Winemaker Chris Brockway punches down a bin full of carignan grapes. Broc Cellars is one of the few wineries that bottles carignan as a varietal. Photo by Sara Kraus.
Chris Brockway represents a new breed of winemaker helping to change California’s palate.
If you’ve read even just a few of my articles in these pages, it would be entirely reasonable to conclude that this California native has a bias against California wines. I’ve made unfavorable analogies between the Napa Valley and places such as Las Vegas and Disneyland. Places, to borrow a phrase from John Lennon, where nothing is real. I’ve climbed on soapboxes to denounce the predominance of jammy, high alcohol, overly oaked, chemical- and machine-manipulated wines that, to me, taste like bubble gum followed by a vodka chaser. And you know what? I’m not stopping now.
And yes, I do have a bias–to put it more positively– toward wines of restraint, low alcohol, bright acidity and minerality: terroir-driven wines that are organically raised in the vineyard and, while being carefully nurtured, are at the same time relatively un-manipulated in the cellar. I like harmonious wines that go well with food.
Although my vinous preferences do not deliberately exclude California, our state’s quarter-century infatuation with power over finesse has driven me increasingly to Europe (a huge growing region that, no matter how “Old World,” also produces a fair share of its own “New World”-style wines). But it wasn’t always this way. I well remember California Cabernets from the ’70s and ’80s–from producers such as Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Stag’s Leap and Ridge, to name only a few–that were anything but the 15-degree “fruit bombs” to which many wine drinkers have since become accustomed. And I recently had the privilege to drink a 1961 Heitz Cellars Chardonnay that showed remarkable liveliness for a 50-year-old bottle (though its still fresh acidity was likely, at least in part, due to a heavy dose of sulfur).
Of wines and trends
But just as politics, film, music, and food are not immune to trends, neither is wine. The “natural wine” movement I wrote about in our last issue explored the backlash that has occurred against the technology-driven practices that have created factory-made, one-note wines. The movement first caught fire in Europe, especially in the wine bars that have sprung up in Paris over the past decade, and is rapidly gaining momentum here in California.
Of course many veteran winemakers–including some that have been written about here (John Williams at Frog’s Leap, Robert Sinskey and Mick Unti) and some that haven’t, such as Steve Edmunds of Edmunds Saint-John–never subscribed to the Vegas showgirl approach to vinification, and were producing naturally made wines before there was any such category, or trend.
But what we’re seeing now is something a bit different. Inspired by the expressive freshness and individuality of the natural wines they’ve tasted, there is a rising new breed of California winemaker creating the kind of wines that are once again getting me excited about what the state has to offer. These young winemakers rarely have the money it takes to purchase land and raise their own grapes, let alone to build a showcase winery. Instead, they cultivate relationships with like-minded growers, and often seek out cooler-climate vineyards in order to vinify wines that are less fruit-forward, less alcoholic and somewhat more European in style, while still managing to remain distinctly Californian. Although he is hardly alone, Chris Brockway practically defines this new breed.
All the best winemakers are from Nebraska
Like many Bay Area residents, Chris Brockway originates from the Midwest. Somehow, even in Nebraska, where he likes to joke that all the best winemakers come from, he developed an early interest in wine. As it is with most Americans, wine wasn’t a part of Brockway’s culture in Omaha. But his stepfather did have a passion for Grand Cru Burgundy, and the labels he saw in the cellar held an early fascination for Brockway.
After earning a degree in philosophy, Brockway, like so many who pursued hard-to-employ educations, found himself waiting tables at a Seattle restaurant. It was here that a bottle of 1989 Vieux Télégraphe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape opened his mind to the possibilities of great winemaking. Tasting berries that had been transformed into a thing of such complexity in the glass would set Brockway on a new course.
At Fresno State he studied both winemaking and viticulture, and earned his second degree in enology. Brockway moved to the Bay Area in 2002, and started his career at a large East Bay winery. “I’m an expert in yeast, bacteria, oak, enzymes, tannins–the kitchen sink approach. But that’s how people learn in every trade–by learning what not to do–so I don’t consider it a negative but a positive.
Brockway now takes exactly the opposite approach to winemaking: He uses none of these modern techniques. His wines ferment on native yeasts, he adds nothing in the cellar save for minimal amounts of sulfur to ensure stability and he uses but the smallest percentage of new oak barrels.
Broc and Broadside
Brockway began making his own wine in 2004, and has worked exclusively for his own labels since 2006: Broc Cellars, which is his alone and based in Berkeley, and Broadside Wines, which is a collaborative effort between Brockway and Brian Terrizzi of Giornata, an Italian-varietal specialist located in San Luis Obispo County.
The memory of that ’89 Vieux Télégraphe still lingers. At Broc Cellars, Brockway’s love of Rhône varietals has led him to make two separate lots of Grenache, the staple of the Southern Rhône, and two of Syrah, its Northern counterpart. Broc Cellars’ current selection of nine wines also includes a “Carbonic” Carignan, another Southern French grape; a Petite Sirah, a Pinot Noir and two “Vine Starr” wines, a red and a white. The red is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Carignan; the white marries Chardonnay with the Rhone’s Rousanne and Picpoul, an ancient varietal from the Languedoc. The “Vine Starr” name, by the way, is more down-to-earth than it sounds. “Vine Starr is a great-great-great-uncle’s name from the early 1800s,” Brockway explains. “It seemed like such a natural fit, Vine Starr Brockway from Norway.”
Although most of the wines listed above hail from vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, which produced roughly 200 cases of each, Brockway has been migrating some of his grape sourcing to the Central Coast. “I like the soil type,” he says, “that heavy, calcareous, limestone soil that locks in a lot of acid.”
