Acquiesce: Through the looking glass with Lodi’s White(s) Queen

I hope Sue Tipton forgives (or at least has a chuckle over) the literary reference above.  As I sat down to write this piece, and thought about how to title it, I realized I was as confounded by how to properly describe her and her outstanding wines as I was the first day I tasted them.  And this is a very good thing.

Lineup of Acquiesce's wines
Lineup of Acquiesce’s wines

I have a great fascination with–and admiration for–winemakers who trust their vision enough to buck trends and defy norms and expectations.  Sue Tipton, owner and winemaker of Acquiesce Vineyards in Lodi, California, is one of those mavericks, and the resulting wines prove how great her vision is.

The day I visited her tasting room as part of last year’s wine blogger conference, it really was a bit of a through-the-looking-glass experience.  I knew very little about Lodi and its wines, but did know their reputation for producing tens of thousands of acres of red wine grapes, especially Zinfandel.  So, naturally, the first place I’m taken on the Lodi pre-conference excursion is Acquiesce, where you will find a lineup of outstanding Rhône varieties inspired by the wines of Chateauneuf de Pape–and not a single red among them.  (Way to shake things up, LoCA.)

That’s a bold choice for a Lodi winemaker.  Heck, that’s a bold choice generally speaking.

It all started with one sip of wine.

Like almost every winemaker I’ve talked to over the years, Sue began her journey as a winemaker after being wowed by a particularly memorable bottle of wine–in her case, it was an old-world white Rhône blend from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  She’d never tasted anything like it before, and wanted more.  She began seeking out more of those blends, both old AND new world wines, but that didn’t sate her growing fascination with this style of wine.

Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery (photo credit: Rodney Tipton)
Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery

So the wheels began to turn–she and her husband Rodney, who is her partner in the winery, had recently moved to Lodi and purchased a home that shared land with 18 acres of Zinfandel vines, which were already under contract to wineries and winemakers, a kind of built-in income source.  Soon, she began dabbling in home winemaking, using some of the Zinfandel grapes from their property to make a dry rosé.  But she couldn’t stop thinking about that white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so they made the choice eleven years ago to rip out some of those income-producing Zinfandel vines–an anxiety-producing move, to be sure–and planted Grenache and Grenache Blanc (the former of which is used in her bone-dry Grenache Rosé).

It didn’t take long for what had been a hobby pursuit to morph into something more–and they made the decision to go into business.  An old barn on the property was converted into a winery and tasting room, and they began purchasing the larger scale winemaking equipment needed to produce the increased amount of wine they were making.

Choosing to jump into a highly competitive business that’s subject to the vagaries of weather and consumer whims is not a choice made lightly, but it proved to be a very good choice indeed.  Tipton expanded her plantings to include Roussanne, Viognier, and Picpoul Blanc and they opened their tasting room in 2012.  As it would turn out, the demand for her wines exceeded their production every year, and Acquiesce was a bona fide success.

Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard
Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard

In 2015, she added two more Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties, Clairette Blanche and Bourbolenc.  Those varieties are rare even for their home turf in southern France, but as we already know, she’s not afraid to move ahead with what others might see as unconventional choices.  She hopes to see her first vintage of Clairette Blanche this year, and I cannot wait to taste what she does with it.

Let the grape speak.

Tipton chooses a minimalist approach to her wines–these beauties never touch oak, which lets the character of these grapes really shine.  Her location in Lodi’s Mokulemne River sub-AVA gives her near-perfect growing conditions with the area’s sandy loam soil and the added benefit of cooler nights thanks to the cool coastal air from the Sacramento-San Joachin River Delta that drifts in every evening.  Combined with the area’s Mediterranean climate, all these conditions come together to allow these varieties to be taken to appropriate ripeness (something that’s a challenge for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape counterparts), and this results in grapes that are bright and crisp with intense fruitiness, and great acidity and minerality.  If any of this surprises you, read all about Lodi’s Mokelumne River soils from LoCA’s Randy Caparoso.

Acquiesce’s very name comes from Tipton’s desire to let these grape varieties’ best qualities shine through:

Acquiesce verb: to surrender, to become quiet.  Acquiesce has become our mantra — to submit to nature, to yield to the vineyard, to acquiesce to the grapes so they present their own true character.  Attention to detail reigns here with sustainable vines that are lightly watered, grapes that are handpicked and then whole cluster pressed to create wines that are both classic and traditional.

