A Destiny of Dirty Boots

If the saying “wine made in the vineyard is true” then Twin Cities native Jessica Miller is poised to make true wine. Jess has spent time in vineyards all over the world learning different viticultural techniques used to produce great grapes. After several years of traveling and learning the industry, Jess has settled in Oregon where she just finished bottling part of her very first vintage. Jess’s story is a great example of an unexpected passion developing into a fruitful career. She has worked with highly reputed winemakers and viticulturalists in Europe, the US and New Zealand. Her diverse experiences are a unique portrait of trends in contemporary winemaking and the slow, circuitous road to producing wine. 

With the requirements for her international relations degree completed, Jess had the flexibility to take half credit courses during her final year at Boston University. Their school of hospitality offered several courses in wine history and Jess enjoyed the first course so thoroughly that she ultimately completed the entire curriculum offered at her school. She was taken by the interdisciplinary nature of wine, the importance of culture, history, geology, science, and travel, “So it was always kind of in the back of my mind after that,” said Jess during our recent conversation. 

After graduating, she spent several months working at The Wine Shop in Minnetonka before heading to Orvieto, Italy in the southwest of Umbria in 2010. She lived and worked at Tenuta Pietre Parlanti, a small family farm owned and operated by Dr. Robert Hasinger and his wife Gala. They primarily grow traditional Chianti grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, along with a small plot of Merlot. While she was there, Jess realized she wanted to pursue winemaking; California seemed like the natural next step. 

Upon arrival, Jess set up an informational interview with Steve Waters, the head of retail at Kermit Lynch, one of the best-known wine importers in the country. His suggestion to an aspiring winemaker? Work in retail and taste, taste, taste. She says it is the best industry advice she received. She spent two years in the Bay Area working in retail, learning how buying decisions are made and developing her palate. Once she found her footing there she felt it was time to return to making wine and working the land.  

She returned to production in 2014 to work for Richard Ward and David Graves at Saintsbury in Sonoma County, a small production winery in Carneros. Jess was more interested in working in the vineyard than in the cellar but when she expressed this to the cellarmaster, who had worked his way up from vineyards since he came over from Mexico, he thought she was crazy. “That’s the worst job; that’s the job that no one wants,” she was told. 

At the ground level in the US, she found there is a stigma with vineyard labor. It is typically seen and paid as an entry-level position given to immigrant laborers with low-English skills. From there, workers will move on to better positions and leave the vineyard if they can. Nonetheless Jess felt learning vineyard work was essential. This belief would be reinforced by her future experiences.

"The causes of the different vineyard labor perspectives are largely systemic, in my experience," says Jess. "The US wine industry is, for the most part, built on the model of Big Ag, which has been maintained by a very large, cheap and effective source of labor. The system in Northern France, which is the other one I know, benefits from cheaper land prices and social support systems, but also a culture that has been small and local for a long time, and is built on single farmers farming around 20-35 acres by themselves. You hear a lot of winemakers there talk about pruning their vines as a point of pride and quality, but the fact is that they don't have the cheap, expendable labor force at their fingertips. It’s important to recognize the small people I worked with are also drastically in the minority there [in France]. Also, I think when people value vineyards in the New World, it comes more in the form of  dialing-in terroir and hyper-monitoring vigor and irrigation, not working with and being around the plants. Dirty-boot farming is not a white-collar job, but you can also legitimately argue that apart from the stigma, it's much less cost-effective here."

When her job at Saintsbury ended late in October due to a short growing season, Jess became anxious about imminent unemployment and finding work. A friend suggested that she apply to work the harvest in the southern hemisphere, which starts the earliest in January.  It is common in the industry to support yourself by following harvests. “Vintage-hopping is how people can make ends meet, by working the next vintage in another hemisphere." 

She had been thoroughly impressed by the wines she tasted from Burn Cottage in New Zealand so she e-mailed asking if they had a viticulture internship. Typically, aspiring winemakers want to be in the cellar but Jess was determined to continue developing her viticulture knowledge. It was lucky timing and two weeks later Jess was headed to New Zealand. 

The family that owns and operates Burn Cottage is originally from Kansas where they farmed cotton. Their New Zealand vineyards are biodynamic (for a brief overview on biodynamic farming see our summary here) and they have invested in the best tools and equipment that money can buy. It was Jess’s first direct experience with biodynamic farming. “I was into good farming and not using glyphosate (and other herbicides and pesticides) but I was not converted to biodynamics.” But during her 8-month tenure on the farm Jess observed the impact biodynamic farming had on the health of the ecosystem, the employees, and the vines. The question leaving Burn Cottage became “how do I do this on a budget?" a conundrum that plagues many winemakers who see the benefits of organic farming. 

Leaving New Zealand, Jess found an internship at Inglenook in Napa Valley where Philippe Bascaules of Chateau Margeaux, the world-famous Bordeaux winery, had recently been hired to take charge of wine production. The winery was heavily invested in research; Jess had the responsibility of following and gathering data for all their trials. Much to her chagrin, she got back to California just in time for bloom. “The time period from budbreak to bloom, for me it really helps you gauge the growth rate of the vines and basically gauge the season…by bloom you kind of know what the season is like,” others reassured her that she was plenty early. But Jess’s work in the vines has made her sensitive to the minutia of viticulture and the effect on wines. Observing the grapes from the beginning of their development is a tool she uses for understanding the trajectory of the season. 

