Hint: it’s not about the ‘toast’ on the barrels.
Sashi Moorman has a knack for turning out impressive cool-climate Syrahs and laser-focused Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. The winemaking talent behind Stolpman Vineyards, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte (which he runs with sommelier Rajat Parr), and his own Piedrasassi label, he’s like a spiritual conduit for Santa Barbara County terroir. Three years ago, in a side business he launched with his wife, Melissa Sorongon, he expanded his repertoire to bread.
It started as a harvest tradition of baking must bread with grapes taken straight from the fermentation tank. “It would come out of the oven kind of purple in color, with this crunchy, walnut-like character from the toasted grape seeds,” says Moorman. “It was just delicious. People would come over for harvest dinners and flip out over the bread, saying, ‘you guys should do this on some sort of scale.'”
The Piedrasassi bakery now resides in the same understated industrial park—called the Lompoc Wine Ghetto—where Moorman makes his wines. It’s a fully integrated operation (they’re growing their own grains and milling their own flour) complete with a wood-fired brick oven. But for all the care spent working with wholesome, artisanal ingredients, their first loaves somehow lacked the character of the harvest bread that had inspired the project in the first place. “We were using commercial yeast,” he says, “and that was the problem. It helped the bread to proof faster, but it really killed the flavor.” They switched to a sourdough starter – a homegrown wild yeast leaven rich in all kinds of microflora – and suddenly the bread was more interesting. “It was like going from something that tasted a little soulless to something that was beautiful," says Moorman, "you could taste the grain more."
Seeing the stark contrast between loaves, he had an epiphany. The same attention to yeast diversity could be a game-changer at the winery, too. His theory? The richer the native yeast population involved in fermentation, the more interesting the resulting wine. He hadn’t been using commercial yeasts for the wines; the m.o. was, for all intents and purposes, wild yeast fermentation. But he had been sulfuring the must – a safeguarding measure that has the side effect of killing many of the wild yeast strains and other microbes naturally present on the grapes in addition to the unwelcome, “off” aroma-producing bacteria it’s meant to eliminate. “I realized that so much more complexity could be brought to the wine by not removing those microbes that are there at the beginning of its life,” says Moorman, "and we had to work hard to figure out how to do that without compromising the wine." He started by categorically stopping to sulfur the grapes.
“It’s a riskier, more difficult way of fermenting, but I really feel that you can smell the difference," he says. That holds true particularly for the Pinot Noirs of Domaine de la Côte, where he's been able to work closely in the vineyard on the health of the soil. "All those microbes... they don't come from the sky; they come from the ground," he says. "So the healthier the soil is in terms of the amount of organic matter, the more you'll get this amazing ecology of microbes. And that's what ends up on the grape skins, comes into the winery, and contributes to the wine's complexity of aromas."
It seems to have paid off, since the new releases are knockout delicious. A recently tasted 2014 single vineyard La Côte Pinot Noir was as pure and vibrant an expression of red fruit as some of the best Beaujolais I've encountered, with an underlying salinity that gave it an extra dimension. “Some winemakers might think that being this scientific about their fermentations takes the romance out of it,” says Moorman. “But I think that microbes are what make all food great, whether it’s pickles, cheese, beer, wine, or bread. They’re the soul of a great food product that’s gone through a transformation.”