Day 28: California’s L’Enfant Terrible

Philly cycling enthusiast, wine lover, blogger, gourmand, and all around nice guy David McDuff had a chance to interview winemaker Mike Dashe, who last year began making a completely sans soufre zinfandel, l’enfant terrible. It is hopefully a new start for a grape that has progressively gotten bigger, riper and more messed with. Enjoy!

While answering Cory’s call for contributions to 31 Days of Natural Wine was easy, coming up with what to write about took a little more work. Rather than dipping into the archives or revisiting a long familiar producer, I decided to push my own envelope a bit, to write about something at least a little outside of my Eurocentric norm, something where I could learn a little too. And then it came to me. I’d had a nice chat with Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars at a Michael Skurnik portfolio tasting earlier this year. Mike’s wines had left me with a very favorable impression, an impression that’s been supported by subsequent experiences with several of his wines at the dinner table. So a few emails and phone calls later, the following interview was born.

DMcD: To get us started, would you tell us a little about yourself and about Dashe Cellars?

MDashe: Dashe Cellars is a husband and wife (and a French-American) winemaking team—we were married and started the winery in the same year, 1996. Our idea was to make balanced, complex wines from distinctive vineyards, using as natural as possible winemaking techniques. We’ve grown into a 9000 case winery located in an urban setting, in Oakland.

Together, Anne and I have quite a bit of winemaking experience. I worked for over eight years as assistant winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, and worked short stints at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Cloudy Bay, Far Niente, Schramsberg, and Roudin-Smith wineries. Anne is a University of Bordeaux-trained winemaker who worked at Château La Dominique, Chappellet Winery, and Remy-Martin in Napa (Carneros Alambic).

DMcD: Given the scope of Cory’s “31 Days” project, what’s your take on “naturalness” in the context of wine?

MDashe: We’ve always been believers in non-intrusive winemaking—we make wine without getting in the way of the purity of the flavors, and we have since we started the winery 13 years ago. I use native yeasts to conduct fermentations, use low levels of SO2, don’t mask flavors with new oak, and don’t manipulate wine unduly. I’m against “industrial” winemaking techniques with which the goal is to make consistent wines at the cost of individuality and complexity.

That said, we’re not dogmatic about natural winemaking. I’ve tasted many, many wonderful natural wines, but I’ve also tasted natural wines that taste like a poorly run experiment. We feel the goal should be to make the most authentic wine possible by selecting great vineyard sites and not getting in the way of the flavors, but also to make well-made wines.

DMcD: Though I know you produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Riesling, etc… I tend to think of Dashe Cellars as specializing in Zinfandel. Why Zin? Or am I wrong to think that?

MDashe: We do specialize in Zinfandel. When I was working at Ridge Vineyards I met some great growers of Zinfandel, most of who were working with old-vine fruit. Some of our vineyards are 80+ years old—it’s really a privilege to work with fruit like that. I’ve always felt that Zinfandel can make incredible wines when grown correctly and not harvested too ripe. I’m on a personal quest to make Zinfandel-based wines that can stand on the world stage as great wines that have wonderful personality and can age well. Call me crazy, but it can be done.

DMcD: How did the time you spent at Ridge influence your decision to go it on your own, and how, if at all, does it continue to guide your winemaking decisions?

MDashe: I owe a tremendous debt to Ridge Vineyards and Paul Draper for exposing me to a wide variety of fruit sources and to traditions of natural winemaking. I think Paul is an innately soulful winemaker, who completely respects his vineyards and is one of the great proponents of natural winemaking in the US. After 8 ½ years working at Ridge, I wanted to go out on my own – mostly because I didn’t want to be the oldest assistant winemaker in California. Paul Draper was extremely supportive of my creating my own winery. And yes, I use many techniques I used at Ridge for my own winemaking style—things like using native yeast, submerged-cap fermentations, techniques to limit tannin extraction from seeds, etc.

DMcD: You’re in the distinct minority in California in choosing to ferment all of your wines (if I’m not mistaken) on their native/ambient yeasts. What inspired that decision? Do you ever use cultured yeasts? If so, why?

MDashe: I do use native yeast fermentations, almost exclusively. At Ridge Vineyards almost everything is fermented on native yeast, and I felt the results were dramatically positive. I started Dashe Cellars using native yeast fermentations. There have been times in the past when all the grapes were coming into the winery at once, due to vintage conditions, and if I absolutely had to have tanks available I would inoculate with yeast so that fermentation would finish and I’d have a tank available. That never happens now, because we have more fermentation space. We’ve purchased enough tanks (and I’m using these wonderful 900-gallon foudres made from French oak) so that I no longer need to force tank space. So now we’re a 100% native yeast winery.

DMcD: It may be fair to say that you’ve received more attention from natural wine aficionados for “L’Enfant Terrible” than for the rest of your wines combined. First of all, tell us about “L’Enfant.” What first inspired you to produce it? Does the attention it gets frustrate you at all?

