As our regular readers know, from time to time, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker to probe their winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how they became who they are. This week, we are featuring Randy Meyer, the Director of Winemaking for BARRA of Mendocino in Mendocino County, California.
Randy graduated from UC Davis and then spent more than two decades at Korbel. He started as a cellar worker, moved to winemaking, and held various titles and responsibilities – including, at one time, brewing beer at Russian River Brewing Company. Randy joined BARRA of Mendocino in June 2019.
The Barra family has been growing grapes in Mendocino County since 1955. That of course makes them true pioneers in the region. Charlie Barra was one of the first grapegrowers on the North Coast to plant Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. After focusing exclusively on grapegrowing for four decades, in 1997, the Barra family began making their own wine under the BARRA of Mendocino brand.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
Santa Rosa, California.
When and how did you get into wine?
My sophomore year at UC Davis is when I switched from pre-med to Fermentation Science. During this period of time I got my hands dirty doing various harvest jobs at Piper Sonoma, Far Niente, and Domaine Chandon.
What has been your career path to where you are?
After college, I started as a cellar worker for F. Korbel & Bros. I spent 23 years with Korbel, starting out in the cellar learning the ropes of racking, blending, and press operation. After a year in the cellar, I moved into the lab for two years, which helped prepare me for four years as an enologist working under the senior winemaker. In the mid 1990s I had an incredible opportunity to become the original brewer at Korbel’s Russian River Brewing Company. Over the next 11 years with Korbel, I would add Winemaker, Business Analyst, and Director of Grower Relations to my list of responsibilities. After leaving Korbel, I became the Senior Winemaker for M. Draxton for several years and, before joining BARRA of Mendocino, I was a Senior Winemaker / Operations Manager for Geyser Peak.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
The Barra family has been farming vineyards in Mendocino County for over 65 years, so by default, this makes us pretty special! In 1955, Charlie Barra started with a 175 acre home ranch in Redwood Valley, and today the fruit I work with comes in from 350 acres spread across three different estate grown, certified organic vineyards. In addition to our organic farming techniques, I would say that our vineyard locations and their unique microclimates also set us apart.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I am all about balance. My goal is to balance intensity with finesse and live by the rule of “fruit first, oak second.”
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
People – without good people, one can’t make good wine.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Dennis Martin. Wayne Donaldson. Corey Beck. All unique and extremely talented in different ways.
What new winemakers are you most excited about and why?
I really respect and admire the up-and-coming winemakers who are choosing to work with organic fruit. It takes a whole other level of knowledge, expertise, and creativity. One name that comes to mind is Brianne Day out of Oregon. We share the same distributor in Illinois and in Quebec, actually. She is doing some really interesting stuff.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
New Zealand – amazing Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
Rafanelli Zin and Williams Selyem Pinots from the late 1990s.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
In all honesty, I like to buy wine and then I like to drink it. On special occasions I might spend $30 on a great Pinot, but it had better be worth it!
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Girasole 2019 Zinfandel – luscious and fruity!
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Barra 2018 Zinfandel. Any 2019 Russian River or Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc.
Is beer ever better than wine?
How do you spend your days off?
Gardening, home improvement, golf, skiing.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m actually not very social.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Something blue-collar, working with my hands.
How do you define success?
A happy marriage, raising successful, caring and grounded daughters. I’ve never sought the spotlight in my Winemaking career.
January fog blankets the Eden Rift Vineyard in Hollister, 95 miles south of San Francisco. Eden Rift is a relatively new brand, and represents the re-incarnation and rehabilitation of the Pietra Santa vineyard property in the Cienega Valley. Originally planted to mostly Italian grape varieties, the property has been overhauled to focus primarily on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
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In the San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley has an early estimation of what last year’s disasters may have cost California’s wine industry, which according to one industry analyst, may amount to as much as $3.7 billion.
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As the daughter of the eponymously named BPC’s founder, she’s basically had a lifetime of working with someone who himself is, well, opinionated about Champagne. According to Alice (with whom I tasted through a few BPC samples as part of a virtual media event), wine with her father “was never banal. It was always an adventure, with mystery, with beauty. I feel very lucky in the fact that I had plenty of time [to transition with him into a leading role within the family business]”. Her father still works closely with her on BPC’s assemblage; because “it would be stupid not to do it together.”
For about 300 hundred years, the Paillard family have been growers in Champagne, tending to over 35 crus now used for wines under their own label (with a production bout 300K bottles/year, they’re on the small side for Champers houses). Alice describes her family’s business as “a hybrid form of a [Champagne] house. We can farm vineyards, but we can also go and work with growers. We always have kept the link with the original growers.” 70% of the grapes that they source they farm themselves (on estate vineyards, and via long-term contracts with other vineyards).
