Well, it’s true. I love wine and know what I like, but I know almost nothing about it. Oddly, perhaps, I think that makes me a perfect wine columnist.
Because I think you can know too much. So many articles I read are too knowledgeable, and prissy. And, to be frank, when someone says they are getting hints of leather from a glass of wine, I wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper, and less calories, to just stay home and lick the couch.
Similarly, when a review of a wine says the wine suggests raspberries, or vanilla, or chocolate, and, what — essence of newly unpacked Ikea furniture kits? — I am not excited. I want wine, not raspberries, or yogurt flavorings.
I understand, or at least imagine, that the kind of rarified nose that can divine the complex flavor subtleties of a pinot noir is of great value to some people. I am not knocking it (actually, I am), I just don’t relate. I just want to know if the wine is good. I want wines to start at good and go up from there, until they are in the dizzying atmosphere of the very great. And then I want to know what the difference is, and how a great wine got there and why a merely good one never will.
And I realized I’m probably not alone! I can’t be, right? I can’t be the only person who enjoys excellent (and hopefully affordable) wine, who can’t isolate the strain of a bee’s fart in the aroma.
Perhaps you, too, don’t know a lot about wine!
I have total respect for people who really do understand the almost infinite spectrum of wine quality. The best sommeliers are great people to talk to, they explain the stories behind the making of the wine, not just blather some alien language at you. Several have written for or participated in WONDERLUST (in particular, please stand up Alex Alan, and the Obi-Wan Kenobi of viniculture, Scott Carney, who once helped us navigate the cheap bins… What distinguishes them is that they tell you useful things that will guide you to new, great wine experiences.
So that is what I want to bring you in this column — discovery, and useful information. Obviously this will have to come from outside my borders and so it shall. I’ll talk to great winemakers, and experts like Scott — Scott? Scott… come back! — and hopefully bring you some fantastic wines to consider, be enthralled by, put on a list for special occasions, and drink.
For this first column I talked to David Baird, Winemaker at Folktale, a small, sensational producer of a wide variety of bespoke wines in Monterey, Northern California.
Folktale is on 15 acres, only four and a half of which are planted with vines yielding a tiny, superbly cultivated amount of grapes. Baird meticulously prospects from surrounding vineyards for the styles they produce, ranging from sparkling Bruts, Pinot Noirs and Cabernets, to glorious whites like their Le Mistral The White Witch, and a magnificently made Viognier (and an orange one, more on that below)
This is my new favorite winery. I was turned onto them by a friend, and really surprised by the bottles I drank, particularly their Le Mistral Grenache, — that’s extraordinary — The Creator, and a Cabernet, The Hound (at $95 their most expensive release I think) and the superb whites The Lion For Real, The White Witch — which I thought was as good as a great French white — and the aforementioned Folktale Orange. There is great artistry in the making of these wines.
California wines are too often facilely dismissed as “grape juice.” I think at their best they are up there with the world’s best. There are some phenomenal, world famous winemakers in Northern California, but what’s really interesting, and so great to discover, are lesser known, newer, boutique wineries, experimenting and often scoring with fine, elegant wines. Folktale is definitely in that category.
You get most of your grapes from other vineyards. How do you go about that?
Monterey County has such a diverse climate. The closer you are to the ocean, the cooler it is. The further inland you get, the warmer it is. You’re able to grow cold climate varieties miles from things that require warm, hot climates, like Cabernet, Huberdeau, Syrah.
Sometimes the vineyard falls in your lap. There’s been years where I’ve worked with a site for one year and nothing further, for whatever reason. It takes time to figure out what sites to work with and what vineyard managers you jive with.
You make many different wines but in small productions, as little as 3,000 bottles. Is your business model to just make these bespoke, rather excellent wines, as many as the grapes allow?
We’re not a large-scale producer. We don’t have the funding to purchase 10 times the amount of grapes we’d like to. We’re also hand-selecting sites that if you don’t pick up a ton, you’re kept to a smaller quantity.
Some of our best wines are the result of taking a risk and stepping outside of the normal box of production. The overarching theme is finesse, to let the fruit speak for itself.
You reference a similarity between where you are and Rhone in France. How similar?
