DOWN TO EARTH

T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

Vic­to­ria Chow pro­files a grow­ing gen­er­a­tion of young wine­mak­ers

Vic­to­ria Chow trav­els to Cal­i­for­nia’s Napa Val­ley and dis­cov­ers a new gen­er­a­tion of wine and spir­its pro­duc­ers that are tak­ing the re­gion’s rep­u­ta­tion be­yond cab sauv—and back to tra­di­tion

It was a rough morn­ing for Braiden Al­brecht, the 30-year-old wine­maker at May­a­ca­mas, when we first met on the es­tate. A fancy din­ner at the French Laun­dry the night be­fore was tak­ing its toll in the form of a red-wine hang­over. His brother, Ian, was al­ready armed with big bot­tles of pink co­conut wa­ter and lo­cally made kom­bucha.

While it may be easy to write them off as stereo­typ­i­cal mil­len­ni­als, my trip to Napa Val­ley and the wider North­ern Cal­i­for­nia re­gion showed me a new gen­er­a­tion of pro­duc­ers with the drive to make the wine and spir­its in­dus­try a more sus­tain­able place—and em­brac­ing ev­ery bit of hard labour that comes with it. The move to­wards “or­ganic ev­ery­thing” sounds fad­dish, but it was ob­vi­ous to me that these young peo­ple were ready to get their hands dirty, lit­er­ally, to bring us back to the earth.

As we drove around, ex­plor­ing the moun­tain­ous ter­rain of May­a­ca­mas, Braiden rem­i­nisced on his time at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley—he ma­jored in en­vi­ron­men­tal eco­nomics and, while I spent the week­ends of my youth drink­ing wine, he would spend his har­vest­ing grapes and ac­tu­ally mak­ing the wine. He joined May­a­ca­mas a few years ago with a mis­sion to rein­vig­o­rate the brand. This in­cludes mov­ing it to­wards or­ganic farm­ing to bet­ter nur­ture its mini-ecosys­tem, all the while em­brac­ing the clas­sic as­pects of its cel­lars— namely, age­ing in his­tor­i­cal casks.

“Cre­at­ing food and bev­er­ages to sus­tain and en­rich our ex­is­tence is a tra­di­tion dat­ing back mil­len­nia,” re­flected Braiden, who then added, with a smile, “Ex­cept now, we have an app to help with that”—re­fer­ring to the real-time mon­i­tor­ing of vine health and the apps that con­trol fer­men­ta­tion tank tem­per­a­tures from his smart­phone.

We headed out for the har­vest be­fore day­break the next morn­ing, in the mist and driz­zle. De­spite the less-than-prime con­di­tions, it was “the day”. Af­ter a spell of heat­waves had driven tem­per­a­tures above 40 de­grees Cel­sius, it was time to act fast and pick the grapes while they still re­tained their nat­u­ral acid­ity. The freak­ish tem­per­a­ture spike is a not-so-sub­tle re­minder of the changes hap­pen­ing to our planet’s cli­mate—and the fragility of all that re­lies on it.

As I knelt in the dirt and watched the first few clus­ters of grapes come off the vine, there was a sort of magic and ro­man­ti­cism about it all. Braiden pointed out some leaves with signs of dis­ease or in­sect dam­age, but he ac­knowl­edged that it’s a small sac­ri­fice to make for the long-term health of the terroir and the vines. Five hours in, and hun­dreds of 50-pound bins later, the back-break­ing work felt a lot less glam­orous. I learned not to un­der­es­ti­mate the value of touch, as the march of time and the ad­vance­ment of tech­nol­ogy has done lit­tle to mod­ernise May­a­ca­mas’ choice to hand-har­vest its crops—show­ing both a ded­i­ca­tion to the craft and a re­spect for a land that can­not be tamed by ma­chines.

The day af­ter, I drove over the val­ley to Sonoma to find the Hanson broth­ers, Chris and Bran­don, painstak­ingly hand-la­belling, sign­ing and num­ber­ing their newly bot­tled grape-based vodka at the aptly named Hanson of Sonoma.

Four years ago, Chris and Bran­don set out to cre­ate a lo­cally and so­cially con­scious spirit while tak­ing ad­van­tage of their prox­im­ity to one of the world’s great­est grape-grow­ing re­gions. This may in and of it­self sound quite “mil­len­nial”, but to

them, it’s a throw­back to the days when things were done sim­ply, nat­u­rally and with in­tegrity. Hanson of Sonoma is the first cer­ti­fied gluten-free, USDA-or­ganic, nonGMO vodka in the world.

Though they’re from a gen­er­a­tion of­ten crit­i­cised for im­pa­tience and en­ti­tle­ment, the broth­ers knew that there could be no short­cuts when it came to meet­ing the la­belling re­quire­ments. It took 155 dif­fer­ent it­er­a­tions to find the recipe they ul­ti­mately set­tled on for their clas­sic vodka; they work closely with or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia Cer­ti­fied Or­ganic Farm­ers, the Gluten In­tol­er­ance Group, the Non-GMO Project and 1% for the Planet to en­sure the qual­ity of their in­gre­di­ents, their fa­cil­ity and their business prac­tices. Chris and Bran­don rent wine­mak­ing fa­cil­i­ties to make the grape base for their spirit. How­ever, as their host wine­maker is not cer­ti­fied or­ganic, they must en­dure long ses­sions of au­dited clean­ings of the fer­men­ta­tion tanks each time they load them with grapes.

