Day 1: An Agricultural Activity at La Clarine Farm
The author of this post is the author of saignée as well the originator of 32 Days of Natural Wine. Considering the amount of talent contributing to the project, he is also probably the least knowledgeable on the subject at hand.
Winemaking, for all the hype, stratospheric prices, purple prose, arguments, and what not, is still at its core, agriculture. That is to say, farming. No matter where the grapes came from, whether from giant industrial central valley vineyards to tiny hand harvested plots, someone, at sometime, farmed them. What we see as consumers is removed from this process by several degrees, but the mark of the fruit is still there, somewhere, although it can often times be very hard to spot.
It’s an easy fact to forget. There aren’t many people who grow anything anymore, including myself with just my window herbs, much less farm the land (excepting of course, yardwork, which prizes order and cleanliness. i suspect this why we are enamored with stately rows of immaculately trained vines, rather than scrubby, scattered goblets). It has become an almost process in popular thinking, taking lowly grapes and crushing them, oaking them, aging them, and making them worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a bottle. Joe Dressner said it best last year when he said “What exactly is a natural wine? For me, it’s a wine that tastes like it fell off the vine and into a bottle, fermented, packed its bags and arrived in America.” It’s this thread i wanted to pick up on this year, this immediacy in these wines, some of which are imperfect in charming ways, some of which are imperfect in not so charming ways, but i suppose that is the risk when you’re trying your best to let the fruit do the talking.
Last weekend i traveled up to the Sierra Foothills to pay a visit to Hank Beckmeyer at La Clarine Farms. The Sierra foothills, to quote a friend, is “real, old-school California.” The California before the CALIFORNIA. And Hank is working on a real old-school farm. The farm before the what we know now as the VINEYARD. Hank has goats, chickens. His wife Caroline Hoel makes cheese. There are scattered artichokes and olives. It is a little slice of paradise, made no less romantic by the scent of manure wafting through the air marking the fact that real work was being done there.
The push and pull of commerce has made it hard for winemakers to have bio-culture farms such as this one. One old winemaker in Barolo talked about nebbiolo being grown in places where it would never would have been grown before due to quality issues, including places where farmers would grow not grapes, but grain. Everyone knows about the Chablisiennes ripping up vineyards for other crops earlier last century. it’s an awfully romantic notion, this mixed family farm, but until something radically changes, large monoculture vineyards will be the rule, not the exception.
La Clarine has been operational since 2001, when Hank bought the land and first planted grapes. A refugee from the music industry, Hank decided a while back that either he was going to have to (in his own words) quit the business or become an asshole to further climb the ladder. Having experimented with winemaking and wine importing (he is deeply indebted to the late Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, which he used to import into Germany) while him and Caro lived in Germany, he decided a radical departure was in order, and he found a scrubby hillside to call his own. He could have just bought a building and starting buying his own grapes, but in talking to him you get the feeling he is really connected to this spot, to his farm.
Most of what La Clarine does is on one ten acre plot of land in the Sierra Foothills. He buys grapes as well from nearby vineyards, but his ultimate goal is to farm everything himself. As he tells it the whole thing is a constant learning experience rather than an instant success. Without the centuries of viticulture available in other places he decided to throw things at the wall to see if they stuck. At the home vineyard he has tannat, syrah, grenache, tempranillo, brand new negroamaro and a bit of cabernet planted in a kind of survival of the fittest model. Some of the vines are thriving, some are not, and some of the varieties are thriving on parts of the hill where the same variety is dying on other parts. On one slope the tempranillo at the bottom is thriving while on the crest it is struggling to even show itself. Hank shrugs it off, he could take measures to help it along but he chooses not to. He’s learning about the land, not trying to control it. Something else will be planted there and the experiment will continue if the vines die off. Around half of the plants are self-rooted and half are on root-stock in the same spirit of trying to find what works best.
At first Hank farmed La Clarine using bio-dynamic methods and while he found success with some of what they were doing, he began to discard some of what was being taught because it wasn’t working for him. He began to take umbrage at the cost and waste of resources employed in the certification process (he tells me someone was flown out from Philadelphia to do his certification which he found profoundly puzzling given the number of qualified people right here in California). In order to find a more suitable system of farming he started searching for alternatives and eventually stumbled upon The One Straw Revolution, by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. the Fukuoka method as it is known, is the increasingly popular “do nothing farming” (a wild misnomer, since it requires a great deal of work on the part of the person implementing it, especially in the early years). Hank tells me this farming method allowed him to more closely realize his dream of a fully self-sufficient farm, meaning no inputs whatsoever. In fact the only thing he has put on his vines in the past three years besides compost from the resident goats, is one spray of wettable sulfur (a practice he says he is not too comfortable with despite its allowance in bio-dynamics).
At harvest Hank tries to get everything at the exact right moment, a practice he says is made easier because the winery is ten feet away from the vines. He hand picks and ferments in flex-tanks which are woven plastic tanks said to mimic the oxygen permeability of oak (a claim I can’t substantiate given this was the first time i’d seen them, but Hank is pleased with the results). No yeast is added because, well, Hank has never had problems with fermentation. After that the wines are placed in old, small format wood (he was quite proud of a larger puncheon he found) without sulfur. In fact there is no sulfur or additions of any kind until bottling. Hank is most interested in concrete, but he figures that is still a few years off given the logistics of getting the large cuvees up to his out of the way place.
At this point, while in the cave, Hank’s wife Carol brought out some of her cheese, one a fresh cheese that sadly cannot be sold in the States because, well, our food laws suck. The other was a Sierra Mountain Tommes that had been cooling in the cheese cave since September. i brought out some bread. This is how god intended wine to be tasted, not in white tableclothed rooms with suits, ties and egos. There was a white rhone blend that i quite liked, a rather offputting (to my tastes, anyway) skin fermented viognier, a syrah, and Hank’s home vineyard blend, which is just as it sounds, a blend of everything from La Clarine. The wines were good, and from my vantage point getting better. the wines are starting to become a bit more focused, purer, and they are losing a lot of the wildness they showed just two years ago.
It was getting late. The goats were fed and milked while the chickens mustered all of their energy to get into the tree branches where they nested. Sun set over the hill and we relaxed while the cats and dogs continued their inter-species cold war. It was dark, we were sated, the night was still. The debates about natural wine seemed far, far away.
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Up next: Texas?; or, Texas!