A Reminder That Small is Beautiful
The word passion sells a lot of wine. You’ll read the word repeatedly in wine magazines and see it in advertising. One winemaker is passionate about Napa Cabernet, another about the Dry Creek growing area, yet another about Rosé. Someone else is passionate about farming organically, someone else about the aromas of wood and oak in the cellar. The reasons that supposedly inspire passion for some aspect of winemaking are many although often repetitious. Basically, equating passion with wine is an attempt to infuse it with a romantic quality that will inspire customers to make a purchase. More than anything else, winemaking requires patience, diligence, and hard work, but those ideas are not especially motivational and are unlikely to inspire someone to buy what is, after all, a luxury product. Yet some winemakers actually do practice their craft with passion and Gregory Graziano is one of them. What jump-starts every day of every decade for Greg is his passion for and dedication to Italian grape varieties and to his beloved Mendocino County where he was born and raised and has chosen to remain. Greg talks about a friend and grape grower in Mendocino’s Ukiah Valley, who planted Italian grape varieties at his Fox Hill vineyard many years ago. The two men bonded over these grapes that they both loved. Fox Hill translated to Monte Volpe and became the name of Greg’s first Italian label. “He and I still fight,” Greg says. “He fights to sell his Italian grapes, and I fight to sell the wines that I make from them. After all these years, we look at one another and go, ‘Shouldn’t it be easier after all this time?’ But the gatekeepers make it hard for us. They want us to make Cabernet and Chardonnay, which they don’t have to explain to anybody. But people like me, we never give up.” I repeat our conversation with minor editing for clarity.
Small is beautiful seems to describe your business model.
One of the things that I’ve spent most of my adult winemaking career on is trying to introduce Americans to different wines. I think that’s what fine restaurants are trying to do, getting away from the Applebees and Burger Kings. There’s a huge consumer movement in that direction, but unfortunately if it wasn’t for my tasting room and wine clubs like yours, basically we would be talking to a much smaller audience. The reality is that as much as we would like all of you to be the gatekeepers, you’re not. It’s the big distributors, the huge corporations who control the distribution of wine. I just sat in front of three guys who are major sommeliers, and one of them is a Master of Wine, only about 300 in the world. They said, “Yeah, the six wines that you brought are fabulous, inventive, complex, have tons of fruit, show terroir as a place, and they’re a great value.” These are people who really know what they’re talking about. But I went to a distributor in New York to pitch my wines, and they’re like, “What Aglianico? I can’t even sell the Aglianico that I got from Italy. And what is Pinotage? Seriously, what are you doing? Are you out of your mind? Nobody cares about this. I can’t sell this stuff.” The reality is that these big corporations, these big distributors, the big wineries, what I do is so far away from their reality. They want you to drink only Chardonnay, only Cabernet. They want you to eat only at Applebee and Burger King. The only way we’re going to survive is to offer people unique wines at quality levels at really good prices. I think that’s something that’s really worth talking about. But if it weren’t for people like you, I would have a lot less chance to sell my wines, believe it or not. I’ve been making wines for forty years. I try to taste every fricken variety. I drink Cabernet once in a while, although I can’t remember the last time I drank a Chardonnay. But I do occasionally when I’m forced to. Not that Chardonnay is a bad thing, but I can’t compete with Kendall Jackson. I don’t want to compete with Kendall Jackson. I can make wines that the big players can’t, and that’s why we need to make sure that you have customers and I have customers that care about quality, care about unique products, are willing to step out of the box and say, “Enough of that junk, enough of that ordinary mass produced stuff.” We shouldn’t dumb down our palates so that we accept the mediocre.
How would you compare Kendall Jackson wines to yours?
I think if you drink a lot of different wines, and you pay attention to different regions and the qualities of those regions, our wines really show a true sense of terroir, that sense of a place. They also show my style, which is unique and very different. It’s very natural, very traditional. It’s a very honest, terroir driven wine production. First, we only buy grapes from Mendocino County, period. We want to show that region. All of our wines have a certain quality that makes them what they are because they’re all from Mendocino. To supply their huge production, Kendall Jackson buys grapes from all over California and puts them all in the same bottle. It tastes generic. There’s no way they can taste any other way. It’s not that the wine is bad, but it tastes like everything else, tastes like Gallo. It’s got no regional identity because it can’t, because it’s made from everything in the world. It’s not like Slow Food, like the organic movement, trying to pay attention to food and wine that is natural, made with love. If you drink enough wine, you see the difference.