BPC is primarily known in the Champagne world for two things: First, a lot of nerds like me cite them as having some of the best non-vintage Champers that you can get for your dollar. Second, they were one of the first Champagne producers to include disgorgement dates on their back label. Alice’s father “thought it was important to put it on the wines that don’t normally carry it” – namely, non-vintage bottlings. Regarding disgorgement, Alice is predictably smartly opinionated: “You take this living body – a bottle of Champagne – and you take something out… and you put something in. It’s a surgery! Give extra age to the wine after [to let it recover]. We give minimum six months. For vintages, we give them a year.”
Given how well they pull off their NV releases (more on that in a minute), Alice the art of the blend – across vineyards, vintages, and grapes – as essential to Champagne’s DNA. “It’s what we’ve always done,” she emphasized. “Assemblage is not just putting Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier together. Assemblage is having a diversity of terroir. Champagne is not Bordeaux. Just ask a grower in Champagne; it’s not like a grower in Burgundy. That’s what makes Champagne rich and impressive. What do you want to bring out [in the wine]? That is the only question that matters.”
During our virtual meet-up, we tasted through two Bruno Paillard releases, and as per Alice, these were not chosen randomly. “[These 2 wines] are brothers; they are our interpretation of Champagne” she noted, being assemblages of grapes/terroirs (“It’s how we like Champagne.”). Each come from an of average 35 different crus, using first press juice only. Both have about 5.5 g/l of RS. Both see roughly three years aging (“It’s gentle, thanks to the proper aging”), and employ multiple vintages from their reserve wine systems (each non-vintage BPC has its own reserve wine system, with some of them being among the oldest perpetual reserves in Champagne, despite BPC being a relatively younger house by Champers standards). So… lots of kinship in these sort-of mirror image releases…
First, some vitals: this Brut style bubbly is a blend of Pinot Noir (45%), Chardonnay (33%) and Pinot Meunier (22%), part of which (about 20%) was in barrel for the first fermentation. The reserve system includes 25 vintages (since 1985), which is responsible for up to 50% of the final blend. I will confess to this being one of my personal favorite Champers; simply put, you get an incredible bang for the buck here that not only rivals some vintage releases from other houses, but in some cases even ages better than them, too. You’d hardly know that so much PN is included in the blend, as there’s a mere hint of red berry fruitiness, with a ton of pure citrus action on top. White plum, toasted almonds, brioche, and blossoms come next, with a little tease of redcurrant. The mouthfeel is impeccable, and lively, despite the healthy doses of toast. You could do a whole lot worse than picking this as your go-to Champers for the rest of your life.
Primarily PN, with some Chardonnay, all meant to showcase “elegance and finesse” as per Alice. It spends three years aging sur lie, just like its counterpart. Surprisingly, this has ample salinity for a rosé, but Pinot lovers won’t be left wanting with all of the dried cranberry, fig, vibrant red berry, citrus peel, and rose petal action packed into this. While this exudes elegance, the sheer amount of pleasure derived from sipping this is enough to get you into an amorous, heady, well, headspace.
In Wine Enthusiast, Carrie Honaker explores Florida’s growing wine scene. “Now, after years of failed attempts to grow European varieties, producers embrace native Muscadine grapes and other fruits to craft bottles that tell the centuries-old story of Florida’s wines.”
Faverolles-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
I visited recently Pascal Potaire and Moses Gadouche at their cellar at Les Capriades, everything was quiet in the facility, this is winter, a season where you just let the wines quietly make their way through the following spring. Pascal told me that the sparkling
wines had a swift fermentation last
autumn, this was all very smooth and easy this year. There was nothing to see for these wines, they were all bottled and lying sur lattes or on a few riddling tables or also on riddling pallets/cages (see pic above, don't disturb them !). But the interesting thing was to talk with Pascal about their new thing (for the past 3 years), the poiré, a petnat they make from old varieties of pears. Poiré, which I think is not even well known in France is sometimes dubbed the Normandy alternative for Champagne, it is registered in an Appellation and has both mainstream producers and artisan ones. But poiré has been made for ages in other regions as well, not just Normandy.
The process of making poiré takes place at about the same time than the winemaking, just a bit after it from what I understand, because these pears are of the late ripening type. Pascal told me that this poiré production was sparked by a few encounters and their love to make local products, as they source the fruits from the same département, the Loir-et-Cher.
