Bergamot Back Alley Wine Club
Three wines, hand picked every month by Kevin Wardell. Pick them up or have us ship them to you. You can read about this month’s wines (and a few previous months) in Kevin’s tasting and terroir notes below. Thoughtful and delicious. Every time.
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Sicilian wine culture is at an impasse. Although the story could be compared to many other regions in Italy, it naturally appears more impassioned and downright sexier simply because it’s Sicily. Not long ago a big push in the region was favoring international grape varieties (Syrah and Chardonnay specifically.) Simultaneously, wines made from the native work horse variety Nero d’Avola were also being produced with modern technique and to appeal to the voluptuous and showy palate. As always, however, we at Bergamot Alley are here to celebrate the pendulum swinging the other direction. Towards the small batch producers that grow things organically and produce wine naturally. Towards the winemakers that believe in true varietal expression, minimal manipulation and the truth that their soils have every bit of influence in the essence of their wine as their climate does. These are the new champions of Sicily. And here are three beautiful examples of their art showcasing the native red grapes they each use as their medium.
-Kevin Wardell, August 2014
Graci Etna Rosso / Etna, Sicily, Italy 2012 / Nerello Mascalese
IN THE BOTTLE: Etna wines are considered the shining star of Sicily when it comes to complexity. The crescent shaped appellation that hugs the (very very) live volcano, Mt. Etna, is iconic for all the obvious dramatic geographical reasons but also has a pedigree of producing wines of incredible quality. Alberto and Elena Graci work a vineyard that sits 1100 meters above sea level on the side of the volcano consisting of 100+ year old pre-phylloxera vines that do not receive nor require any treatments or fertilizers whatsoever. An insanely impressive site by any viticultural standards. Graci Etna Rosso is 100% Nerello Mascalese, which is a rarity as very few sites in the area are without some amount of its more muscular interplanted cousin, Nerello Cappuccio.
IN THE GLASS: Have I also mentioned that there are many who refer to Etna wines as being as close to Burgundy as Italy seems to get? Well, damned if you don’t get some seriously Pinot reminiscent elegance in this glass! Ripe with both fruit and acid and sweet tannin, leaving your tongue with the lively excitement of eating fresh berries off the vine. 2012 was a warm and arid vintage and this wine is showing beautiful natural concentration of flavor because of that. The tell tale smoky flavors from the soil are taking a bit of a back seat at first, but they are most certainly present and will undoubtedly integrate further over a bit of time. Knowing that other local producers favor a small degree of oak on their wines, I am immediately thankful that Graci uses nothing but older large format barrels to avoid any such interruption of natural beauty. Don’t let the light complexion of the wine fool you, it will evolve immensely in the glass and can be paired up with some serious culinary creations. Test it.
Occhipinti SP68 / Vittoria, Sicily, Italy 2013 / 60% Frappato + %40 Nero d’Avola
IN THE BOTTLE: “a seminal figure… whose rise to prominence is meteoric…” So much poetic praise has been unleashed on Arianna Occhipinti since she’s made her first wine about five years ago. Every bit of it well deserved mind you. But despite all the success and the spotlight, despite how wine people get giddy around her and tend to act like a teenage fan of (insert boy band of your generation here) – Arianna remains Arianna. She is indeed a badass winemaker, a natural beauty and loaded with equal parts intellect and charm. But she identifies herself as a just farmer trying to make wines that best express the fruit she grows and the soils and place from which the grow equally. Kudos. The greatness of this young woman is her ability to stick with being true to both herself and her wines throughout her success, genuinely and effortlessly. Something few in her position are truly capable of.
IN THE GLASS: This is a wine I truly get excited about vintage to vintage. The quality is always very high, but it is a rare breed of wine that has the ability to transport you to the place where it was grown and made. This wine tastes like Sicily to me. The fruit is immediately exotic both on the nose and the palate, it retains intense acidity but shows all the ripeness from its Mediterranean climate all the same (a neat trick I assure you!) Clearly it’s not all about the fruit here though. Throw in some white truffles and brine and violets… Did I mention how much I love this wine? SP68 will make anyone a believer in the beauty of a “natural wine” (save your debates on what that truly means. Or come in tonight and I’ll get on my soapbox.)
Cantina Barbera “Microcosmo” / Menfi, Sicily, Italy 2010 / 90% Perricone + 10%Nerello Mascalese
IN THE BOTTLE: Perricone is the rarest of these grapes that are found on the island. There are very few producers growing it anymore, but at Cantina Barbera that simply makes it more special. Marilena Barbera is a another rockstar Sicilian winemaker who has made her life purpose to put the soul back into wine and we’ve featured her insanely chuggable rosé once before in our club. Menfi is a stunning coastal spot in western Sicily that has plenty of viticultural history, dating back with the greek ruins scattered throughout, and an identity that Marilena fights hard to preserve. Industrial farming and modern winemaking are her nemesis just as the sun drenched dunes along the Mediterranean are her inspiration. She makes the “Microcosmo” to evoke all the feelings of her coastal paradise, the hot sun on your shoulders, the cool breeze at sundown and the omnipresent salt air thick with life. Who are we to argue with that?