Let the grape speak!
Let the grape speak!

So what about those wines?  They’ve won an impressive number of awards and accolades, and demand for her wines is so great that she had to close her wine club to new memberships for a long stretch.  She reopened the club to new members just two weeks ago, and the response has been so overwhelming that she told me she expects to have to close it again by mid-April.

Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé
Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé

My personal favorite of hers (although it’s really hard to pick a favorite) is the Picpoul Blanc–this is the wine that stopped me in my tracks when I tasted it last summer.  This variety is known for its sharp, citrus tartness–the name translates roughly to “lip stinger”–and hers is perhaps the best version of this variety I’ve tasted.  Dry, almost mouth-puckeringly tart, but balanced out beautifully with intense fruitiness and great body.  It is a gorgeous wine, and I’m impatiently awaiting her 2016 release of this one.

The entire lineup is impressive, though, and the 2016 Grenache Blanc, Grenache Rosé and Viognier are now available (and if you run REALLY fast, you can pick up one of the few remaining bottles of her 2015 Belle Blanc, a Rhône blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne).  Still to come this spring are the releases of that stunning Picpoul Blanc, the Roussanne, and the Belle Blanc.

Tipton produced 1400 cases of wine in 2015, and this grew to 2000 cases for the 2016 vintage.  She also has a sparkling Grenache Blanc in the works, méthode champenoise style, which she hopes to release in about a year (I may be excessively excited about this one, because BUBBLES).

Acquiesce is a most unexpected gem to find in the heart of Lodi’s red wine country.  The winery is open for tasting Friday – Sunday from 11 am – 5 pm, and each flight is expertly paired with a small bite, which is a wonderful touch (and a bargain at the $10 tasting fee).  Tasting fee waived with a bottle purchase–but I’ll bet you can’t buy just one.  They even have a Tesla charging station for your convenience.

Acquiesce is located at 22353 N. Tretheway Road Acampo, California 95220, Phone (209) 333-6102.

 

Home, home on the Range(land)

If you happened to run into Laird Foshay in town in Paso Robles, you’d quickly figure him for a local cowboy–the requisite boots and hat, perfectly placed (as an exiled Texan, I can speak to the subject of cowboy hats; more finesse is involved than you might imagine).

Rangeland's Award-Winning Wines
Rangeland’s Award-Winning Wines

But you’d be wrong–to an extent.  Foshay, whose first career was in tech publishing, is a Nova Scotia native who grew up in Palo Alto.  His startup INVESTools was one of the early web-based investment newsletters; he sold that and in 2000 purchased some of the sweetest west side Paso land you’re likely to encounter, Adelaida Springs Ranch, and moved the family to the burgeoning wine region.

Laird Foshay pouring a flight of his winesFoshay and his wife Lisa now raise cattle and sheep on the ranch (all grass-fed), and have 40 of those 1,500 acres planted to wine grapes.  This former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now spends his days as a bona fide rancher, a lot of that on horseback.

Just 12 miles from the ocean and at over 1,700 feet elevation, those 40 acres of grapevines thrive in the rich limestone soil and the cooler coastal air of the Adelaida District sub-AVA.  The Foshays initially planted 20 acres of vines in 2002, all to Bordeaux varietals, and have since doubled that and added Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and several Rhone varietals.

Estate VinesLiving in such a geologically and agriculturally rich location means that Foshay and winemaker Paul Hinschberger opt to take a mostly non-interventionist approach to their winemaking, preferring to let the wines show the beauty of that terroir to the greatest possible extent–a wise choice, clearly indicated in the quality of the wines.

Rangeland does not have a public tasting room–yet (more on that in a moment)–but is happy to set up a private tasting for you.  When you go (and, oh, you should go!), you’ll drive deep into the west Paso hills, through the ranch gate and arrive at their stunning ranch house–where you’ll most likely be greeted by Arrow, the ranch border collie.  And a green tennis ball.  You know what to do.Arrow the Ranch Dog

Once inside, you’ll enjoy a flight of their wines in a casual setting with breathtaking views to the west.  Their wines are a solid lineup, from the rosé (a blend of Zinfandel, Mouverdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon) to a GSM through a couple of red blends, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.  The latter two were easy favorites of mine–big, as you might expect for those varietals, but with a surprising amount of restraint.  The Petite was especially impressive.