Here these are petnat bottles, not poiré if i remember. While Pascal was telling me about what poiré is about, Moses was busy preparing a few pallets bound for New York, a shipping for Selection Massale, this will be the first time their poiré is exported there. Beautiful cellar again, going deep under the hill. Poiré is some sort of cider, just that it's made from pears, not apples, and a real traditional poiré is made from a few rare varieties that are really fit for the fermented drink.
Speaking of poiré, here at Les Capriades they began making some in 2018, and Pascal says that he met Jérôme Forget, himself a producer (Ferme de l'Yonnière) and the president of the Donfrontais Appellation in Normandy (where they make cider and poiré). Jérôme works naturally also with indigenous yeast and they talked techniques as both don't use any additive or filtration or fining, as mainstream producers for cider and poiré use all the range of correction (mechanical or chemical) used in the commercial wine industry.
In the poiré cellar
If I didn't make it clear enough for you, the 1st two pictures were made in one of the long cellar where they store the regular petnat made from grapes, and I love these old chai/cellars in the
region because you have plenty of different rooms dug into the cliff, all with different size. They chose this relatively small cellar room for the Poiré, it was certainly designed to be where cellar workers would eat, gather to keep warm or possibly sleep when the wine or pressing needed overnight supervision. This is all poiré in here, from 2019 and 2020, newspaper pages separating the two vintages in the wall of bottles on the front.
You can see on the picture on the side how cozy this room must have been a century or two centuries ago, with the fireplace on the left and what was certainly an alcove with shelves to store food and drinks, the whole having been carved out of the hill's sandstone.
Checking a bottle of petnat in the main cellar
Pascal, seen here checking a bottle of regular petnat soon to be disgorged in this gyropallet (that's part of the load bound for the U.S.), says that with poiré he manages to have quite little sediments in the bottle also, but if you don't take precautionary measures you can end up having quite a few centimeters of sediments in the bottle. With the Poiré as well, it depends of the vintage as on some years you may have a push for more sediments, and you need also to keep in check the proteins. He showed me a bottle of poiré made by a mainstream producer and the sediments were something like 5 centimers thick, very impressive, and it is really excessive.
The sediment on poiré
Back in the small cellar with the wall of bottles, Pascal grabbed a magnum lying under the alcove to show me the thin sediments, this is really very minimal compared to what this could be. This poiré is one of the two cuvées of Poiré at Les Capriades, it is made with a pear variety named Poire de Loup. By the way don't think
you might find such pears in your
grocery store, they're really indeible because so acidic, you can't do anything with them but poiré or possibly distillate them. Even if this sedimentation is very small, Pascal says he and Moses prefer to disgorge it, in order to have people pour a drink that is not cloudy. He says that when you want to set the bar high in terms of quality it's better to avoid cloudiness, it's like when you drink/taste a wine from a barrel, you don't stirr the wine to have all the lees in the wine as well. These thin lees in the bottle are good for the élevage sur lattes but not beyond that. The poiré here remains devoid of anny additives and any so2.
He knows there's a trend in the nature movement thinking it's better not to disgorge but he backpedaled from this. Usually in other vintages he has more sediments than this, and for older vintages which stayed a long time lying in the cellar he
could compare the gustative difference between a non-disgorged and a disgorged wine [not enough years of hindsight for the poiré] and the best faring was the disgorged.
On the other hand, for cuvées that are opened early it can be easy to imagine leaving the lees, it wouldn't harm the experience or make a big difference. But here at Les Capriades they want also to make older petnat wines with a very different expression than the very young petnat, and for these more serious wines, disgorging is really needed.
He and Moses wanted to set up a tasting event at Archimède in Saint Aignan at the end of 2020 with opening 10 vintages from 2008 to 2018 to show that petnat wines are serious enough to age well and show different experience with the passing years. This event couldn't be held because of the circumstances but they should do it this year probably. By the way the petnats they're selling right now go from 2015 to 2019, so they already offer a good range of vintages.
Different varieties fit for Poiré
They're working with 3 pear varieties to make poiré, the Carési, the Crassot Rouge (also spelled Crasseau) and the Poire de Loup. Pascal wants also to highlight the importance of those who pick the pears for him, beginning with Estelle Mulowsky whom you may remember from a recent story : she is also a trained draft-horse driver
and works for vignerons among other things through her draft-horse company Agil Percherons. Her business is based in the north end of the Loir-et-Cher near Saint Agil (also coincidently
home of a gem of natural wine event), precisely in the area where lots of pear trees of the rare variety used for Poiré can still be found standing. The fact is, these trees which were more commonly found along the country roads and along the fields a century ago (they were often planted as a natural property demarcation for a given field) were progressively cut down, especially when small fields gave way to larger fields in the industrial agriculture era encouraged by the French state.
