Thursday, November 5, 2009

Urban Winemaking at Dashe Cellars

Ask any hundred people what they consider the heartland of California wine country and Napa will no doubt top the list, followed closely by Sonoma. Ask the same group – and this implies the participants have at least some basic familiarity with the subject matter – about California’s new frontier and I’d hazard a guess that Santa Barbara or Paso Robles, maybe the Santa Rita Hills, would come out ahead. Yet more and more, some of the most compelling wines being produced in California today are coming from winemakers based within the urban landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The godfather of this “new school” is no doubt Steve Edmunds, who’s been producing characterful wines that buck the trend of over-saturated, Californicated fruit since 1985 and doing so right in the heart of Berkeley. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his neighbors at Edmunds St. John include the likes of Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch…. On the more freshly cut edge of the movement is the Natural Process Alliance, leading the locavore, low impact and natural wine front from its headquarters in Santa Rosa. Sandwiched between those two – both geographically and chronologically – is Dashe Cellars.

Michael and his wife Anne Dashe produced their first Dashe Cellars release, a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, in 1996. Over a dozen vintages later, they’re going strong, having slowly but surely garnered praise from the traditional wine press – they’ve made Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Top 100 Wineries list on several occasions – as well as from, more recently, natural wine cognoscenti. In 2005, Mike and Anne moved their winery to its current home in an industrial district of Oakland where, in the shadows of I-880, they share a 16,000 square foot warehouse/winemaking facility with JC Cellars. Dashe now produces approximately 10,000 cases (120,000 bottles) of wine per year, about 85% of which is Zinfandel.

During my recent trip to San Francisco, I had the chance to catch up with Mike and to visit Dashe Cellars in the full tilt of autumn harvest season. I’ll let the pictures, captions and tasting notes below tell the story. For more information, check out the Dashes’ website and be sure to (re)visit the interview I did with Mike earlier this year for 31 Days of Natural Wine.

Dashe Cellars shares a barn-red, relatively no-frills warehouse (located at 55 4th Street in Oakland, CA) about 60/40 with JC Cellars.

JC works the new barrels (look ma, no stains) to the left of Dashe’s three foudres, while Mike’s production inhabits the remainder of the warehouse, populated primarily by racks of older barriques and the ubiquitous phalanx (not pictured) of stainless steel fermentation tanks.

As mentioned above, we visited during a very busy day in late September, at the heart of NorCal harvest season. This was the second of three truckloads of grapes of the day for Dashe. The first, Petite Sirah, had arrived in the morning hours. This load of Zin arrived shortly after we did in the early afternoon, while a third truck pulled up with the day’s final delivery of Zinfandel just as we were saying our goodbyes. The Dashes, who own no vineyards themselves, source their fruit from primarily organic farms, with which they have long-term contracts, in the Dry Creek, Russian River, Alexander and Potter Valleys of California.

With freshness always foremost in mind, the fruit is moved quickly from the truck to the bin turner in half-ton crates. The process is pretty much business as usual, with Mike and his crew aiming to keep handling and manipulation of the fruit to a minimum. All fruit is hand sorted to remove leaves and any sub-par grapes, not to mention the occasional earwig. From there, it's on to the crusher/destemmer, from which the crushed juice is gently pumped into the waiting tanks inside the winery. All of Dashe's wines see a high percentage of whole berry fermentation; however, all of the Zins – and other wines at Mike's discretion – also receive a dose of press juice (that's Mike's pneumatic press in the bottom right photo) to ensure enough structure to support their ample fruit.

Back in the winery, the work is all focused on keeping the wines pure and expressive, with as little manipulation and adulteration as possible. Mike and Anne do much of the work themselves, helped by a rotating group of interns from enology schools such as UC Davis or by visiting wine makers from other regions. Mike commented that his interns are nearly always shocked to find that very nearly nothing is added to the fermenting and aging wines. Dashe ferments all of his wines, including the white and rosé, on their native yeasts. No commercial yeast, enzymes, acids or other additives/adjuncts are ever used (and Mike does not believe that cross-contamination occurs from the commercial yeast strains being used in the same warehouse space by JC Cellars). A small dose of sulfur dioxide is added at crush and again, though only if necessary and never for "L'Enfant Terrible," at bottling.

