Serious Eats: Drinks
For Valentine's Day, Pour Wines from Winemaking Couples
Would you start a business with your spouse? These five couples did, and not just any business—the business of making wine. It's one part agriculture, one part artistry, and two parts dogged determination, but for these winemakers, the rewards of keeping it all in the family far outweigh the stress.
Not that these couples always agree on everything. In fact, they readily admit differences of opinion about wine styles, production, marketing. That's natural when each person has latitude and owns their piece of the process.
But overwhelmingly these five winemaking couples report that conflict breeds creativity. All of them share a passion for the craft and a vision to create something bigger and more beautiful than would be possible working alone. That's part of what makes their wines so special.
This Valentine's Day, reach for a bottle made by a couple in love—and pour it on.
Heike and Gernot Heinrich of Weingut Heinrich in Burgenland, Austria
They may have met over beers in a pub in Salzburg, but Gernot and Heike Heinrich have built their lives together around wine. They got their start in 1990 with a tiny 2.5-acre vineyard around the banks of Lake Neusiedl, in Austria's eastern fringe, purchased from Gernot's family. They started their own family at roughly the same time. Hectic? Maybe, but Gernot says that the move seemed "so very natural."
The couple now farms 200 acres of traditional Austrian varieties like Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, St. Laurent, and Weissburgunder. But at heart they're innovators, balancing tradition with modernity. Their sleek production facility, completed in 2000, is both a stylish glass-and-concrete pavilion and a practical working winery. In 2006, they began converting their vineyards to Biodynamics. They make heavy use of homemade composts, cover crops, and preparations of chamomile, nettle, or horsetail to ensure vineyard health.
Their Zweigelt and red blend exhibit the peppery notes characteristic of cool-climate reds. I loved their flavors of rose hips, currant, and cranberry, and the juicy acidity that makes these wines excellent with food. The Heinrichs recommend serving their wines with "seasonal vegetables (asparagus!), and meat from wild species from our region: deer, hare, wild pig, or beef."
What's the best part about working together? "Sticking together all the time," Gernot says. "It's still exciting."
Find Weingut Heinrich online.
Megan and Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars in Healdsburg, California
By the time she was sixteen, Megan Glaab knew she'd become a winemaker. She applied to winemaking programs at Fresno State and U.C. Davis, but decided enroll at University of Adelaide. "My mom was terrified," Megan recalls of her decision to move to another hemisphere for college. "She said to me, 'I will fully support this on one condition: That you do not fall in love and get married in Australia.'"
Fast-forward four years. In her final year at university, Megan worked harvest at Torbreck Winery in the Barossa, and met a young man named Ryan. Sure enough, they fell in love. "I called my parents and said, 'I've met the one. He's it.'" she said, "'But—surprise!—he's from California.'"
Ryan Glaab had started college at U.C. San Diego, a pre-med majoring in bioengineering, but after the trauma of organic chemistry, he transferred to Fresno State to study winemaking. He also began working at wineries during harvest, eventually finding his way to Australia—and to Megan.
Once back in California, the couple started their own winery with a single ton of Aglianico grapes. As Ryme Cellars grew, they expanded their line, but still work with grapes less common in California, like Ribolla Gialla, Cabernet Franc, and Vermentino. "They're great varieties," Ryan says. "Delicious, approachable—and they shine in our climate."
In 2011, they added Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to their production, under a new label called Verse. I found all of their wines to be focused and elegant, with crisp lines that show what these European grapes can do when allowed to express themselves in a New World region. The style might be best described as "The Old-World under California sunshine." Still, the wines are far from plush. "We have a minimalist approach," says Megan. "We don't alter the juice in any way. We work with what the vintage gives us."
Stylistically they almost always agree. Almost. Their "His" and "Hers" Vermentinos are a case in point. She wanted to make a fresh, crisp white like versions from Italy's Ligurian coast. He had a different idea: ferment the grape on its skins to make a round, textural orange wine.
The compromise? Make both, of course. "Virtually everybody who tastes them feels obligated to throw down a verdict," says Ryan. "They're like, 'Sorry, but I like hers better!' But for us it's not like that at all. It's about two different possibilities for that variety."
"We still collaborate on them, of course," continues Megan, "Though each has the final say. It's funny. We find these two wines are the ones people are most drawn to, because it's interesting to see the same fruit from same site produced completely differently, and see the impact on the wines."
What's the best part of working together? "It's challenging to work with a partner—any partner, but especially in a marriage, where you're always together," says Ryan. But it doesn't really feel like work, Megan quickly adds. "It's not our job. It's our love and passion. We're incredibly lucky."
Find Ryme Cellars online.
Jessica Boone Bilbro and Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines in Healdsburg, California
You could call it destiny. Bond's Green Destiny, to be precise. That's the name of a cocktail of Sapphire Gin, half a kiwi (muddled), apple juice, and a touch of citrus. It's tasty, but pretty annoying to make for a bartender, especially if you're a gin purist like Sam Bilbro.
He was bartending the night Jessica Boone ordered one after a long shift at Armida Winery. He passed the drink across the counter, and they struck up a conversation about music, about wine, about winemaking. "It's a good cocktail, but it just never quite worked for me. When she ordered it, I had to come to terms with the fact that the drink wasn't my favorite, but it served a good purpose."
Jessica had hurtled into winemaking after college, landing a gig as winemaker after only her fourth harvest. Sam, on the other hand, grew up in wine, trooping through vineyards and doing late night pump-overs with his dad at the family's winery, Marietta Cellars. He always knew he'd end up in wine industry, he just wasn't sure how.