Brockway and Terrizzi’s two Broadside releases reflect this shift. Their Chardonnay comes from 30-plus-year-old vines grown at the renowned James Berry Vineyard, and their Cabernet Sauvignon from the lesser-known Margarita Vineyard. Although the Margarita Cabernet is in the Paso Robles appellation, “where people have a tendency to dial it up to 11,” Brockway laments, the vineyard itself sits at a thousand-foot elevation that’s only seven miles from San Luis Obispo and 14 miles from the ocean. Brockway likes the good acid structure this vineyard provides, and as a bonus the grapes are significantly less expensive than Cabernet from other areas. Still, he admits that a lot of winemakers don’t like the region. “They wonder if anything gets ripe down there. I guess it depends on what you mean by ripe,” he adds with a chuckle.
Only 20 bucks?
Chris Brockway and Brian Terrizzi started Broadside in 2006, largely because they realized that there was a niche market for more affordable wines. “People kept scaling up,” recalls Brockway. “Grapes were getting more expensive, wines were getting more expensive, and people were pooh-poohing cheap wines. It’s important to me that the wines I like to drink be affordable.”
And it’s true, Broadside releases retail for a very reasonable $20 per bottle. But Brockway’s proletariat nature is also to be found in his Broc Cellars wines. Although, yes, the 2007 “Philary Vineyard” Syrah sells for $75 a bottle, Broc’s eight other releases sell for between $20 and $30. “People often ask, ‘How can you make a living if you sell it for only 20 bucks? And you made only 177 cases?’ But it needs to be understood that there aren’t a lot of hands in the pot,” he points out. “This is a lean operation.”
Indeed it is. When I interviewed Brockway for this article, he’d just returned from a month-long road trip to sell his wines before this year’s harvest came in. “Look,” he said, “I’m not paying a marketing guy, there’s no vineyard consultant, there’s no winemaking consultant, and there are no bags of yeasts. These things cost money. My philosophy (and Brian’s) is to make this much wine this year, sell it, make a little bit more next year, sell that, and build the business organically.”
Inspirations and aspiration
As we discussed wines that have influenced or otherwise inspired him, Brockway mentioned Thierry Allemand in Cornas, adding that the Northern Rhône is his currently his favorite region. He also brought up Thierry Puzelat in the Loire, as well as that region’s Pierre & Catherine Breton, who are mainly known for their Cabernet Franc. “But I like that they’re doing sparkling wines, too,” said Brockway, “Which in California is pretty much left to the large houses.” The Breton’s have inspired Brockway to try his hand at his own pétillant naturel–or natural sparkling wine. “If I don’t add yeast to my still wines I can hardly justify adding it in order to make a sparkler. So that’s a project for this year, figuring out how to do it.”
Speaking of natural wines, Brockway concluded, “I don’t push the natural wine thing. It’s what works for me. You know, it takes a lot of work to do very little to a wine.”
Tasting Notes: New releases, Broc Cellars and Broadside
2009 Broc Cellars “Vine Starr” White ($20) This lovely and unusual wine delivers rich yet bright flavors, and floral/herb aromas reminiscent of whites from the Rhône. The blend is 50% James Berry Vineyard Chardonnay, 25% sevenday skin contact Rousanne from El Dorado County (in other words, treated like red grapes) and 25% Picpoul from the Luna Matta Vineyard in Paso Robles. As Brockway explains it, “This 13.1% ABV blend came about because we do a 100% James Berry Chardonnay for Broadside, and I had a little bit fermented on the side in small stainless steel lots. I liked the fruit the Chardonnay gave it, then the tactile nature of the skin-contact Rousanne and the soft acid on the finish from the Picpoul.” 144 cases produced.
2009 Broc Cellars ”Carbonic” Carignan ($20) A favorite among those who know Broc wines, this bright, light, delicious, 12.8% ABV Carignan comes from a 120-year-old block in a vineyard on the Alexander Valley/Mendocino County border. “The grapes are dry-farmed, just like they were when the vineyard was first planted in the early 1900s,” says Brockway. “I filled a stainless tank with the Carignan grapes, then displaced all the air with CO 2. The CO 2 permeates the grape skin to start an intracellular fermentation, giving the wine a higher perceived acidity and berry fruit characteristics, but with lower tannin. The other 20% was fermented traditionally, and aged for four months in neutral French oak barrels. 229 cases produced.
2009 Broadside Chardonnay, James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles ($20) A favorite among those who know Broc wines, this bright, light, delicious, 12.8% ABV Carignan comes from a 120-year-old block in a vineyard on the Alexander Valley/Mendocino County border. “The grapes are dry-farmed, just like they were when the vineyard was first planted in the early 1900s,” says Brockway. “I filled a stainless tank with the Carignan grapes, then displaced all the air with CO 2. The CO 2 permeates the grape skin to start an intracellular fermentation, giving the wine a higher perceived acidity and berry fruit characteristics, but with lower tannin. The other 20% was fermented traditionally, and aged for four months in neutral French oak barrels. 229 cases produced.
2008 Broadside Cabernet Sauvignon, Margarita Vineyard, Paso Robles ($20) The third year of production, Broadside’s 2008 is 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petite Verdot. At 14.1% ABV, it reminds me of California Cabernets from the ’70s and ’80s: wines of structure, restraint and moderate alcohol. It has classic aromas of plum, saddle leather, and lead pencil, with soft tannins and good structure. Naturally made, and fermented with native yeasts, the wine is aged in all French oak, but only 2% of it is new. “I didn’t think it would be as enjoyable as it is,” said Brockway, “but it’s a nice wine at a great price that people enjoy. I added a touch of sulfur after malolactic fermentation, a touch during aging, because we use used barrels, and a touch at bottling, which I like because it brings out the acid.” 4,600 cases produced.