But Kendall Jackson wines taste good enough to a lot of people.
You understand the difference when you don’t drink the same wines every day. Don’t drink Kendall Jackson every day. Experiment. Try different wines. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend $50 or $30 a bottle. You can spend under $20, but you’ve got to try different wines. You’ve got to do your homework. I go to San Francisco numerous times and probably eat there maybe 12 times a year. I’ve never eaten at the same restaurant twice, and I’ve never had a bad meal, because I do my homework. I get on Yelp. I read different reviews. I try to get the general idea. Are these people trying to make good food, trying to be organic, sustainable? Is the food made from honest local ingredients? I don’t mind paying a little bit of money for that, because it’s worth it, not a lot of money. You don’t have to go to Aquarello and pay a $100 a plate. That’s not what I’m saying. But you’ve got to do some homework, check it out. If you join wine clubs like yours and can see that this person really cares about what they’re offering the consumer, that’s really important in today’s world. Otherwise you get sold a bunch of junk because there’s so much out there.
The farming that’s in back of mass produced food or wine is not the kind of farming that we would approve if we understood those systems.
Exactly, there’s no doubt about it. But I’ve been in a lot of stores, where they say, “I love your wines. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure I could sell them here, because my crowd, the people I sell to here… I wouldn’t drink half of the wines in my store because they’re junk. But that’s what a lot of people want to buy, the b.s. label with the stupid name. You know what I mean, the Godzilla wine, the stupid names that are catchy. Again it’s not about quality wine. It’s about selling a label. A lot of people will say, why don’t you just put a little critter on the label? Why don’t you just sell Chardonnay and Cabernet? It would be much easier to sell wine if you did that. We’re between 20,000 and 30,000 cases, but remember, that’s 30 different varieties. When we make something that’s 5000 cases, that’s a big amount of wine for us. The wine that you’re buying for this shipment, we might be producing several hundred cases. We’re talking about a lot of small-production wines.
So talk a little about terroir. What should that mean to a consumer?
Every region has its qualities. A lot of people really like Lodi. I’m not a fan because of the terroir there. The wines are kind of jammy, high pH, lower acidity than my wines, because of that terroir. Sometimes it’s not all that hot in Lodi, but it’s also not really cold there either. So what does that do to the wines? Well it makes them softer. It makes them rounder. It makes them more quaffable. It doesn’t give them aging ability. But some people like that quality. Personally, I do not. I’ve grown up in Mendocino County, and I appreciate our terroir. Our terroir has poorer soils than a place like Lodi. Our soil is much more interesting, more rocky. That’s a generalization, of course. We can sometimes be warmer in the daytime than Lodi, but we’re much colder in the night. So our wines have much lower pHs and much higher acidity. So what that does is make their wines fruitier while ours are much more acid driven, more tartaric acid and more malic acid, so our wines are more structured, which means they’re a little leaner. Because they have more acidity, they’ll last a lot longer as far as aging is concerned. It means that they’re a little cleaner, crisper. So if you like that kind of wine, you’ll like Mendocino wines. But if you like fatter wines that are richer and rounder, you’ll prefer wines from Lodi.
A few Mendocino wines are round, too.
There are different conditions within Mendocino. When you go down to the Hopland area, the land is a little more low lying with richer soil, because the Russian River has spread rich alluvial soil there. All those things make subtle differences in the character of the wine. Altitude makes differences in the wine as well. It depends on the kind of region that you like, not that people are all that sophisticated about these things. Still you have to experiment and appreciate what’s going on in the wine, because those things make our wine different from Sonoma, different from Napa, different than Monterey, different than the Central Coast, different than Santa Barbara. They’re all different. Definitely the winemaker has a play in how all those things get into the bottle of wine. But with that being said, one of the things that we try to do in Mendocino that makes us different, and we pushed it, and I have to take credit, is that there are so many unusual Italian varieties here. I personally pushed for it, and we as a region realized that it was not Napa. Cabernet is not a great variety for this place. Why try to follow Napa anyway? Why not be different? Monte Volpe is basically a harkening, if you will, or a revival of my past history. I’m going back to my roots, going back to varieties that were basically in my family, Italian varieties. Again it’s a lot of hard work convincing people that this is really a good road to go down, especially distributors. As I’ve said before, it’s important to have people like you who support small producers. Monte Volpe is looking at old varieties that we’ve had here for many years and making sure that they are part of the norm.
