Not your average winemakers
from Bambino to Bedrock and life in Valerie's Vineyard (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
What in God's name was Morgan Twain-Peterson thinking?
In 2005, armed with a BA from Vassar and a Masters degree in American Studies from Columbia University, he actually thought he might become a history professor.
Apparently, somewhere in the 91 miles between Vassar in Poughkeepsie and Columbia in Morningside Heights, he had forgotten his family history and repressed his earliest childhood memories.
Because Morgan Twain-Peterson could no more become a professor of history than the moon could wander away from the Earth. In fact, the gravitational pull of the Peterson parentage on young Morgan was probably no weaker than the Earth's pull on the moon.
Consider this: Morgan Twain-Peterson was all of five years old when he made his first wine. Five! In that fateful year, 1986, Morgan got half a ton of Sangiacomo pinot for free. "I had my own little fermenter," he admits. The wine was called Vino Bambino, it was made each year through 2001, and there's still a bottle or two around.
And lest you suspect Vino Bambino was merely a family gag, it was good enough to be served at high-end New York restaurants like the Gramercy Tavern, Charlie Palmer's Aureole and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill.
If you go to Morgan's Bedrock Wine Co. website you'll find a photo of that five-year old, standing shirtless on top of a wine barrel in a clutter of Ravenswood boxes holding what is presumably a glass of his own pinot in one hand and what could be a kid-sized punch-down stick in the other. There's a confident smile on his face that makes him look older than his miniature body, suggesting he might be a winemaking midget.
Of course, your ordinary five-year old isn't going to get a thousand pounds of Sangiacomo grapes, free or otherwise. But Morgan's father is Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood, maker of "no wimpy wines," and an inspiration for anyone interested in creating wine somewhere off the beaten path.
It was off the beaten path that Morgan wandered after his Columbia graduation, working as a visiting winemaker at Hardy's in Australia and at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, learning, he says, "all the things I didn't want to do."
In Bordeaux, he reports, he acquired enough French to say, "long-chain polyphenols, and then I basically order a pair of pants."
Returning to Sonoma, Morgan told his father, "I want to be in the wine business." Joel responded, "You're out of your mind," and Morgan promptly started Bedrock in 2007, producing 600 cases.
"That was twice what I started with at Ravenswood," the father ruefully admits.
Talking with Morgan, you have to remind yourself he's still several years shy of 30. Winemaking minutia flows from his mouth like juice from a basket press. And while the enterprise is strictly Morgan's, he doesn't shun his father's advice.
"Dad has about the closest thing you can get to a street MBA. It's really nice to have his counsel."
Demonstrating business acumen as well as winemaking wisdom, Morgan negotiated the use of Tantalus Winery's converted chicken house production/wine tasting facility on Orange Avenue in exchange for managing owner Jim Harwood's vineyard. That, he figures, saves him $20,000 a year.
His grapes come from some of the best vineyards in Sonoma County, thanks in part to the bad economy. "It gives me access to vineyards I never thought I could get into," says Morgan. And in 2006 the Peterson family bought the 152-acre Sonoma Valley vineyard he now calls Bedrock, containing 120-year old vines and a giant feral hog named Lulubelle. The vineyard was founded by Generals William "Tecumseh" Sherman and "Fightin' Joe" Hooker. It sweats history from every pore and produces unparalleled fruit, about 60 to 70 percent zinfandel and the rest "mixed blacks." The result is what Morgan describes as "the quintessential California heirloom wine."
All this is just a nice story until you taste what Morgan makes. Then you realize the grape didn't fall far from the vine. Stylistically, Morgan wanders all over the map, experimenting with varietals and blends few winemakers are willing to risk trying. The results are unusual, surprising, frequently inspiring and universally good. His Cuvee Caritas is a brilliant blend of Kick Ranch Sauvignon Blanc and Monte Rosso vineyard Semillion. It will redefine your experience of sauv blanc.
Morgan's monster red table jug wine-Sherman & Hooker Shebang-is a combination of "drop-out inventories" from his own and others' production, wine that didn't make the cut, didn't fit the profile and was essentially orphaned. It is a brash, explosive, lavishly multi-layered blend, so good it's amazing he sells liter jugs for $15.
But the Bedrock ne plus ultra is the 2008 Heirloom from those Sherman-Hooker vines. Eighteen different varietals make the blend-40 percent zin, 30 percent carignan -and the rest who knows. The fruit is huge, it's silky in the mouth, the finish lingers lovingly. One of the best $35 bottles of wine you can buy.
Morgan will pour you tastes if you can
make the appointment. It's worth the effort.
or go to bedrockwineco.com.
