The Forlorn Hope of Calaveras County
Some say there's a revolution happening in California wine, though it's more like a quiet movement of a select few seeking truth outside the status quo. The trailblazers are always the ones on the outside, and I was quite fortunate to spend some time with one of them last month.
I left Lodi and the Wine Bloggers Conference behind on August 15 and headed east toward Murphys for the first of several winery visits to follow that week. I drove through the fatigue-colored landscape of the Central Valley, dry grass with splotches of olive and sage rising on both sides of the road as I approached higher ground, my ears popping every now and again. When I passed the road sign announcing Calaveras County, it was impossible not to think, "Mark Twain was here." Forgive me for the clichéd metaphor, but Forlorn Hope winemaker Matthew Rorick is a luminary-rebel in his own right.
So named for the band of Dutch soldiers "who volunteered to lead the charge directly into enemy defenses," Forlorn Hope is an against-the-grain experiment of rarely seen varieties in California and a mix of Old Country winemaking with American entrepreneurial foresight. Ever had a trousseau noir or gemischter satz from the U.S.? Probably not. What about a foot-trod verdelho?
Lucky me, there were 3.5 tonnes of just-picked verdelho grapes waiting to be crushed under foot that morning. I have long wanted to feel the squish of grapes between my toes, to stomp those bad boys into juice, to have my 15 mad cap Lucy minutes. So when Matthew picked up on my dropped hints and asked if I wanted to jump in, I was elated. Finally, here was my Moby!
a man with a mission
Matthew Rorick founded Forlorn Hope in 2005 with the clear intention of rolling it back old school, pre-prohibition style. The grapes he purchases, and now grows on his namesake property, are weird. Except they're not. When Italian, Spanish and German immigrants first settled in Northern California, they brought the customs of their motherland and vine cuttings from their family's vineyards with them. Riesling is Germany's number one white wine grape, verdelho is the main ingredient in Spain's Rueda wines and the lead role in the famed wines of Madeira, off the coast of Portugal. Barbera calls Piedmont home in Northwest Italy, trousseau noir makes the pale reds of France's Jura, and so on. Often vineyards were planted with such a diverse mix of varieties that growers likely didn't know, or care, what exactly they were growing. Whatever worked, stayed. In the ancient Lodi vineyards - ancient by California standards - traces of those old plantings of random German and Portuguese varieties still exist among rows of 100-year old zinfandel vines.
When I asked Matthew, why the oddball grapes, he answered, "I liked the idea of working with varieties I'd never heard of before. It was very much a curiosity." When California growers bent toward market trends and presumptions of success by pulling up whatever was in the field and replacing it with primarily cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and later syrah and pinot noir, much of the state's winegrowing heritage was lost in the pursuit of the dollar bill. This is America, after all. Matthew is one of several winemakers now staking claim and takings risks to bring back, or at least explore, that nearly forgotten heritage.
There's an interesting backstory to how Matthew came to winemaking. In his youth, he was a sponsored amateur skateboarder with the famous Tony Alva. Dogtown and Z-Boys was his reality. At the time of our meeting, I had recently interviewed badass rocker Alison Mosshart, lead vocalist for The Kills and The Dead Weather, about a series of paintings she'd made on tour on behalf of the Billy Reid Journal, and we had talked about growing up in Florida, skateboarding, and Fugazi. It was on my mind, and the skate punk coincidence was too great to mean nothing.
Later, Matthew joined the Navy, lived in Mexico, then headed to university for a degree in English Literature, which turned out to be Oenology and Viticulture. Clad in blue jeans, steel toe cowboy boots and hat, he generously shared his time with me, tasting through barrel samples and driving up through the dolomite limestone rich vineyards on the property, a rare soil type found only in that part of the state, he told me.
I don't know how many vineyards one needs to see to know these are special, but I've seen enough to recognize their wild beauty. The Rorick Vineyards were established in the Sierra Foothills in Calaveras County in 2013. As you can see from the photos, some of these plots are quite steep. Roughly 70 acres are planted to a handful of varieties including trousseau noir, barbera, verdelho and riesling at 2,000 feet elevation. They definitely see a dusting of snow in winter, and in that first year they got close to eight inches, almost enough to break out the snowboard, Matthew said. Overtop the limestone are layers of red clay and granite that give way to schist, the flaky mica-flecked soils of Germany's Mosel that riesling loves, encouragement enough to plant the grape there.
