemakers and their families who brimmed over with their love of vines and the lore of making wine.

I fell hard for the storied iconoclasts in the early days of Napa.

It was story upon story, people, land, bottle and taste—an easy going banter, layered with beliefs and craft, personal philosophies and science, passions and humility all in one.

Twenty-five years later, I still have a visceral sense of driving down a funky dirt road in the hills north of Napa to hang at the kitchen table with Art & Bunny Finklestein from Judd’s Hill. Talking art and gravity feed systems, vines and the weather, drinking wine and eating cheese mid morning on an Autumn Sunday.

Sitting on lawn chairs outside the barn with my friend Kelly Smitten along with Todd Anderson of Conn Anderson Valley tasting his 4th vintage, chatting and bowled over by the litany of natural science he was sharing, mouthing words and learning an entirely new language.

Or knocking on the trailer door on the way back to the city to buy wine from Cathy Corison before her winery was complete.

It was a step into something completely new yet reminiscent and familiar. Something that felt right at first blush.

I’d never heard of natural wine, knew little about the craft but there was a confluence of life experiences that came together.

There was no wine culture in my family upbringing.

Not a rural bone in generations coming from shtetls in Europe to live in LES and Patterson NJ, working in the Garment District on my mother’s side, the silk mills on my fathers.

I was a city boy, 70s hippy who had spent a few years in the back-to-the-land thing in British Columbia. Gardens, root cellars and bee keeping steeped in a youthful zealousness for all things counter culture and the Farmer’s Almanac.

From street smart kid to drop out to tooling around Napa as a tech exec rediscovering a new sense of an earlier self.

Too odd but true.

I want to say there was a gravity that pulled me, but this is more subtle, more happenstance as Andre Breton would express it.

I woke up this morning intending to write a long neglected interview with Scott Frank at Bow & Arrow.

But sitting here at 4.30am, samthecat on my lap, looking at a bottle of Gonin Altesse on the table from last night, it was my own story that wafted over my thoughts. Like a Proustian nudge.

I kept thinking back to those days in the 90s and the 70s before them, realizing the binds that tie and the core beliefs that define me today.

No one loves a great bottle of natural wine more than myself.

I’ll travel to the outskirts of Marsala, Sicily to drink skin-fermented Grillo with freshly caught sea urchins from the hands of a winemaker to obscure and small to be imported to the states.

This is not about wine. Not about wine blogging.  Not about new wine economies spurred on by the Etsy effect.

It’s about why something that has nothing to do with my work or life, how this connection and community, spur things more important than the wine itself.

Almost a palimpsest of something uncanny behind the realities of what we are tasting.

When we look at ourselves honestly we see a gaggle of oft disconnected things and passions, seemingly random.

If fortunate, we get to a moment of clarity that drive health issues to become companies we start to change how people eat to stay healthy. That drive the benefits of a great education to spending your time being a big brother and role model to lower income kids.

I’m looking at these pieces of myself hard and realizing the mess of influences have a theme and pattern that gets clearer as my memories reiterate themselves.

To my world and networks, I’m the wine guy. That marketer and businessperson who’s a geek and the one to hand the wine list to.

But it’s more than that, and that’s what bears thought.

I can weave a story about a bottle and winemaker with some skill. Hundreds of posts later are a case in point.

But the why of why I focus on the small and the obscure as the taste worth experiencing and the story worth telling is where the crux of this lies.

Why I’ve championed natural as a rewriting of the scale where interesting meets delicious in a new definition of perfection. Why I believe there is an ethos of taste that can change the world.

Why organic is truly an important idea beyond the certification?  Why individuality in winemaking is worth exposing when almost no one can find the wines and artisans I lionize?

This is worthy of a great pause.

And pause is all I have this morning.

I realize that this post is a bit like a Neil Young song, all rhythm and poetry at the start then fizzling off into an emotive silence.

But this indulgent idea of why I—and many others in my community—grasp onto wine with such passion is an idea well worth surfacing.

It is a lens that we need to turn on ourselves.

Why we love what we do with such passion is a larger, more personal and more interesting idea than the craft of winemaking itself or the uncanny abilities of a professional taster.

It’s about ourselves and why this community–not others–is the icon we wave as what inspires us.

