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The Moonlighter's Society

These young talents work at some of California's best wineries. Late at night, though, they hole up in rented cellars and mini warehouses to pursue their own wine visions. Senior editor Ray Isle drops by as they meet for a delicious (and rare) lunch together.

For young winemakers, a typical day at work might mean 15 hours of forklifting bins of grapes, pumping juice from tank to tank or checking sugar levels during fermentation. You'd think the last thing they'd want to do when they finally go home is make more wine.

You'd be wrong. Throughout California, ambitious young winemakers working for big operations are producing their own wines after-hours. They're holed up on evenings and weekends in garages and mini warehouses, hauling grapes to custom-crush facilities in borrowed pickup trucks and maxing out their credit cards, all with or without the blessing—occasionally without the knowledge—of their employers. It's a little-known world of off-hour wines, made by moonlighting winemakers.

And it begs the question: Why do they go to all this trouble just to make 200 or 300 cases of Cabernet, or a single barrel of Syrah?

Ondine Chattan works full-time as an associate winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma when she isn't producing wines under her own label, Atelier. She notes, "If you've been making thousands and thousands of cases of Sauvignon Blanc with a clearly defined house style that it's your duty to maintain, you're confined in what you can do. With Atelier, if I want to make 25 cases of Mourvèdre, I can. It's a creative outlet."

Not all moonlighting winemakers produce just a few cases. When Chris Condos and Richard Bruno founded Vinum Cellars in 1997, it was miniscule; today they sell about 20,000 cases a year. "When we started," Condos says, "I didn't want to make more than 200 cases. And then I thought, Okay, the most we'll ever make is a thousand. Then we went out and sold the wine ourselves, and it was actually successful."

Today, at Saralee's Vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, a group of after-hours winemakers have come together to celebrate their unofficial moonlighters society. There are always a lot of wines at such events, but right now the aromas in the wineglasses face heavy competition from the scent of chef Mateo Granados's braised lamb shoulder, which wafts out from the tiny kitchen of a 1930s Airstream trailer parked here for the occasion. Bruno knows Granados from their days working at San Francisco's Masa's Restaurant, Bruno as a waiter and Granados as a line cook (more recently, Granados was executive chef at Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen). It would probably take a flowchart to sort out the connections among all the winemakers here today. As Condos says, "This is such a small industry—it's kind of scary. You never say anything about anyone at a restaurant because you know they're going to be sitting behind you."

Because no one seems keen to be too critical about anyone else's wine, conversation at first sticks to the food—like the roasted poblano chiles, stuffed with a sweet-salty mix of beef, capers and currants—and irreverent assessments of the Sonoma wine scene. About one notoriously difficult elder statesman, with whom several of the group are acquainted, it goes like this:

"His wines are full of Brett." (Brettanomyces, a yeast whose presence indicates a winemaking flaw, makes wines smell like an old horse blanket or the inside of a Band-Aid box, depending on whom you ask.)

"That's because he can't smell Brett."

"They're full of oak is what they're full of."

"He can't smell oak, either!"

As the winemakers chat, they work through the wines—tossing the contents of many half-full glasses into the bushes as they go, because 20 wines is a lot to get through. Many of the bottles are Syrah, a popular variety right now among winemakers on a personal credit-card budget. (In Napa and Sonoma, a ton of Syrah runs about half the cost of a ton of Cabernet.) After tasting four or five of the Syrahs, Miro Tcholakov, who has his own Miro label, says, "All of these wines are going to be much better in a day."

"Try a week," jokes Michael Peters of Kasuari. Without exception, the Syrahs on the table are young, powerful and tannic, with admirable intensity and concentration.

Across the table, Sensorium's Jeff Ritchey hands Chattan a mystery wine: "It's half Miro's Petite Sirah and half my Syrah. Pretty good, huh?"

Tcholakov retorts, "That's because my wine makes yours better!"

"It's terrific," Chattan decides. "All that blackberry fruit."

Not that getting to that terrific blackberry fruit is always easy. This fall, Chattan and her husband, David, took their grapes to a custom-crush facility, only to find the place had gone out of business. After many frantic calls to winemaker friends, they found a temporary home for their grapes at Selby Winery. That sort of thing doesn't happen to Chattan at Geyser Peak, but, she points out, "It was amazing how many people offered to help us."

In other words, sometimes the fact that the wine world is small is a good thing. Several of the winemakers here know Granados from the tamales he sells (and sells out of) every Saturday at the Healdsburg farmers' market. After leaving Dry Creek Kitchen, Granados delved into the cuisine of his Yucatán childhood; the lunch he's serving mixes traditions deftly. The winemakers test different wines with his dishes, discovering that his succulent braised lamb is perfect with Syrah. Granados emerges from the trailer to taste-test the blackberry-rich 2004 Atelier Contra Costa Zinfandel against the 2004 Vinum Cellars Pets, a juicy, intense Petite Sirah. The latter also happens to be a favorite of Condos's dog, who's nosing around the table.

"It's the adventures of Jack, Winemaking Dog!" Bruno says. "'I don't like this wine! It's got Brett! Rowf!'"

Ritchey replies, "I don't know, man—I think he's actually after the lamb."

Published April 2006
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