While in New Zealand, this belief had been reinforced through conversations about pruning. Many of the workers and vignerons passing through discussed the importance of pruning. “[Pruning] so influences not only your yield but also the health of the vines." It determines how successful your grapes will be during the season and the coming years. So she decided that the next step on her journey needed to focus on this aspect of vineyard work. 

During her lunch break at Inglenook one afternoon, Jess called Catherine Roussel of Clos Roche Blanche. Catherine and her business partner Didier Barouillet converted their Loire estate to organic farming in the mid-90s and gained a reputation for making complex, terroir driven wines. In a 2011 interview, Didier pointed out that his work as a vigneron began with a focus on the cellar, which then moved to the vines, which then moved to the soil. Alas! Catherine informed Jess that they had produced their last vintage in 2014. However, Julien Pineau and his partner Laurent Saillard had taken over the vineyards. Jess was able to secure a position working the former Clos Roche Vineyard with Julien, who had worked closely with Catherine and Didier before taking over the estate. 

She worked with Julien one-on-one, learning the basics of pruning. Afterwards she worked with his friend Julien Prevel in Montlouis-sur-Loire, who farms 4 hectares of his own as well as assisting Frantz Saumon with his organic vineyards. She finally found herself working under the tutelage of Alice and Olivier De Moor in Chablis. The couple gave her a pruning manual based on the work of researchers in Sancerre. “Learn this; this is how we prune,” they told her. The couple had pruned conventionally for 25 years and watched vines die from trunk disease. The research from Sancerre dramatically altered their techniques and eliminated trunk disease. The manual on pruning, though used in France, is unknown elsewhere. Jess is one of the few fieldworkers in the US discussing this valuable information and using it in her vineyard work. 

In March of 2016, Jess left for Oregon where she got hired as the assistant viticulturist for a vineyard management company. “It hadn’t been my goal. I wanted to just be a little farmer and help farm smaller properties.” However, this gave Jess an opportunity to become better oriented with climates and best practices in Oregon. She also started independently farming a small property for an absentee couple in Eola-Amity. When the season was over, they allowed her to keep the fruit.  The grapes were all Pinot Noir.  Eager to experiment, Jess vinified a Pétillant Naturel, a Pinot noir rosé and a 100% Pinot noir red wine. 

Jess still lives in Oregon where she is currently finishing pruning in preparation for spring. Check back next week for more on preparations for spring and the impact of pruning. 
 

Gretchen Skedsvold
Keep Calm and Carignan.

You may have heard Carignan referred to by one of its many names: Carignane, Carignano, Cariñena, Mazuelo, Moestal, Roussillonen or Samsó, to name a few. This red wine varietal is believed to have originated in Spain and is most often used as a blending grape. But when its high yielding vines are given attention and treated with reverence it can also produce balanced wines bursting with red fruit flavors and fine tannins. 

Carignan is a vigorous a.k.a. high yielding, black-skinned grape. It is late budding and late ripening and therefore needs the long, hot growing season of an arid climate - such as the Mediterranean where it is widely grown - to fully mature. Though it grows vigorously, it is highly sensitive to powdery mildew, downy mildew and grape worms. It is found mostly in Southern France where it is a blending grape in Cotes Catalane, Corbieres, Minervois and Faugieres. In Spain - where it is most famously used as a blending grape in Priorat - it is known as Samsó, Mazuelo or Cariñena. 

Before 1962, the French imported the majority of their Carignan grapes from Algeria. After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, The French began to grow Carignan widely in Southern France. It quickly became the most highly planted varietal in France, used mostly for producing low quality wines. Eventually, The E.U. offered cash subsidies to rip up Carignan vines and replace them with other vines. (Merlot surpassed Carignan as the most planted varietal). Sadly, this period of time sullied the grape’s reputation.  

Today, however, the grape is experiencing a renaissance - in part because it is a great food wine. When well executed, Carignan wines are rich, smooth, well-balanced, medium–bodied wines with light tannins – perfect for pairing with both light and heavy dishes. They are a perfect fit for those who enjoy a light Zinfandel, a Merlot or a Rhone blend. Carignans are fruit forward with notes of red fruits, baking spices, licorice, and a delightful cured meat umami. Try it with a rich poultry (especially duck), anything pork, or even a beef brisket! 

Here are a few of our favorite Carignans at Henry and Son:

Louis Antoine-Luyt 2013 Legno Duro – We have talked about Louis Antoine Luyt before. This native Burgundian now makes wine in Chile. His 100% Carignan was grown in the Maule Valley, 155 miles South of Santiago. The vines are 70 years old and they are farmed organically and without irrigation. He produces his “Tinto Chileno” using only native yeasts and carbonic maceration – a technique in which grapes are put in a sealed container in whole clusters and allowed to ferment inside of their skins. It produces fruity wines with low tannins. It is then aged in a combination of tanks and neutral oak barrels. 

