The Rescue Paradox

It’s a sturdy vine, often happier growing as a freestanding bush than on a trellis. The grapes themselves are thick-skinned and durable. Plant it in a hot, dry climate, and you might not have to water it all summer long. Far from accumulating a massive payload of sugar, you may end up picking your torrid vineyard in late October, and bottle a wine at 12.8 percent alcohol, capturing fresh fruit and plenty of bright, natural acidity. Mourvedre has been in California since the 1800s, and you’ll still find a vine or two scattered among the zinfandel in the state’s pre-Prohibition plantings—back then, they called it mataro. During the 1990s, Tablas Creek was instrumental in sourcing modern French mourvedre clones and sharing them with the state’s Rhône enthusiasts. Still, compared to syrah and grenache, mourvedre is the late bloomer of the American Rhône movement; most Californians working with mourvedre tended to de-emphasize it, planting just enough to earn the “M” in their GSM blend.

On the other hand, to its two most ardent Californian devotees, mourvedre seems almost miraculous—a grape poised to help California weather the coming ordeal of climate change, and make some delicious wines in the process, particularly in one of California’s long-ignored but vast terroirs: the volcanic slopes of the Sierra Foothills.

“Mourvedre was never ‘the thought’ about what we were going to do,” Hardy Wallace admits as we stand in front of a three-tiered stack of mourvedre barrels in his Petaluma winery.

“What was the thought?” I ask.
“Skin-fermented muscat!”

If Hardy Wallace were an animal, he might be a chipmunk: Behind his chunky glasses and bright red flannel shirt, he exudes a gleeful enthusiasm. His wine labels are basically retro black-and-white cartoons. A former marketing pro and wine blogger, he moved to California from Atlanta after winning a social media contest that landed him the “Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent” gig at Murphy-Goode winery. He wasted no time establishing himself in California, working for producers like Failla, Kevin Kelley (Natural Process Alliance/Salinia) and Corison as he and his wife and another Atlanta couple started their own winery, Dirty & Rowdy.

The first vintage was 2010, and they couldn’t have picked a worse year to start a wine label. The entire summer was abnormally cold. In August, many growers began removing leaves from their canopies, hoping that exposing the clusters would push them toward ripeness. Then a massive heat wave hit, scorching the unprotected fruit. Some vineyards lost their entire crop to sunburn. Wallace’s intended muscat vineyard was one of the casualties.

“You don’t think about mourvedre being a soil amplifier.”
—Hardy Wallace

Also on the docket was a serious dry rosé from old-vine zinfandel. Zinfandel usually handles California heat well, but even that was fried. Then it rained, and the petite sirah he planned to harvest succumbed to mold.

“My options became more and more limited,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.

At the time, he was working under Kevin Kelley alongside his housemate Angela Osborne, whose A Tribute to Grace label is focused on California grenache. Shortly before harvest, she tipped him off about a couple of rows of mourvedre available at the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, a hot, dry plateau of granitic clay at 3,000 feet of elevation in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

In a fairytale world, the story goes: Wallace adored old vintages of Bandol, the homeland of mourvedre along the coast of Provence, and jumped at the chance to work with one of his favorite varieties.

In actuality, it’s a bit more complicated. While he respected Bandols like the wines from Domaine Tempier and Château Pradeaux, he usually drank frisky, lightweight reds from cool-climate regions like Beaujolais and the Loire. Still, he felt the mourvedre was the best fruit he could get. He decided to make his mourvedre more in line with the wines he liked, picking quite early, and using light extraction and whole-cluster fermentation. His model was Jean Foillard in Morgon more than Tempier in Bandol. His more experienced winemaking friends told him it was the dumbest idea they had ever heard.

Wallace’s own reservations evaporated as the wine developed in the winery: “Shortly after fermentation we were like: Whoa, this is fucking awesome! It was spice, pure fruit, incense. It was some real hippy wine!”

In subsequent vintages, Dirty & Rowdy has become a laboratory for exploring California mourvedre Wallace now works with sites all over the state, bottling microcuvées from the top vineyards and blending the early-drinking lots into a pan-California blend called Familiar, a wine with one foot in the world of hipster California glou-glou, and another in more serious territory—there’s a savory, earthen line that gives it more presence than a casual quaff in a natural wine bar.