When Michael and Valerie Coats bought three acres of Valley floor on Burndale Road, like anyone new to the neighborhood, they wanted to fit in.
So they bought two sheep.
"Hey, we were in Carneros," says Michael, adding for the benefit of those who speak sheep, "Who's your daaaaaad?"
But eventually, he confesses, "We realized sheep are not us."
They also did horses, but everyone does horses. There had to be something else they could do with the land, something the family could work on together, something that would add value to their lives, something they could grow.
When you live in an appellation called "Carneros," and almost every tillable acre around you grows grapes, it's not hard to predict what Michael and Valerie decided to do.
"We were spending money on wine," he explains. "We figured a vineyard would allow us the opportunity to, say, let's make some and keep ourselves in wine."
It sounds simple, until you ask anyone who's planted a vineyard and fulfilled Wine Country's favorite joke: How do you make a million dollars in wine? Start with $10 million.
But Michael and Valerie weren't babes in the woods. Michael's PR firm had served B.R. Cohn and Ledson Vineyards for years, so wine wasn't a complete mystery. And they had an ace in the hole-Valerie's 80-year-old father, Chuck Hansen, had spent 53 of those years as the wine buyer at Hi-Times Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, the self-proclaimed largest retail wine seller in the West. He'd been there so long, when he started there were only 37 wineries in the entire state. He knew everyone, wine was his passion and, adds Valerie, "He likes to prune."
So Mike and Valerie invited all their family members to become "partners in wine." Only a few accepted, including Chuck, Valerie's mom, Jerry, and her sister Vicki Brown, but the Coats family included two kids-Michael Junior and Alison-who figured prominently in the winemaking plot.
Before we go any further it helps to know something about the principles. Valerie, the inspiration for the eponymous vineyard, grew up in Southern California and has been cooking since she was 12, had her first restaurant job at 15, attended the Culinary Institute of San Francisco, has cooked for Hanzel, Kenwood Winery, Foley Wine Group and now works primarily as a private chef, cooking sometimes in private homes and yachts.
Michael, who grew up in a blue-collar home in Danville, was something of a culinary challenge for Valerie. His favorite meal was Wonder Bread coated with Best Foods mayonnaise and French's mustard with a layer of American cheese.
Michael was a PR prodigy who began promoting rock groups in high school, along the way met Doobie Brother Tom Johnston, scored a job out of high school with rock impresario Kim Baker and then met Doobies manager Bruce Cohn, who also managed Night Ranger and Taxxi. Cohn hired Coats as his in-house publicist, and over the years Coats toured with the Doobies and represented at different times James Brown, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Night Ranger, Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship. He spent 12 years as a partner in his own San Francisco PR agency then broke off to promote Wine Country clients, prominently including Cohn and Steve Ledson. Under Valerie's tutelage, his taste in food and wine greatly improved. And despite the absence of a college degree, he is informed and knowledgeable on numerous subjects, including wine.
The vineyard evolved slowly, purposely limited to one acre in size, and from the beginning it had one focus-pinot noir. "I'm a pinot guy," says Michael. "That's what I gravitate to."
The vines were planted in 2000 and were promptly hammered by a heat wave. Next bunch rot paid a visit and after that there was a freeze. But with the help of venerable vineyard manager Phil Coturri, a first vintage was achieved in 2002. They got one case. The next year they took the grapes to Tom Montgomery, the winemaker at B.R. Cohn, who delivered 20 cases of a perfect pinot and, admits Michael, "We drank it all."
In 2004 production soared to 42 cases, so much wine that, with two teenagers, Michael began storing it in a padlocked closet, a prominent sign on the door warning of dire consequences if any bottles went missing.
They're now up around 100 cases, enough to sell in local restaurants, through Hi-Times and, as Michael puts it, "We have a pretty good presence in New York."
The vineyard is completely organic. "No Roundup," says Michael. "The vineyard's never seen a drop of chemical. We're really just trying to finesse an acre into the best wine we can."
Everyone toils among the vines. Michael does the disking, the grandparents prune, pull leaves and drop fruit (what Michael calls "grape-acide") to intensify flavor. Young Michael is vineyard manager, Alison helps out here and there and altogether, Michael estimates, the project takes about 20 days of work a year.
Is it worth it?
First of all, the wine is stunning. The 2007 "One Acre" Valerie's Vineyard Pinot Carneros will stand against any pinot in the region. The 2005 got 91 points from the Pinot Report. This is serious stuff.
Second, reports Michael, "It doesn't lose money. We took a draw last year. Everybody went on a vacation. Plus, now, we don't buy wine."
And finally, says Valerie, "The coolest thing is when you walk into a restaurant and see your bottle of wine on someone's table. That's really cool."
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)