Hank, Caroline, Tapenade and Aioli Beckmeyer unassumedly posing in front of the vineyard
He stands about six foot tall with a softness that underlies everything about him. Soft kind eyes, softly greying hair, a pleasant, simple smile, a humble but straight demeanor and posture, muted clothing suitable for a lifestyle in the country, and a kind and steady voice that could soothe the nerves of Medea in her rage (the ancient Greek one, not Tyler Perry’s). Surrounded by his docile and happy goats, one would never think that this is the man who could lead you to a dangerous addiction that could change your life forever, leaving you always looking for the next fix, feverishly chasing new and different highs, spending all your money and neglecting all other aspects of your life seeking the next rush that will get you as sky high and blasted as you did the first time. It’s difficult to repeat that first rush, an epiphany which split open your mind and frayed the universe like a shattered glass ceiling, an overwhelming sensation that made you question your past and how you had ever lived without this, how you had gone about your life while bottles and bottles of this powerful stuff had been circulating the globe, passing on the street beside you and around you, invisible to your senses which had been asleep without you even knowing it. You’d never take the calm and humble Hank Beckmeyer for the pusher of gateway drugs, but it was through him that I was lead into the dark and dangerous world of natural wine.
One of the little ladies
As I have said before, I used to think all wine tasted like wine. Why would I be interested in pouring so much money into an alcoholic drink that usually just tasted “good” or passable? I usually opted for cheap Bourbon. It all gets you drunk, no? And even if I were interested in wine, what was the difference between a $7 bottle of liquor store wine and a $200 bottle of Burgundy? In BNW (Before Natural Wine), I couldn’t really tell, and I don’t think it was only for a lack of sensitivity, but that it was mostly for a lack of interesting available wines in my daily life. And then I had the 2011 La Clarine Sumu Kaw Syrah. It was like a campfire in Yosemite, it had sage and smoke and forest and warmed you in the cold under the open black sky littered with stars who have no interest in battling the artificial light of the city; it resonated like some magic potion that began in your loins and made its way up to your head with the force of poison but in harmonious benevolence; it was like nothing I had ever tasted; it was a wine that didn’t just taste like wine.
This was the moment that it all opened up for me. If they could make this stuff in the Sierra Foothills, there must be more people in the world making these mystic wine-experiences that could bring me to this precipice of enchanted experiential enlightenment. I was like a man who had been landlocked his entire life and one day followed the creek until it lead him to the ocean. Where else could this great body of water lead? I was hooked. I began to build a boat.
Since then I have had the pleasure of many many wines; I have learned a lot and am just beginning to be able to understand the greatness of some of the legendary stuff, but find that the natural wines are often still so much more exciting because they can be so surprising. I am not a person who seeks sameness and since there are so many damned winemakers on this Earth in so many different geographic corners, I am never at a loss for a new, interesting bottle, but I continue to be surprised, excited, and uplifted by Mr. Beckmeyer’s unique and incredible juice possibly more than any winemaker in the world. There was the aforementioned 2011 Syrah, but that summer the 2012 Rosé was mind-blowing as well. It was like tart watermelon juice that went down so so well with the summer heat. I almost felt like I was going to have to spit watermelon seeds out as I sat on my porch drinking that pink deliciousness which made the argument that pink can be as exciting as any other color of wine. Not to be outdone or compared to past iterations, the 2014 Rosé came out of nowhere too, smoky as a half-burned log with tons of rhubarb and straight up dry fruit punch melange. The Jambalaia Rouge is a summer favorite every year, blending red and white grapes for a purple-colored red wine that is light on its feet, chillable and ready for backyard revels. It brings Syrah to a level of drinkability that needs us to ask no questions or to think too hard but allows us to revel in its simple and lovable majesty, not to mention that it gives us the pleasant excuse of being able to drink red wine while the sun is at its apex. I recommend buying it by the case and sharing it with everybody you know. But then, and this may have been my favorite of all, as I am an unmitigated acid-head, last year his first bottling of an all Petit Manseng (which is a tiny yellow grape that is usually used to make sweet wine in Southwest France) absolutely blew me away; I can still taste the last sip I had of it which was well over six months ago. It is dry as the Sahara but with a roasted rice or even hay flavor that I have never experienced in wine. It is as if your taste buds are converted to the stone on which it was grown and your tongue is tatooed forever with the memory of it. And the acid! It’ll kick any cheese’s ass from here to eternity (you didn’t know cheeses had asses?) and is like a set of lasers that clean your tongue tabula rasa, to the original state of total absence, as clean as god’s own ass (god is a lot like cheese).