MDashe: One of the nice things about being around for a while is that you can make a wine for yourself—to make a wine that you think would be a great wine to drink—and not worry that it will drag down the winery because it might not sell. We know that people out there trust us to make wines that are interesting, and our customers are willing to try new things from us because they have faith in our winemaking abilities.

L’Enfant Terrible came out of our desire to make a wine that was like the wines we love from Europe, that are complex, soft, balanced, lovely, wonderful wines to go with food. Anne and I love higher acid, lower alcohol wines from Europe and wanted to see if we could make something that was more like a wine from Morgon or Fleurie. We were encouraged by friends like Mark Ellenbogen, the wine director of The Slanted Door (in San Francisco). Mark had mostly European wines on his list, because he felt that the cuisine didn’t go well with a lot of Californian wines. He called me out of the blue and asked if I thought I could find an organic Zinfandel vineyard that could make (for lack of a better term) a “more European-style” wine like those I knew he liked. I had just the previous day been visiting high up in the hills of Mendocino County, where I get my organic Riesling, and had seen a very unusual Zin vineyard. I tasted the grapes and they had great flavor (and very little color!) and had thought it would make an unusual wine. After getting the call from Mark, it seemed to all come together. I called the grower on the spot and told him I’d buy the entire lot of Zinfandel. After making it, I thought, “Oh God, what have I done?” It was so opposite of a typical Californian wine that I thought it would be a very difficult wine to understand for most people. To be fair, Anne from the start thought that L’Enfant Terrible was a great wine, and would get a following.

We were shocked at how quickly people seemed to find out about the wine on the Internet. There was a serious amount of interest in the wine, before I had even released it, simply by my showing it to a few journalists and wine lovers in New York and California. A few select people who had a lot of credibility in the wine blogging universe wrote about it—and the wine just took off. We aren’t frustrated at all about the attention given to the wine—it highlights how we make all of our wines.

DMcD: You’re currently purchasing most if not all of your fruit, correct? Do you have plans or ambitions to get into the farming end of the winegrowing cycle at any point in the future?

MDashe: We purchase all of our fruit, and have great relationships with our growers. We work with them in their growing practices. I don’t have any plans to get into the grape growing business unless we purchase, one day, a Loire vineyard. That would interest us—but it’s a bit of a pipedream. Otherwise, it’s just too expensive to consider a vineyard in the US.

DMcD: Where do farming practices fit into the decision making process when you’re considering a relationship with a grower? Do you specifically seek out organic or biodynamic growers?

MDashe: All of our growers are small, family growers. We actively look for certified organic and biodynamic farms—that’s how we found the vineyards for L’Enfant Terrible and the Riesling. We’ve recently located a few biodynamic vineyards and are making wine from them. Most of our other vineyards are sustainably farmed and we are encouraging our growers to seek organic certification if they’re using organic practices. We’ve found that some of our growers who are essentially farming organically do not want to go through the process to get certified, either because they don’t want to go through a long process, or because they feel it ties their hands too much.

DMcD: There’s only one white wine in your current production portfolio. Why Riesling? (Not that I’m complaining.)

MDashe: We looked for years for white varietals that have enough acidity to satisfy us and finally after quite a while we found this Riesling vineyard in the mountains of Mendocino. California has so many hot regions—we hadn’t found many white vineyards that were cool enough for us. We like to have a good acid balance to make white wine. We’re trying to find some colder region grapes, but we may have to go out of state to get them.

DMcD: We’ve talked about yeast, so I’m sure you’ve already anticipated a question about the other big bugaboo – sulfur. What are your thoughts about sulfur (in its various forms) and what approach do you take with it at Dashe?

MDashe: We have quite low sulfur levels in all of our wines—in the bottle we often have almost no detectable sulfur. We add some sulfur at the crusher, so that non-Saccharomyces yeasts and bacteria can’t start fermenting strongly before the correct yeasts take hold. During fermentation, virtually all of the sulfur is used up. We then add either none or extremely low levels during aging. We certainly use less SO2 than the vast majority of winemakers, in the US or anywhere else, for that matter.

DMcD: As long as we’re there…. What about acid adjustment, dealcoholization, enzymes and all the other various and sundry adjuncts and engineering techniques commonplace in contemporary winemaking? Are they all crutches? Or do you find any of them useful or necessary to your winemaking regime?

MDashe: Again, we don’t use most techniques to change or modify wines—we don’t use enzymes or other chemical agents, and we virtually never have added acid. I can taste added acid in wines, and I dislike the flavor intensely. We stick to our natural winemaking techniques, but it’s silly to allow a wine to go bad in the name of natural winemaking. Taking a vow to never use technology is like taking a vow to never use medicine. I take Advil when I have a headache, and I take the steps I need to in the few times that I have a problematic wine. But we never use technology to enhance a wine, or to make a wine taste identical to a previous vintage, or to concentrate a wine to make it more likely to get a high score. That’s just not our style.