Share if you’d like from your own experience.

For myself, this meme is one I’m going to stick with.

As honestly–that line between a winemaker’s story and our drive to share it–is truly the story worth sharing.

The consumer conundrum in the wine world

Wine is an almost ineffable anomaly.

As much as I truly love the people, the sensations of place, the memories on my palate, as a marketer few things confound me more than the dynamics of this market.

This stems from a market conundrum that I can articulate but after mulling it over and over, find hard to fathom.

The modern wine market is grounded on the promise of the web as a foundation for communities of interest and an infinite number of micro brands. A true matrix of connections bouncing from a hillside in the Sierra Foothills literally around the world to countless touch points.

Take a look at where we are today.

Thousands of artisanal winemakers across the globe are making astoundingly interesting wine, each with an individual brand connected on the social web, with tens of thousands of enthusiast consumers.

In an almost one to one relationship, we call our favorite winemakers by their first names, sell out dinners with them when they roll through town, and invariably purchase their wine one bottle at a time from our local shops.

People sitting in Greenpoint have a personal relationship with Fabio from Ambiz Winery in Spain. Someone in Tokyo with Hardy Wallace from Dirty & Rowdy in Napa.

This is the Etsy effect—but without Etsy.

This is the web of connections with mostly terrestrial and disconnected points of commerce.

A transactional reality without a marketplace.

This is Anomaly #1. There are three of them.

As much as this exemplifies the concept of a global local community, wired on the back of the web itself, it is studiously retro and analog by nature.

How many wine enthusiasts have a wine app on their first or second screen on their phones?

Within my very broad networks, globally through the #winelover community, locally tied into the NY community and nationally through my interest in natural wines, almost zilch.

Too crazy and counterintuitive.

Built on the web, grounded in connections and need to buy and taste, yet app or even site wise, simply not there.

Take that further.

With the exception of winery direct to consumer and some wine clubs, wine in an ecommerce platform simply doesn’t exist.

Forget Amazon’s three time failure. There are many tombstones of great ideas to buy wine online under the monikers of natural or gen y or whatever. Most have been non starters.

A multi-billion dollar market. A wired community. A strata of heroes and rock star personalities, yet nada for online navigation and purchase.

Exceptions there are. Wine Searcher for one. Some signs of life in the local delivery segment but for the most part, this is true.

That is Anomaly #2.

And now to the strangest piece of all (and where I will raise some hackles).

Wine as a culture is so information rich yet compared to any other segment that drives an enthusiast community, content light.

There are really excellent wine writers, many of them friends, yet few true thought leaders from a market wise.

When I think of market drivers for this world, there are only two—Eric Asimov from The Pour and of course the grand dame of the wine world Jancis Robison.  This is the top of a very short and wide ladder.

When I asked two wine writer friends up for ‘best of’ writing competition how many people are reading their excellent work on their own blogs or in places like Palate Press, the numbers were between 500 and few thousand.

What!

Tastings at shops and conventions are overcrowded with people all dressed up, carrying a social dose of alcohol buzz and soaking up juicy topics like the intricacies of dosage! This is a billion dollar business. There are over 20,000 members in the #winelover community alone.

I can’t fathom this but it is most certainly true.

And that is Anomaly #3.

I write this post with true love of this amazing beverage and a community of people that enhance my life.

As someone who has blogged about wine off and on for a decade.

As someone whose embrace of natural wine has changed my ethical worldview.

And as someone who put his money and time where his mouth was and spent two years trying to build a commerce community and then shuttered it. Albeit some 20,000 strong, it couldn’t crack the market code and get beyond me personally as the brand. RIP thelocalsip.

This post is both an exclamation of affection and undying interest for what wine means to me.  Why most everyday I jump off the subway and spend 30 minutes and $30 dollars buying yet another bottle with a story to ponder over dinner.

I build brands and markets for a living and maybe that is why this so interests and confounds me.

I think of these anomalies with a head nod towards the inscrutable nature of it all. A smile that maybe these anomalies themselves are part of the wonder of it all.

Maybe why this remains so personal. Why a shared love of skin-fermented Grillo in discussion on a plane creates a true bond with a total stranger.

I’m not certain this world needs any disruption at all.

