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Inspired by craft brewers, a winemaker looks beyond the grape.
Like most independent winemakers, Art+Farm co-founder Rob McDonald spends a lot of time pitching to potential buyers. That’s why he recently found himself describing one of his newest wines to Stephan Turon-Barrera, the general manager of San Diego’s Poseidon Del Mar restaurant.
“His face contorted when I told him about it,” says McDonald. “So I took a guess and said, 'Do you like jalapeños?' And he said, 'Not at all.'”
Why was this question even relevant? McDonald was pitching St. Mayhem, his winery’s new line of wines steeped with botanicals like chile peppers, dried ginger and, in the case of his 2013 Merlot, fresh-cut jalapenos and cold-fermented Costa Rican beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters. This approach is unorthodox, to say the least. Though aromatics are often added to beer and spirits, the traditional idea behind wine is that it has one, unadulterated ingredient: grapes. Especially to a wine pro, a flavoring-infused red isn’t the easiest sell.
But once Turon-Barrera finally sipped the Merlot, the mood brightened. “He said, 'This is incredible',” McDonald recalls. “And he bought it on the spot."
From 1990 through 2013, McDonald and his wife Kat ran Old Bridge Cellars, a boutique Australian wine importer. The idea for St. Mayhem came to him in 2012 as he was drinking a bottle of Saison du BUFF, a collaboration between three leading craft breweries (Stone, Victory and Dogfish Head) that draws its heady flavors from sage, lemon thyme, rosemary and parsley. "I thought, 'Why can't I do that with wine?’” McDonald says.
Or more importantly, how? Through a friend, McDonald secured four half-ton bins of crushed Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which he divided into small batches for a series of co-fermentation experiments. Initial results were discouraging, but three years and many iterations later, McDonald has a trinity of complex wines, each with extra dimensions of rewarding flavors.
Aside from its adjunct flavorings, the St. Mayhem wines have other commonalities with beer: They work with dishes that run roughshod over most wines, like spicy curries and complex mole sauces; like most beers, the wines are best when they’re very fresh; and Stone Brewing Company’s's distribution arm has made St. Mayhem its first and only wine brand in an expansive portfolio of craft brews.
“I love St. Mayhem wines for three main reasons,” explains Stone CEO Greg Koch. “First and foremost, the quality is there. they are undeniably delicious. Second, the wines are unique—a rarity in the wine world. And third, it’s really fun to watch people as they try them for the first time and get that ‘wow!’ reaction.”
St. Mayhem may find a cult audience among unconventional drinkers for that very reason. Unlike blue wine or frosé, it mirrors the efforts of quality-minded, anti-pretension wine proponents like Ryan Harms, founder of Union Wine Co. (the Oregon producer known for its impressively high-quality cans of Pinot Noir and Rosé) and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy (co-owner of The Four Horsemen, a restaurant in Brooklyn that focuses on the radical fringe of the natural wine movement).
Like many unconventional products, St. Mayhem is divisive. "I’ve had some people who are visibly offended,” MacDonald says. "They’ll try it and their face will get all scrunched up."
But he's learned not to prejudge his customers. Last January in Meredith, New Hampshire, McDonald walked into a wine event to pour St. Mayhem and immediately noticed that just four of the 48 diners were older than his 52 years. "I thought, 'this might not be a good idea'," he says, "but by the time they got to the second wine, the room was giggling and having so much fun with it.”
He sold 15 cases.