Sometimes you choose; sometimes you are chosen. Last December, while in Montpellier, France to attend a showing of my Portuguese documentary, Mother Vine, at the Fest’afilm Festival, I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet one of France’s leading oenologists, Jean Natoli and geologist, Philippe Combes, his associate. Both gentlemen had graciously attended the showing and then were to further extend to me an invitation to dinner.
We spoke of many things that evening, of the financial obstacles to making a documentary, of film’s rôle in entertaining and illuminating the public, and of how to know whether a filmmaker has made a difference. Mention was made of a tasting at Au Petit Grain the next day of a what would prove a fascinating line of wines Mr. Natoli was shepherding, known collectively as Stratagème, and part of négociant/vingneron Thierry Rodriguez’ portfolio, Le Prieuré Saint Sever. (Indeed, along with Jean Natoli, Philippe Combes, and graphic designer, Olivier Proust, Thierry Rodriquez rounds out Stratagème’s creative team. Left to right in the photo) The distinguishing feature of the Strategème collection is its unique concentration on the concept of vineyard terroir and of mineral characteristics. One of eleven soil types informs each of its eleven bottlings: sandstone, sand, schist, pebbles, limestone, puddingstone, marl, clay, granite, basalt and tufa.
Among the most fascinating and frankly brilliant aspects of the Stratagème project is the depth of understanding and intellectual sophistication it brings to Languedoc-Roussillon as a wine-producing region, a region relatively neglected, certainly when compared to its far more celebrated neighbors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. This neglect is a consequence of a complex history. Harshly (if justly) stigmatized years ago as a ‘wine lake’, Languedoc-Roussillon has long been in need of her own dedicated poets for the very reasons high-lighted by the Stratagème project. From renegotiated AOC boundaries – often proceeding at a glacial pace – to a new generation of winegrowers committed to terroir and quality; from increasing appreciation of the promise of geological diversity, to a sharp focus on organic and sustainable wine production, the region has in recent years been undergoing a dramatic, if quiet, transformation which I felt was concisely expressed by Stratagème’s line-up of wines. To put it another way, my re-education about Languedoc-Roussillon was only just beginning. I’ll explain.
In the early days of my wine education, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon had played a significant rôle. Over a number of years I drank through virtually all of the region’s wines commonly available in the United States. Paul Strang’s Languedoc Roussillon, The Wines and Winemakers, first published in 2002, was my constant companion. I studied it from cover to cover. But restless and curious, eventually I was to leave the region behind in favor of a wider vinous experience. So it was that for quite some time that, like many of my American colleagues, I had felt sufficiently knowledgeable, that time and treasure enough had been given to Languedoc-Roussillon. All of that changed in the blink of an eye at the Au Petit Grain tasting. In the aftermath of my encounter with Jean Natoli and the Stratagème team, a small seed had been planted, an idea began to grow.
I have tended my garden well. Three months have passed during which I have done extensive research. I am now days away from yet another journey to Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon, the 4th in as many months, this time to raise funds for another feature-length documentary film. Following upon my Portuguese documentary, a two year project which completely transformed my understanding of Portugal, turning night into day, eviscerating received opinion, I have now found a subject equally deserving of renewed international appreciation and recognition: the elaboration of high quality wines, the revelations given by terroir, and a progressive environmentalism which, taken together, are increasingly what we now must understand as the new reality of Languedoc-Roussillon.
My new project will document the 2012 seasonal experiences of 12 carefully chosen winemakers working divers soils and under both cooperative and challenging climatic conditions. The first shoot will be in May, the second, September/October, the harvest. The specific producers and vineyards I have chosen are in a variety of terroirs, areas and appellations including: St. Jean de Minervois, Corbières, Pézenas, Coteaux du Languedoc – St. Saturnin, Puissalicon, St. Chinian, Faugères, Pic St. Loup, and La Clape.
Of quite varied background and training, and nuanced viticultural philosophies – organic, biodynamic, sustainable – each of the winemakers I have selected share a common drive and determination to make the very best wines as they are able, with minimal intervention, and with the utmost respect for the land they have come to love. Yes, love. For make no mistake, love animates and informs the work. But just how that love is expressed can only be revealed over time, the very journey my documentary will take. Updates to come…
If you’ve ever driven the Highway 1 between San Francisco to Santa Cruz, chances are quite good that you turned off to visit the small farming town of Pescadero. Once there, certainly for every bicyclist, you’ve visited the local landmark Arcangeli Grocery. Remember the freshly baked bread? I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. Also known as Norm’s Market, here’s why. From their website:
“After World War II, Norm’s mother, Louise, and her brother, Alfred Arcangeli (both pictured Below), changed the company name to Arcangeli Grocery. In 1957, Norm Benedetti took over the family business and it became known as “Norm’s Market.” Norm initiated an extensive renovation program in 1979 that filled the store with wonderful specialty goods and a full California wine stock. The 24 varieties of hot French bread later won acclaim in Northern California’s Home and Garden magazine.
