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11.05.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Fine vines: Richard Alfaro's experimental planting of grüner veltliner promises glasses of greens and minerals with top notes of white pepper, all from the southern end of the Santa Cruz appellation.

The Launch of The Veltliner

An old grape finds a new home in the Santa Cruz Mountains

By Christina Waters


Bounding along the deeply grooved vineyards in Richard Alfaro's open-air Kawasaki 4x4 Mule, I admire the tightly spaced rows of pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as purple-black clusters of syrah waiting heavily on their vines for that magic moment of harvest less than a month away.

Alfaro is already on the map as a producer of these varietals. Now he's expanded into more experimental territory. We're in quest of the newest plantings among Alfaro's 75 estate acres near Corralitos, at the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. Down at the very foot of this quintessential coastal property, crisscrossed by animal trails and vast canyons of eucalyptus, we arrive at the coolest spot in the vineyard. Snugly embraced by cylindrical "grow tubes," grüner veltliner vines, roughly an acre and a half of them, bask in the low autumn sun. Planted in July of this year, the young vines are already waist-high and attracting the attention of inquisitive deer, gophers and starlings.

Grüner veltliner--pronounced "groo-ner feltleener"--is the most widely planted grape of Austria, the pale chartreuse fuel of countless Viennese wine gardens and, at 11 to 12 percent alcohol, sometimes referred to as "the breakfast wine." In a few years, the Austrian transplant will find its way into a bottle bearing the Alfaro label. Whether or not the most popular wine grape in Austria can succeed in Corralitos, only time--five years, to be exact--will tell. But if winemaker Richard Alfaro can pull it off, California grüner veltliner might become more than simply a colorful mixed metaphor.

Last of the Great Europeans
So what's the fuss about? No less a wine sage than über-importer Terry Thiese calls grüner veltliner "the last of the great European white wine grapes. Unique. Adaptable. Food-loving and delicious."

So much for the why of Alfaro's infant vines. At another point in his August 2008 newsletter, Thiese notes that grüner veltliner is the go-to wine for finicky foods like artichokes, asparagus, arugula and shrimp. Graced with high acidity and low alcohol--as it is usually made in its native Austria--this is a wine that absolutely loves to be consumed with foods. Which leads us to Alfaro's personal GV epiphany.

The high-energy winemaker recalls being first introduced to the crisp varietal at a wine dinner with the owner of Austria's Nikolaihof winery. It was love at first sip. And a few years later at Soif, "feeling guilty about living a bit high on the culinary hog," as he puts it, Alfaro decided to atone by dining on braised greens. He asked for a wine recommendation. What on earth could go with Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe and asparagus?

"A bottle of grüner was put in front of me that I proceeded to consume," he recalls (but barely, if you know what I mean). Alfaro liked the wine so much he called his vine supplier that very night and ordered "some grüner vines!" Besides, he admits, "I like to try new things, and when I found out that there were only around 10 acres planted in California, I had to do it."

So he ordered two different GV clones from Oregon and stuck them in the coolest spot on his estate. "It'll be so easy to sell," he continues confidently, "because people are looking for something different. Anybody who knows, who's in the business, is excited about this planting."

As an added value, the Alfaro GV is being organically produced and will be labeled as made from certified organic grapes when it finally makes its way into a bottle. "Ninety percent of my grapes are already organic," he says, pointing out elaborate systems of side netting he, like most winegrowers, employs against marauding birds.

The ocean springs into view at the top of the hill. Funny, this sun-splashed summit in coastal California doesn't look a whole lot like Austria. But Alfaro reminds me that there is plenty of warmth in Eastern Europe and plenty of cold in the hollows of Corralitos.

"I planted this with a crew of 12," Alfaro says of a new pinot noir vineyard. Here we stop the wild ride and get out to inspect the snap-on grow tubes that support all the new vines. After a year of growing, they, like the infant grüner vines, will be cut back--"to develop root structure"--and after the second year the vines will be trained into vertical shoot positioning until maturity.

"They're very vigorous, " he says, pointing back to the newest vines, "and if it works"--he grins, showing off a big flash of white teeth--"it will be wonderful."