What does Monsanto think about your attitude?
Really it goes back to Monsanto patenting seeds and trying to control all their genetically modified food. People like that hate people like me. I’m going to bring back old clones, bring back old varieties, bring back old vineyards that they would rather see die because they would rather have us drink just Cabernet and Chardonnay, forget Montepulciano, forget Tocai Friulano, forget Sangiovese. They would be much happier if guys like me weren’t in the business because what I do is a thorn in their side. Mendocino County is the only county in the United States, to my knowledge, that has banned GMOs in animals and plants. We were one of the only places that was ever able to win that kind of a battle. Our people actually voted to make GMO products illegal in this county. We don’t know enough about all that stuff. There’s maybe a place for it. I’m reading about that disease that’s affecting the citrus trees in Florida. In five years, there may not be a citrus tree standing. Basically, an insect found its way to the U.S., and is killing orange trees, something like Pierce’s Disease does on grapevines. It spreads a bacterium that is killing all the trees. They brought in a wasp from Asia that kills all these bugs that introduce the disease, but actually they think that more quickly they can genetically modify some of the orange trees so that they won’t be vulnerable to the bacterium. There is a time and a place for these GMOs, but to blindly do what these big corporations want to do to sterilize everything, it’s up to people like us to say enough is enough.
California Wines of the Month
Monte Volpe – 2009 Sangiovese, Mendocino
Winemaker Greg Graziano’s Notes
Monte volpe is one of the oldest producers of Sangiovese in California, releasing its first vintage in 1992. Sixty-six percent of this wine is Sangiovese, harvested by Steve Giannechini from his vineyard on the Talmage bench in the eastern foothills above the Ukiah Valley. Twenty-nine percent is Sangiovese, harvested from the Hidden Hawk Ranch in the foothills near the township of Calpella, just north of Ukiah. The final five percent is Negroamaro from my cousin Gil Tournour’s Vineyard, which is located in the white Pinole, clay-loam soils of the western benchlands of the Calpella Township. After aging in barrels for 26 months, the wine was egg-white fined, roughly filtered, and then bottled. The result is a wine that is dark purple-garnet in color with aromas and flavors of ripe boysenberry, smoky cherry, spicy wood, and earth with ripe, full tannins and a seamless baslance that carries through to a long, lush finish (14.5% alcohol, pH 3.38, 0.68 total acidity, 547 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The sweet California fruit is unmistakable, but what the wine has in common with its Italian siblings is crisp acidity and smooth but apparent tannins. Greg suggests that we enjoy this delicious wine with grilled steaks, pasta with forest mushroom sauce, and lamb chops with rosemary sauce.
Monte Volpe – 2010 Tocai Friulano
Winemaker Greg Graziano’s Notes
Like Sangiovese, Monte Volpe is one of the oldest producers of Tocai Friulano in the United States. This is our 14th vintage. Tocai is native to and widely planted in the Friulian Region of northeastern Italy. The Tocai Friulano name is said to be derived from the local word for the small juice-style glass used to serve wine in taverns and restaurants. The Friulians call this relative of Sauvignon Blanc the brother of Sauvignon because of the growing characteristics of the vines. But that is where all similarity ends. The grape has no connection to Hungary’s Tokaji or France’s Tokay d’Alsace. In Mendocino County, the grape produces wines that are richly honeyed and floral. Eighty-seven percent of the Tocai Friulano grapes for this wine were harvested from Fox Mountain Vineyard, located in the Ukaih Valley. The remaining 13% is Sauvignon Blanc from the Lolonis Vineyard, located on the rocky benchlands of eastern Redwood Valley. Our 2010 Tocai Friulano is entirely barrel fermented and was aged on its lees for five months in three to five year-old French Burgundy oak barrels. Rich and fruity, the wine starts with aromas of honeysuckle, pineapple, and hints of sandalwood, followed by clean, crisp flavors of pink grapefruit and pineapple. Balanced acidity and a lingering finish make this wine a benchmark for all other Tocai wines. It is the perfect marriage of Old World tradition and California flair. Unlike most white wines, Tocai Friulano becomes even more interesting as it ages. The wine develops additional layers of spice, coupled with a rich oily texture, also common among the great Rieslings of Germany (Alcohol 13.5%, pH 3.01, total acidity 0.75m, cases produced 327).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is a wonderful wine for the season, any season actually, but especially summer. Crisp, refreshing, and aromatic, the wine pairs beautifully with appetizers, first courses, and main courses of fish and shell fish. The wine has what I call an acid zing, but Greg says that the sensation is not related to acid but instead to a small amount of CO2 that is squirted into the bottle as a preservative and is then absorbed by the wine. Serve chilled.