For all the wildness and uniqueness of flavor in these wines, you’d think that Hank was secretly adding different fruits, vegetables and other foods to his wine for the wildness of their flavors, but they are what they are, without hardly any alteration, crushed grapes and no more. And this makes me wonder about the idea of variation in wine flavor in general. Does wine all naturally taste “like wine” or is it that most winemakers use similar techniques to match consumers’ idea(s) of what wine should taste like? When left to its own devices, without filtration, fining, sulfur additions, yeast control, and lees removal, does much wine follow its own course and find itself a unique expression of the grape and of the site from which it came? And even more complicating, from vintage to vintage I find the same grapes can express themselves quite differently moving through Hank’s hands. The 2013 Cedarville Mourvedre was a delicate and pretty thing like a Jura Trousseau, while this year it tastes something like smoked sausage. Another great perplexity that occurs to me as I drink more and more and more and even more La Clarine wine is how the juice changes over the course of time. I used to drink an entire bottle shortly after opening to try and figure out exactly what it was that I was drinking, but I have learned that day two often tastes vastly different from day one and sometimes the wine is most exciting by day five! The longevity after opening would suggest to me that these bottles have relatively long cellar potential, though, I don’t know if I can exercise the necessary restraint for long enough to find out.
Our recent trip to Somerset to visit Hank and his wife Caroline and their twenty or so goats and their three dogs and two cats was especially gorgeous. We approached through the autumnal, painted forest, miles and miles of it. The Sierra Foothills is a resonant place, much less handled and developed than many other California wine-growing regions. Maybe I am being overly Romantic, but I always feel like grapes that are grown on land that is surrounded by unending forest and mountains yields an especially mysterious product. These small plots of grape-growing land feel the absence of violence done to the lands around them and have the opportunity to be themselves, without fear of danger and development. There is also very little monoculture in the foothills. They grow Rhone grapes, Spanish grapes, Gamay, Southwestern French grapes, Italian grapes, and Californian grapes. It seems like nobody is especially privileged above anybody else and the lesser-known varietals have the opportunity, again, to be themselves, to grow up like children who were never expected to be lawyers or doctors, but who were given the opportunity to flourish into a unique and self-discovered personality. The chaos of the forest and of the grape selections forms, in many ways, a foundation which gives grapes a greater opportunity for self-expression.
More goats, not sure which side to show the camera
When we landed at La Clarine Farm (Caroline used to run a fully operational dairy, making what I heard were phenomenal, raw goat cheeses but has ceased operating on a large scale, in part due to the US Government’s treatment of raw milk substances as something akin to heroin), we quickly realized that we had arrived from the city as Hank’s young and excited dogs immediately soiled our white pants with their dirty paws. White pants on a farm? After our country dirt baptism, we took a little stroll around his property visiting vines and goats. His vineyard, which was planted between 2001 and 2006, is an especially interesting site for its viticultural methods. Hank uses the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka, a 20th Century Japanese natural farmer and philosopher, as a guide to farming his own vineyard. Fukuoka advocated a style of farming that does not involve tilling, fertilizers, prepared composts, or pruning, and recommends only minimal weeding of wild plants that grow in the area. Fukuoka first began experimenting with his “do-nothing” farming methods, which attempt to grow plants in an environment which is closest to how they would have grown in the wild, after a night heron inspired a semi-psychedelic vision that lead him to the epiphany that “In this world there is nothing at all…”, that he knew nothing and that humans could know nothing. After this, he rejected scientific agricultural methods (which he had been researching for the Japanese government), quit his job, and took over his father’s farm to live as a part of nature. An agricultural practice founded on the non-dualistic principle that nothing exists!