The wine needs a little time to open but then it is all kinds of YUM! It is bursting with juicy red fruits with tangy finish and a gentle chew like sour fruit leather. It has aromas of lavender and forest berries and with cinnamon, herbs, and joooooose on the palate. This wine is youthful, energetic, and fun. It’s a great introduction to Carignan. 

Donkey and Goat Carignan 2013 – This 100% Carignane has been dry farmed on 75-year-old vines in Mendocino. It is grows on decomposed limestone and Pinnobie Loam and spends 8 months in neutral French oak barrels. This lean, medium bodied wine has aromas of red and black cherries, plums and blackberries with a subtle earthiness. Carignane’s characteristic umami cured meat aroma translates into blood sausage aromas on the nose and hints of black olives on the palate. It has medium tannins, notes of cherries and blackberries and a tart acidity. 

Garage Wine Co. Lot #48 Portezuelo Vineyard Carignan 2013 – Garage Wine pays homage to garagistes - a group of winemakers who in the 1990s in Bordeaux bucked tradition and big business and produced wines on a small scale that were more in line with international trends. Garage Wines started as a hobby and over-time grew into a full-fledged business. They are low-intervention winemakers and work with grape growers from various regions in Chile. 
This is a field blend from the Itata Valley in Chile made with 10 barrels of Carignan and one of Cinsault. The vineyard is the site of the first winery in Chile where they still farm by hand and with horses. It is naturally fermented with native yeasts in small tanks with open tops. It was then barrel aged for two winters. The result is a rich, fleshy wine with the scent of herbs, wildflowers and soil. It has a full body for a Carignan with dark luscious fruits and notes of pepper and clove and grip on the finish. 

Domaine La Manarine Le Carignan 2014 – Here we have 100% Carignan from the old world, where it is best known as a blending grape.  Domaine La Manarine in the Rhone produces this powerful and fleshy Carignan with fine tannins and a firm grip. The characteristic berry notes mixed with gamey umami flavors are accented by hints of tar, lavender, and a heavy dose of pepper. 

Gretchen Skedsvold
The Fungus Among Us

Fungus can be a friend or foe. Without fungus there would be no athlete’s foot or mildewed carpets, no green furry bread or mystery food in the back of the fridge. But there would also be no penicillin or blue cheese, no mushrooms...or wine! Just as in the real world, the wine world has good fungi, bad fungi, and just plain ugly fungi. Here are a few ways the fungus among us shapes wine for better or for worse. 

THE GOOD

Brewer’s yeast, or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the primary agent responsible for transforming grape juice into wine. Though S. cerevisiae is the most common yeast in winemaking (and baking and brewing), it is rarely the only yeast species involved in a (spontaneous) fermentation. Grapes brought in from harvest are usually teeming with a variety of "wild yeast" from the Kloeckera and Candida genera, as well as Brettanomyces (which in large amounts might be categorized under "The Bad" below as a wine fault). According to the staunchly traditional Rioja winemaker Lopez de Heredia, “Yeasts are vital to the quality of the wines since they cause fermentation; these micro-organisms [sic] are typically found in the soil, and are spread over the grape skins by insects and the wind. The main microflora in La Rioja are Scharomyces [sic], Kloekera apiculata [sic] and Tomlaspora rosei [sic].”

Botrytis cinerea a.k.a Noble Rot is a necrotrophic fungus--that’s right, a parasite that kills its host and feeds on its dead matter--that causes grapes to shrivel and decay. It typically occurs in mature grapes in moist growing conditions. If conditions stay wet the fungus produces “grey rot” which destroys the grapes. However, if the infected grapes are exposed to drier conditions they produce what is known as “noble rot.” Noble rot intensifies sweetness and adds flavor. Wines produced with these grapes are known as botrytized wines. Famous botrytized wines include Bordeaux’s Sauternes, Hungary’s Tokaji Aszu, and Germany’s Spätlese. 

THE BAD

Cork Taint is a wine defect that occurs when airborne fungi come into contact with chlorophenol compounds producing 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). Generally, the cork of a wine is responsible for this defect. It is easily identified by its characteristic smell, which evokes wet cardboard or a moldy basement. Though harmless to consume, it affects the quality of the wine, destroying the aromas and flavors that make wine enjoyable, regardless of the price or quality of the wine. If a wine is corked send it back! Restaurants and retailers will (or at least should) happily give you a new bottle free of charge. 

Powdery Mildew is a fungus that lives on the green tissue of the plant, including the leaves and young berries.  It can result in crop loss or poor quality wine. In organic farming practices, viticulturists often apply a light sulfur spray, which eliminates the fungus. 

THE UGLY

Black Mold is a typically innocuous but unsightly fungus found in cellars. Cellars should have about 70% humidity and with humidity comes mold. It does not affect the quality of the wine (unless it gets into bottles or barrels) but it might destroy your labels if you’re not careful! 

Gretchen Skedsvold