Nikolaus (Nik) Weis is the third generation of his family to manage the winery founded by his grandfather, Nicolaus Weis, in 1947. Hermann, Nik’s father, carried on the traditions established by founder Nicolaus increasing the winery’s acreage further and, today, Nik manages the winery’s 35 hectares (87 acres) in the Mosel and Saar Valleys and is responsible for overseeing operations and sales of this second largest privately owned family winery in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Nik has a degree in Viticulture and Enology from Geisenheim and has worked and studied in Champagne, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and the Nahe in Germany. Nik works diligently to preserve the traditions of German winemaking and establish St. Urbans-Hof as a leader of innovation and quality in the region.
I’ve seen quite a few things put up for crowd funding. Start ups, charitable causes, and travel have all made their way through the sourcing sites that have made this method of raising capital famous. I even have a friend who designs games through crowd funding. I’ve always wondered, for obvious reasons, if this type of funding would work for establishing a vineyard or building a winery. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one pondering that. Last week, on a day most suited to planting and sowing crops according to the Biodynamic planting calendar, Rhone Ranger and maverick winemaker Randall Grahm, announced he was trying just that on indiegogo.com. I immediately reached out to Grahm to find out more about the project which sounded incredibly unique from the press release. The idea is to establish a “living lab” on his 400 acre estate Popelouchum near San Juan Bautista on the Central Coast of CA. The goal of the vineyard would be the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties on site. I caught up with Grahm late last week to get some more information on the project.
My first thought on a project this ambitious is how on earth do you decide which varieties get planted to be the parents of the 10,000 new varieties. That, to my viticulturist’s eye, would be the most critical of choices which may decide the success or failure of such a project. Grahm states they are “still working out the theoretical basis for the selection of ‘worthy parents’, but in the interim we’re looking at collecting data on which varieties (or clones thereof) seem to be particularly successful on our site – as far as vine health, flavor, drought tolerance, potential alcohol/acid balance and other criteria.” He also mentioned working with Dr. Andy Walker of UC Davis to select from his recent breeding results some of which are 97% Vitis vinifera and may offer the best of all worlds from native disease resistance to European variety wine quality. At the moment, it seems 100% natives (such as V. berlandiari) are being considered for rootstocks but not for further crossings with the chosen vinifera stocks. Other scientists involved in the project are Dr. José Vouillamoz of Switzerland & Dr. Carole Meredith, a well known grape geneticist from UC Davis.
The initial report of the project mentioned that Grahm wanted donators to join him “on a journey of discovery to change the way we grow grapes, to change the way we think about vineyards, to perhaps discover an entirely new vinous expression.” I asked him what he envisioned those changes looking like. His greatest wish is “complexity in wine arising from a lot of complexity in the genetic material constituting the vineyard itself.” His “big leap of imagination is that perhaps a big set of maybe not so interesting grapes (in and of themselves) may yield a rather unique and special wine that is far more interesting and complex than a wine grown in the same field from a smaller set of “superior” varieties.” This would be taking a selection massal theory to an entirely new level and then adding in dry-farming, biodynamics, and something called Bio-char, an activated carbon and compost mixture, to enhance the water holding capacity of the soils as well as the biological diversity of the microbial population in the soils.
Another aspect of the project that was interesting is a “major goal of the endeavor would be to establish a 501(c)3 status which would allow for crowd sharing with the community at large, the findings of the project over the arc of a decade’s time.” I asked Grahm what did he hope to accomplish as a 501 c3 organization and what happens to the revenue from this project if he did succeed in finding a new grand cru site? His answer was refreshingly frank and straightforward.
“Obviously, we hope to gain the sponsorship of some larger donors through the deductibility of the donation. Since the entire intention of the project is to leave a legacy to California viticulture, the furnishing of the new germplasm as “open code,” as well as the sharing of research, as well as the extreme long-term nature of the project, makes this a natural for a 501c(3) organization. While there will likely someday be some revenue from the sales of wine made from grapes grown on this site, it will certainly take many years to begin to recover the level of investment made. At some point soon, we will work out a logical way to segregate the for-profit and not-for-profit aspects of the business.”