Estelle's parents over there have a few of these pear trees on their farm, but she found more in the area (sometimes isolated in hedges or along dirt roads leading to farms) and their owners were interested to sell these fruits which they anyway didn't use anymore. Clément also is a guy who lives there and whose parents own a goat-cheese farm in Romilly, the Ferme de Bréviande, he helps them also find more forgotten pear trees, contact the owners for sale of the fruits and picking arrangements. By the way, this northern tip of the Loir-et-Cher is also very close to the Pineau d'Aunis country and Ariane Lesné of Domaine de Montrieux has also herself begun to produce Poiré, as stated in this article in a local newspaper. That's the way natural-wine makers revive this ancient tradition.
A box of pears
Here is typically a box of pears like they're being shipped to Les Capriades: It's important to say that the pears are picked on the ground, not on the tree, and they can get damage in the fall, so thyere's sorting at the chai, cutting off the damaged part
so that only healthy material gets used. They've adapted on Estelle's side to see how
they can limit the damage under the tree, hanging nets under the trees premptively for a soft fall and they're getting better at that.
The pears will then be mashed or crushed thinly (they bought a special tool for that) and to avoid this protein thing that builds up excessive amounts of sediments, they leave the mash rest for a certain time. You can see on the picture on the right (I took it one day I visited unannounced last fall, thinking they might still be working on their wines), it looks like a smooth paste. Unlike for winemaking tools which you can find for very cheap on the second-hand market (because there are so many wineries that close or renew their tools), they had to buy the crusher new but they're happy with it, it's a good, efficient machine. It reminds me of the very different technique I witnessed in this story to press apples and make cider, very beautiful and a lot of fun as I remember fondly...
Range of sizes and varieties
Asked when he and Moses discovered this poiré world, he says that was something like 6 or 7 years ago at a Portes Ouvertes of Hervé Villemade, there was Guillaume Foucault of Le Pertica (restaurateur in Vendôme) who told them about it as he's from this Perche region. He's selling local products in his restaurant and Pascal said that he also would like to help such a local product to breathe life again. It took years of exchange, meeting people like Estelle (who lives right in the area) before the project took shape, and for them it was certainly more easy ans sensical with their long experience in sparkling making.
Just to show me and you, here is Pascal disgorging by hand a bottle of poiré 2019, this was just their 2nd vintage of poiré and he's very proud to have managed to have very little sediment and proteins in the bottles. Because of this, there will thus will be very little wine to add after disgorgement. By law he's supposed to leave 72mm of air on the bottle neck, the reason being to avoid putting the bottle at risk to explode, the air cushion helping softening the pressure. Nowadays this requirement is less absolute because the bottles are able to sustain a very high pressure. The end products has an alcohol content between 7,1 % and 7,5 % depending of the cuvée.
For an illustrative story on a full scale disgorgement session, read this story I published a few years ago, this was when Pascal helped Noëlla disgorge a batch of her sparklings (and teaching her in the way). On such occasions Pascal wears the full gear otherwise he'd be soaked to the bone.
Last tank of poiré
Pascal at one point goes to one of the long cellars to check the density on a last tank of poiré thast still to be bottled. Like for regular petnat, poiré needs to be bottled when reaching a precise range of residual
sugar level, so that fermentation continues in the bottle sur lattes, with a crown cap closure. This fermentation in the bottle will build pressure and at the end of the élevage will have also produced these lees that need to be cleared. Pascal fills a test tube to measure the sugar.
Pascal says an interesting thing about poiré, it is that it behaves very differently from a wine : while fermentation in wines tend to stall at this cold season (and would wait the rising temperatures of spring to kick back), the poiré has a vibrant energy and keeps going like a steamroller even when the temperature drops. That's one of the reason Pascal doesn't take it for granted with his petnat experience, it's slightly different and he watches carefully at every step. The temperature of the poiré is at 5 C (41 F) and he reads the sugar is now at 1034, it changed quite a bit from a week ago when it was at 1037 or 1038, you wouldn't see such a drop on a wine in a cold january.