IN THE GLASS: In the few examples of Perricone I’ve encountered, this wine truly shows its potential. There exists a dark ripeness that swings between black cherries and black olives. Could that scream any louder for Mediterranean food? The tannins have developed beautifully since bottling and its showing great secondary notes that are remind me of tarry molasses. It was the boom of Nero d’Avola that has pushed Perricone out of favor and into obscurity. Simple explanation is that Nero is easier to grow, ripens easily. Clearly Nero d’Avola can be delicious (see: Occhipinti, Cantina Barbera) but sometimes it boggles the mind, after tasting this wine, that a grape like this can be pushed to near extinction. Cheers to Marilena and to her self proclaimed fatal attraction, making wine that is the purest expression of where she is from.
The Jura, in the Franche-Comté region of France bordering Switzerland, is a miniscule region with only 4600 acres planted (for comparison, that’s half the acreage of Dry Creek Valley.) The region in general is more widely known for its delicious Comté cheese and perhaps as one of the more challenging and picturesque stages in the Tour de France year after year (and just yesterday!) “Jurassic wines” do also have a big reputation for distinct wine styles: vin jaune or vin de voile, white wine oxidized under flor yeast veil like sherry; vin de paille, sweet wine made from grape clusters dried on straw mats; macvin, sweet and fortified; and notably pale, feral reds. More and more, however, there are wines arriving to our shores that are far more approachable and easy to understand as well. The wines are truly a reflection of the hearty people of the Jura Mountains who eat their moxie with their muesli and drink vin jaune with their joie de vivre. Enjoy!
-Kevin Wardell / July 2014
Julien Labet “Fleurs” / Jura, France 2012 / Chardonnay
IN THE BOTTLE: When our friend Charles Neal first met Julien Labet he described him as having the disposition of half punk and half stoner and possibly having cut his blond hair himself. Since then, Charles considers him a feather in his import portfolio cap as each and every delicious small bottling that arrives from the Labet family is snatched up almost immediately. For the past couple of years they were releasing wines under both Juliens name and his fathers label, but it seems life is going to get easier for the consumer soon as they will finally be merging the wines as one label. Perhaps his father Alain has finally faced the fact that the fruit doesn’t fall too far the vine, so to speak.
IN THE GLASS: Roasted almonds and hazelnuts, honeycomb, soft cheese rind and applesauce? What the heck kind of Chardonnay is this? Clearly there are still recognizable aspects to the grape in this wine that keep it from being completely unfamiliar. But it sits in a beautiful position between Burgundian mouth feel, Chablis quality minerality with just a whisper of the distinctive oxidative quality that make it truly a Jurassic Chardonnay. If you don’t have a hunk of Comté handy, some well aged Gouda will do I suppose, but you should really go see your nearest cheesemonger to enjoy this pairing.
Champ Divin Brut Rosé / Cremánt du Jura, France 2012 / Pinot + Trousseau
IN THE BOTTLE: Fabrice and Valérie Closset are the epitome of the hippie side of Jurassic wine culture. The region itself is dominated by organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyards and the approach in the local wineries have always been “laissez faire.” Growing up, the Clossets have always kept bees and maintained a biodynamic and biodiverse garden. They have continued that ethos, even after planting their vineyards, to ensure that their land didn’t fall into the common health issues that are common to mono-cropping. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy the small amount of wines they make from this idyllic five-hectare estate.
IN THE GLASS: There is very little about this wine that doesn’t put a smile on your face. Pink sparkling tends do that inherently, true, but this one has such complexity and depth that it truly stands out. Layers of bramblefruit and crunchy minerality as well as the perfect amount of creamy yeastiness reminiscent of a great grower Champagne. Those attributes also make this a great food pairing wine as it can stand up to foods much stronger in flavor than traditional pairings. Let’s get down to the brass tacks here, this is kind of a perfect wine in so many ways. It’s the kind of wine that makes you want to go see where it’s made, meet the lovely people who made it, and drink it right there on the farm. Surrounded by bees. Jurassic bees.
