By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Wine producers generally drop about one to 2 percent of its grapes each year, which may sound like a waste to many of you. But the intent is to reduce the workload on the vine and to allow the remaining grapes to ripen with more sugar. Fewer grapes means more concentrated grapes.
These grapes are often left on the ground for the birds, but one Napa Valley producer decided to use them to make inexpensive wines.
Tom Gamble, a farmer first and a winemaker second, said, “The cheap old winemaker in me said we need to do more than experiment with this. We need to turn it into a label.”
In 2012, Gamble’s winemaking team introduced “green harvesting” to the bulk market, but eventually he decided to produce wine under his own label.
The label is “Mill Keeper,” a name inspired by a mill that was once on Gamble’s property. Now, the sale of Mill Keeper wines helps to support the Bale Grist Mill at Napa State Park. Each label commemorates the hardworking pioneers who worked the land in the mid-1800s. The labels are very attractive – and so is the wine.
About 20 percent of the wines come from green harvested grapes. The rest come from generational grape farmers from less known vineyards in the North Coast region.
Another unique feature is that the grapes come from multi-vintages, so you won’t find a vintage date on them. This allows Gamble a lot of flexibility in finding the best grapes no matter how problematic a vintage or area.
Gamble said he was also inspired by the port and champagnes he tasted from multiple vintages.
A third-generation farmer, Gamble said he “grew up with every-day wine on the table.” He wanted to replicate that experience and he couldn’t do it with his premium-priced wines that can exceed $100 a bottle.
Because these grapes – mostly grown in the North Coast region – are so green, there is a risk that the wine will be under-ripe and green tasting. Gamble manages this risk with a process called “flash détente.”
Used regularly by European winemakers to treat under-ripe grapes in a difficult harvest, the process involves heating the must of crushed grapes and then putting them in a high vacuum. This rapid temperature drop evaporates the water in the skin cells and provides instant color, aromatic compounds and tannin extraction to the young grapes.
Working with grape growers to utilize dropped grapes reduces waste and helps the environment. But for Gamble it was an alternative to buying a vineyard to produce grapes for a new line of inexpensive wines.
The two wines we tasted in a virtual meeting with Gamble – a chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – were simple, fresh and delicious. To keep the price down, he isn’t using much oak for these wines.
The chardonnay is $24; the cabernet sauvignon is $25. Both are meant to be drunk young.
Hopefully, these wines will lead people to taste some of the great wines made under the label Gamble Family Vineyards. The 2022 sauvignon blanc ($45) made from multiple clones, for instance, is as good as sauvignon blanc gets. The 2017 Paramount ($90) we recently tasted is a dense and concentrated Bordeaux-like blend with a good percentage of cabernet franc.
Different wines from RRV
The Russian River Valley is known most for its delicious chardonnay and pinot noir, but those aren’t the only wines it produces. Now in its 40th anniversary, the AVA dates back more than 150 years.
Here are a few alternatives we recently enjoyed:
Inman Family Wines Pinot Gris 2021 ($40). We have been big fans of Kathy Inman since we visited with her several years ago. Her rosé is one of the best in California and now this pinot gris has captured our attention. Pear and nectarine notes with good minerality and acidity.
Martinelli Winery Vellutini Ranch Zinfandel 2020 ($62). Wild fires in the Russian River Valley killed the producer’s pinot noir crop, but the thicker-skinned zinfandel grapes were able to mature on schedule without any smoke taint. This has ripe raspberry and maple aromas followed by juicy and sweet berry flavors with a hint of spice and solid tannins. Very mouth filling to taste by itself, but it deserves a rack of ribs, lamb or slathered beef kababs.
Bacigalupi Vineyards Petite Sirah 2019 ($58). Big wine with good tannins but tasting well now. Raspberry and blackberry flavors with rosemary notes and a generously long finish. There is a nice earthiness to this boldly flavored wine and hints of black pepper and tea.
Taft Street Winery Garagistes Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($30). Honeysuckle aromas with stone fruit flavors and crisp acidity.
Merriam Vineyards Windacre Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($60). This vineyard is at the core of the red-wine lineup from this reputable and dependable producer, but we enjoyed the cabernet sauvignon. It has cassis, raspberry and black cherry flavors with excellent body and depth.
Presqu’ile Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2020 ($31). We found this pinot pleasantly different than a lot of pinot noirs. The flavors are more like bing cherries rather than the black cherries we often find in California pinot noirs. Good price for a Santa Barbara pinot noir.
C.K. Mondavi Family Select California Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($16). With several of the fourth-generation family members steering this historic property, the products are always solid but not necessarily from specific vineyards. They draw grapes for this wine from Lodi, Yolo and Napa Valley. A good value and very approachable, it is juicy with ripe plum and cherry notes with a hint of vanilla.
Famiglia Pasqua Passimento Rosso Veneto 2020 ($17). A blend of merlot, corvina and croatina grapes, this delicious wine has vibrant cherry and plum notes with a tad of spice and an appassimento-style almond finish. Easy to drink, it’s a nice match to pasta, pizza and grilled meat.
Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec 2021 ($13). A versatile wine from Argentina, this malbec has smooth tannins and plum/blackberry flavors with a dose of spice. Simple but delicious.