The vineyard at La Clarine is immediately visually very different from any other vineyard I have ever seen. The vines are not trellised, they are let to grow like unruly bushes, sometimes even walking along the ground. Spotted with one varietal here and another there, it is almost like a pre-prohibition style California vineyard, the vines intermingled with one another and all grown from own-rooted vines. In part, it is an experiment to see which varietals really like the terroir the best and Hank says the Tannat and Grenache seem to be happiest. If a vine is struggling, it is left to struggle. The product of that struggle may yield some unexpected results at one time or another, as nature is unpredictable and some of the most beautiful wines in the world can be the product of difficulty and scarcity. Truly one of the most unique vineyards I have had the pleasure to see, it matches the beautiful disorder of the Sierra Foothills, looking more like a forest and less like an English garden.
The wine cellar tucked into the hills
And then we entered the cellar and the fun began. We opened a number of bottles and the pace was somewhat rapid, as I tend to drink quickly, so my notes are a bit scattered but I’ll give it a go here!
2014 “FNA” Fiano and Arneis. I love the name of this wine as it conjures two images to me, the first is the American colloquial exclamation “Fuckin’ A!” meaning “I agree”, or “damn right!”. My mother tried limiting her cursing when we were children and would often refer to things as “that ‘effing guy” so the wine sounds to me like “’effin’ A”. I must say that after sipping this one the exclamation is a suitable one. The second reference I hear in the name is something akin to DNA, maybe FNA is an alternate amino acid strain: Funky Nucleic Acid? Or back to my original predilection for the expletive, “Fuckin’ Nucleic Acid”? Either way, the name is just something that goes on the label, and I find this one to be reminiscent of a Jura white with oxidative nutty notes. Its got a lot of fresh pretty sunshine too and looks like a yellow burst of Helios after a rain in the glass. It’s both young and old, either a precocious child, or a spontaneous and spry granny.
To view the world through Fiano colored glasses…
2014 Petit Manseng was not as much as a cult wine as last year’s but is a hell of a lot friendlier and still has all the unique freshness of a La Clarine white. It still has great acid but also fresh flowers and herbs. Caroline noted a really cool green pea note and it definitely has that vegetal sweetness that’s both juicy and crisp. Take a roll in the garden with it, getting your white pants dirty and drinking it straight from the bottle. Just make sure if the goats are around, they don’t get any ideas….
We followed those with a couple more experiments from Mr. Beckmeyer. They were a 2014 barrel fermented rosé and a 2015 partial barrel fermented rosé. He says that he finds his whites and roses taste best after a year in the bottle, but that the market demands those wines immediately for summer drinking. This is, in some ways, a response to that demand. La Clarine rosés tend to be pretty muscular but these are a little closer to a provencal style, a little more elegant and lean, but still with a rustic fullness from the old wood that they sit in. Unexpected in its classic feel, but still a farmer’s wine.
On to the reds, Hank’s got a wine he’s calling “Elvis” this year. It’s Grenache and Mourvedre and it’s the first time he’s worked with this fruit and it starts out fun as hell, with a lot of dark fruit bursting out at you with licorice and a bit of toughness. Appropriately named, this juice definitely wears blue suede shoes and is a bit of a show off at first, thrusting its hips lasciviously, but on the second day it shows some ethereal dried fruit leather that I have only tasted in the Dettori wines of Sardinia. It made me wish I had only taken a sip and then left the bottle open to drink tomorrow. This is exactly what is so sublime about these wines: they never cease to surprise. They turn corners and develop into something you never would have expected. If you don’t like it when you open it, give it a few hours, it might just be your new favorite bottle, unless, of course, you reject adventure and surprise and desire a sort of fascist-like order which sees everything as controllable and desires all to be uniform, even if it takes a lot of corporal punishment.
