Making good wine begins with the natural chemistry of the vineyard.
“Perhaps we haven’t given a fair shake to California chardonnays,” Michael McCaulley, wine director for Philadelphia’s Tria bars, tells me and twenty-some other students sitting in a repurposed office space in Philadelphia. We’re here for the latest installment of Tria’s Fermentation School, an informal series of talks and tastings that instruct attendees on the intricacies of wine, cheese, and beer making—exposing them to unique and often hard-to-come-by products. Tonight’s class celebrates “California wines with French style.” McCaulley introduces an expert on the subject: Kevin O’Connor, cofounder of California’s LIOCO Wines, whose products are on the menu here today.
“Winemaking is secondary to wine growing,” O’Connor tells a rapt audience as we each swirl and swish a glass of Noco chardonnay, the first of the six LIOCO wines laid out on a placemat before us. His comment establishes the ethos behind the company the former sommelier created five years ago with partner Matt Licklider, a veteran wine importer, and winemaker Kevin Kelley. Unimpressed with the pervasiveness of cookie-cutter American chardonnays—long ridiculed by connoisseurs for their heavy, oaky flavoring, sweetness, and high alcohol content—the group teamed up to create what they call “pure, honest, principled wine.”
O’Connor drew his inspiration from terroir—a French concept meaning “a sense of place.” Winemakers, as well as coffee and tea growers, have embraced this idea for centuries. It celebrates the special characteristics of grapes and other crops that derive from the climate and geography in which they grow—things like soil type and exposure to sun and shade—as opposed to forcing artificial flavors into the products. Terroir is the antithesis of modern American chardonnay production, where commercial producers seek sameness to accommodate unadventurous palates. For such ends these producers often harvest grapes late, when their sugar content is highest, and add acidity later for balance, thus destroying the distinct taste of a particular grape.
As LIOCO possesses no vineyards—not even a permanent winemaking facility (they rent space in Santa Rosa)—it’s in the perfect position to make the grape in each of its batches king. “Material dictates quality,” O’Connor says. Take the Noco, which features grapes from the Valentine Ranch located in the Mendocino Valley. LIOCO’s owners contract with vineyards up and down the northern coast of California, intentionally seeking parcels of older vines in areas with rocky soil and harsher climates, geographic characteristics that lead to more complicated flavors. Other factors are considered as well, such as how many grapes are allowed to grow on each vine. (Too many results in a thin taste.)
After the harvest, it’s all about the process. As O’Connor explains as we sample a new varietal called Sonoma County, “We don’t make Frankenstein wines—worked over and highly processed.” American producers are often accused of playing Frankenstein due to their reliance on malolactic fermentation. This process, which converts malic acid into lactic acid, creates a buttery character instead of the crisper finish of French chardonnays. As a result, the wine is imbued with a homogenized flavor that masks the unique character of the individual grapes at its heart.
Instead, LIOCO prefers to let nature take its course. And ask even the most novice wine drinker to describe the dominant flavor in chardonnays and without fail you’ll hear “oak.” To avoid this effect, LIOCO’s chardonnays are fermented in stainless steel rather than oak barrels. Native yeasts are encouraged to reproduce, and the wine sits unstirred in colder temperatures that encourage a slower fermentation process and more nuanced flavors—which, owing to LIOCO’s noninterventionist practices, can also be subject to unintended influences. For example, the Charles Heintz chardonnay is the sweetest of the bunch because of a botrytis infection resulting from a very moist season. The grey fungus causes “noble rot,” which sweetens wines and, according to O’Connor, is usually an embarrassment to chardonnay makers. But it’s a risk he’s willing to take to produce creative, complicated wines that stand out from the pack. It certainly works for our class. After sipping the Charles Heintz the man sitting next to me mouths an exaggerated “wow,” a smile settling on his face.
And while Tria, the bar, is a strong proponent of sharing these lesser-known treats with the wider public, their Fermentation School goes a step further by educating people about the complex processes that produce untraditional flavors—or, in the case of this class, very traditional flavors too often lost to excessive human intervention.