DMcD: If there’s a victim that’s taken more than its share of abuse in the current backlash regarding overblown wines, it would seem to be oak – particularly small and/or new barrels. Your thoughts? What guides your decisions in choosing appropriate vessels for fermentation and aging?

MDashe: As I’ve gotten older and become a more experienced winemaker, I’ve found myself using less and less oak, and getting almost completely away from new oak. It doesn’t go with our style of winemaking.

I’m very sensitive to oak. For the past two years I haven’t bought any new oak at all, because I just don’t like the flavor of new oak in our wines. I buy one- or two-year old oak barrels from good white wine producers, so that I can have oak aging, without the overwhelming flavors of new oak. Also, I’m a huge proponent now of larger oak cooperage, so that I can age wine and get complex flavors without any overt oak flavors. I now have three 900 gallon foudres and am planning on buying at least one every year for the next few years, so that I can greatly increase the effect of these large oak barrels on the wines. Not only does it decrease the oak flavors, but it also seems to increase the exposure of the wine to yeast (almost like lees stirring) so that we get more complex flavors and softer wines. The L’Enfant Terrible and most of my wines now never see new oak.

DMcD: Do you feel that your wines tend to be overlooked by the mainstream wine press? If so, why?

MDashe: Yep. I think that it’s natural for wine judges—including journalists—to become attracted to big, ripe wines when tasting many wines in a row. More subtle, balanced wines—which include Dashe Cellars wines—can get overwhelmed by big wines in large judgings. That being said, we still have gotten many, many positive reviews. In fact, most reviews have been positive. We are very pleased that some of the journalists that we respect the most—Eric Asimov of the New York Times is one that comes to mind—have been very complimentary about the wines. We decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t chase scores—it wasn’t our style of wine that would garner 98 point scores from mainstream wine magazines. It’s not a condemnation; it’s just a fact. So we just concentrated on our style, which we felt was creating complex, balanced, interesting wines. And we feel that our customer base has quietly grown.

DMcD: What lies ahead for Dashe Cellars? Any plans to expand or venture into new territories?

MDashe: We’re comfortable with our size. In the biggest years, we’re about 10,000 cases, which is more than large enough for us. If we were to grow bigger, we’d have to hire more people and spend our time managing instead of winemaking. Our size is perfect to be able to taste and blend all of the wines and make a living at winemaking.

We are expanding our lineup slightly to include some new varietals such as Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Mourvedre. We want to do more wines in the same vein as L’Enfant Terrible, since we feel we really struck a nerve with people who are willing to drink wines that are out of the mainstream. Journalists have asked me if I think that it’s an extremely small group of people who are willing to consider a wine like L’Enfant Terrible. I think it’s really a movement of people away from the huge, black, inky wines that have made the big scores in the mainstream press. As American tastes become more sophisticated, and they taste more and more wine with food, we feel they’ll want more balanced wines and will be able to differentiate complexity from intensity.

DMcD: I understand you’re in France at the moment. Pure pleasure, or will you be doing wine research while you’re there? Any regions or producers you’re particularly interested in visiting?

MDashe: We love being in France—Anne’s family lives in Brittany on the south coast, and we visit here every year. My kids (we have 9- and 10-year old girls) speak French and we want them to experience some country life in France during the summers.

We try to visit at least one wine region every year, although we end up in the Loire Valley (because we love it) and in Bordeaux (because we have friends that live there) more often than not. We’ve become friends with some great winemakers by meeting them through Joe and Denise Dressner (importers whose portfolio of wines we really respect), and try to visit the wineries, taste wines, and talk about winemaking.

DMcD: More importantly (grin), will you get to see any of the Tour de France while you’re there?

MDashe: Been watching it as much as possible. A number of years ago, it came through Anne’s town, and we waited hours to watch the few seconds of the racers zipping by. Very exciting.

Michael and I had both hoped to do a little follow-up after this first round of questions but he is in France after all, and vacation calls. He and Anne are off to the Loire, where they’ll be visiting François Pinon and Huet in Vouvray; François Chidaine in Montlouis; Catherine and Pierre Breton in Chinon and Bourgueil; Nicolas Joly and Domaine du Closel in Savennières; and Marc Olivier in Muscadet country. Now that’s my kind of trip. I look forward to talking (and learning) more with Michael when they return stateside. Until then, cheers!

Follow day by day here:

Up next: What the hell have i been drinking?; or: A lot

LAST REMINDER: 31 Days party at Terroir. Tonight, Saturday. 7. BE THERE. Everyone is invited; readers, contributers, me, everyone.

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “Day 28: California’s L’Enfant Terrible”

  1. David–Thanks for a thoughtful and complete Q & A. It is nice to see that there are more serious, small winemakers in California.

  2. Thanks, Robert. Michael’s a great guy — super laid back and obviously very forthcoming. The interview was a pleasure.

  3. Being a fan of Zinfandel, this article left me with the desire to taste this wine, but since it doesn’t get imported into Norway, I guess I’ll just have to wait for my trip back home during Christmas! I’m looking forward to it!


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