Tonight for dinner, we had a 2008 Sangiovese from the Conejo Valley Wine Co-op. This wine was made before Dorianne and I joined. We were gifted two bottles by our winemaker, Richard Clark, after a former member turned some wine back to the co-op.
Sangiovese was already well known by the 16th century. Recent DNA profiling by José Vouillamoz of the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige suggests that Sangiovese’s ancestors are Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo. The former is well known as an ancient variety in Tuscany, the latter is an almost-extinct relic from the Calabria, the toe of Italy. At least fourteen Sangiovese clones exist, of which Brunello is one of the best regarded. An attempt to classify the clones into Sangiovese grosso (including Brunello) and Sangiovese piccolo families has gained little evidential support.
The wine was simply amazing – elegant, with a nose of fruit and spice, smooth in the mouth and clearly a wonderful wine. Kudos to Dennis Weiher, our former winemaker for this one!
On Wednesday afternoon, out of the blue, I get a call inviting Dorianne and I over to our Conejo Valley Wine Co-op wine maker’s home to taste a variety of wines made for the co-op from 1994 to 1998. The wines had been stored in a member’s cellar and he was no longer going to drink wine, so he was giving them to the current and former wine makers.
We arrived about 90 minutes later to find 28 wines lined up on a counter in Richard and Mary’s kitchen, with a few more bottles in the refrigerator. The wines, now 16 to 20 years old, were a mystery. Most had not been opened for over a decade.
So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
Present were Richard Clark our current wine maker, his wife, Mary Stec; Dennis Weiher, the winemaker for the first 20+ years of the co-op’s existence; and John Trickett, an early member of the co-op who had helped make most of these wines. John is also the owner of the wines in question.
The wines ranged from Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot to Zinfandel to Cab Franc to Petite Syrah to Freisa to Grignolino to Chardonnay to Semillon, to Riesling (in sweet and dry versions). There was even two kinds of Meade – regular honey Meade and a clover Meade.
Glasses at the ready, water, a bit of cheese and some crackers, dump and spit buckets, and we began.
We worked our way through, varietal by varietal, with relevant blends in between. The co-op wines are made Garagiste style, meaning in this case in a suburban driveway/garage. Fruit was sourced mostly in the Santa Ynez – Paso Robles – Los Alamos areas by Dennis and John. They were essentially experimenting with various wine making techniques in fermentation and storage. Because of this and for myriad other reasons, we did not know how much, if any, of this wine would still be good.
The first pass through, we came up with a few winners – three whites of five, a Chardonnay, a Semillon, and the sweet Riesling had held up very well – good color, nice nose, and drinkable to very drinkable. All but the merest trace of fruit was gone in most of these wines, but they had aged well.
The reds were literally all over the place. Three were nice right out of the bottle – especially a Cabernet Franc that would rate in the high 80’s to low 90’s; a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1997 was a winner, and a Merlot from 1998.. Seven wines were set aside to open up, and the other 16 reds were undrinkable.
Then dinner – Mary had “whipped up” pasta pomodoro and a big bowl of clams, mussels and crabs in a light tomato sauce, and some cole slaw. The Cab Franc disappeared during the dinner.
We moved to the dessert wine and Meades after dinner. Mary brought out some homemade coconut sorbet to help us along. The sweet Riesling was simply amazing – as good a dessert wine as I have had. It was balanced beautifully, with a very nice nose, viscous mouth feel and a very pleasant aftertaste; the bad news – only two other bottles left. The honey Meade, too, was beautiful – viscous, sweet, but not too sweet, and a very nice aftertaste. The clover Meade was poured over the sorbet and tasted from the glass – it was elegant – sweet and savory with a very nice mouth feel. Excellent.
This was a rare opportunity to explore and to realize that amateur winemaking can, indeed, produce nice, drinkable wines that will age. The co-op wines have improved over the years, as the winemakers have learned more about their craft. I can’t wait to taste the 2014’s in about 20 years.
Dorianne and I have been members of the Conejo Valley Wine Co-op for four years. The co-op itself is nearly 30 years old. Like other co-ops of its kind, it is an amateur wine making operation where the wine is made for the personal consumption of the members.
Co-ops can be of any size. Ours is 20 shares – two for the winemaker, and the other 18 are in full and half-share members. There is an annual assessment per share to cover the expenses (grapes, bottles, corks, electricity and water, equipment, etc.) and a capitalization fee upon joining. The wine is divided by the number of shares after bottling. Some co-ops process their own grapes; some use a “custom crush” site – basically a winery that is open to processing grapes from small-batch customers.
In our co-op each shareholder provides some labor, mostly at harvest and bottling times. Harvest is usually in September and October and involves getting the grapes, transferring them to the fermentation bins, and cleaning up afterward. Then, after fermentation, we press the grapes using a bladder press and put the red wines into oak barrels and the white wine into stainless steel, and clean up afterward. Our co-op normally does three or four reds each year and one white. We generally purchase 1100 pounds of each varietal grape; the white wine is usually purchased as juice because of the difficulty of transporting white grapes in a warm climate.
Bottling is normally in late May or June. We bottle the previous year’s white and the reds from two years prior. So the reds age 18 months in the barrel and the white ages 9 months in stainless steel or a combination of stainless and oak.
At the annual business meeting in February or March, we meet and blind taste the wines to be bottled that year. Each shareholder gives each wine a rating of 0 to 10. The highest rated varietals will normally be bottled at 100%, or used to blend in small amounts with a lesser-rated wine. We usually end up with two pure varietals and two or three red blends each year.
Also at the annual meeting, we decide on what varietals to purchase the following season. Since we are close to the Malibu and Central Coast AOC’s, we usually get wines from producers there. Lately, we have been getting almost all of our grapes from the Paso Robles area. For 2015, we bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (2013), Merlot (2013) and a Zinfandel/Merlot 80/20 blend (2013); and a white – Viognier (2014).
Next year’s bottling will feature a Pinot Noir (2013) that wasn’t ready this year, and Rhone varietals Syrah (2014), Granache (2014), Mouvedre (2014) and Malbec (2014). The white is expected to be Rousanne (2015). Each year, the varietals are different and the blends are different.
We are true Garagistes, in that our operation is in a garage. Our winemaker, Richard Clark, converted half of his two-car garage into a cool room where the wine is stored for aging. Tubes connect the wine room to the front driveway for pumping wine into the barrels and tanks and to the rear deck area for pumping the wine out for bottling.
What are the benefits of being in a co-op? Well, to name a few, there is cheap wine that ranges from drinkable to very good for yourself and to give away (each shareholder makes their own labels – ours is Domaine Dorianne), learning about winemaking by participating, chances to help with other tasks like racking, barrel tastings any time you want (need winemaker’s ok), social connection, and something to talk about at parties. We have found that it has greatly added to our wine knowledge and enjoyment. And, by the way, if you are local to our area, our co-op has a few shares available!