Monte Volpe – 2009 Peppolino, Mendocino
Winemaker Greg Graziano’s Notes
The Peppoino blend offers the winemaker the opportunity and freedom to create a truly unique wine each year, which is the most expressive form of winemaking. Gently handcrafted from specially selected lots, the wine blends three classic central and southern Italian varietals that come together to create a wine of great structure and elegance. In the Tuscan dialect, Peppolino is the word for thyme. The wine is a blend of 32% Negroamaro, 32% Primitivo, and 16% Aglianico. The Negroamaro was harvested from Greg’s cousin Gil Tournour’s vineyard, located on the western benchlands of Calpella. The Primitivo was harvested from Maria Testa’s Gusto Vineyard in the same area, and the Aglianico grapes came from the Bella Vista Vineyard, located in the eastern foothills of the Ukiah Valley. These three vineyards have shallow rock-laden soils, ideal sun exposure, and cool nights that produce grapes with superb balance, concentration, and fruity aromas and flavors. The wine shows exotic aromas of violet and spice with notes of black licorice that weave throughout the vibrant blackberry fruit and tar character. Firm tannins and a velvety middle culminate in a long, harmonious finish, laced with toasty oak. This wine’s complexity and depth of flavor will continue to evolve with further bottle aging (alcohol 14.5%, pH 3.44, total acidity 0.65, cases produced 219).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Like all of Greg’s Italian varietal wines, this one has rich fruit flavors that are balanced by acidity and smooth tannins. It’s a flavor profile that he says is the result of Mondocino County’s soils and climatic conditions, what the French call terroir, all of those conditions that the vine is subjected to and which will determine the character of the wine.
Monte Volpe – 2010 Aglianico, Mendocino
Winemaker Greg Graziano’s Notes
Aglianico is the premier red grape variety of Campania and Basilicata in Southern Italy. Often called the Barolo of Southern Italy, Aglianico produces the renowned wines of Taurasi. This Aglianio is grown by Greg Graziano at his Bella Vista Vineyard in the eastern foothills of the Ukiah Valley, overlooking the Russian River in Mendocino Couty. Aged for 24 months in French Burgundy oak barrels, the wine shows classic aromas and flavors of ripe berries and dried plums, combined with rich full tannins. This is a perfect wine for grilled or roasted meats and hearty cheeses (14.5% alcohol, pH 3.40, 0.68 total acidity, 175 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This delicious wine is a mouthful of warm fruit and spice, beautifully balanced with acid and smooth tannins. You can pair it with roasted and grilled meats or drink it as a contemplation wine to accompany good conversation, sitting on a deck with a dear friend on a summer evening, in which case you should pair it with an aged cheese.
Menu of the Month
Menu of the Month
Watermelon with pine nuts, feta, & basil, drizzled with olive oil
Grilled rabbit, rubbed with olive oil and tarragon, served with brown rice
pilaf and zucchini quickly sautéed with red onion & parsley
Mixed organic greens with lemon-olive oil dressing
Meyer lemon sorbet
Recipe of the Month
Watermelon with pine nuts, feta, basil, & olive oil
Here in California, the local tomato crop has not yet fully ripened as of this writing in mid June. Watermelon is a delicious and unusual substitute in combination with feta, basil, and a drizzle of olive oil, ingredients that we would normally associate with tomatoes. Place ingredients attractively on a large platter to accommodate the number of people at the table and enjoy the applause.
Watermelon, rind removed, and cut into 4-inch long and 1-inch thick, triangle wedges.
Greek feta cheese, chilled and roughly cut into small chunks
Red onion, very thinly sliced into circles
Basil leaves, torn into small pieces or thinly sliced
Place the watermelon triangles flat on a large platter, and scatter with red onion rings, then pieces of Greek feta cheese. Drizzle with olive oil, and scatter basil leaves on top.