Wallace has been particularly intrigued by how variously mourvedre can express itself in California. “You don’t think about it being a soil amplifier,” he tells me, before grabbing a wine thief to show me through his 2016s.

The wine from Rosewood—a 90-year-old mourvedre block on alluvial soils in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley, is trim and red fruited. Evangelho, from old vines on pure beach sand in Contra Costa County, feels spicy and assertive, with a carignan-like roughness, though he finds that it becomes much more succulent by the time it’s bottled. Antle—younger vines planted on granite and limestone in the dry hillside district of Chalone in Monterey County—is a more powerful and mineral wine, firm tannins corralling the smoky richness of its fruit.

But most of Wallace’s single-parcel mourvedres come from the Sierra Foothills. While the Foothills are still a drop in the bucket in the context of California’s larger wine industry, the region grows ten percent of the state’s mourvedre, eclipsed only by Paso Robles and the sandy plain of the Sacramento Delta.

We start with a barrel of the 2016 from White Oak Flats at the base of the hills in El Dorado County, near the town of Rescue. “Hot as balls, and flat as a pancake,” Wallace says. “It may be our hottest site.” Not the sort of place, in other words where one would expect wine with much nuance.

Yet through the lens of mourvedre, the site turns out to be utterly counterintuitive. It’s not that he simply picks early—the vines at White Oak Flats struggle to ripen mourvedre past 13 percent potential alcohol. There’s enough clay among the sandier decomposed granite to hold plenty of water, so that might help refresh the vines in the heat of summer. Or maybe the nearby canyon is a significant part of the equation, since it acts as a funnel for cold air from the high Sierras, slowing the vines down at the start of the season. In any case, the wine smells fresh, like violets and spruce tips—scents I associate with the coolest Sonoma Coast pinot noir vineyards more than with Foothills syrah or grenache.

“It’s a fucking crazy site,” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

I first encountered fruit from White Oak Flats in 2013, while barrel tasting 2012s with Chris Pittenger at the Skinner Winery, high up in the granitic foothills of El Dorado County, near Fair Play. Like Wallace, Pittenger is intrigued by mourvedre’s surprising range of expression. Tasting his various mourvedre sites out of barrel was an eye-opening look at the potential of the variety in El Dorado County—they ranged from trim and mouthwatering to rich and sappy to herbal and earthy, but most surprising was how bright and lithe they all felt, given the sometimes blistering summer weather in the Sierra Foothills. (In fact, mourvedre needs all that heat; even in the Foothills warmth, it’s often the last variety to ripen.)

Skinner’s Stoney Creek Vineyard in Fair Play.

Skinner’s Stoney Creek Vineyard in Fair Play.

Even then, the wine from White Oak Flats stood out—though at the time, Pittenger referred to it simply as “Rescue,” the town nearest the vineyard. The Skinner family planted the site in 2007, just prior to purchasing their Fair Play estate higher up in the mountains. Out of barrel, the 2012 from Rescue caught my attention as much as anything in the cellar. According to my notes from that visit, I found Pittenger’s version to be “really pretty, delicious, vibrant.”

Also in my notes: Pittenger mentioned that a certain Hardy Wallace, from a rather new winery called Dirty & Rowdy, was “really jazzed about it,” and had bought some fruit in 2012.

Wallace and Pittenger have since become close friends—Wallace regularly spends the night at the Pittenger residence in Placerville when he’s up visiting his Foothills sites. They have a running contest to see who can work with the most California mourvedre plantings. Right now they’re tied, at eight.

“I’m not trying to make Bandol—I’m just not. And I don’t think you could, to be honest.”
—Chris Pittenger

When I returned to the Foothills this November, Chris Pittenger and his wife, Sarah, threw an impromptu dinner party at their home in Placerville—their son, John Henry, sat on the couch watching football highlights while their daughter, Jane, played on the floor. Hardy Wallace drove up from Napa, bringing his wife, Kate, and their 15-week-old daughter, along with a few of his Foothills mourvedres and a bottle of 2011 Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol. Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm showed up not with his own floral, juicy Cedarville Vineyard Mourvedre, but with a 1999 Domaine Tempier Cabassaou, the Bandol domaine’s most mourvedre-dominant old-vine cuvée. Also joining us was Grayson Hartley of David Girard Vineyards, an estate near White Oak Flats/Rescue; he’s recently transformed their flagship red, Okei-San, from a syrah to a mourvedre-based wine.