Only a fragment quoted here, it is as fine a family story as you will find along the northern coast of California, and the story only keeps getting better. Meet John Benedetti, winemaker, brewer, and web designer, in that order. Though new to winemaking, as you will read, he has to my mind already made a significant mark on the vinous landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains, AVA. Let’s back up a bit.
Last October I was with family and friends searching for the finest Halloween pumpkins grown on farms proximate to my home in Santa Cruz. The family tradition is to stop in at the Arcangeli Grocery for a speciality bread to share for our picnic to follow. On this occasion, I was to leave for Italy days later and had been asked by a European friend to bring an interesting wine from California. I had already chosen an ‘02 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, 10, a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars, and I had been searching for a white of distinction. In the Arcangeli Grocery I found two Arcangeli Chardonnays. I bought them both. Of very small production, good, I’d imagined the wines to be harmless and, with any luck, charming. Well, after tasting them both, I am more than happy to report that I have stumbled onto two of the finest Chardonnays I have had in recent years. Absolutely wonderful wines.
Flash forward to last Sunday, the day before Spring. A tasting of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines was hosted at a downtown Santa Cruz cultural treasure, a wine bar called Vinocruz, proprietor, Steve Principe (right). The winemaker, John Benedetti (left) was to be in attendance. No brainer, I went for an interview of Mr. Benedetti. Enjoy.
Ken Payton, Admin Would you care to introduce yourself?
John Benedetti My name is John Benedetti and I am the winemaker, fermentation facilitator at Santa Arcangeli Family Wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I am responsible for and focus on two vineyards, one is Bald Mountain which is in the Ben Lomond sub-appellation. That is a vineyard that has been farmed by the Beauregard family for many, many years; there is a really unique terroir there – sandstone at about 900 to 1100 feet elevation. It makes beautiful Chardonnay.
And the other, Split Rail, out of Corralitos…
JB Split Rail is an old David Bruce vineyard which was planted in the mid-80s by Greg Stokes. It is up at 1700 feet elevation in Corraltios, straight up off of Eureka Canyon Road. From one point in the vineyard you can actually see both the Boardwalk and Pacific Grove. You can see the whole Monterey Peninsula from there. It’s neat. It’s limestone soils, similar to the Côtes de Nuits in France. It’s planted to a David Bruce clone, Pinot Noir, which was originally brought over by Martin Ray in the ’50s and planted throughout this appellation.
David Bruce propagated it; his vineyard manager, Greg Stokes, spread it around to a whole bunch of his vineyards. It was a really popular clone planted all over the place in the AVA in the ’80s. Since then people have grafted a lot of it over to 667, 777, Pommard, the stuff that really produces a lot. The DB clone up at Split Rail really doesn’t produce a lot – we got 1/2 ton and acre last year – but it is amazing. (laughs) It is really, really French! You can taste it. It is grown in the same soil as DRC. We think it’s probably the same clone that Martin Ray brought over. It is structured, it is elegant, soft; it is not a big, bloated California Pinot, no matter what you do to it! I really enjoy working with it.
The lower half of that vineyard is planted to the old Champagne clone, UCD 32. They also have some 115 at the bottom [of the vineyard].
What is your background in winemaking?
RB It is a hobby gone haywire. (laughs) I’ve been brewing beer for 20-something years, and my family is obviously in the bakery business, in Pescadero, so fermenting things is second nature. I started making home wine about 12 years ago, just tinkering with it alongside my home-brewing. Then in 2008 I met up with an old friend of mine, Brandon Brassfield, who has a winery called Heart of the Mountain here in Santa Cruz. Really neat people. Brandon and I were talking about how much I loved Pinot – I’m kind of a wine geek – I told him I’d love to give it a shot sometime at making a couple of barrels at his place and he said, well, you know, lean into it and do it! So Brandon ushered me through it.
I had been talking to him quite a bit about experimenting with native yeast fermentation. He was approaching it from a much more conservative perspective at the time. But I’m really in to native yeast Pinots; I love the old style. I don’t like to intervene very much. Brandon figured it would be a good way for him to test the waters in his winery with native fermentations by letting me tinker there. So in ‘08 we made just one barrel called ‘The Wild One’ with grapes from their vineyard using entirely native yeasts, and it turned out great, really fantastic. In ‘09 we did it again. At that point I said to myself, “I like this.” And I think I am pretty good at it. I decided at that point to go ahead an get licensed, and now I work a Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon. Ryan Beauregard is a good friend of mine, an old friend, he supports me. i learn from him; we ping things off of one another. It is a really fun environment to work in.
So you’ve had no formal university training?
JB At some point I told my friends, Brandon and Ryan, that I was going to take some courses at UC Davis. They kind of laughed and said ‘You’ve been making wine for a few years now; why would you bother?’ I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I just believe in experimenting and in experience. I am still learning, and I really don’t want to stop learning. I have all the texts from Davis and I read them all. I have the reference books I need in order to study up on any question I may have; but generally what I’ve found is that if you start with the best vineyard, then your job as a winemaker is just to stay out of the way of it.