Tasting the poiré
This was a good opportunity to taste poiré in the making : Pascal fills a glass fof this cuvée made only with one pear variety : the Poire de Loup. When finished, it will be drier than their other cuvée, which is a blend of Crasseau Rouge & Carési. At this stage, it's gently sweet but not that much, and that has to do with the other elements of the pioré, including the acidity. I love this round mouth, it's whole and balanced, I'd have it as is. Pascal gave me two bottles of (finished) poiré which I'll taste later. The Poire de Loup is a late variety, compared with the others which arrive early september (when they're also busy making wines). Pascal says that this goes typically in the farmer life of old times, the first pears to be ripe would be processed briskly because the farmers had other things to do, and the late varieties like this Poire de Loup would get more attention and care. Plus, it is less prone to volatile compared to the early varieties that can get damaged more easily. On the other hand, if you cutt out all the damaged parts from the Carési and Crasseau, they can make a great poiré as well, but historically the farmers wouldn't make the effort, they would crush the whole fruits including the rotten spots, and it would taint the reputation of the early-ripening varieties. That's one of the reasons he wants to make different cuvées respective of the varieties in order to show that even with supposedly-lesser varieties you can make a nice poiré.
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Conducted by board Chairwoman Emily Wines, fellow board members Mia Van De Water and Kathryn Morgan, accompanied by fellow Master Sommeliers Madeline Triffon and Melissa Monosoff, this session was intended to “amplify female voices” within the Master Sommelier community with a goal of helping the CMS “grow into a safer and more inclusive organization.”
With more than 600 RSVPs, this session could not have been a more important or visible indication of change within the ranks of an organization whose legitimacy and future still hang precariously in the balance.
As a measure of changing times, we might begin with the simple fact of this session’s existence. To my knowledge, this traditionally close-ranked organization has never held an open forum of any kind, let alone one in which its board made themselves available to answer questions from anyone other than those who wear the pin signifying their membership in its most elite circles.
I’ve personally made several attempts in recent years to interview members of the board (a few of whom I knew personally) about the 2018 cheating scandal and its subsequent ramifications and investigations. I never received anything but stiff (and entirely useless) official statements from a designated press relations representative.
To spend two hours in a public forum listening to the women on the organization’s board offer heartfelt personal apologies to the hundreds of women (and a few men) in attendance, and then field open questions from the crowd was as refreshing as it was necessary.
This was not a carefully scripted and stage-managed session, by any means.
“How can we trust you to make change in the organization when your presence during these alleged crimes makes you tacitly complicit,” asked one attendee, voicing a question I’ve seen raised by more than a few of the organization’s fiercest critics in recent months.
Rather than defensiveness, this and several other tough questions were met with acceptance and gratitude, not to mention thoughtful and somewhat anguished responses from the panel of female Master Sommeliers, all of whom expressed a strong desire to save an organization that they believed has done and can continue to do good for the industry.
“When the disclosures broke, it was shocking to me,” said Triffon. “I had always considered myself trustworthy and accessible. That no one reached out to me, and that I was unaware this was going on, was a personal and a collective wake-up call. And was I present over the years when people were being slightly inappropriate, and we just chalked it up to ‘Oh, you know how he is?’ Yes. We should have had our radars up about how such things would be perceived and what kind of impact they could have.”
Dialogue, spoken accountability, and more open communication are only the barest beginnings of the change required within the court, so it was quite encouraging to also hear the first news of concrete policy changes.
Kathryn Morgan shared news of recent votes by the Court’s Education Committee to abandon the requirement for gender-ordered service as part of the service exam. This means that candidates for Court certifications will no longer be taught nor tested against a standard that women should always be served first at the table.
“We don’t want to put candidates in the position of having to determine guest gender in a restaurant setting,” said Morgan. She also indicated the Court will be overhauling its standards of professional dress, to eliminate the (unwritten but openly acknowledged) requirements that men wear ties, women dress in “gender appropriate dress” and that conspicuous tattoos be hidden underneath clothing.
“We want to welcome you with whatever you wear and however you want to identify,” said Morgan, who went on to say with some pride that the board vote on the topic wasn’t contentious in the slightest. “No one was going for the status quo,” she said.
Of course the substantive changes that really matter involve policies that ensure the physical and emotional safety of any candidate in a CMS program; the lack of discrimination against anyone on the basis of gender, race, or sexual orientation; and above all the creation of a culture for the organization that has zero tolerance for the patriarchal white priviledge and sexual power dynamics that led to its current predicament.
According to the board members on the call, those policies are all under development, in consultation with outside, independent experts, some of whom continue to drive the investigation into the allegations responsible for the ongoing suspension of a number of Master Sommeliers.
The board, and the court as a whole, have a long, uphill climb back to a place of trust and acceptance by its membership and the wine community as a whole. But today’s call, filled as it was with candor, acceptance, and determination, offered a glimpse of what might be a very different future indeed for this organization where, as Melissa Monosoff put it so succinctly, “We want to make sure people have a place at the table, always.”
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