It does warrant acknowledgement for its uniqueness and its wonder.

And the power of it to make life better.  The mystery of it as a true bond amongst the most diverse community I know.

It certainly has that from me.

Marketplace pricing in the natural wine market

The internet’s greatest accomplishment is the flattening of the economic landscape, making the concept of a global local an economic reality for the artisanal maker market.

In the wine world this has empowered the smallest producer to build global markets of interest for their wines.

True for tiny, under the radar, producers like Christian Ducroux ,who I’ve never met, though buy my allocation every year. True for the most talented of the west coast natural winemakers who have fostered communities across the world with astoundingly small productions. Many whom I consider friends.

I’ve blogged about this often, and my passion for this approach, this community and the power of the web to tie this together is a common meme for me.

But it’s the cost plus pricing of the natural wine market and the resulting marketplace effect that has been getting my attention lately.

As a primer, all product pricing exists along the continuum of cost plus (what is costs to produce and what you need to live) and market driven (what the market is willing to pay at a premium).

The natural order of things is that prices go up as brands grow and value is more and more implied. People charge what they can. Think Porsche, Lululemon and of course the wines of Gannevat.

But more and more I find myself asking at tastings with small natural winemakers, Why don’t you charge more?

Natural wine is by definition an unscalable process.

Smaller plots, smaller yields and manual processes are the rule. And in the new world where land and grapes are both expensive, this is exacerbated. It’s an artisanal and resource intensive activity at its core

So what’s going on?

From an economic perspective of course this is counterintuitive.

Smaller producers with growing brands should create just the opposite. This should be creating allocations and a replaying of the Napa cult trends from the 90s.

Certainly some of the prices are creeping upwards and I see the beginning of price hikes in some of the most well known artisanal producers.

I had to step back  to marketplace economics rethought with web dynamics to understand what is going on.

There has been an artisanal revolution in wine. This is unarguable.

People are making wine naturally everywhere. Production per average producer is actually going down as the number of small producers gets larger.

And the quality of the product is increasing as information on best practices is shared and the palettes of the consumers become more sophisticated and demanding.

This is a perfect marketplace storm of supply and demand in the natural wine market.

Large and growing consumer demand on one side. More and more small producers charging just what they have to on the other feeding the supply chain.

The bar for quality, the competition for shelf space and mind share has on an average leveled the pricing.

So interesting.

So fascinating that what has been happening for a decade in the software and services market with open competition is happening in the luxury markets of the wine world

I am just starting to understand this.

Take a walk around your larger artisanal wine shop. Maybe what—2000 different skus across maybe 700 producers from around the world.

It is not a leveled pricing by any means. It’s a broader range with an average defined by the breadth of choices.

At the top end, you have producers like Ambyth and Els Jelipin where enthusiasts like myself put out their dollars to support these extreme and wonderful projects.

You will have the crazy low end of Ducroux and my newest find from Portugal, Filipa Pato selling for $12 a bottle.

And a huge spread in between of styles and prices.

From the garages in Berkeley and coops in Portland.  To impossibly small generational brands hanging onto the sculpted cliffs above the River Sil in Ribeira Sacra.  From the moon shaped spheres crafted out of volcanic stones in the Canary Islands.

From $12 to $80 a bottle.

I’ve know for a decade that there was a change happening in the tastes and ethos of the consuming wine loving public.

And we all know that we are living in the golden age of wine. Choices, diversity, quality, inventiveness and ubiquitous access everywhere. Down the street or online.

What I didn’t realize is that we were setting a marketplace effect in place.

That unfettered supply and demand was creating an open market effect in the most complex and regulated world of the wine and spirits distribution here in the states.

That cultural change made possible by the connecting threads of the web was transforming the economics of the very market itself.

Marketplace economics, community platforms, changing tastes and culture coming together to reshape the wine world.

How often is something this powerful good for everyone involved?

Consumers, producers, importers, distributors and retailers.

This is something we can all raise our glasses to.

 

 

Rethinking natural wine as a cultural phenomenon

Natural wine has been a true cultural movement over the last decade.

Epic in my imagination, replete with romance and an expanding cast of interesting and unique players.