Then he met Jessica, and they knew almost from the get-go that they wanted to start making wine together. "Jessica is, for lack of a better word, a kick-ass winemaker," says Sam says. "It was pretty obvious it would have been silly and redundant for me to go to school for that."
Meanwhile, Jessica was happy for Sam's complementary skills. "I would never have started a label on my own," she says, "because I know I can make wine, but I also know that I can't sell it."
Nominally, Sam now focuses on the business side, including branding, merchandising, tasting room, national sales, marketing, and product strategy, but also spends a lot of time in the vineyard. Jessica directs winemaking.
Like Ryme Cellars, Idlewild focuses on grapes somewhat unusual in California, Italian varieties like Arneis, Dolcetto, and Cortese, plus French grapes Carignan and Syrah and the extremely rare Grenache Gris. The wines aren't exactly straight-ahead California style, either. The Cortese was fermented on its skins, giving it heft and savoriness. The Grenache Gris underwent five days of sealed carbonic maceration.
"I come from a pretty conservative background," Jessica says. "And Sam definitely had a style in mind, a vision. He wanted to try some things with the varietals, like carbonic or whole-cluster, that were beyond my education. But it was a great learning experience to try these things, and now I'm a huge fan."
"We're both pretty stubborn people," says Sam. "I'm probably the more stubborn. I'll admit that. Sometimes I think I get her to stretch. But the reality is that she's the one who knows how to do it all. It's definitely her domain and her skillset. I kind of wish I knew more."
I asked the Bilbros if they had any advice for a couple who shares a bottle of their wine. "I think wine can be a connection point for people," Jessica ventured. "Maybe it sparks a conversation, or maybe it just makes conversation a little bit easier. I think it's neat to be a part of that, however that happens—to help maintain a connection."
Find Idlewild Wines online.
Jody Brix Towe and Emily Towe of J.Brix Wines in Escondido, California
Blame it on a bottle of Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido Vineyard. "There was just something about it that really spoke to us in a different way than we'd ever experienced before," says Emily Towe. "We drank it and thought, 'We've got to find out where this came from!'" So on their tenth wedding anniversary, Emily and her husband Jody attended a party at the winery—which coincidentally was also celebrating its tenth anniversary—and felt right at home. The winemakers took a shine to them, and asked them to come back that season to help with harvest.
"The first day we worked from sunrise when the grapes were being delivered, then worked all day, late into the night. After all the other volunteers had gone home, we were still wanting to scrub, and clean, and get messy and sticky, and—We loved it."
That was in 2007, and by 2009 they'd started their own garage winemaking project with a ton of Grenache and a half-ton of Syrah. "I think the fact that we didn't really know what we were doing was a huge benefit," Emily says. "There was less to worry about! We didn't have a whole lot riding on it."
Still, they knew they were onto something when Matthew Rorick, winemaker of Forlorn Hope Wines, tasted their fledgling efforts. "He said something like, 'You guys, this is really good. Like, really, really good,'" Emily recalls.
Emboldened, the couple expanded their production, hitting 700 cases in 2013. They hope eventually to reach 2,000 or 2,500. They still make that Grenache and Syrah, but have added Pinot Noir, Carignan, and Riesling, including a pétillant naturel sparkling Riesling last year that sold out in a flash.
They've moved out of the garage, too, into a shared facility, and their wines have landed in cities throughout California and New York, scoring placements at illustrious locations like Chez Panisse and Contra. Given the success, J.Brix is unlikely to have difficulty finding homes for their expanding production.
What's the best part about working together? "We can be creative together, and not just do the mundane day-to-day things," says Jody. "You can work for 12- or 14-hour days and it doesn't translate as a job or work."
"It's nice to have somebody else around to bounce your crazy ideas off," continues Emily. "And then make something from that—something real that you can hold in your hands, and smell and taste and experience."
Find J. Brix online.
Jorge Serodio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva of Wine & Soul in Pinhão, Portugal
Jorge Serodio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva met in 1999 while she was working as a harvest intern at Quinta Vale D. Maria and he was the winemaker for the venerated port house Niepoort.
In 2001 they purchased an old port lodge in Pinhão, in the heart of the Cima Corgo district of the Douro River valley. The property's six hectares of steep, rugged terraces boast an ancient olive grove along with its 2.5-hectare vineyard. Breathing new life into an old estate was a lot of work, but a practical way to get started. It also resonated with the couple's aesthetic.
"Our philosophy from the start was to preserve and explore the extraordinary potential of old vineyards at Douro Valley, with all their diversity, complexity and balance," Sandra writes. Older vineyards in the region traditionally are planted with a wide variety of indigenous grapes, like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Gouveio, and others, so wines are traditionally field blends. Such diversity in ripening times can make it difficult for wineries to aim for a particular stylistic profile, but Wine & Soul embraces the challenge.
"We are preserving these amazing old vines, learning with them, and using traditional techniques and methods for winegrowing and winemaking."
Wine & Soul's red blends offer inky black fruits with pleasing tea-tannins; unsurprisingly, they taste like a traditional port without the fortification. Their 10-year tawny port is lovely, a deep red amber color with flavors of red berries, nuts, and vanilla balanced by glittery acidity. The couple recommends serving steak, lamb, duck, or pheasant with the table wines, and almond desserts with the Tawny.
What's the best part about working together? "Being able to follow our dreams, continue to have new projects, and share all our achievements and failures," Sandra says. "We really complete each other. It's teamwork."
Find Wine & Soul online.
About the Author: Meg Houston Maker is a wine writer who contributes regularly to food, wine, and lifestyle publications. Find her musings about the pleasures of the table at Maker's Table and follow her on Twitter at @megmaker.