Living His Hart’s Desire
Hart’s Desire Wines
John Hart has come a long way from the microbiologist he once was, designing safety systems for mass-produced foods. His goal then was to tightly control the production system in order to standardize the product and eliminate contamination. While science is also an important part of winemaking and allows winemakers to understand the underlying chemistry that governs the process, ultimately winemakers rely heavily on sensory, tactile, and intuitive information just as they always have way before chemistry was a human concept. Premium winemaking is not a cookie-cutter exercise, like churning out packaged food. It avoids standardization and aims for unique expression, each bottle reflecting the grape and soils where the vine grows.
Today when John makes Pinot Noir, he steps into clean boots, climbs into a stainless steel tank and walks on the grape clusters that he dumped there, gently breaking the skins while the wine ferments. He’s making Pinot Noir like some Burgundian winemakers are still doing in France where the varietal reaches its highest expression. Certainly Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay is not made by this method. Mass produced wine, like industrial food production, needs to be controlled and predictable. It’s made by machines, not people. But the goal of the winemaker, making small lots of premium wine, is to carefully deliver the taste of singular fruit growing in particular places. John makes about 2000 cases a year of 16 different wines that never exceed 350 cases each. He buys his grapes mostly from prestigious Sonoma vineyards although he’s discovered a spectacular vineyard in Il Dorado County that he says he can’t resist.
John’s recipe for Pinot Noir is as follows: “We fill the bottom of a stainless steel tank with dry ice. Then on top, we’ll throw whole clusters of grapes. There’s no water in dry ice, just CO2, which protects the juice from oxidation or other organisms that might enter. Once the fruit warms up to 60 degrees, fermentation will start on its own. After four or five days, we’ll get in and tread on it, actually step on the fruit and walk around on it. We do that twice a day every other day two or three times. And that’s it. That’s the whole process. Then we press off the wine into barrels. What you get is a really soft, voluptuous wine, easy to drink. And the perfume is really strong. It’s really fragrant, super fragrant. In other words, there’s no manipulation and extremely gentle treatment.” Clearly, the recipe wouldn’t work with larger quantities. But with the small amounts that John makes, he can use this old method that is especially suited to delicate Pinot Noir fruit.
John shares a tasting room in Healdsburg just outside of town in Sonoma County’s famed Dry Creek appellation. The building name is Old Roma Station, which was a large winery in the early 1900s. Old Roma Station is located on a railroad line, now defunct, that will be rebuilt to connect Marin County north of San Francisco with Sonoma, all the way up to Willits in Mendocino County. The winery filled rail cars with grapes destined for Chicago and the East Coast, throw some yeast inside of the car, and cover it with a tarp, John recounts. The fruit would ferment along the way, and by the time the train arrived in Chicago, the grapes had become wine, which was then drained out into containers that people brought to the station. John equates this story with the simple way that he makes his Pinot Noir, although the wine that drained from the rail car would not begin to compare with the quality that emerges from John’s tank. Old Roma Station is now a big complex that houses 12 different tasting rooms. “So you could actually go to this one location and taste anything you want right there, all little artisan wineries like us.”
John makes his wines a few miles up the road in Geyserville, at the center of Alexander Valley, another prestigious Sonoma County appellation. Like the tasting room, the winery is located in another cooperative venue. Six different wineries share the premises, which in the 1950s and 60s had been a Portobello mushroom factory. The building had been insulated and air-conditioned, so was perfect for making and storing wine. “We have a big knowledge base there, more than a hundred years of winemaking experience among just three of us. If we have a problem or a question, we have great winemakers there, who have answers. Some have been making wine for a lot longer than I have.”
John says that his goal has always been to sell his wine within 30 miles of his own house. But with 200 wineries in Sonoma County, the competition would be fierce. “I’ve had to step out a little bit,” he smiles, “but still I don’t rely on sales in Southern California.” He sells 35 percent of his production direct to customers and sells through distributors in several different states. He delivers the rest to local restaurants, wine shops, and high-end, specialty grocery stores.