A walk around their fa­cil­ity made it clear the mul­ti­ple touch­points the Han­sons have with their fi­nal prod­uct—from the hand­peel­ing and chop­ping of fresh cu­cum­bers to the stir­ring of vats of Cal­i­for­nia chilli pep­pers, you won’t find any lab-pro­duced essences in their flavoured vod­kas here. As Chris put the fi­nal la­bel on a bot­tle, he joked that they’re like David go­ing up against the cor­po­rate Go­liath mo­nop­o­lies of vodka.

With a bot­tle of Hanson of Sonoma ha­banero vodka stashed se­curely in my back­pack, I drove a lit­tle more and wan­dered into a ware­house in Se­bastopol, fol­low­ing a tiny sign marked “Wind Gap Wines”. I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect—all I knew was that I was set to meet Carlo Mon­davi, the grand­son of leg­endary wine­maker Robert Mon­davi.

There was rock mu­sic pump­ing and the space was buzzing with ac­tiv­ity as fork­lifts zipped back and forth, and fer­mented grape must was shov­elled from tanks to bins. I saw the back of a guy with his head in­side a tank—and lo and be­hold, that turned out to be Carlo. Much like Hanson’s start-up model, he was rent­ing fa­cil­i­ties at Wind

Gap Wines to pro­duce RAEN. It’s a brand he re­cently started with his brother, Dante, which fo­cuses on mak­ing cool-cli­mate pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast—a far cry in flavour pro­file from the big, bold caber­net sau­vi­gnons his fa­ther (Tim) and grand­fa­ther (Robert) are known for.

With his beanie, ripped jean shorts and windswept blond hair, Carlo ex­uded the pro­to­typ­i­cal surfer dude much more than the frou-frou wine guy. Once he got around to wax­ing po­etic about whole-clus­ter fer­mented grapes, though, there was no doubt that wine runs deep in him. “I think what the young mak­ers—next-gen­er­a­tion, young bloods or what­ever you want to call us—are do­ing is in line with what we see in the best kitchens across the world, where less is more,” ex­plained Carlo.

Carlo is out­spo­ken in his stand against chem­i­cals used in farm­ing, on a cru­sade to draw at­ten­tion to the proven dam­ages to the en­vi­ron­ment and our bod­ies that’s caused by the blind use of GMOs and pes­ti­cides. He has cho­sen to go the route of mak­ing nat­u­ral wines—some­thing he doesn’t loudly mar­ket for fear of be­ing mis­un­der­stood as some­thing that “smells bad”.

Nat­u­ral wines, made with­out chem­i­cals, and us­ing na­tive yeast and min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion, again sounds like me­dia hype and a pass­ing trend. In fact, some of the most highly re­garded and most ex­pen­sive wines in the world, in­clud­ing Do­maine de la Ro­manée-Conti, are made us­ing this method, with­out pub­li­cis­ing what they deem as the most an­ces­tral of tech­niques.

“I used to think it was risky to go nat­u­ral,” said Carlo. “In fact, in the first few years with RAEN, my brother and I sec­ond-guessed our­selves.” But the Mon­davi fam­ily had al­ways preached bal­ance and har­mony with na­ture, so his push for go­ing “be­yond or­ganic” by us­ing bio­dy­nam­ics, per­ma­cul­ture and or­ganic prac­tices is in some ways a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of what he was taught as boy. “We are the re­sis­tance to bad farm­ing,” he said. “We are wak­ing up and mak­ing a change. My gen­er­a­tion will be the global move­ment for this.”

I thought back on that early-morn­ing har­vest in the May­a­ca­mas vine­yard and of lit­tle Jimmy, the son of May­a­ca­mas’ es­tate di­rec­tor, as he ran be­tween the rows of vines. “Just a Napa kid get­ting a lit­tle har­vest ac­tion in be­fore school!” his dad hollered at me from across the hedge as I looked be­mus­edly at his son, div­ing into the dirt and get­ting pro­gres­sively wet­ter from the rain. Jimmy put a caber­net grape be­tween his teeth and proudly pro­claimed, “I’m gonna make some grape juice later!” With what I’ve seen the new gen­er­a­tion cham­pi­oning on my trip, I feel pretty com­fort­able that the fu­ture of sus­tain­able farm­ing and wine­mak­ing will be soon be in his hands. In­deed, the kids are all right.

Though they’re from a gen­er­a­tion of­ten crit­i­cised for im­pa­tience and en­ti­tle­ment, Chris and Bran­don Hanson knew

there could be no short­cuts

Carlo Mon­davi— grand­son of the leg­endary Robert Mon­davi—re­cently set up RAEN win­ery, pro­duc­ing cool-cli­mate pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast

Chris Hanson at his

Sonoma dis­tillery Braiden Al­brecht of

May­a­ca­mas Ian and Braiden Al­brecht are the young broth­ers run­ning

May­a­ca­mas win­ery

Vic­to­ria

Chow (above) sam­ples wines at May­a­ca­mas, an es­tate in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia

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