Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Jared Brandt in Berkeley
The Donkey & Goat Winery is a wife & husband owned and operated winery located in Berkeley, California, producing “natural” wines. Tracey and Jared Brandt are the "donkey and goat" behind these naturally made wines. I had met Tracy Brandt in 2010 at the screwtop wine bar in Arlington, Virginia and written about it on schiller-wine.
Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Tracey Brandt in Washington DC
This time, when I was over at the US West Coast in Berkeley, I met Jared at the construction site of their new winery. What I saw was basically empty halls and Jared then described to me how it would look like once everything was in place. But regardless of the state of the construction, I found it fascinating to listen to Jared about his approach to winemaking and to taste his fine, natural wines.
Whenever I am in the Bay area, I go at least once to the Terroir Wine Bar in San Francisco; they serve only natural wines, but only from the Old World.
A Donkey & Goat Winery
A Donkey & Goat Winery is a boutique winery, producing just 2500 cases. Tracey and Jared just make the wine, they do not own vineyards. The wine they make is very special: Tracey and Jared are followers of the natural wine movement. It is a rather new winery, established in 2004.
The Vineyards are Far Away
The vineyards were the grapes grow which Donkey and Goat Winery uses for its wines, are far away: in the Sierra Foothills, in Monterey and in Mendocino County. The Donkey and Goat Winery appellations are: Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, McDowell Valley, El Dorado, Chalone.
On these vineyards, the following grape varieties are cultivated: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Counoise, Carignan, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir.
The Donkey & Goat Winemaking Philosophy
We talked a lot about the Donkey & Goat wine producing philosophy of natural wine making.
Jared told me that on their web site you can find an email by Tracey about their wines and thoughts on natural, organic and biodynamic. “It's a pretty good manifesto” said Jared. I agree. I think it is a very interesting read if you want to understand what natural winemaking is all about.
Tracey writes... "We make our wines for the table not the cocktail glass. We make Rhône varietals in both colors plus an unusual Chardonnay. We (my husband and winemaking partner Jared and I) strive to make wine as naturally as possible. We've done so since day one. Of late, natural is fashionable, which we do of course appreciate, but the reality is we've done this from the start because we feel it makes a superior wine while aligning with our environmental objectives.
Pictures: The New Winery in Berkeley
We pick early, often weeks before anyone else considers it. Our whites are frequently at and under 13 and some of our reds are at/near 13.5 (both directions). Many of our vineyards are cool climate - we grow Syrah in Anderson Valley in order to get profile we want at a low alcohol. That said, we also don't adjust alcohol to meet our goals. We have seen our wines end up higher in alcohol than other wineries in the same vineyard (who picked later) because we let the native yeast do their thing and don't add water or use reverse osmosis. So, yes we would love to make under 12.5 wines but to make wines naturally at that alc in California is impossible. We believe alcohol is a byproduct of our winemaking decisions and we try to live with the repercussions of our decisions rather than cover them up after the fact.
We have vineyards that are organic and even have a new one that was effectively abandoned - closer to the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka. Biodynamic is very interesting to us but we are hesitant to adopt a management system that is dependent on copper sulfate due to health concerns. We are not alone in these. Alice Feiring blogged about Eric Texier's thoughts around this last Feb here: http://www.alicefeiring.com/feiringsquad/misc/fukuoka_of_char.html We have also strived to find vineyard managers who share our overall concern with the environment and desire for growing natural wine grapes. We struggle with doctrine that ignores excess and risks simply because it was determined to be okay for THAT doctrine. The religious analogies are so plentiful that I won't bother but I'm sure you get the idea. When it comes to dogma, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In the winery, we are extremely careful with our winemaking to ensure we encourage but not manipulate the wines expression of origin (terroir and varietal). We also make decisions to ensure our wines belong on the table with food and not in cocktail glass in advance of anything edible. That means we pick based on flavor and acid. We ignore brix. We picked Syrah this year at 21.5 brix and it is gorgeous. We also picked Syrah at 23 brix and it is equally gorgeous. In both cases we were examining acid structure and flavors.