Big names and big wine estates may be highly conspicuous in California, but for every big name, there are hundreds of smaller ones, winemakers who dedicate themselves to their craft, who bring their own creative sensibilities to winemaking, and who do so on a scale that permits innovation. Constellation Brands Inc., the largest wine company in the world, having surpassed Gallo, has made news lately because in this economy, it hasn’t made the profits that it requires and is selling an 80 percent stake in its Australian and British wine business to an Australian private equity firm for about $230 million. In California, the company owns Robert Mondavi, Ravens Wood, Clos du Bois, Blackstone, Estancia, and Franciscan among others.
The way John Hart sees his situation is that the wine business is slow like most other businesses, and competition is stiff because many new wineries have come on line even in this economy. “The space on the shelf is not any larger, but there are a lot more players trying to get it. With the large amounts of wine on the market too, there’s cost cutting and deals being made, and the big guys have a lot more leeway.” But he’s also looking forward to celebrating the winery’s 25th anniversary this year. During these years, not only has he built a business that he loves, but he and his wife have raised two daughters who both graduated from college, one of whom is working with him. You get the feeling from John that life is good and that neither the up or down cycles in the economy are likely to separate him from his Hart’s Desire.
California Wines of the Month
Hart’s Desire – 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard – 175 cases produced
Winemaker John Hart’s Notes
Once again we were fortunate to receive Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Ritchie Vineyards. Similar to the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, which is a serious wine with full body and a crisp texture, the 2008 is right on the mark. Our 2008 vintage is a much softer version with lush fruit and a balanced refreshing finish. With this vintage, we held back on the Semillon, which radically changes the structure of a wine, even at one to two percent. We tried to maintain the traditional elegance of this vineyard by adding some additional oak aging. So here’s what we have: pure flavors of tangerine, nectarine, and figs, leading to a luscious lemon crème mouth-feel and a refreshing finish.
Anna Maria’s Notes
Sauvignon Blanc has a wide range of styles. At one end is the crisp, grassy/flinty model that New Zealand made famous, partly copied from the French in the Loire Valley. But Sauvignon Blanc from Grave is very different because French winemakers in that appellation blend Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon, which rounds out the flavor. They also age the blend in oak barrels so that the wine lasts for decades. John wants to find his balance somewhere in between, highlighting the natural flavors of the varietal, which are tangy but can also show round citrusy flavor. You may enjoy Sauvignon Blanc in all of its guises, or not. But you’ll surely enjoy this one.
Hart’s Desire – 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County – 250 cases produced
Winemaker John Hart’s Notes
This Cabernet is intelligently balanced with a medium body. Its structure is paired with a seductive soft texture, making this wine built to enjoy. Aromas of dried Bing cherries pull you on to the glass while ripe red plums interlaced with savory green herbs keep you there.
Anna Maria’s Notes
“I’m not entirely focused on making Cabernet and Chardonnay like I was years ago,” John says. “I think there’s a big push away from generic varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet. A lot of winemakers are branching out and making other wines. We’re doing the same and finding out that these wines have nice flavors and offer something different to the consumer.” John may be right, but his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a smooth, luscious wine that is easy to love regardless of the number of times that you may have poured Cabernet Sauvignon into your glass. Serve at cool room temperature with roasted red meats, sausages, and whole wheat penne with wild mushrooms.
Hart’s Desire – 2006 Claret, Alexander Valley – 250 cases produced
Winemaker John Hart’s Notes
We put together a blend of fruit from the hillsides of Alexander Valley and a small Cabernet vineyard on Taylor Mountain. This wine contains bits of all five Bordeaux varietals with an emphasis on our estate Merlot. Aromas of black currants and mocha dominate the nose. Flavors of plum, cranberry, and pomegranate fruit meld together with a full bodied structured finish. This is a food wine perfect for pairing with roasted meats.
