Grist for the Hill: Jay Kell and Mike Brunson walk the vineyards just before harvest.
On the Verge
New Dry Creek Valley boutique label goes into the wild
By Ella Lawrence
Up on Bradford Mountain at the western edge of Healdsburg's Dry Creek Valley appellation, two pigs lorded over a block of Syrah until two months ago. The hogs, "Pâté" and "Bacon," were raised sustainably among the vines; this summer, their owners hosted a series of barbecues—starring the pigs—to celebrate the release of their first wine.
The new label, Verge, is made by Michel-Schlumberger's winemaker Mike Brunson. Along with his partner, Jay Kell—who worked in the cellar at Michel-Schlumberger and Stag's Leap before returning to Schlumberger as a wine educator—Brunson puts several of Michel-Schlumberger's philosophies to work. Brunson and Kell believe that grapes should be put under natural stresses, and that the best vineyards are those left almost alone from outside influences. What Kell and Brunson call "fringe vineyards" are vineyards on the verge between wild and farmed plants, hence the name of their label.
With little watering and little human interference, their mountain vines produce less, but higher-quality, fruit than the juicy Syrah that's grown on the valley floor. Verge produced 350 cases this year, half of which have already been sold, mostly through direct-order and restaurants. San Francisco's Frisée restaurant has gone through more than a case in the three months since the wine's release, despite the hefty $17 per glass price tag it goes for there.
Verge's vineyard, which looks toward the Russian River Valley from a 1,000-foot elevation, is the best growing climate for Syrah, Brunson says. Through lack of water and nutrients, the vines are more discerning, producing a smaller quantity of high-quality fruit.
Brunson and Kell maintain that Syrah growers and winemakers also need to be more discerning about where the vines are planted and how the wine is made. After Syrah's initial introduction and popularity here, thanks to the Rhone Rangers, there was a planting boom in the 1990s. Syrah was planted with not much thought given to the vine's proper growing climate. Today, there is no real standard for what a California Syrah should be. When one thinks of a Napa Cab or a Carneros Pinot, a certain type of wine immediately comes to mind. Not so when discussing California Syrah. If Brunson and Kell eventually have their way, this will change.
The two seem to have made it their mission to educate their quickly growing number of followers about California Syrah. Their method? Talking to people one on one about their wine and their philosophies, which are much more Slow Food than big-production.
The Verge winemakers, renowned hosts, prefer their events on a small scale, where people can "hang out and participate in the wine they're drinking," Kell says. "To me, it's about connecting with ingredients and friends, all the while doing things on a small scale. It's how we approach every aspect of what we do with Verge."
"We like smelling and tasting and experiencing the world on a visceral level; the same is true for our approach to viticulture."
Verge's 2006 Syrah grows on a small block at the top of Bradford Mountain. Brunson and his family live directly above the vineyard, and the winemakers hike down to their grapes. It's quite steep, surrounded by live oak and manzanita trees; populated by deer, raccoon, coyotes and maybe even a mountain lion.
These vines were planted in 1980, making them the oldest block of Syrah in the Dry Creek Valley. Verge's philosophy is strictly hands-off. "The evening breezes, the cover crop, things like that—those are natural influences that make better growing conditions for Syrah," Brunson explains. When grown on the valley floor, Syrah has the potential for overcropping, leading to a higher quantity of lower-quality fruit.
Brunson compares his philosophy to that of the Cote Rotie, Barossa or Hermitage, areas that produce one to two tons per acre as opposed to the five to eight tons per acre the zealous California vineyards can produce. "Less yield means higher quality, if the conditions are right," Kell says.
Verge's Syrah also does well because of the soil it's grown in. "Boomer soil" is clay that dries out and turns into brick, so the vines have to work more and dig deeper to set a healthy crop. Boomer soil holds water for a long time, so there can be less human interference (i.e., watering), which then increases the intensity of the fruit. Another big part of Verge's wild style? Its native yeast.
"We ferment the wine with yeast that is present on the skins at the time of harvest," Kell explains. This yeast is the vineyard's wild stamp: the single-celled fungi that turns grape sugars into alcohol gives the wine its distinctive, site-inspired flavor.
Brunson says, "I could just grab grenache yeast, but then it would taste like Lytton Springs, for example."
The winemakers chose not to use a preproduced yeast, and are fortunate that, as Brunson says, "we like our stamp. Some natural yeasts are unpleasant."
Kell adds, "Everything we do in the cellar is to coax the unadorned and essential theme of 'wild' from the juice."
Verge's wine is made at the Michel-Schlumberger facility, where Brunson has worked for the last 14 years, the last two of which he's spent as the head winemaker.
As opposed to being a meaty Syrah, this wine has vibrant, bright fruit. It's balanced, with good acid and structured tannins, and will soften even more when cellared (for drinking now, the wine should certainly be decanted at least once). It has an intense midpalate with herbal notes of blueberry and lavender. Not belonging to the class of big Syrahs that so often come out of the Dry Creek Valley, Verge isn't "hot," nor is it top-heavy. And though the wine is more delicate than the Syrahs more commonly made from this appellation, it should pair just fine with some homegrown barbecue.
Verge will be pouring at the Festival of the Autumn Moon fundraiser for West Side School on Saturday, Sept. 20. Live music and food abound. Alexander Valley Community Hall, 5512 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg. 5pm. $50. 707.433.3923.
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