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Alvarelhão: Forget What You Think You Know About California Wine

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's new book, Wine Grapes. Bet you can't try them all.

Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines uses a Willmes press to slowly and gently press his small batches of grapes [Photo: Matthew Rorick]

"In wine, prejudices seem to creep up on you and catch you unawares,
and they need regular and active discarding."

—Jamie Goode, scientist and wine writer, on wineanorak.com

If you ever dared to argue that California wines are boring or can't stack up against their European peers, may I humbly suggest a small New Year's resolution: to very carefully re-evaluate your notions this year.

California wine, to put it directly, is GOING OFF right now.

As many crazy grape varieties seem to be showing up as there are winemakers willing to experiment with them, and as many vineyards—new and old—are ready for the challenge. Vineyard managers are tuning into the nuances of each site, turning up their attention and, very often, turning down the technology and/or chemicals they're treating them with.

What's happening in California wine right now is a bit like the farm-to-table movement: it's a socially progressive reaction to the threat of a mass-produced wine culture. Barefoot and Charles Shaw (bless your affordable souls), I want something more!

I'm simplifying here, to be sure, but Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, and the whole real-food movement brought us together again around the dinner table by focusing on the role of the farmer and the unique, pure and simple ingredient. In a similar way, winemakers like Kevin Kelley at Salinia, Jared and Tracey Brandt at Donkey & Goat, Matthew Rorick at Forlorn Hope, and Hank Beckmeyer at La Clarine Farm (I could go on!) are reinvigorating and reuniting us by way of their wine.

A case in point: Matthew Rorick's 2011 Forlorn Hope Suspiro del Moro Alvarelhão. Matthew is ruggedly good-looking, with graying scruff on his chin and a sort of Cali-cowboy-meets-English-gentleman style. He started up his miniature 1,000-case winery in the rather random Suisun Valley AVA, southeast of Napa. Suitably, he called his project Forlorn Hope Wines. The name stems from the Dutch verloren hoop—a name given to a troop that volunteered to charge directly into enemy defenses: "the chance of success was always slim," but the tiny possibility of huge glory for survivors made it necessary to at least try.

So Matthew is trying. And, at least in my book, he absolutely deserves huge glory.

I drifted over to a friend's apartment on a drizzly, bone-chilling San Francisco night in December. Four of us sat on the floor around the coffee table as raindrops lazed down the window, and we lamented the fact that the old fireplace had been walled over. We polished off a bottle of Volnay and were about to call it a night when the Alvarelhão appeared.

I'll admit to being nervous, even though Jancis, Julia, and José assured in Wine Grapes that Alvarelhão was "potentially high-quality." A Port grape grown in California by a hipster cowboy? But my prejudices were well overdue for "regular and active discarding."

The wine made me want to use curse words—as in, are you ****ing kidding me?? Its perfume smacked me across the face: wafting star anise, sage, leather, rose hips, pine needles, coffee beans, blood oranges and the most perfectly ripe plums you could ever hope for. I loved the smell so much I almost forgot to drink it. The wine felt soft and warm yet wonderfully lightweight, like silk long underwear. I was caught between wanting to hold onto that glass all night and wanting to down it as quickly as possible so as to get first dibs on the last bit left in the bottle. There it was: as stunningly unique, compelling and unexpected a wine as the grape, vineyard, and winemaker who made it.

This wine speaks with such a wild, distinctive and beautiful accent that you can't help but ask who are you, and where are you from?

THIS is what's happening in California wine. And you get to participate. You get to ask "Who are you, and where are you from?" You get to know the winemakers and hear their stories, learn about the vineyards and the utterly fascinating grapes like Alvarelhão that they're reviving from near-extinction. You get to taste and be a part of their occasionally bat-shit-crazy, forlorn-hope-filled experiments that are part of the bigger picture of what makes life interesting, at all, in the first place.

2011 Forlorn Hope Suspiro del Moro Alvarelhão
The Grape: Alvarelhão
The Region: Suisun Valley, California
Retail price: $22

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.

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