Domaine Rolet “Tradition” / Arbois, Jura, France 2010 / Trousseau + Poulsard + Pinot Noir
IN THE BOTTLE: The Rolet family is a one of the largest producers in Arbois. Which basically makes them only a slightly bigger small fish in a small pond. They have made their mark with wines that showcase purity and ripeness. In any other wine region those would be overused marketing buzz words, but to achieve purity and especially ripeness is a feat unto itself way up here in the mountains. Ironically, the soils here are mostly uplifted Jurassic limestone, but the region is named for a vernacular word for forest.
IN THE GLASS: It goes without saying that a red wine with such a light color is always a surprise when it’s poured in the glass. Thankfully the second half of that surprise is just how packed with flavor this is despite its transparent hue. The nose is fresh baked cherry galette, coffee grounds and fresh turned earth. The coffee grounds thing, albeit slight, I often get in quality red wines from this area (and others similar, like the Aosta Valley in Italy.) But in the end it is all about the acidity and rich earthy tones packed into this ripe, yet low alcohol beauty; drink at cellar temp or slightly below.
Riesling is king. Sometimes people are still surprised to hear that. More surprising is that for as long as so many winemakers, wine writers and somms have been touting this fact for what seems like forever. So whether you’ve seen the light or not in this regard, we present to you three very distinct and delicious examples of Riesling each from benchmark regions within Germany, Italy and France respectively. Certainly there are other areas, however, where the grape has been made with a high level of quality. I’ve had outstanding examples from New Zealand, Oregon, British Columbia and even the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. A handful of California producers have recently refocused their attention to growing Riesling in cooler sights with very promising results as well. Austria, it has to be said, is the unfortunate glaring omission from this months selection as they too have some of the very best Riesling in the world. But if I’m honest, I’ve likely subconsciously left them out because they are not in the World Cup. So there.
-Kevin Wardell – June 2014
Leitz “Dragonstone” / Rheingau, Germany 2012 / Riesling
In The Bottle: The Drachenstein Vineyard, reputedly named for the fossilized dinosaur prints found nearby, dominated by slate although there is lots of quartzite as well. What is really important is to picture the insanely sloped vineyards along the Rhein River, in this case rising some 850 feet at a slope of 37 degrees. Another of his sights is cultivated at whopping 62 degrees. Folks in these parts have been hand picking these grapes on such slopes for generations and to this day there is very little place for anyone without a strong back.
In The Glass: Have you ever smelled a ripe Key Lime right off the tree? Well, that’s where my mind goes when I smell this wine. There is a strong mineral backbone to the aromatics for sure, but I get enough sweet lime scent on the nose that I’m almost salivating for a freshly squeezed margherita. The palate brings me right back to everything lovely about German Riesling however. I heart the tart cherry! This wine obviously has a bit of residual sugar but there is also an added textural quality that comes from Johannes’ use of extended yeast contact. It’s really quite easy to fall in love with this wine. It balances that slight sweetness with all the classic minerality and acidity making it optimal for pairing with your favorite spicy asian dish, ideally at a picnic out in the summer sun.
Kuenhof “Kaiton” / Eisacktal, Südtirol, Italy 2012 / Riesling
In the Bottle: Peter and Brigitte Pliger farm the Kuenhof vineyards organically between 1,800 and 2,300 feet above sea level. The Isarco Valley is one of the few areas under vine in Italy that really mimics the “heroic” mountainside viticulture that the Mosel in Germany is known for. It’s also an area where families generally grow their small amounts of fruit for a local co-op winery. The Pligers changed that in 1990 and have been making incredibly distinct wines from their own slopes since. They also ferment the wines using only indigenous yeasts which take between up to four months to finish and then age in both stainless steel and acacia-wood vessels. Kudos for the use of screwcaps as well, not everyone buys into those as a viable option for whatever reasons, but I think there is far more sense to it than folks want to believe.
In the Glass: I love my friend Oliver McCrum’s quote about this wine as having an electric mineral character “I am reminded of licking a nine-volt battery as a dare when I was younger.” The first thing that this wines shows is a bit of sulphur. This is common issue for Rieslings in their youth even if the winemaker doesn’t use too much SO2 at bottling, which the Pliger family does not, but can also be all too common unfortunately. The wine opens up to show it’s true nervy texture and flinty profile quickly with mouth watering acidity. It falls more on the spicy herbaceous side of Riesling than it does the more typical floral or tropical attributes. There is no mistaking the grape varieties calling card “petrol” quality in this wine that will only integrate itself further into this zippy dry wine over a few years.
Meyer-Fonne Katzenthal / Katzenthal, Alsace, France 2012 / Riesling
In The Bottle: Félix Meyer feels that fermenting micro sections of his vineyard sites separately, based on their granite composition, and then blending them afterwards is the best way to achieve great results. He also trims his yields down with multiple passes through the vines to a level that his neighbors refer to as “ridiculously low.” Despite this, Félix is not the maniacal perfectionist that one might assume. He is more akin to a kid in a candy store. He loves his craft and believes there such a thing as an idol moment in either the cellar or the vineyards themselves.
