Bottling the American Dream.
By Marcy Harris
Our love and respect for American wine at the Roadhouse deepened the day before Independence Day, with a visit from Alex Krause from Birichino Wines! Alex visited us from California to talk about four refreshing, playful wines he produces with his partner, John Locke. The wines they make are delightfully obscure, made from Old World vines brought overseas long ago to be planted in American soil. As we tasted them at the Roadhouse, we got a chance to hear Alex tell us the deeply-rooted story of these wines–and how he became one of the artisans who brought the story to life.
Working from the ground up.
It all started with learning how to clean a tasting room and operate a forklift at Bonny Doon Vineyards. Alex Krause knew he wanted to pursue a career based on his love of business, food, and language. He had also spent time as a student in the South of France, so his exposure to French wines at a young age reinforced his decision to pursue winemaking. After writing to many wineries, he received a handwritten note from the clever and creative Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard. Alex found himself embarking on a whimsical ride that would lead him to his business partner, John Locke (who also interned at Bonny Doon), and a venture into making really delicious wine.
After learning all the aspects of the wine business at Bonny Doon, Alex found himself sitting with a buyer in Montreal one day, who asked him to grow an obscure Italian wine in California called Malvasia Bianca. Alex advises not starting your business this way, but that is indeed how Birichino began in 2008–by producing one wine for one buyer.
It is no wonder they named their winery Birichino (pronounced biri-kino), which means “naughty’ in Italian. At Zingerman’s, we like to do things differently as well, so we are intrigued. The company consists of two employees, Alex and John, who do everything–from making the wine and keeping books, to cleaning the tasting room and running the forklift. They don’t own any vineyards, and they share their facility with a friend in an unglamorous industrial park in Salinas. So what makes Birichino wines so irresistibly special?
That’s the spirit!
Alex and John work with really old family-owned vineyards producing wines that you can’t get anywhere else in California. Alex admits that he relies on the kindness of the families who own the vineyards to grow the grapes he needs for his vivacious wines. These French, Portuguese, and Italian families are descended from immigrants who came to California either in the late 1800s or early 1900s and planted vines. The Malvasia Bianca that Alex and John started Birichino with is an ancient grape, and supposedly arrived as a cutting in the boot of a grandfather coming from Italy. Four generations later, I am sitting at the Roadhouse sipping this wine. It’s unreal.
So it occurs to me as I’m tasting wine with Alex and the Roadhouse team the day before our nation’s birthday, that we are tasting the story of what makes our country really great–the people who built it. Families immigrated here and brought with them the seeds and fruits that they didn’t want to leave behind. Their story is the backbone of our country as much as it is the backbone of the wines we are drinking. We taste it with what we eat and drink everyday, whether we think about it our not. We taste it in Old World wines grown in American soil.
Preserving the flavor of American terroir.
For the guys at Birichino, it is super important that this story is told by the grapes themselves. By selecting grapes that inherently express beautiful aromatics in a variety of ways, Alex and John are able to produce wines that reflect the terroir in which they are grown.This means trying not to intervene with too much processing. The key is understanding how to naturally preserve the flavor and freshness of the grapes.
For example, they pick the Malvasia from the Salinas Valley at 2:00am, when the grapes are at the peak of their acidity in cooler temperatures. To make their Vin Gris rosé, they pick fruits that are specifically grown for rose´, like Grenache and Cinsault, instead of using runoff juice from other wines. Their wines are lightly pressed, their whites fermented for long periods of time at low temperatures. They use stainless steel or neutral barrels. They refuse to filter their reds.
The result is extraordinary. Each wine we tasted with Alex offered a full expression of perfectly balanced, sensationally bright, and elegantly aromatic qualities. The natural beauty of the grapes shines through, unveiling the character of the soil in these aged vineyards.
“There are layers that carry you like a sine wave through time. Instead of imprinting our huge winemaking egos on these grapes, we do what we can to just reveal their qualities”, Alex explains.
As we taste each wine, Alex talks about the soil in which they were grown. In the mountains of California, layers of granite, limestone, and clay give depth of flavor to what we are tasting. Flavors of wine develop as a result of the struggle of vines in the rocky soil. What defines this country is a similar struggle, as we dig deep to preserve the families who built it.
Like America, these wines offer diversity. They are multi-dimensional, and as time passes, one is introduced to yet another layer of character. Like with America, it’s this diversity that creates liveliness, structure, and balance.
Here’s to you, America!
The Roadhouse is humbled to feature the following wines from Birichino. They are lesser known, yet bring spirit and variety to our list. We encourage you to share a bottle with friends, especially during the summertime!
Malvasia Bianco 2014:
Don’t let the bold and sweet aroma of this refreshing white fool you! A floral bouquet with hints of citrus, lemon, orange, and grapefruit leads to a long mineral dryness. Alex and John ferment the residual sugar out of this one to give it a playful personality. Grown in the shale-strewn upper edges of the Salinas Valley in the Santa Lucia range, Malvasia is very aromatic and naturally acidic. The cool fog that rolls in from Monterey Bay at night preserves the freshness of the grapes. Planted in the early 20th century by an Italian family, this vibrant wine was the first one produced by Birichino in 2008, and the inspiration for the name of the winery, which means “naughty” in Italian.
Vin Gris Rosé 2017:
A delicate pink wine offers notes of tropical flowers and exotic fruits, followed by a smooth and lingering acidity. Alex and John created this one as an homage to Old World rosé from the South of France, and they make it from grapes specifically grown to make rosé. The most prominent is Grenache, grown in a vineyard planted in 1910 in the cool foothills of Sierra Nevada, at 3,000 feet. The other three grapes in this blend include Mourvédre, Cinsault, and Vermentino. Each grape is gently pressed separately, allowed to sit on their skins, then carefully married to produce this very pretty summery wine.
Bechthold Cinsault Old Vines, 2016:
It offers a lovely structure to the rosé, but drinks very well on its own as a plucky red. The Cinsault offers bright cranberry and strawberry notes with accents of purple flowers and hints of red currant. Planted in 1886 (the same year the Statue of Liberty arrived!) in Lodi, these vines produce a wine that is comparable to an elegant Beaujolais.
St. Georges Pinot Noir, 2016:
Lightly colored with scents of candied fruit and herbs, one of our favorite Pinots shows bright fruit and a little pepper on the palate. The St. George is built from 3 different Pinot Noir plants that offer a lingering array of perfumed characteristics, from red fruit to exotic incense. The flavor comes not only from the grapes, but from the stems as well, so much of this wine is pressed as whole cluster and left unfiltered to capture its integrity.