One night in California, somewhere around St. Helena, I had dinner with Elaine, Jr., Hardy of Dirty and Rowdy wines, and his partner, Kate. Over delicious roast chicken, Hardy told me the story of Dirty and Rowdy and how he got started making wine. Hardy espouses 'natural' winemaking, which means that the wine is made with little winemaker intervention or use of sulphur to stabilize it for bottling. His label's name comes from the reputation natural wines have earned; some people say these techniques make the wine dirty and rowdy (which makes me think of a country dance, fun!) or, if a person is feeling less friendly, 'bready and volatile'. Now, that's not a very nice thing to say.
The idea that natural wines are (or can be) bready and volatile made me start thinking about volatility. In wine, the word is usually used to connote 'volatile acidity', which indicates what can be a serious flaw. If there's a certain kind of bacteria present making enough acid in the bottled wine, then distinct aromas and flavours of vinegar will appear, and when it's left like that the wine totally turns to vinegar. No good.
But in other cases too, volatile gets a bad rap - the word association game brings to mind explosions, volcanoes, and mood swings. If volatility in wine is bad, volatility in the stock market is worse. When the US financial market crashed in 2008, starting the most recent recession (which many say isn't over yet), Hardy was cut loose from a company he'd been working with for many years. He said he saw it coming, as he had a position that included a big travel budget and expense account, which was considered gravy on the company potatoes. While certainly no fun at the time, getting the axe from the company was a good thing for Hardy; he said it gave him the freedom, opportunity, and courage to make a radical change in his life. He set out with Kate at his side, and headed into the wine industry the way he'd always wanted to.
Given my current fascination with huge life changes, particularly setting out on one's own with total uncertainty on all sides, this impressed me very much. It's not all uncertainty for people in a situation like Hardy's; he also works at Corison winery, and Kate has a steady job. Yet, the notion of picking up everything, moving it to a new place, and declaring "now, I shall make wine!" seems very ballsy and... pretty great. In a situation like Hardy's with no vineyard land or a winery of one's own, buying grapes that are affordable (and that larger wineries didn't want, probably) and borrowing someone else's equipment (better have a winemaking friend!) are the only options for wine production. If you can make something drinkable, all the power to you.
Listening to Hardy talk over the course of the evening highlighted an interesting theme among winemakers that I had started to notice through the week. This is that for many of them, some kind of abrupt and discombobulating life change brought them to the wine industry from a very different path. The life they were leading at the time that I met them was so radically different from the one they led before, that it's funny to try to fit the two parts together.
Having weathered the storm of volatility in one area of life, Hardy didn't seem at all worried about the possibility of his wine being perceived that way. Changing peoples views on natural wines, and demonstrating that the unexpected or unusual can be great, seems to drive his work as a winemaker. Other people also had tales of monumental changes that lead to their wine careers - relationships ending, getting fed up with jobs, making cross-continent moves - all with a different spark to end their inertia, but ending up in similar places. They were trying to find their sea legs in an industry that they had little or no experience in, and little or no guarantee of income or livelihood, but they were doing their darnedest to make it work. And they were happy doing it.
I didn't get to taste Dirty and Rowdy wines on this night, and I'm sad about that. We drank some other strange and exciting wines instead, which I will now commence to tell you about. I'm quite certain that none of these can be found at the LCBO, but if you discover otherwise, please let me know.
La Viarte Ribolla Gialla, 2011 - This wine hails from the Colli Orientali in Friuli, Italy, where Ribolla Gialla originates. Hardly anyone outside of Friuli grows the Ribolla Gialla grape, so it's not easy to come by and I was really interested and excited to get to try it with Elaine and Hardy. The wine has aromas and flavours of apple, salty almonds, and lemon zest and peel. It's smooth and round in the mouth, with a zippy edginess to it. It was unlike any other white I'd had in the past, having a medium to full body but not being overly aromatic. I'll keep an eye out for it in the future, as I think this particular wine was yummy and the varietal is worth tasting again.
Scodovacca Verduzzo, 2003 - This is also a Friulano wine, and as interesting to taste. This Verduzzo was made into an orange wine, meaning the must sat on grape skins for a little while after being pressed, giving the wine lots of extra body and some red-wine characteristics. This wine actually had the colour of an Oloroso sherry - deep caramel in colour - and I'm wondering if that's due to the age of the wine, since I don't know how long an orange Verduzzo would typically last in the bottle. The nose and palate were nutty, with cooked cherries, sour cherries, brown sugar, and some biscuity notes. The wine was dry, with soft tannins and a juicy finish, and some heat from the alcohol at the back of my mouth. Overall, I thought it was very unusual, and great with the roasted chicken we were eating (especially the crispy seasoned skin).
Karasi Areni Noir, 2011 - This wine was a real treat to drink, because it was good and also because it's not yet for sale in North America. It's from Armenia, grown at 1400m above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Ararat - for those who know their Biblical lore, that's a big deal! This wine had hints of yoghurt, brown sugar and spice on the nose behind aromas of radish and vegetation. The palate was bright and driven, with flavours of red cherry, cranberry, tomato vine, and cracked pepper. It was elegant and fresh. Hardy said that this wine would go perfectly with his favourite Peking Duck dish from Mississauga. He couldn't remember the restaurant name, but I understand that there are many good Peking Duck places there - recommendations are welcome!
Karasi is a very special wine, and I felt special drinking it. The bottle is also really pretty to look at. I hope that it makes its way into Canada at some point, but first it has to get its foothold in the U.S. Let's cross our fingers for a northerly migration!