It has also been a beacon of sorts, heralding a new approach to winemaking that paralleled a growing consumer ethos about the food they consume and their relationship to the planet itself.

It’s been happening everywhere at once at a dizzying speed.

From early renegades on hillsides from Beaujolais to Arbois. From Etna to the Sierra Foothills. From garages in Berkeley and Portland to the vineyards straddling Kras and Carso.

Some were quiet farmers just doing what felt right. Some like Salvo Foti and Frank Cornelissen were leaders in the truest sense of the word. Some like Sandi Skerk, simply geniuses at their craft.

This is the stuff of mythos.

In the early days, I blogged like crazy about it.

It was a fever of excitement.

Discovering a tiny producer making natural and wonderful Grillo in Marsala was an epiphany ripe for an outpouring of delight.

Some three years ago, for me at least, things changed.  The old school category haters were marginalized and the market had embraced the change.

Natural winemakers were popping up literally everywhere, making better quality and more interesting natural wine.

I grew sanguine, sat back and enjoyed the wine and new friends with more ease than excitement. I held court at tastings but was not as fired up to share.

In the past year though something has been pulling me back in.

There is something fresh going on, something naturally inventive that has taken the early and easy dogma of what is natural, to a new level.

So what’s really the difference?

Put aside that there is way more interesting, more varied and higher quality natural wine from small producers at better prices than every before.

Put aside the rise of the wine micro market where somehow, there is ample market buying power to support the most worthy–be they affordable and accessible from Bow & Arrow or the pricey yet staunchly mind boggling Grenache Blanc from Ambyth.

To me, there are two things happening in parallel, each feeding the other.

First is almost a rewriting of the almanac of winemaking itself.

After a generation of winemakers, many first timers, turning their backs on manipulation and focusing on the vineyard and experimentation, the game has changed.

This has unleashed a furor of creativity of what can be done in a natural environment–without adding sulfur, with a dizzying array of blends, methods, fermentation methods, not to mention the sleuthing out of the most obscure grape varieties and plots of ancient forgotten vines.

This is a renaissance of experimentation made possible by knowledge, by a sharing information. And a new canvas of taste made entirely with natural pigments.

The second is a leap so bear with me.

The new world never really had a true wine culture.

We had crazed geeks (me)—and everyone else. We grew into gaggles of enthusiasts, gathering at shops and restaurants. We had communities, most notably #winelovers, which exploded in size and influence bringing together producers and consumers for the first time.

But something more profound is happening.

Maybe because today, they make wine everywhere. Not just Sonoma or the Santa Ynez Valley—but in Virginia and New Jersey.

People—not geeks like myself—but everyone are tasting where they live and travel.  Local wine itself is at every Green Market across the country.

I remember a bunch of years ago, my friend Fabio from Vino Ambiz in Spain came out with a crazy wine label listing all the things he didn’t do to the wine.

He and hundreds of winemakers just went transparent about how and why they make their juice. The result of this producer driven disclosure has created a new, highly informed generation of wine lovers.

I stopped in at a wildly popular tasting at Chambers Street Wines where Jon Bonne was doing 45-minute speed seminars on the Jura.  Jon’s a great storyteller but he digs deep. He talks about soil and elevation, fermentation and Biodynamics, added sulpher and skin contact.

People simply got it.

People-the market middle itself-have become as educated about wine as they are about their food.

Not completely but it is getting there fast.

To me this is it.

Has natural wine crossed over? Yes and no.

It was a catalyst for this change certainly.

What has resulted is not a religious fervor as we had in the early days but a wine culture that is part of a cultural change generally towards food and wine and life.

One that is based on exposure and knowledge and a new standard of what we like and will support.

I find less people waving a natural wine flag as we did in the beginning.

I find an entire generation on producers and consumers, meeting with a new understanding.

For a long time now the discriminating market has demanded transparency in what we consume. Walk around your Green Market or your local Whole Foods.

The change is that wine is now part of that. It’s acculturation in the best sense of the idea.

As I spread out a dozen bottles this weekend for our holiday dinner, they will be from all over, of every type, many made by first generation winemakers.

All natural. All delicious.

We have the pioneering work of people like Christian Ducroux, Giusto Occhipinti and Frank Cornelissen to thank for this.