Mike is particularly happy with (and proud of) the results he's getting with the three foudres he purchased new from Tonnellerie Rousseau. The majority of Dashe's wines are still aged in older barriques but Mike plans to move more and more toward aging in larger casks as time and cash flow (those foudres are expensive) permit.

Our pals from Monterey, Steve and Stacy, had visited Dashe a few months earlier, not long after reading my interview with Mike, so they were already well acquainted with the wines. While pouring us tastes of a few of his current releases, Mike regaled us with some pretty hilarious stories of his past days writing technical user manuals for Atari. I guess a winery profile like this wouldn't be complete without at least a couple of tasting notes, so:
  • 2008 Dry Riesling, McFadden Farms, Potter Valley (13.8%). Very ripe, round aromas of yellow plums and pineapple. Firm acidity. Succulent. Not as bracingly mineral as I might like but a very fine Cali Riesling.

  • 2008 Grenache, Dry Creek Valley (13.8%). California Grenache under 14% alcohol? Yep. Very fresh, vibrant red berry fruit. Aged in old wood only. Gentle tannins and, for Grenache, good acidity. This reminded me very much of the style of Mike's "L'Enfant Terrible" Zinfandel. Lighter, brighter and fresher than more typical CA varietal expressions.

  • 2008 Zinfandel "L'Enfant Terrible," McFadden Farms, Potter Valley (13.8%). California Zinfandel under 14% alcohol. Yep. The fruit for "the wild child" is sourced from the same cool, high altitude farm from which Mike purchases his Riesling. Macerated strawberries and pepper on the nose. Brightly textured and fresh, though a bit richer than the '07 version. In 2007, 280 cases of the 600 case production of "L'Enfant" were sold at The Slanted Door. As hinted at in the Grenache note above, Mike is considering creating other "L'Enfant Terrible" bottlings in the coming years.

  • 2006 Zinfandel, Florence Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (14.5%). Produced from young vine fruit. Super ripe on the nose and palate, full of raisins, chocolate and plum pudding but balanced by crunchy tannins.

  • 2007 Zinfandel "Old Vines," Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley (14.7%). From 50 year-old vines. This was a stark contrast to the Florence Vineyard bottling; a much more elegant, structured style, showing coffee, licorice, blackberry and dark chocolate notes but on a finer, more restrained frame.

  • 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley (14.1%). Harvested at 40 brix, finished at 9% RS. Mike allows the fermentation to stop naturally then filters the wine to remove any yeast cells (and to prevent the possibility of re-fermentation) prior to bottling. Pretty damn tasty served, as the Dashes did, with a nibble of dark chocolate.

Clearly less comfortable at the computer and cash register than amongst the barrels, Mike called his wife Anne down from the winery office to meet us and help with our end of visit purchases. In case you've ever wondered about the winery's logo, I can now unequivocally confirm that Mike is the monkey and Anne is the fish.

Dashe Cellars is just a short walk from the Merrit Lake BART station, a quick drive across the Bay Bridge from downtown San Fracisco, and is also easily accessible from the greater Oakland and Berkeley areas. (We popped over to West Berkeley for pizza and beer at Lanesplitter after our visit.) Their tasting room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from noon to 6:00 PM.

Dashe Cellars
55 4th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 452-1800


1WineDude said...

Great coverage!

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Joe.

Old Vine Zin said...

Michael and Anne are definitely "living the dream" on their own terms. They seem to have carved out a niche between the traditional winemaker (on-site, walking the vineyard) and a negociant.

They'll serve as a model for other "new-schoolers," and we'll all get to enjoy the results.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for your comment. In the context of the old world, I think your comment would be spot on. In the new world, though, where the "traditional winemaker" is so rarely on-site and walking the vineyard, I think Mike and Anne's approach, though it certainly is a négoce model, is ahead of the norm and much more in touch with the vines and a sense of place. In any event, I certainly enjoy the results of their endeavors.

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