You go to the Rhone Valley, you’ll see a lot of alluvial deposits of sand and granite cobblestone that have come out of the hills. If you go to the Salinas Valley, predominantly the Arroyo Seco, you will see that exact same terrain.
That’s where we’re growing, in the alluvial deposits out of our beautiful hills here. They call them the Greenfield potatoes, Greenfield being the nearest city and because these granite rocks are a similar size and shape to potatoes. The Rhone Valley is really dominated by the winds that blow down the valley every afternoon, similar to the Salinas Valley. It brings fog and very cool climate for the evening, identical to here.
The soils play a huge, huge role in how grapes are grown and how they ultimately taste. These sandy soils in the Arroyo Seco do really, really well at promoting aromatic flavors.
This region has been overlooked for a long time for making quality wines. For years Monterey County was a site for mass production. It still has that, but more and more we’re seeing smaller producers make something special.
Is there another boutique guy down the road who’s doing equally great things?
I think what we do is unique enough, but we’re not 100% unique. I’d say there’s about a dozen small producers that are doing some amazing work. What we do differently is we’ve got the level of diversity — but, oh, there’s a number of people who do amazing wine locally.
What is your best wine?
We produce a wine called The Creator, a Pinot Noir predominantly driven by the whole bunch, or whole cluster of fermentation. It’s driven by the stems and the grapes all fermenting together. We picked our 10 best barrels and produced this blend. It’s a beautiful Pinot Noir.
Other people are more interested in the bigger red, Bordeaux-style wine, and we’ve got an amazing one called The Mountain. It comes out of our local Carmel Valley area. It’s an organic Cabernet Sauvignon and some Petite Bordeaux, a blend I think of only six barrels, aged for over two years in French oak.
Folktake Orange is very good, and not as orange as it sounds.
No, it’s not, and the whole style of orange wine is relatively new for consumers. It’s one of the oldest styles of wines, that they were producing in the Georgia area going back thousands of years.
You ferment Chardonnay on its skins when you’re pressing, and that gives that orange color. Some people are turned off by the color, but it’s fresh and vibrant. It’s got beautiful tropical flavors, just like a white wine might, but it’s got structure that enables it to be paired with more food than a lot of red wines, to be honest.
We’re doing it in a Solera style, which is that you have a vertical of a rack of barrels, and every vintage you put fresh fermented wine in the top barrel, and the top barrel connects to the second barrel, connects to the third, the fourth, and every Fall you bottle out of the bottom barrel. You never know exactly what blend you’ve got. The bottom barrels are always filled because they’re dripping from the barrel above it. The top barrel is very oxidated.
Essentially, it’s a blend of multiple vintages put together almost like a port or a sherry. We blended our 2020 orange wine with barrels from the ’17, ’18, ’19. In our cellar now, we’ve got barrels that are a five-year Solera. We’ll be blending those with our 2022 vintage, bottling that in about a year’s time.
We don’t stack them vertically. We’re cheating a bit. For now we’re just blending the vintages together.
Is it really that much better to wait 30 years to drink some of your wines, as suggested by Folktale?
Yes, if you’ve got the patience and an occasion to do so, sure.
Patience? I’m 67!
There’s part of the problem. You can’t always wait 30 years!
I think you can certainly wait however long you’re able to, to open a special bottle of wine, but I think it’s more about the occasion, and not always worth waiting 30 years.
Most of our wines are ready to drink immediately. We’re making them in a reductive style, meaning as minimal oxygen intervention or introduction as possible. They would benefit from aging say, six months to two to four years. There’s 5 to 10 different wines we produce that’d benefit from 5 to 10 years of aging to be really showing a lot more of their intricacies.
We’re not manipulating with enzymes. We’re do native fermentations in all of our wines. Manipulated wines taste great right out of the bottle but two years later, not as good.
What is your favorite bottle you ever had?
I think it’s about a memory, an occasion. One that really stands out was the first wine that got me into this world. Visiting some relatives in Switzerland, they pulled out a beautiful bottle of Condrieu and I was hooked. I’ve never had anything that complex and rich. I’ve searched. I was probably 15 at the time.
That Condrieu is a memory I’ll never forget. It’s the one that I draw inspiration from all the time when I produce wines.