As we plunge down another vineyard route, Alfaro whistles and waves his tanned arms at a huge throng of crows. "Birds in the vines--that's a good sign," he assures me happily. It means that sugars have just about reached their peak and it's time to harvest syrah. The grüner veltliner harvest, however, is still 4 1/2 years away. "There's no instant gratification in this business," the winemaker admits. I make a note to stop by sometime in 2013.

The New Wave
Alfaro is on the edge of a new world wine wave. Only two other wineries in California--Paragon in San Luis Obispo County and Rudy Von Strasser in Napa--have planted grüner veltliner. And both are too new to have any wine yet.

While not opposed to "economic gains" that might come his way thanks to this inspiration, Alfaro insists, "That is never the reason why I try things like this." He admits to lifting a glass of grüner veltliner every chance he gets, "especially with food, especially with anything green," and while he hasn't called upon outside expertise in terms of managing his new vines, he says he does see a trip to Austria on the horizon. "My son is going there as a student ambassador next summer," he explains.

Soif sommelier, wine marketer and veteran of international winemaking cellars John Locke agrees that innovation alone is a good enough reason to try making a locally grown grüner veltliner. He condones Alfaro's decision to make this unorthodox planting.

"Both Austria and California are continental climates," he explains, using winespeak for inland climates that offer heat in the summer and cold in the winter. "Plus its herbal and vegetal balance helps it satisfies all the food groups, metaphorically. Grüner isn't barrel-fermented, so the finished wines don't mask the balance of all the elements--sweet, tart, astringent, savory." Locke goes on to extol the amazing versatility of the wine, based on the unique balance of all its flavor components. "It has a sweet roundness on the palate, yet it has acidity," he says. "It's clean." In short, Locke says, it's "whatever food needs. It's not a tough sell. And it isn't--so far--a fad wine," he notes, as viognier and albariño were.

Brian Greenwood of the Oakland-based importer WineWise agrees that the Austrian grape "continues to grow in popularity across the spectrum of our accounts, from the crème de la crème of restaurants to our discerning retail clientele." Greenwood says that roughly 10 years ago, the GV grape caused a sensation among "thrill-seeking sommeliers and seekers of the new and different." And now it has insinuated itself deep into the mainstream, e.g., BevMo and Whole Foods. In Greenwood's assessment, GV has been embraced thanks to "the general trend away from intensity for intensity's sake"--the fruit- and alcohol-intensive mega-bombs of yesterday. "But equally important has been the versatility that grüner has displayed in difficult food pairings," he adds.

Taste Test
Pivotal, Greenwood believes, in vaulting grüner veltliner to the attention of wine aficionados was an influential blind tasting held in London six years ago. The event pitted grüners with 10 to 15 years of age against white burgundies. "The Austrian wines wiped the floor in ratings against the best burgundy has to offer," he says.

Led by renowned wine master Jancis Robinson, the tasting indeed led to the Austrian wines taking five of the Top 10 places. It was a high-profile heads-up that grüner veltliner was a bigtime player in the glamorous world of wine.

"Especially in an area famed for knowledgeable and avid wine aficionados like the Bay Area," Locke says, "a California-made GV will probably work out well."

A personal fan of the grape, Locke believes that "aesthetically, grüner veltliner activates a wide range of brain receptors--it's versatile, it supplies delight and complements almost every food. Only rosé," he continues, "and some dry rieslings and champagne can do as much."

As he makes this point I am recalling the Hirsch Heiligenstein GV I sampled a week before, a wine both rounded and crystalline and yet haunted by some elusive wild herbs and spices, a wine so easy to drink it practically sipped itself.

"GV is an easy entree into wine diversity," Locke continues. "It's not scary. It's delicious and easy to like."

Thiese goes further. "Grüner veltliner is unique and incomparable. It adds to what we can know about wine."

That endorsement alone would seduce any vintner worth his pinot noir to dedicate an acre or two to this charismatic grape. Richard Alfaro already has, and the line forms at his Corralitos tasting room door. Here's to experimental winegrowers like Alfaro and to the shape-shifting powers of an Austrian grape to adapt to Santa Cruz Mountain terroir.


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