Pictures: In the New Winery in Berkeley
We ferment all wines (red and white) in wood vats. This is so key and no one is talking about the vast amounts of small lot wine made in plastic in this country. We abandoned plastic in our personal lives when we had our daughter and discovered the extensive research around chemicals like BPA leaching into liquids. We NEVER considered a square plastic bin for fermentation because it's plastic and it's entirely the wrong dimension for vinification and IT IS plastic. But look in most US wineriers and you will find a square plastic vat with fermenting must.
We add nothing at the vat after crush save the occasional miniscule dose of SO2 if we have a rainy year where rot is an issue. That means no enzymes to enhance color and extraction, no tannin, no commercial yeast, no nutrients to feed the super yeast and 95% of the time no SO2 (until after MLF completes). We can control temperature via manipulating ambient temperature with a refrigerated container and warm rooms within the winery. That's it. For the labor it's all manual. Picking. Sorting. Foot stomping. Punch down. Our hands are in the wine each day and we taste each day and the only time we've ever had a problem was in 2004 when we inoculated a few vats as an experiment to prove our wild yeast preference. The inoculated vats had stuck fermentations and we later dumped the wine rather than fall down the slippery slope of additions to correct additions (we dumped the equivalent of 50 cases). That is one of the problems we have with inoculations. Winemakers choose cultured yeast for various attributes that include performance and aromatic profile. But the lab yeast need huge amounts of food. So the regimen becomes, kill the microbial life with SO2 & Lysozyme, add super yeast, add vitamins and nitrogen (DAP or diammonium phosphate being very popular) to feed these hungry microbes. Then hope the yeast don't put off any off aromas like H2S because of the imbalance in their diet. If they do, add Copper. Then rack and filter and add more SO2... it never stops. And don't get me started on the great irony of adding vast amounts of DAP to the vat to feed yeast. Guess which yeast also LOVES DAP and for that matter any additive rich in thiamin. Read the ingredients on most wine additives and you'll see thiamin at the front. That would be brettanomyces, the dark angel.
Pictures: In the New Winery in Berkeley
Back to us, we complete primary with just wild yeast sometime near the end of the year although in warmer years like this one I expect to be done going into December. MLF is also natural or with wild bacteria. This is easy for us because we do not buy ANY new oak barrels. We buy a supply of 1 year old barrels each year from a single source (relevant for cleanliness) and rotate them in. Our lots see from zero to 35% one year old barrels. As a result we have plenty of Lactobacillus in our used barrels so again, no inoculation, no nutrients and no problems. We have one wine (our Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay) that does not complete and rarely starts MLF. We do not kill the wine with SO2 and we do not filter. The pH on the wine is in the 3.1-3.2 range which is a natural prohibitor of MLF and we've never had a problems with bottle ferm and been making this wine since 2003. We do make it in an unusual manner. Again back to France. Eric taught us a trick he uses in warmer years. Pick the vineyard twice and blend to lift acidity. It's that simple. The first pick happens to be hugely unusual at veraison but still, pretty simple. You can get a better idea of this here: http://www.inwinecountry.com/?cat=5970254&subcat=5038749&video=218. Oh, and that is an organic vineyard.
The rest I'll just list and save you the rationale given my dense email. We stay sur lie until the wines tell us not too (no prophylactic racking or micro oxygenation). We do not clarify or heat/cold stabilize and we almost never fine or filter. On the occasions we have we've labeled accordingly.
I do hope if nothing else I've managed to convey we are hugely passionate about what we are doing and why we are doing it."
In Short: What Tracey and Jared Brandt Believe in and Practice at their Winery
Here is a useful summary of all the above.
(1) No cultured yeast or bacteria – all fermentations are wild.
(2) No plastic – all fermentation vats are wood which we prefer for its organic material, insulation and permeability and dimensions.
(3) No nutrients, enzymes or other enhancers at the fermentation vat.
(4) 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
(5) Little (to no) sulphur at fermentation, no prophylactic use of sulphur in general and our levels at bottling are extremely low
(6) 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)
(7) No prophylactic racking schedules. We stay sur lie as a matter of practice and only deviate when the wine needs a racking.
(8) No stabilization, fining or filtration for bottling
(9) 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.
