Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Natural Wines of the Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley, California

I had the pleasure to meet Winemaker and Owner Tracy Brandt from the Donkey & Goat Winery in Berkeley in May 2010 at the Screwtop Bar in Arlington, Virginia.

The Donkey & Goat Winery

Located in Berkeley, California, wife and husband winemaking and owner team Tracey and Jared Brandt are pioneers of what they call natural winemaking. There are no vineyards in Berkeley and they source their fruit from vineyards from the Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, El Dorado and Chalone appellations. The Donkey and Goat Winery is small, producing 2500 cases annually.

Natural and Other “Green” Concepts of Winemaking

What is natural winemaking? There is no clear definition for this. An there are many other, similar concepts. The following sheds some light on the concepts of organic, biodynamic, natural and other “green’ winemaking.


Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals.

Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.


Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.


Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.


The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.


Vegan refers to the process of "finning" the wine. Proteins, spent yeasts and small organic matter in wines are sometimes eliminated from wines with fining agents made from animal products. Fish bladders, egg whites, milk proteins and even bull’s blood (not allowed in the US or France) are all used as fining agents. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines. It’s important to note that vegan or vegetarian wines may or may not be made from organic grapes.

Fair trade

Fair trade wines first came onto the market the US in 2007, following trends in coffee, tea and produce. Fair trade refers to the conditions and wages paid to employees of the winery; it guarantees employees a fair and "livable" wage for their product. Fair Trade certification of wine has been around since 2003 in Europe. The certification means that wineries met certain standards for living wages, environmental sustainability and community improvement. Oakland's TransFair USA just announced that it has begun certifying Fair Trade wines from Argentina, Chile and South Africa for the American market.

Carbon Neutral

The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activites have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

A major aspect of carbon neutrality however is outside the control of wineries. It is the transport of the wine from the winery to the consumer. For example, the carbon dioxide emission would have been less if the guests at the White House Correspondents Dinner had decided to drink wine from Europe that came over to the US via ship rather than wine from California that was transported on the road. In Washington DC, the carbon footprint of the Benzinger wine was not negligible, though Benzinger wines are among the leaders in the green wine movement in the US.

The Donkey & Goat Winery Winemaking Manifesto

Here is what Tracey and Jared Brandt believe in and practice at their winery.

No cultured yeast or bacteria – all fermentations are wild.
No plastic – all fermentation vats are wood which we prefer for its organic material, insulation and permeability and dimensions.
No nutrients, enzymes or other enhancers at the fermentation vat.
No machines for crushing – we like whole cluster on many of our Syrahs and use the old school pigeage à pied (foot stomping) for crushing to our likeness
Little (to no) sulphur at fermentation, no prophylactic use of sulphur in general and our levels at bottling are extremely low
No new oak – we use 12mnth used barrels sparingly, the rest are neutral (but we do like oak as opposed to stainless for whites and rosé wines)
No prophylactic racking schedules. We stay sur lie as a matter of practice and only deviate when the wine needs a racking.
No stabilization, fining or filtration for bottling
No cocktails disguised as wine – our wines speak of their origin, both place and grape, and belong on the table, not in a cocktail glass.

What Tracy Poured

2008 El Dorado Roussanne

Appellation: El Dorado; Vineyard: Elen Ridge; Varietal: Roussanne; Yield: 2-2.5 tons/acre; Blend: 95% Roussanne/ 5% Chardonnay; Fermentations: wild yeast & bacteria in neutral French Oak barrels; Bottled: Unfiltered on January 29, 2010; Production: 53 cases; Release date: Spring 2010.

Winemakers notes: This minuscule 53 case production was an experiment we liked so much we just had to share. We took a barrel from our Elen Ridge lot (the other was joined with Fenaughty Roussanne in our Tamarindo that released Fall 2008). We experimented with an additional seven months of lees contact and while there, extended batonnage (stirring of the lees). Like all of our whites to date, we whole cluster pressed to barrel where the wine fermented without the aide of nutrients or enhancers, employing the wild yeast from the vineyard. Likewise, malolactic fermentation was natural and finished entirely. The cooperage was near neutral French oak. The wine was bottled without clarification, stabilization or filtration.

Winetasting notes: The nose is tickled with enticing aromas of honeysuckle, lychee, white pear, pepper, more honey and floral notes. The mouth is surprising in its richness and viscosity. The tell tale oily character from the Roussanne grape is held up by the tannins from the skin ferment and acidity from the splash of Chardonnay. A fascinating wine that delivers far beyond expectations of a little experiment

2008 Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay, Chalone

Appellation: Chalone; Vineyard: Brosseau; Varietal: Chardonnay; Elevation: 1600 feet; Soil: Limestone; Yield: 1-1.5 tons/acre; Blend: 100% Chardonnay; Fermentation: 100% barrel ferm, little to no MLF; Barrel aging: 12 mos. in 1-3 year FO barrels; Bottled: Unfiltered on Nov 18, 2008; Production: 78 cases; Release date: Spring 2009.