In The Glass: It’s an odd claim to state that one winemakers wines are reputably more aromatically seductive than any of their neighbors, especially in an aromatic white grape mecca such as Alsace. Yet, somehow, Felix makes wines that are consistently transcendent in that way and here a great example of that fact. The layers of honeysuckle, lime leaf and rainwashed stone makes me a little weak in the knees. This is certainly where Riesling plays with your head as well, all that rich ripe depth on the nose from a wine that is as bone-dry as this is a fun roller coaster for the senses. Once again this is a wine that will just be getting better and better in the years to come, but it sure is a beauty now as well.
ABOUT THE BACK ALLEY WINE CLUB
Owner Kevin Wardell’s passion is geeky, delicious wine. The name “Bergamot Alley” was inspired by the essence of Wardell’s favorite obscure grape variety, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, in tribute to it’s exquisite bergamot and rose petal bouquet. The name invokes experience, and adoration for the obscure, a path which Wardell has tread well for many years.
Wardell’s decade plus of tutelage started with 5 years at SF’s Italian mothership restaurant A16, a path which led directly to a Sommelier certification and extensive travel in Europe, Asia and Down Under. He peppered in 5 years as a cellar rat in California’s Dry Creek Valley (Unti Vineyards) and New Zealand (Mt. Difficulty) and was then called to the position of Wine Director for flour+water restaurant, the Bay Area beauty of Italian culinary miracles. A series of Dry Creek crushes, a growing penchant for country living, and a keen eye for the missing link inspired Wardell to move up and on. Healdsburg became the place, and Bergamot Alley is the dream come true.
Through each professional and personal jig there were exclusive opportunities for Wardell to meet the producers, their families, tour the terroir, and intimately understand the wines he was bringing to his own State-side wine programs. Many years, tastes and tours later, his focus at Bergamot Alley is terroir-driven wines from emerging Old World wine regions that fly under the radar and present excellent value. They all have a story, of people and place, time and tradition. Within our Wine Club the goal is simple- to share these stories and an Old World education through a healthy dose of geeky, delicious wines.
Do you know your Bugey & your Bouzy from your Buzet & your Bonnezeaux? Or could you draw a route from Salice Salento to Enfer D’Arvier with a quick stop off, naturally, for some Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone? The world is shrinking and wine regions you’ve never heard of are creeping into the world’s wine conversations. It’s been the focus of wine educators and enthusiasts alike to discover the roots and history of our favorite wines as well new grapes to fall in love with.
You come to us to find this wow in wine. Now we want to bring it to your doorstep, one custom delivery at a time. With each box of bottles from our Back Alley Wine Club you will delve deeper into these pocket places of the Old World, stacking up your knowledge cards. This is what Wardell does best, what he loves to do, and what the Bergamot Back Alley Wine Club is all about.
Every month a new triplet of wines will arrive at your door. If you are a local Healdsburgian we kindly suggest that you come pick up your box of bottles at the bar. Standard FedEx Ground delivery rates apply. So do local laws and regulations on booze. Somebody 21 or older must be available to sign for the shipment, and FedEx will email you confirmation of your day of delivery.Your three monthly Wine Club wines will be boxed up and ready for pick up on the 3rd Thursday of every month. Shipping occurs the following Monday (We don’t like them sitting in a warehouse over the weekend.)
Tastings of each month’s wines will be held the third Thursday of every month from 6pm to 8pm at Bergamot Alley. Wardell will be presenting detailed dialogue and stories about each wine on tasting nights (Kevin’s notes will accompany every box of bottles via email too, and when we can, we try to time Back Alley Wine Club releases with special guest producers who might just be in town.) Tastings are free for Back Alley members.
We look forward to extending friendship rates and exclusive deals to all of our Wine Club members. As a member of the Bergamot Alley Back Alley Wine Club you will receive:
* 15% off all Wine Club wine re-orders during their featured month.
* 10% off all retail purchases every day of the year.
* Free tasting on the day of shipment/pick up (3rd Wednesday of every month, from 6-8pm)
* Exclusive deals and promotions for in-house tasting events and products.
The easiest way to sign up for the Bergamot Back Alley Wine Club is to:
*Call us and we will fill in the information for you (707.433.8720)
*Email us and we will send you a form to fill out (email button to the right)
*Visit us at the bar and fill in the info in person (hello!)
No matter which way you choose to sign up, we will contact you to confirm details. A hearty and sincere thank you for supporting our small, family owned business.
With love, from Kevin Wardell and Sarah Johnson