Many of the vines already existed, to which Matthew has grafted different varieties. I expect the next 10, 15 and 25 years will reveal how truly special these hills are. That's what Matthew is betting on as well. Always hopeful.
With a total production of 2,500 cases including 12 to 14 different wines in any given year, there's little bounty to go around. If you're wondering why this story even matters to you, assuming you might never experience the wines, it's because this story is part of a larger conversation. It's one of several small, patient discussions happening through Forlorn Hope and others, like La Clarine Farm, Matthiasson, Broc Cellars, and Idlewild, about what "California wine" means today. It's a conversation about matching variety to site, technique, art, and frankly, creating options in the marketplace. It's about entrepreneurship and creativity. It's the American way.
You can, however, purchase wines through the Forlorn Hope website, ask your trusty local retailer to bring in the wines, or type it into the Wine-Searcher search engine to find a retailer that will ship the wines to your front door.
Matthew and I tasted through several barrel samples that Monday afternoon, and he sent me home with one bottle each of the white gemischter satz and the trousseau noir. I enjoyed them both. They truly are "rare creatures," as the labels state, and not for everyone, but they are, like Matthew himself, approachable with many layers of interest.
FROM THE BARREL
Que Saudade Verdelho 2015
Fruit sourced from Dewitt and Vista Luna vineyards in Lodi and Matthew's own Sierra Foothills estate. Que Saudade translates from the Portuguese to "longing" or "yearning". It had an attractive aroma and tart, sour fruit on the palate with great acid and weight, though Matthew says it will continue to gain weight and round out as it ages in barrel. These grapes were stomped and left to marinate in their juices before pressing, which he says releases potassium from the stems, adding texture and boosting the pH, both of which are important for the overall feel of a wine on the tongue.
Kick-On Ranch Riesling 2015, Santa Barbara
Gorgeous floral and green apple fruit with tremendous acidity. It just kept going...The current release is the 2013, which Matthew says, "Tastes better now than when it was released a year and a half ago." Sounds promising.
Gewurtztraminer 2015, Russian River AVA
Foot trod and fermented on the stems for two weeks, pressed to barrel and aged about two years, this Alsatian white variety got the red wine treatment. Yellow-gold color with funky lychee notes and grippy tannin on the tongue.
St Laurent 2015, Carneros AVA
From the Ricci vineyard in Los Carneros, this Austrian native is 100% stem-fermented. Pale ruby color with burnt rubber (it's going through a phase) and black fruits, very high acidity and firm tannins. Matthew says this is the only St Laurent planting in California and maybe the only in the U.S.
Rorick Vineyard Barbera 2015, Sierra Foothills
Opaque ruby, beautifully rich color with bright fruit, cherry Jolly Rancher on the nose, dry on the palate and, again, tremendous acidity. Good grip, long finish, a little strange but quite lovely. It will spend a total of 20 months in barrel. The 2014 is the current release.
FROM THE BOTTLE
Gemischter Satz 2014, Lodi AVA
From the German meaning "field blend," these grapes were harvested from the Mokelumne sub-AVA. Matthew says there are as many as 40 varieties in this wine! True to the label's forthrightness, "another rare creature," this wine was as strangely comforting as the single-level 1950s era hotel room I occupied in Napa. Thin, mustard color blanket, AC wall unit, carport just outside the door, and a slight resemblance to that Texas desert motel in Wild at Heart. And the wine! White orchard fruit and nutty hints, on the fuller side in body with Forlorn Hope's true-to-nature face-slapping acidity. 61 cases produced.
Rorick Vineyard Trousseau Noir 2015, Sierra Foothills
I carried this bottle back to New Orleans with me and shared it with my pals Jim and John at Keife & Co. Deep rose-orange-burnt sienna in color, clear but not super bright with a nose that reminded me of a teenage Burgundy. "Just like trousseau," Jim said. White cherry on the palate, almost airy in body with a kiss of dry tannin, elegant and subtle, with loads of acid and a lengthy finish. 127 cases produced.
Thank you Matthew Rorick for an exceptional visit, truly a highlight on my 9-day adventure through Northern California.