The Wines Jared Poured
2010 Improbable Chardonnay, El Dorado
2010 Grenache Blanc, El Dorado
2009 Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay, Chalone
Appellation: Chalone; Vineyard: Brosseau; Varietal: Chardonnay; Clone: Old vine, ungrafted Wente; Age: 32 years; Elevation: 1600 feet; Soil: Limestone; Yield: 1-1.5 tons/acre; Harvested: Aug 23, 2008; Pressed: Aug 23, 2008; Blend: 100% Chardonnay; Fermentation: 75/25 Neutral & 1 yr FO barrels; Barrel aging: 0.5 mos. in 1-3 yr FO barrels; Bottled: Unfiltered on Jan 11, 2010; Production: 151 cases; Release date: Spring 2010
Jared: “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 aid 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).”
Picture: The Wines Jared Poured
The cooperage was a mix near neutral French oak and a 1 year old barrel. The wine was bottled without clarification, stabilization or filtration.
Jared: “Be warned: this natural wine wins no awards for clarity but will please and even delight when put on the table next to an array of cuisine (oysters, anything with butter, sushi, Chinese, Thai with lighter spices and the list goes on). Aromas of lemon zest, grass, wet stone and a hint of petrol dance from the glass. The bracing acidity will wake the palate and then please with more citrus, pear and leave you wanting for more.”
2009 Four Thirteen, Red Wine Blend, El Dorado
Varietal: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache & Counoise; Vineyards: Fenaughty, Lightner & Girard; Appellation: El Dorado; Harvested: Sept 19-Oct 23, 2010; Pressed: Oct 1-Nov 3, 2007 ; Blend: 46% Syrah, 33% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, & 3% Counoise; Bottled: Unfiltered on Jan 11, 2010; Production: 340 cases; Release date: Spring 2010.
Jared: “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 3 (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 17 days for the Grenache to 24 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 mid October and the wine was bottled without fining or filtration on January 11, 2010.”
Jared’s tasting notes: “Gamey notes dance with crushed free berries, herbs, cola, leather and floral hints. The palate shows off the wine’s stuffing with chewy tannins, respectable acidity and lingering flavors of cranberry and cassis.”
2008 Syrah Fenaughty Vineyard
Appellation: El Dorado; Vineyard: Fenaughty Vineyard; Varietal: Syrah; Clone: Heritage (Davis 1); Age: 31 years; Elevation: 2800 feet; Soil: Decomposed granite with clay loam; Yield: 2-2.5 tons/acre; Harvested: Sept 29, 2007; Pressed: Oct 20, 2007; Blend: 96.5% Syrah (25% wc)+ 3.5% Viognier; Maceration: 21 days in open top wood vat ; Barrel aging: 20.5 mos. in 1-3 yr FO barrels; Bottled: Unfiltered on July 14, 2009; Production: 147 case; Release date: Fall 2009
Jared: “2007 is our 3rd year making Fenaughty Syrah and we stand by our 100% Fenaughty blend (no Wylie added). It was the first year we made this wine in our Rousseau 4t wooden open top vat. We do not make wine in plastic. Never have and never will. All of our reds are fermented in open top wood vats. The wines like Fenaughty, that go into the 4t vat, benefit from less temperature extremes and longer mid-range temps (in the high 70’s to low 80’s). Like all of our red wines, we only use the machine for whatever level of de-stemming is desired. In this case only we de-stemmed 75% leaving the rest whole cluster. The Fenaughty vineyard also has Viognier planted so we picked a few hundred pounds with the Syrah to result in approximately 3.5% co-fermented Viognier in our final blend. Crushing is achieved via pigeage à pied (foot stomping) and in our Rousseau vat, our stompers must channel their inner Lucy to get the job done. Wild yeasts are employed without nutrients or other enhancers. We punch down by hand up to 3 times daily which is an extreme work out in a 4 ton tank with 25% whole cluster! The cooperage was a mix of 1-3 yr old French oak barrels. Malolactic fermentation was natural and completed by early summer. The wine stayed sur lie for 8 months when it was racked and returned to barrel for the final 12.5 months of aging until the final blend was assembled in early June 2009. The wine was bottled without fining or filtration on July 14, 2009.”
Jared’s tasting notes: “Tobacco, earth and herbs intermingled with violets grab your olfactory immediately. With a moment to breathe, mineral, fresh meat and spice box come to the fore. Red fruits like cherry, plum and raspberry tickle the palate. Long, firmly structured yet smooth tannins coat the mouth and linger for minutes while you ponder what this wine is and what it will become.”
2010 Grenache Noir, El Dorado
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