Finally, I wanted to get to the major question. Why crowd funding? Grahm had two main reasons for this; 1) He wanted to get the funding going to establish the site as a 501 c3 business and 2) to start building a community of like-minded people who would be “sincerely interested in this sort of project. Not just wine-drinking connoisseurs, some of whom might be able to appreciate the audacity of the proposition, but others with a real interest in both sustainability.” Don’t worry though. Grahm is not expecting the crowd sourcing to foot the entire bill. He says he has been and plans on continuing to contribute the “largest percentage of funds for this project” however he does anticipate that the percentage may shift if the non-profit status is granted. To attract donations, Grahm has put together special packages for all of the donation levels ranging from signed posters, books, and gift baskets to having the new grape varieties named for you or your entire family!
At the time of writing his campaign was 12% funded with 25 days left to go. At this point it seems off to a strong start!
Italy has always been a bit of a mystery to me. When I first started studying for my WSET programs it was a toss up between Italy and Germany as to which was the most confusing. Now, after years of study I understand that I will NEVER, in my LIFE, know everything there is to know about Italian wines. I have contented myself, however, with exploring a region here and there when I get the chance. One such chance has presented itself in the last month and I hope to make the most of it. Montefalco is a small mountain village in the province of Perugia in Umbria almost exactly half way down the boot, in the middle of the peninsula. It was originally settled by the Umbri, an ancient Italian tribe, which lived in the area from the 9th-4th centuries BC. In March of this year, Montefalco was named Italy’s Best New Wine Region by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine. It is only a short train ride from Rome making it an easy escape from the bustling city to the mountains. The region, largely known for their fabulous truffles, olive groves, and amazing hill top vistas is now starting to break out from underneath the shadow of their Tuscan cousins. Every spring around Easter the town holds a large festival called Settimana Enologica or “Wine Week” to bring tourists in to sample the local wines. Until recently, the wines of this area have been not well known outside of Italy. However, the Consorzio Montefalco is working to change that and have graciously sent me two wines to taste and explore to get a sense of what this area and the Sagrantino grape are all about.
Colpetrone 2011 Montefalco Rosso DOC – Elegant and Floral
The first wine hails from one of the most important producers in the DOCG area. Montefalco Rosso is usually a blend of Sangiovese and Sagrantino. This wine is a beautiful blend of both plus a bit of Merlot coming from a vineyard planted in 1997 on limy soil with clay deposits. A moderately deep ruby colored core followed by a lovely burst of plum and black cherry on the nose. The wine had none of the “raspberry leaf” character I normally associate with wines from further north in the country but did have a distinctive earthy aroma reminiscent of crushed late fall leaves. The intensity of the fruit suggests a lack of oak influence which was confirmed by the dossier that accompanied it. With a moderate body, fresh acid, and structured but supple tannins that hit in the middle of the tongue, this wine is more weighty than a Pinot Noir but just as elegant. It is strikingly similar in style to Chianti Classicos but with darker fruit and rounded edges. While this wine can age a couple more years due to its textured tannins I highly recommend taking advantage of it’s fruitful youth!
Azienda Agraria Scacciadiavoli 2008 Montefalco Sagrantino – Power Punch
The second wine comes from the oldest winery of the Montefalco appellation, founded in 1884. The name Scacciadiavoli, literally translates to “cast out the devils” apparently named for a 19th century exorcist who lived in the village. The vineyard is 400 meters above sea level on a clay shale soil. The wine itself is intense with a dense ruby core that is impossible to see through, living up to the expectation that Sagrantino is one of the most deeply colored grapes in the world. The nose is quite concentrated with aromas of ripe black plum, graphite, and cedar. The full body continues with the concentrated theme with intensely structured tannins, the description of which is hard to pin down. It is similar to the texture of Nebbiolo but slightly smoother with the intensity and palate distribution of Cabernet Sauvignon. The finish is long and the wine is crying out for food as most Italian reds do. If the body were lighter the tannins would be harsh and out of balance however the richness in the core of this wine was deeply concentrated and left a seamless transition from beginning to end. My hat is off to the winemaker because I know it is quite challenging to balance tannins of that quantity! It is quite unlike anything I have ever tasted before. This is a 2008, already over 6 years old and I am of the opinion I opened it too young! This structure is built for aging quite in line with the other hallowed regions of this country. If you are interested in this wine it seems the previous vintage is for sale at one of my favorite wine sourcing spots, K & L Wines in San Francisco.
These wines have distinctively different styles however both show that this region is focused on making serious wine that can stand on the international market. The town itself looks charming and it’s views dramatic. I only hope I get the chance to visit for myself soon!
Picture courtesy of MontefalcoMob.com