While we waited for the chicken thighs and drumsticks to roast, we stood at the kitchen island and tasted an unusual wealth of Foothills mourvedre alongside a duo of originals from Bandol.

Of all the Foothills wines, the 2014 Dirty & Rowdy Shake Ridge, from the volcanic hills of nearby Amador County, was perhaps the most Bandol-like of the bunch, a powerful, gripping, substantial yet fresh mountain red. On the other hand, the 2014 Dirty & Rowdy Skinner White Oak Flats looked almost like a rosé, with hibiscus and pomegranate flavors and a light, dusty grip that gave it a whispery impression. Most of the other wines—like the delicious, silky, floral-edged 2014 Skinner El Dorado County, drawn from four vineyards, including White Oak Flats—fell somewhere in between.

By and large, we all agreed, it doesn’t help to think of these Foothills mourvedres as anything like Bandol. They are a completely different expression of the variety, a side of mourvedre you wouldn’t find in France or Australia, its usual haunts. Wallace, for his part, finds himself constantly surprised by how crunchy the wines are, the snappiness of the fruit often reminding him of cranberry, with less of the herbal, meaty funk and density that he associates with Bandol—as if the variety had been pared back to the bright, red-fruited core that’s always lurking somewhere deep in its more traditional expressions.

He brought up the La Clarine Farm Cedarville as an example: “It’s like if you planted mourvedre in the Jura; that’s what you would get.”

According to Pittenger, a lot of credit for the current abundance of mourvedre in El Dorado County should go to Ron Mansfield, a fruitgrower-turned-viticulturist who has helped many small landowners plant vineyards on their properties and has convinced many clients to grow tall, bush-vine mourvedre, especially on the warmest south-facing blocks.

Ron Mansfield and his son Chuck in front of the mourvedre vines of their Gold Bud Vineyard.

Ron Mansfield and his son Chuck in front of the mourvedre vines of their Gold Bud Vineyard.

At 7:30 on the morning after our mourvedre-themed dinner, Pittenger picks me up from the dim, slightly worn-down, Gold Rush–themed lobby of Placerville’s Gold Country Inn to show me two of the Mansfield-farmed vineyards he works with. The air is crisp and piney, and the deciduous trees have mostly lost their leaves—this is one of the few places in California where vineyards are regularly covered with a blanket of snow in winter.

Our eyelids a bit heavy with last night’s mourvedre, we drive first to Van Heune, a small three-acre site that Mansfield planted ten years ago on a hillside at the edge of town, the vineyard split vertically between mourvedre at the top and malbec at the bottom. Pittenger appreciates the site’s mourvedre for its lush texture—it contributed 19 percent of his delicious 2014 El Dorado Mourvedre blend.

We look at the soil, now wet with autumn rain—a mix of brownish clay and pale bits of quartz. Then I notice a newish borehole for a water line, with a pile of flaky slate or shale or schist next to it. “Huh,” he says. “Maybe this vineyard is more interesting than I gave it credit for…” While mourvedre may be quite responsive to soil, many of these vineyards are young and relatively unmapped. The exact terroir factors that give Foothills mourvedre its extraordinary range are just beginning to be explored.

Case in point: Elenridge Vineyard, another Mansfield project, where an ancient rusted-out pickup truck sits at the top of the hill, and mourvedre grows on a dramatic northwest-facing terrace that looks into the wide chasm of the American River canyon. It’s a relatively cool site at 2,000 feet of elevation, and makes what Pittenger finds to be one of the most complete mourvedres in his cellar, a wine he’s considered bottling as a single-vineyard expression. Along with the Skinner family’s vineyard in Fair Play, it made up the core of the 2014 El Dorado blend. The soil, he says, is like nothing he’s ever seen, a mix of pink, yellow and white rock that looks somewhat like granite, though not at all like the sandy decomposed granite in Fair Play.

“My son John Henry has a big rock collection,” he tells me. “I’m going to have to borrow one of his rock books and figure out what this stuff is.” 

photos of Hardy Wallace and Chris Pittenger by Kelly Puleio

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