Winemakers notes: With our Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay we often want for more zippy acidity but the exceptional minerality from those limestone soils keep us firmly rooted in the Chalone Appellation. To compensate, we use an ancient winemaking technique we discovered in the Mâconnais that is also practiced with German Rieslings. At or near veraison we pick some very green Brosseau Vineyard berries from our block. We de-stem, crush, press, filter and then refrigerate until we harvest the bulk of the block in September. At harvest, we blend in a little of the ver jus which naturally increases acidity, lowers alcohol and results in a more complex and vibrant Chardonnay. For the main harvest we whole cluster pressed to barrel where the wine fermented without the aide of nutrients or enhancers, employing the wild yeast from the vineyard. Likewise, malolactic fermentation is natural but does not finish due to the low pH (we do not block with sulfur). The cooperage was a mix near neutral French oak and a 1 year old barrel. The wine was bottled without clarification, stabilization or filtration.

Tasting notes: Crushed wet stone, lemon rind, green apple and petrol grab your attention immediately. This elegant and highly focused Chardonnay is unlike most of its domestic peers. It will dance across your palate with lemon zest and pear and the bracing acidity makes this a fabulous companion to anything with butter and all creatures from the sea (think oysters).

2008 Four Thirteen, Red Wine Blend, El Dorado

Vineyards: Fenaughty, Lightner & Girard; Appellation: El Dorado; Blend: 45% Syrah, 35% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, & 2% Counoise; Bottled: Unfiltered on Nov 18, 2008; Production: 348 cases; Release date: Spring 2009.

Winemaker notes: The thirteen series is our proprietary southern Rhône style blend using up to thirteen of the varietals traditional to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and here we have blended four: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Counoise. We are big fans of co-fermentations when mother nature provides the opportunity so the blend includes 4 (of 14) barrels where several varietals started their union at crush. Like all of our red wines, we only use the machine for whatever level of de-stemming is desired (the syrah components include varying levels of whole cluster and whole berry). Any crushing is achieved via pigeage à pied (foot stomping). We do not make wine in plastic. All of our reds are fermented in open top wood vats where wild yeasts are employed without nutrients or other enhancers. We punch down by hand up to 3x daily.
The macerations ranged from 18 days for the Grenache to 25 days for the Syrahs Mourvédre in the middle at 23 days). The Grenache and Mourvèdre was aged exclusively in older French Oak barrels. The Syrah components ranged from 1-3 year old French Oak barrels. The Counoise was co-fermented with Grenache and Mourvèdre and aged in a neutral 500L Hungarian puncheon. All malolactic fermentations were natural and completed by early summer. The final blend was assembled in early October and the wine was bottled without fining or filtration on November 18, 2008.

Tasting notes: Aromas of crushed fresh berries, clove, forest floor, leather, cola and candied orange peel entice the olfactory. After a few moments, notes of tobacco, game and all spice come to the fore. On the palate this youthful blend offers structure and verve with soft tannins and bright acidity that leave the palate refreshed and ready for more.

2007 Vieilles Vignes Syrah, Mendocino

Appellation: Mendocino; Vineyard: McDowell Valley & Perli Vineyards; Elevation: 950 feet & 1350 feet; Soil: Gravelly loam & clay loam; Yield: <1 tons/acre & 2.5 tons/acre; Maceration: 23-28 days; Barrel aging: 20 mos. in 1-3 yr FO barrels; Bottled: Unfiltered on July 22, 2008; Production: 245 cases; Release date: Fall 2008.

Winemakes notes: In 2006 our Vieilles Vignes is a blend of two Mendocino vineyards: McDowell Valley Vineyard and the Perli Vineyard. At McDowell, we have 2 blocks of Syrah, both from the old Gibson Ranch originally planted in 1894. The oldest vines are planted on their own roots and date back to at least 1919. The field blend includes Durif, Carignane, Pelourcin and Aubun in addition to the Syrah. Our other block was propagated from the original plantings in 1948 and budded onto St. George rootstock. As far as we know, these are the oldest Syrah vines in production in California. Further west is the Perli Vineyard, perched atop a hill in the non-contiguous Mendocino Ridge appellation. The vineyard is owned and farmed by Steve Alden who is an incredibly passionate winegrower and loves to experiment which means we became fast friends In 2006 we have fruit from a block called Potato Patch that includes Syrah clones 174 and 877. The vineyards were vinified and aged separately until our final blend was created.

Tasting notes: The color is deep blue-violet. The wine possesses an expressive nose of pencil lead, anise, underbrush and leather accenting black and blue berry fruit. The palate on this pure and impressively concentrated Syrah offers impressive muscle and depth with lively acidity and long and silky tannins that coat the mouth for a lush finish.

Donkey and Goat Winery

Established: 2004
Appellations: Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, McDowell Valley, El Dorado, Chalone
Location: Berkeley, CA
Varietals: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Counoise, Carignan, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Owners: Tracey & Jared Brandt
Vineyards: Broken Leg, Perli, McDowell, Fenaughty, Lightner, Girard, Wylie, Elen Ridge, Brosseau
Production: 2500cs annually
Viticulture: Sustainable & Organic
Winemakers: Tracey & Jared Brandt
Winemaking: Handcrafted artesian wines using natural & sustainable practices.

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