So, Davis is great, I think, if you need to learn how to fix problems, but if you work with good vineyards, you will not have problems – and if you do, I am not afraid to dump a batch of wine. I am not going to ‘fix’ something. This is not my day job. I am doing this for fun. If something is not working the way I want it to, then I am gong to walk away from it.
Would you consider your work organic?
JB Not organic. Split Rail vineyard is sustainably farmed, as are the Beauregaurd vineyards. In fact, I think they are going CCOF this year; they may have already. Split Rail is not an organic vineyard. While I don’t put much of anything in my wine, including yeast most of the time, I do use SO2, though I’ve not done the homework to see whether that is organic or not.
Pesticides can be ruinous on wild fermentations…
JB Yes, and they don’t spray anything late in the season at either of those vineyards that I know of. I know for certain they don’t at Split Rail. I have had no problems with native fermentations from either vineyard.
The wines all finish dry, never a stuck fermentation?
Where exactly is your winery located?
JB I work out of Beauregard’s facility. I work with the two vineyards mentioned and I am starting to put feelers out to some other places. But I just love those two vineyards, so I don’t see a need for others. Right now I do not have a tasting room. I don’t have a winery facility of my own. I started building one in Capitola but ran into some trouble. I was also putting in a brewery there. The government didn’t quite know what to do with that one. (laughs) They shot us down on a technicality. Something to do with owning both but being different business entities, so after 12 months of telling me it was fine, the ABC said I couldn’t do it. We pulled the plug on both.
What kinds of beers do you experiment with?
JB Belgian style stuff and IPAs. I tend to build beers that will stand up to being thrown into my old wine barrels. (laughs) At the brewery we were experimenting with Belgian triples that we would do primary and secondary fermentations and aging in Chardonnay barrels. My IPAs, I’ll through them into my Pinot Noir barrels and dry hop them in those barrels. That is harkening back to tradition. IPA was a British ale – they are very different now then they were then – which was shipped to India. As a preservative they put hops in the wooden casks they shipped it in. So traditionally, IPAs had wood. I doubt they used fine French oak like I do, but they did have an oaky or woody character to them. I’ve tried to pay homage to that tradition.
Do you worry about cross contamination of one kind of yeast from beer making into your wines?
JB Yes. Some of the Belgian beers my partner was experimenting with have brettanomyces in them, which you don’t want in your wine. He puts brett in the beers. Now, I am not afraid of brett in a wine. In fact, my dad reared me on old Burgundies and Bordeaux, and you get bretty bottles occasionally. To me, in the right balance, it adds a neat character. I think it is probably the enemy of terroir because it has its own individual character, but nevertheless, if it produces an interesting product that tastes good and is different and is a nice wine, then I am not afraid of brett. I try to avoid it, but if some got in there but the wine was balanced and I felt people would appreciate, I would let it go. I would lean into it and I would own it.
When you finished your first wine, were you shocked at what you had done? How did you feel about your first efforts?
JB I was thrilled. The experimental stuff we did at Heart of the Mountain turned out better than I ever imagined it would. Then with the first commercial release, which is today, the Pinots are far better than what I was hoping for. I was thrilled at how they turned out, especially the Split Rail. I’ve put on a designation on special batches, “Selezione Susie”. It is named after an old friend of mine who passed away just before my first vintage came out.
The Split Rail Pinot is a special wine, I think it is a really French wine, in its origins. It smells vibrant. I know that sounds cheesy; but it has a really intense aroma to it that jumps out. You can pick it blind in a line-up with 20 wines, no problem. That’s what I want to do. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it is unique.
I’ve looked over the Santa Arcangeli Family Wines website. How are you doing on inventory?
JB The Chardonnay is pretty much sold out. I have a few cases left for direct to consumer sales. The Pinot Noir, I should have inventory for another 3 months. I’m moving it pretty fast. Remember, it is a super tiny production. I produced 250 cases in 2010. I have about 50 cases left.
Well, you’re clearly a rising star in my estimation. I love your work. As I earlier mentioned, I took a couple bottles to Italy and Southern France for talented friends to try. People love them.
JB It is awesome to hear they were well received back where I would like to see them received.
I will often take special bottles of California wine with me. I recently took a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars. I like my European colleagues to have a sense of the excellent work going on here in California.
JB We’re working at it out here! Santa Cruz Mountains is the best, least known AVA in the world. (laughs) Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not afraid of structure, of acidity. It is not afraid to make age-able wines. Paul Draper is my hero. I love Ridge wines. I always have. I love his philosophy and his approach to winemaking. I don’t think people in the world realize that most of their wines are actually from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Paul Draper put us on the map out here. People still don’t give the AVA its due.
By the way, what is your day job?
JB I have a web design firm called Illuminada Design. I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I’m trying to segue into winemaking full time. Seriously, it is my favorite thing in the world to do. I love it. You’ve got to get your name out there. Once people try your wines, it works. It is hard to get noticed out there.
I’ll do what I can…
JB Thanks, Ken.
Ken Payton, Admin