View to the westThe first time I visited, back in February, they were hosting a vertical tasting of their cabs, capped off with a rustic lunch of a beef pie made from their own grassfed beef.  And that’s where you’re going to find yourself faced with a tough decision–the Foshays offer not just a wine club, as you’d expect, but they also offer a beef club and lamb club.  Join any of their clubs, and you’ll enjoy an across-the-board 20% discount on wines and meat.  I dare you to resist.  We’re beef club members, incidentally (yeah, I couldn’t resist that).Rangeland Glass

Try to make it up for a private tasting and ranch tour–and then look forward to their upcoming expansion.  I was delighted when Laird pulled out the map and plans for their future tasting room and winery; while the intimacy of enjoying a tasting in their beautiful home is a special experience, the new facility they have planned will be impressive in its own right–and with those same sweeping views.  I’m excited by what they have planned, and look forward to following up as soon as the new tasting room is completed and opened.Plans for the Future

Rangeland Wines (on Adelaida Springs Ranch) is located at 10425 Klau Mine Rd. in Paso Robles.  Use the contact form on their website to scheduling a tasting, or call 805-674-9232.

 

RE:FIND Spirits – A delicious lesson in sustainability

I’ll begin with a bit of understatement:  Alex Villicana is a high-energy kind of guy, who is passionate about what he does.

And that’s a very good thing for all of us.

Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery
Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery

He is the embodiment of the Paso Robles pioneering spirit that’s made this area such an interesting and exciting wine region.  He and his wife Monica began producing their estate-grown wines under their Villicana label in 1999–but that’s a story for another time (which I’ll cover in the coming months).  Just know for the time being that those wines are beautifully crafted and you should stop by if and when you’re in the area.  Taste some, buy some.

RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still
RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still

But it’s their secondary business that really caught my interest recently.

I’d seen their sign on Adelaida Road for years (there are a lot of wineries on Adelaida Road; I’m still trying to visit ALL of them).  And along with the sign directing you to their tasting room, there’s also a sign for RE:FIND Distillery.  While there’s no shortage of great wineries in Paso, I had never seen a distillery set up shop there, and never really seen anything stronger than port promoted at a handful of other wineries.

I was looking for someplace new to try on a trip a couple of months ago and decided to finally check out this Villicana/RE:FIND operation and see exactly what they were up to.

And what they are up to there is something pretty amazing.  Villicana had been bothered for years by the fact that there was nothing much to do with the saignée–the “bleed” of juice from some wines (mostly Rhone varietals) that was otherwise dumped down the drain.  It seemed unacceptably wasteful.

“Growing wine grapes has a pretty big carbon footprint,” Villicana notes.  “When you think about the cost and energy and water that goes into farming those grapes, it’s a shame to just pour out thousands of gallons of juice.”

Stills at RE:FIND
Stills at RE:FIND

And then he had an epiphany.  He stumbled on a grape-based vodka in the mid-2000s, and it was good.  “I didn’t know you could do that,” Villicana said.  “It was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”

So Villicana set about figuring out how he could take that otherwise wasted saignée and recycle it by turning it into spirits.  He visited Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state to learn how to use distilling equipment.  And then he began the long process–about three years–to obtain a license to run a commercial distillery, something that wasn’t widely done in California since before Prohibition.

Spirits in the Making
Spirits in the Making

“My local ABC guy (California Alcoholic Beverage Control) was very helpful in figuring our way through this, fortunately,” Villicana said.  The tricky part about the licensing process is that you must own a still before you can get the license.

“But stills are expensive, so we were torn about whether to make such a big investment before we knew if the license was a sure thing,” he said.  But as soon as the ABC official told him that it looked like he had a clear path to getting that license, “I wrote the check out that day [for the still], and sent it off!”

“We got our license in 2011, and produced 200 cases the first year,” Villicana said.  And with that, RE:FIND was on its way.  They initially had a single 60-gallon still–since those first few years, they’ve added another 60-gallon still and a 300-gallon still, and currently produce around 2,000 cases a year.

“With this setup, we can turn over as much as 50,000 gallons of saignée, and produce as much as 6,000-7,000 cases of spirits a year.”

The second year, Villicana had to shop around for enough saignée to produce the desired amount of spirits, which has led to ongoing relationships with other local winemakers to recapture their run-off as well.

