Wine appreciation can be about more than just what’s in the glass. Here are some recent noteworthy examples:
“Mixed Breed” is a wine rolling out of C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery in El Dorado County. It’s the latest and most ambitious release in a program that owners Chaim and Elisheva Gur-Arieh have designated “Great Wines for Great Causes.”
The name “Mixed Breed” can be interpreted in two ways. For one, it’s a blended wine that reflects Chaim Gur-Arieh’s keen interest in crafting intricate and imaginative blends with grapes grown along the Sierra foothills.
Secondly, a mixed breed often is a castoff pet rescued from an animal shelter. And that’s the whole point of “Mixed Breed” – to raise money for animal-welfare organizations. From the sale of each bottle of “Mixed Breed,” $3 goes toward animal welfare.
Indeed, fine-line drawings of two rescued pets, Sparky, a cat owned by the winery’s IT consultant, and Betty, a neighbor’s dog, highlight the wine’s label. Elisheva Gur-Arieh, an artist, created the label.
The current release, the Di Arie 2014 Sierra Foothills “Mixed Breed” Red Wine Blend ($25), is as easy to love as a well-trained pooch. It’s a precise, seamless and balanced blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah and cabernet franc, ready to embrace for its fresh berry fruit, restrained tannins and lean structure.
Stylistically, the wine is meant to be taken as a serious and versatile accompaniment at the dinner table, not a feel-good novelty, said Chiam Gur-Arieh. “I want the wine to be on the fruity side, well-balanced, not overly oaked, not overly alcoholic, with a nice dry finish. It’s to go with food,” he says. (The 2014 “Mixed Breed” has 14.4 percent alcohol and less than .1 percent residual sugar.)
The Gur-Ariehs and their project manager, Steve Winter, have set up a network to share proceeds from sales of the wine with animal-care groups throughout the state. A key partner in their distribution of “Mixed Breed” is Total Wine, which has four stores in the Sacramento area. The Gur-Ariehs and Winter hope Total Wine eventually will take the wine nationally. Still to be determined is whether a white-wine “Mixed Breed” will be made.
Since nearly 900 cases of “Mixed Breed” were released in May about a third has been sold, raising about $10,000 for 12 animal shelters about the state, said Chiam Gur-Arieh and Winter. Proceeds go to one designated animal-welfare organization in each county that has one or more Total Wine outlets. In Sacramento County, for example, funds are going to the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“Mixed Breed” is an extension of a line of wines that the Gur-Ariehs developed to help raise funds for institutions they admire. Similar wines include “Capital Stage” for Capital Stage Theatre in Sacramento, “CapRadio Red” for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and “OnStage” for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre of Berkeley.
They acknowledge that while the winery sees residual benefits in exposing their brand to new audiences, their prime inspiration in “Great Wines for Great Causes” is to be community minded. They have a history of such involvement. In 1979, as their daughter started school, they helped found Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito to incubate more awareness of Jewish culture, heritage and intellectualism.
“Bee’s Box” actually doesn’t require handling with any more care than any other bottle of wine. “Bee’s Box,” a label of the Francis Ford Coppola family of brands, is an effort to recognize, raise awareness and help sustain bees responsible for pollinating a vast array of California’s fruits and nuts.
Toward that end, two wines have been released, the Bee’s Box 2016 California Pinot Noir ($19) and the Bee’s Box 2016 California Chardonnay ($19).
The pinot noir, made principally from grapes grown at Clarksburg, is a lithe, steady and delicately sweet take on the varietal.
The chardonnay is startling in its authority and clarity. It’s unusually substantial for a chardonnay at that price, both in heft and in its layered suggestions of apples and tropical fruits, all backed by a lick of vanilla and a hint of, yes, honey. The wine was made with grapes grown virtually every place in the state where bees gather, from Mendocino to Clarksburg, Monterey to Lodi.
Coppola has pledged that 10 percent of the profits from the sale of “Bee’s Box” wines will go to “organizations fighting to protect these little pollinators” from depredation due to habitat loss, pesticides and disease, say company representatives.
The program, they note, grew out of the company’s efforts to farm vineyards sustainably and to support employees responsible for maintaining bee hives about the winery.
“Bee’s Box” wines are available in the tasting room of Coppola’s Virginia Dare Winery at Geyserville in Sonoma County and through the winery’s website, www.virginiadarewinery.com.
“Black Lightnin’” shows that even smoke-tainted wines can find a place at the table.
Realistically, however, “Black Lightnin’” can’t be found these days, given that it is sold out, but in the aftermath of the series of wildland fires that swept through Northern California wine regions in October, the story behind it demonstrates that the vintage of 2017 need not be dismissed, even in enclaves exposed heavily to smoke and ash from the blazes.
In summer 2008, lightning strikes ignited fires that draped in smoke plots of pinot noir along the Sonoma Coast that Fred Scherrer uses at his eponymous winery at Sebastopol.
At that time little was known of potential damage to grapes from wildland fires, but Scherrer became alarmed by the smell of his fermenting pinot noir, which he likened to camel dung. He hit the books to learn what he could of the causes and cures for wines so marred by smoke their aroma was being compared if not to camel dung than to overflowing ashtrays.
He questioned the effectiveness of techniques advocated at that time to scrub smoke-tainted wines, and concluded that a counter-intuitive approach might work. Ordinarily, he ages his pinot noir in moderately toasted oak barrels for 20 or so months to intensify its complexity. (“Toasting” involves applying fire of varying degrees on the inside of barrel staves, a process that can contribute welcome suggestions of vanilla, caramel, spice, smoke and even char to wine.)
With the 2008 pinot noir, however, he left it on wood for 30 months, some in barrels with the usual toast, some in older barrels with less residual toast. He had a hunch that volatile phenols implicated in smoke-damaged wine might bond with the toastiness of the newer barrels.
His approach worked, up to a point. The pinot noir in the older barrels smelled and tasted smokier than the wine in the newer barrels with more toast. “The wine in the (newer) barrels did better,” Scherrer says. “I think there’s an absorption that goes on.”
While his technique wasn’t a full-on cure, it left the wine more palatable. Ordinarily, pinot noir from the smoke-affected vineyards goes into a wine he calls “Big Brother” for its combination of generosity and refinement.
From the 2008 vintage he didn’t feel he could make a “Big Brother” to measure up to his standards or to justify its typical $50 price. Nevertheless, he did wind up with a pinot noir he felt was interesting and drinkable. As a consequence, he dubbed it “Black Lightnin’” and dropped the price to $22. As noted, it sold out.
Scherrer, however, sent me a bottle of “Black Lightnin’” with a bottle of his 2010 “Big Brother” ($55) to taste side-by-side. The “Black Lightnin’” is an adroit interpretation of a challenging pinot noir, bright in color, hinting at strawberries in smell, with exceptional layering in flavor, including suggestions of caramel, truffles and sage. The lingering smoke, rather than offensive, is akin to a thread of char that many wine enthusiasts appreciate. “If you are a Scotch drinker, you will love it,” said Scherrer during our initial discussion. “It’s not a bad wine. It was an interesting transformation.”
The glorious 2010 “Big Brother,” on the other hand, shows with clarity and spirit just why pinot noir from Sonoma Coast is being embraced with so much enthusiasm these days. In its more forward and fresher expression of fruit, and in its tenacity, it’s a clearer representative of pinot noir, quicker to invite another sip.
“It was a fascinating lesson that I hope not to repeat,” said Scherrer of coping with the 2008 pinot noir. At least this year, he won’t. The last of the pinot noir he harvested this vintage was brought in the Wednesday before the Sunday when the fires started.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.