Anna Maria’s Notes
The word Claret was created by the British, who used it to describe the blended red wines of Bordeaux. The European Community no longer allows the use of the term to describe wines made from grapes that haven’t actually been harvested in Bordeaux. But about ten producers in California are grandfathered into the new regulation, John Hart being one of them. The term Meritage was created in Sonoma County to describe blended Bordeaux varieties, but John says that in order to put the name on a bottle, the winemaker has to join the Meritage association and pay dues around $1000. He’s not interested, he says, nor does he need to be since he can legally print Claret on his labels. John Hart’s rich Claret blend is 60 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc. Not surprisingly, Merlot dominates the wine, and altogether it’s a summer berry-patch experience.
Hart’s Desire – 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Rockin H Ranch – 175 cases produced
Winemaker John Hart’s Notes
Our 2008 Rochin H Ranch Pinot Noir is a delightful surprise. The wine is accessible and easy to drink. When we opened our first bottle to start our tasting notes, it literally disappeared into our glasses without a word getting written. Now we know that the ripe cherry flavors are bright and ripe while the mouth-feel of this wine is soft and refined. Tannins slip by with a briefest of waves as you run to open another.
Anna Maria’s Notes
As I write, I’m visualizing what John described in the interview. He and a couple of helpers step into clean boots and climb over the edge of the stainless steel tank. Once inside, I see them stepping gently on the Pinot Noir fruit, but I imagine that they’re laughing out loud, nudging one another and saying who knows what. One thing is certain, they’re having a fine time. At that moment, they’re re-enacting 2000 years of history. That certain wines are still being made like this in 2011 is barely believable. In a large winery, the process is entirely automated, and winemakers never touch the fruit or the wine. They sit in front of computers, guiding the process. You are about to smell and taste the difference. Enjoy!
Menu of the Month
Happy Valentine’s Day
Almond-crusted chicken breast served over wilted chard or bok choy
Butter lettuce sprinkled with pine nuts & chopped flat-leaf parsley,
dressed with lemon & olive oil
Warm apple cinnamon shortbread turnover with vanilla gelato
Recipe of the Month
Almond crusted chicken breast
Given that so many chicken recipes already exist, a new one is an event. This recipe is doubly so because it’s both delicious and beautiful. “…the breast, with its skin replaced by almonds, looks like a beautiful mosaic set on a mound of wilted greens and accompanied by wedges of lemons,” according to food writer Michael Bauer who described it in a recent edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The recipe was created by Angelo Auriana, who had been the chef at Valentino’s in Santa Monica for nearly two decades before coming to Ristobar in San Francisco, where Chef Auriana recently presented his almond-crusted chicken breast. I report the recipe below exactly as Michael Bauer described it although I’ve never met a recipe that I didn’t want to change. Pastry chef, Gary Rulli, owns Ristobar and is a neighbor, whom I often see. I wouldn’t want him to think that I had the slightest reservation about this delicious recipe. But if truth be told, I substituted olive oil for butter when I made the sage sauce at the end.
4 organic boneless skinless chicken breast halves, about 2 pounds
Sea salt and ground white pepper to taste
½ cup white bread crumbs
1 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
8 fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Trim the chicken breasts of any fat or connective tissue, and season with salt and pepper. Combine the bread crumbs and sliced almonds in a shallow dish. Set aside. Place the flour and beaten eggs in separate shallow bowls.
Lightly dust a chicken breast with some of the flour, shaking off excess. Dip the breast in the beaten eggs and then in the almond mixture, pressing on to make sure the chicken is thoroughly and evenly coated. Repeat with remaining breasts.
Pour the grape seed oil into an ovenproof frying pan large enough to hold all the chicken. Set over medium heat. When the oil just shimmers, place the breasts, with what would have been the skin side down, in the pan: sear until lightly brown. Turn the breast over, place the pan in the oven. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.
Place breasts on a warm platter. Discard any fat or liquid remaining in the pan. Add the fresh sage and butter to the pan, and place it over medium heat. When the butter starts to brown, turn off the heat. Return the chicken to the pan, and spoon some of the buttery juices over the chicken. Sprinkle a little sea salt to taste, and serve at once.