A Lineup of RE:FIND's Spirits
A Lineup of RE:FIND’s Spirits

Villicana said he approaches his flavor profiles in distilling the same way he does with his wines, and the results are exceptional.  RE:FIND currently produces a vodka, a cucumber vodka, a barrel-aged vodka (which is actually closer to a whiskey in flavor and color profile, which makes this bourbon girl all kinds of happy), an extraordinarily lovely and aromatic gin (sold in the tasting room as a “botanical brandy”), a rye, and a limoncello.  Between my first visit and my visit last weekend, I’ve tasted through all of these spirits–they’re remarkable.  Every one of them.

Everything is hand-crafted–even the bottling process.  “We actually contracted with a bottling operation for our spirits, but at the last minute they told us their insurance wouldn’t cover the job because of the risk of explosion.”  So, they hand-bottle their spirits as well.  “It’s actually better,” he said, “because it gives us better quality control.”  Always glass-half-full, that Villicana guy is.

The distillation process, to put it overly simply, involves removing the bad alcohol (acetone and methyl alcohol) from the good alcohol.  And of course Villicana has found a way to recycle that, too.  “We use the bad alcohol as a cleaner!”

Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education
Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education

He also tries to use local producers whenever possible–something that’s a bit of a challenge when acquiring the grains and aromatics needed to craft the spirits.

“I’m now working with local farmers on getting the specific grains and aromatics we want, and we use the lavender we grow right here at the winery.”

Villicana has found a way to recycle his winemaking byproducts into something truly beautiful–and now produces almost the same amount of spirits as they do wines.

“One of the great things about this is that the spirits have kind of filled in some of the gaps that are part of the ups and downs of winemaking,” he said.  “This gives us greater flexibility to focus on the quality of both, and actually makes winemaking more fun. And it’s allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

In an example of recycling writ large, the Villicanas recently purchased the dilapidated Fox Theatre in downtown Paso Robles, and plan to make it the new base for RE:FIND.

“We have the conceptual drawings and floorplan now,” he said.  “We hope to start construction around the end of the year, and expect about a 12-month build.”

When completed, the renovated (nee, recycled!) theatre will also house, among other things, a performance space and a professional kitchen.  Stay tuned; I’ll write more about the theatre in coming months.  It should prove to be a fantastic addition to Paso’s downtown scene.

Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room
Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room

Villicana’s dream to use an otherwise discarded product to turn out beautiful spirits has also opened the door for the competition.  But he doesn’t see it that way.  Currently 8-9 new distilleries are in the plans in the Paso Robles area, and Villicana is thrilled, going so far as to offer guidance with the licensing process.

“It’s a cool way to be sustainable,” he says.  I’ll second that.

RE:FIND Distillery and Villicana Wines are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2725 Adelaida Road (805.239.9456).

 

 

Meet the Russells of Rabbit Ridge Winery

Editor’s Note: There’s a reason I’ve chosen the Russells to be my first (of many, many) winemaker profiles, and it’s purely personal.  Their winery, Rabbit Ridge, was the first place I ever went wine tasting back in 2002.  They were still headquartered in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, and were the first of many wineries I would eventually explore along the region’s storied River Road.  I walked in a complete neophyte, and walked out with a new passion and a case of Erich Russell’s Nebbiolo.  While wandering the Paso Robles wine country a few years ago, I spotted a familiar sign with a familiar bunny logo–and that was the first I realized they’d completely relocated to Paso.  I stopped (I HAD to stop!), reacquainted myself with their wines and have enjoyed getting to know the Russells over the ensuing years.  And this is their story.

Rabbit Ridge Winery
Rabbit Ridge Winery on San Marcos Road in Paso Robles

Erich and Joanne Russell first met at a wine industry gathering at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1996.  And something clicked.  They hit it off, talking well into late hours over (of course) wine.  Joanne lived in Florida, and Erich returned to his home in California.  When he called a few weeks later to ask her on a formal date, his first question was “Do you have a passport?”

Erich and Joanne Russell
Erich and Joanne Russell

And that deeply romantic question led to an extended first date–a trip to Cannes, France–and a love story still being lived out in the rolling hills of Paso Robles.  “I thought a trip abroad was efficient,” Erich says.  “I already liked her from that first meeting, and wanted to find out if we can still get along well in a foreign country where things can and do go wrong (luggage was lost, among other things)–I figured if we still liked each other at the end of the trip, that was a good sign.”  The date wasn’t just efficient, it was also completely romantic, and continued all the way to Paso Robles–when they returned from Cannes, they went straight to what is now the winery property (which Russell had recently purchased), where they sat, with wine, in front of an old stone fireplace watching the sun set.  They were engaged

Live Oak Vineyard
Live Oak Vineyard

six months later, and married not long after that.

Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room
Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room

Erich Russell got his start as a winemaker by making wine at home.  When the winemaker at Chateau St. Jean tasted Russell’s wine in a winemaking contest, he offered Russell a job in the winery’s cellar.  Russell jumped at the chance, quitting his job in San Diego to move to northern California and begin a new career in winemaking.  After stints there and at Simi winery, he founded his own winery in 1981, taking his nickname from his time as a long-distance runner at San Jose State–the “white rabbit”–and Rabbit Ridge was born.

Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.
Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.

The Sonoma County winery did very well, and Russell quickly gained recognition as an award-winning winemaker, named Connoisseur’s Guide’s Winemaker of the Year in 1998.  While Russell’s star was rising, he was also on the hunt for new land to expand his wine grape growing–and he liked what he saw in Paso Robles.

The San Marcos Road property–where the winery and tasting room are now–was his first land investment in Paso Robles, and they now own three blocks of land in the Templeton Gap area totaling around 350 acres planted to wine grapes and olive trees (5 Italian olive varietals, and they bottle their very, very good estate olive oil under Joanne’s Olive Diva label).  The purchase would prove to be life-changing for the Russells.

Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard
Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard

“The more we came down to do work on the land, the more we realized we really liked Paso Robles.”  They loved the climate, the land, and the people.  So they closed up shop in Sonoma County and made Paso their new home.

The Russells decided to spare no expense on the construction of the new winery facility in Paso Robles.  They chose Mediterranean-style architecture (you might think you’ve ended up in Tuscany when you spot their beautiful villa from the road).  Ingenuity and high tech are engineered into everything–much of the facility is built into the side of a hill; the crush pad sits 22 feet above the press area and tank room, and in turn the press area and tank room sit 22 feet above the bottling room, barrel room and tasting room.  This layout allows them to move wine throughout the facility by gravity, which saves energy and is gentler on the wine.

A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.
A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.

That careful engineering is just one aspect of Russell’s meticulous approach to winemaking–he even has a wonderful primer on using oak in winemaking that you can (and should) read here.  He treats all the wines he makes–even the one large-ish production wine he makes for sale in Trader Joe’s stores–with great care and attention to quality.  Of that delicious $5.99 miracle in a bottle–the Allure de Robles Rhone blend–Russell says “It is my hardest wine to make as an affordable everyday priced wine; it is a challenge.”  But make it he does, along with a fantastic lineup of estate wines.

You can see all the wines they produce on their website, here.  Rhone varietals dominate, but you’ll also find excellent reserve Zinfandels, Petite Sirah and Bordeaux (and a mighty fine Chardonnay).  My favorite of his wines, the Russell estate Roussane, hasn’t been produced the last few years because yields have been too low during our multi-year drought, but their white Rhone blend, Blanc de Vine, is a fine stand-in (even after the Roussane reappears!).  In a nod to their sustainable farming practices, Russell pointed out blocks of vines during a drive through the vineyards that they’ve elected to sacrifice to the drought.  There’s only so much water to go around, unfortunately.  Conditions look a bit better after this year’s closer-to-normal rains, and Russell is optimistic about the coming vintage.

Vines Lost to Drought
Vines Lost to Drought

If you’re in Paso Robles, you’ll find them just north of town on San Marcos Road, west of Highway 101.  The tasting room occupies the front of the same building that houses their barrel room.  You can expect a friendly and relaxed tasting experience when you stop by, and most likely have your wines poured by a member of the Russell family.  That warm and personal environment, and the beautiful wines Erich Russell makes, have had us coming back for years.

Wall of Wine BarrelsThe tasting room is located at 1172 San Marcos Road, Paso Robles, California 93446, (805) 249-0252.  Tasting room hours are Friday-Sunday, 11am – 5pm.  They also have a tasting room called The Rabbit Hole for their sparkling wines (including the tasty “Bling,” a brut-style sparkling wine) in downtown Paso Robles at 1244 Pine Street, (805) 286-4692.