Elvis in soft focus
We tasted the 2014 Sumu Kaw Syrah which had just been bottled the day before and I noted some cool garden tomato acidity, which was something I enjoyed. I don’t want you to read “flaw” here, because it isn’t. And I’m glad the young generation of wine drinkers is not as heavily concerned with “flaw” in wines, because difference is exciting. Sorry UC Davis, but science isn’t as popular as it used to be in our drinking habits and the presence of the Sumu Kaw in wine stores across the country is a testament to this. Winter is here and you should drink this stuff next to a fireplace if you can. We have a plastic one which projects fire images from an illuminated roll and it’ll have to do.
Sumu Kaw being bottled, homemade in every way
The 2013 Josephine + Mariposa was a trip to something elegant, yet strong. It reminds me of one of those older Spanish ladies walking around Madrid, tremendously well put together in their fitted outfits with matching hats, beauty and pride in tact, wearing wrinkles which show distinction. I’m not too sure about those old Spanish ladies’ political beliefs, but luckily grapes don’t vote and even if they could, these grapes would have never supported Franco, but would have been beside Garcia Lorca, writing poetry and acting in theater. Hank is unfortunately not going to be able to work with this fruit anymore since some Napa house has outbid him on the fruit. This is a somewhat common story in the wine world for small California producers without tons of money behind them. They tend to dig and find great sites and fruit before anybody else. Then somebody with money falling out of his ass (and though hard to believe it may be, but rich guys have the biggest asses of all, to accommodate the large mounts of money that uncontrollably fall out of them) drinks the wine, sees how marvelous it is, and goes to the source to get those grapes for themselves. Gentrification is also taking place in the country fields of America! And though Hank is disappointed to lose the site, he brightens when talking about how he doesn’t just want to be a factory and produce the same thing every year anyways.
New projects are always more stimulating to the active and creative mind, like the 2015 co-fermented Tempranillo/Albariño, which he referred to as his “Iberian Cote Rotie”, which we had the opportunity to sample from the barrel; still showing its fruit and tannin, I look forward to this one sometime next year to see what it’ll be doing. We also sampled his first orange wine, an Albariño which he will leave on the skins for 6 months. It was showing a lot of ginger, apricot, and honey on the nose and I’m excited to see how it develops. Hank also mentioned a sparkling wine project, which I want NOW! If I had a bottle in front of me, I would have to call into work sick, and I wouldn’t be lying either, for this is a terminal illness that I have contracted from natural wine, one with which I will have to live for the rest of my life.
This trip has reawakened the addict in me; I want more wine now and more to stash away for later. I want to wake up to a glass of Petit Manseng beside my bed, have a glass of orange Albariño with breakfast, brush my teeth with the barrel fermented rosé, have lunch with a day old Elvis, an afternoon nap and then on to the sparkler, which would lead me to dinner with a bottle of Josephine + Mariposa. There’s never enough time in the day for all of the delicious, resonant, surprising things Hank has bottled. I’ve begun hoarding these wines already and check my email daily for possible updates from La Clarine. When will they be here? Where can I get them? When will I get to drive up and spend some time in Somerset again? How can I make more space in my house for another wine cellar? When my wife comes home and I’m digging a hole into the ground beneath my closet, we will know I’ve begun to lose it. Or will I have finally just found it? Alice Feiring warns us to beware the dangers of natural wine; she advises that “it just might change your life”. If you are happy now and do not want to look down the tunnel of your future and see it plastered with pretty bottles, I tell you, stay away from the bottle with the black and white label with leaves, birds, and hearts, STAY AWAY FROM LA CLARINE!