Another variable in the winemaking process: Climate change
By Eric Asimov
If anyone doubts the jarring effect that climate change has already had on the California wine industry, ample evidence was on display in late March at Donkey & Goat’s outdoor tasting area in this neighborhood of motorcycle repair shops and urban wineries.
At picnic tables in front of a graffitied cinder block wall, visitors sampled Donkey & Goat’s newly released natural wines, a group that even the producer’s most ardent fans would not recognize.
Instead of the usual bottles highlighting the hyperspecific terroir characteristics of single vineyards in Northern California, stretching from Mendocino and Sonoma east to El Dorado and the Sierra Foothills, the 2021 Donkey & Goat wines available to taste were either labeled with the generic “California” appellation or came from vineyards that had not been part of its usual lineup.
Wine fans who cherish bottles with a sense of place look for specificity in appellations, hoping the wines will reflect the qualities of an area or vineyard. That has always been Donkey & Goat’s strong suit. In the past, any of its wine labeled “California” was made from inexpensive grapes and carried a modest price tag.
But this year, some of its most expensive grapes are going into those “California” wines. Crops from multiple appellations were combined in an effort to make up for shortfalls after the 2021 fires in Northern California.
The catastrophic fires of the past few growing seasons on the West Coast have turned what was once the relatively routine, joyful-if-adrenaline-fueled annual ritual of harvest and winemaking into a period of fear and anxiety. Growers and winemakers now must consider whether fires will come again and what to do about it.
Fire damage, along with smoke and ash, is devastating to any vineyard and producer. Those wineries owned by billionaires or big corporations have the resources to withstand diminished harvests, or even a year or two with no wine at all. But small businesses like Donkey & Goat now face existential threats each year and wonder if they will be able to make enough wine to cover costs.
As a matter of survival, West Coast wineries have had to innovate, turning grapes that might have been destined for one sort of wine into a completely different one.
Tracey Rogers Brandt, the general manager and winemaker for Donkey & Goat, is hoping that the unusual wines she was compelled to make in 2021 will not be demeaned because they are different or unexpected. She hopes that what she calls her “climate-driven creative wines” will be recognized as inventive responses to disastrous events and valued accordingly.
Every year Isabel’s Cuvée, a single-vineyard rosé made from grenache gris grown on the Gibson Ranch in the McDowell Valley of Mendocino County, is a core wine for Donkey & Goat.
Rogers Brandt had plenty of grapes in 2021 to produce the usual amount of Isabel’s. But the Caldor Fire ravaged vineyards in El Dorado, where Donkey & Goat obtains nearly 55% of the grapes for its annual production of red wines.
Donkey & Goat was able to salvage roughly 40% of its red grapes, mostly syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. But when smoke and ash settle on red grapes, the grape skins, which provide color and structure to the wine, must be discarded. Red wine cannot be produced without subjecting the wine to the sorts of technological manipulations Donkey & Goat abhors.
In such cases, many wineries would use the grapes to make a simple rosé. Rogers Brandt could have made an innocuous rosé to sell alongside Isabel’s Cuvée. But she said that would not have been satisfying aesthetically, and she would have lost money on the wine.
She decided instead to combine the rosé made from these grapes with the rosé destined for Isabel’s Cuvée. Feeling the wine was still missing something, she added some pinot gris from the 2020 vintage, made in the ramato style, in which the juice and skins are macerated together, adding texture and color. Federal rules permit up to 15% of a blend from a vintage other than the stated year.
The result, labeled Gris Gris, is delightful — lively, tangy, refreshing and bone dry, with flavors of fruits and herbs. It includes grapes from McDowell Valley, Anderson Valley and El Dorado, hence the California appellation. Rogers Brandt is selling the wine for $32 a bottle, roughly equivalent to Isabel’s Cuvée despite the appellation.
“I can’t survive if I have climate impact and have to designate wines ‘California’ and sell them for a song,” she said. “People say, ‘It’s not a vineyard-designate, it should be cheaper.’ No, I should charge more because my expenses are so much higher.”
Donkey & Goat, like many small wineries without vineyards of their own, must develop partnerships with growers to assure a steady supply of fruit. This is doubly important for producers like Rogers Brandt, who works primarily with organic and biodynamic vineyards.
This requires forging sympathetic, long-term relationships. Rogers Brandt recalled some good advice she got from an early mentor, Éric Texier, an excellent Rhône producer: “Spend time and money finding the right growers. It’s like finding partners for life.”
The notion of buying grapes for better or worse is challenging in difficult years. In 2008, her first vintage affected by fires, grapes from vineyards she worked with in Mendocino were tainted by smoke. She bought them anyway, although she had to subject the wines to reverse osmosis, a technological process that can mitigate the taint. The wines were sold under a different label.
“The 2008 vintage nearly killed us,” she said. “But we were able to maintain relationships with growers.”
Faced with fires in both 2020 and 2021, many winemakers bailed on growers or bought only a portion of their allotment. It’s a difficult situation for all concerned, but Rogers Brandt said it was crucial to support growers.
“You can’t just buy grapes in the good years,” she said. “That’s not going to work for growers. To preserve vineyards and farming, you have to keep it going.”
Wines like Gris Gris permitted her to move ahead with the harvest, even if the result differed from the original vision.
“It allowed me to pick grapes that would have gone unused or wouldn’t have been picked,” she said. “We can do fun things, but we have to reevaluate the value.”
Rogers Brandt faced a slightly different situation with the 2020 fires. That year, she harvested grapes that she expected to be fine. Only during the winemaking process did she discover they had been affected by smoke. She made what she could, even if the results, she said, left her heartbroken.
“I was so devastated,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to have the problems I had. It was just reactive — there was no creativity in doing something that was different but delicious.”
She vowed not to be caught off guard again. In the early part of 2021, she made a point of tasting many natural wines, looking for inspiration for what she called Plan B Wines if again confronted with fires.
“I wanted to look forward to the promise of the new vintage and the satisfaction in the creation of new wines,” she said. “It may not be what I expected to do, but I wanted to have that freedom to play and to feel satisfied at the end rather than to feel so disappointed.”
Her other improvised 2021s, all with the California appellation, include Cannonball, an unusual blend of carignan and grüner veltliner with dollops of chardonnay, grenache blanc and vermentino from Mendocino, Monterey and El Dorado, bright, fruity and savory, all knit together with a thread of tannin, for $36; a light and pleasing pétillant naturel made of Monterey grüner veltliner and Anderson Valley chardonnay for $40; and Skinny Dip, for $36, which requires a bit of explanation.
After she made the Isabel’s Cuvée, which went into her Gris Gris, Rogers Brandt took the pomace — the residue of pulp, skins, stems and seeds left from the winemaking process — and put it into a clay vat. She then filled it with a rosé of grenache noir from El Dorado and let them sit together for 12 days. The result was a dark rosé that was delicious, bright and lively.
“It was so good I’m going to do it again,” she said. “During harvest I thought I was going to lose my business. I didn’t know if I could pay my people. And I love these wines.”
Not that Donkey & Goat only made blends across appellations. It did make some single vineyard reds from grapes that Rogers Brandt was able to get through the community she has developed over the years, including a bright pinot meunier from the Russian River Valley and an extraordinary, deliciously spicy wine from a practically unknown variety, cabernet pfeffer, grown at Siletto Family Vineyards in San Benito County.
The experience of 2021, she said, has given her the confidence to face whatever twists that climate change will surely bring in the future.
“Look, this isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “We all have an existential crisis. We have to figure out a way to create and find joy in making wine.”