France is, of course, home to most of the major grape varieties that we are most familiar with both growing and drinking here in the US. All but Zinfandel, honestly. In the bountiful growing regions throughout Southern France, from the wild Southwest to the Languedoc/Roussillon and from more famous Bordeaux to the Southern Rhone, there are still a plethora of textures flavors that are virtually untapped to us here and just waiting to be explored. In actuality, all three of these grapes that we’re showcasing this month are very seldom used as single varietal wines in their homeland at all. This brings up an important part of this conversation regarding the search for what varieties will shine here in California as we diversify our vineyard landscape. 


Sometimes the results of some great wine produced in the US should easily lead to more producers looking to do the same, regardless of whether or not there are very many specific examples of it to compare to in the Old World. In the cases of Grenache Blanc and Semillon, grapes that are not unknown by and stretch, we have the chance to look towards what they can taste like in California as opposed to being bound to comparing them to how they traditionally taste in France. And lastly, with Counoise, we have a grape that shows a range of great attributes with potential to spare in our climate and soils and yet barely is recognized as a puzzle piece amongst the great blends in the Rhone. One sip should provide ample reason to want to see more wines like these ones.

– Kevin Wardell, August 2020





Russian River Valley, California 2018

This big-bodied blanc is actually a color mutation of Grenache Noir, sharing the exact same DNA profile, with one big (and obvious) difference: color. Just like Grenache the red, it is mostly headquartered in the southern Rhône valley, where it is a major component of blanc blends. It generally excels in fruitiness, from citrus to pears and melons, but it can be overgenerous both in alcohol and and in body, so the proper farming and terroir,  winemaker’s restraint, and yes, sometimes blending with other varieties, are key to making the best of Grenache Blanc.

Front Porch Farm is a thriving farm oasis founded in 2010 by Peter and Mimi Buckley, who set out to grow the best that California can yield; a cornucopia of fruit orchards, flower houses, all manner of heirloom grains and veggies, livestock, vines and on and on. They revived drab vineyards on their hillside property and grafted them over to their favorite Rhône varieties including Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Vermentino, and the lovely Grenache Blanc. Sebastien Pochan joined Peter and Mimi’s inspiring project in 2015 as winemaker. Raised in the Languedoc in southern France, he did his enology training in Montpellier and then moved to Healdsburg, fell in love and went headlong into winemaking at Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. He brings along his longtime love of the Rhône, and sometimes he also brings along his accordion, as he tends the vineyards and the wines. The vines grow in the easternmost stretch of the Russian River Valley AVA, looking out over the river as it winds around Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg. The rolling hills are full of river cobble and gravelly loam, with fog and river breezes tempering the hot summer days. The Grenache blanc is fermented and aged in concrete tank to enhance that Grenache-y body and texture.

A classic cascade of orchard produce: golden plums, tart green apples, Bosc and asian pears, this wine is as ripe as an autumn breeze but fresh as a citrus blossom. It’s bright and lithe for a Grenache blanc, but it’s also generous; the palate has a rich pear galette dreaminess, complete with a helping of marzipan. The fruits just keep on coming and the acidity draws out the length like the longest evening hours of summer.


Lake County, California 2015

Bordeaux born and bred, Sémillon probably even takes its name from a slurry pronunciation of St. Émilion- though it’s mostly grown on the west bank where it makes the famous wines of Sauternes. It’s most often blended with its sister Sauvignon Blanc, and while it never gained the fame and adoration of Sauvy in California, it did make it big downunder; it clocks in as Australia’s second most planted white. It reigns in the Hunter Valley, where it’s made in a low-alcohol style with long bottle age, à la our Seven Percent heroine Erin.

Erin Frances Pooley grew up in Sydney and started making wine in Australia in 2007; as she continued chasing grapes, she eventually settled down in California. Erin is particularly obsessed with aged white wines and the complexity and nuance that time teases out of a well made white, and she has pursued ageable varieties in her quest. Following the inspiration of the flavors of aged Hunter Valley Sémillon that she grew up drinking, she sought out a small planting in the Kelsey Bench in Lake County at the Luchsinger Vineyard. The vines grow in volcanic loam on alluvial river cobble at about 1400’ elevation, with hot days and cool nights thanks to the influence of California’s second largest lake nearby. Over time she has begun picking the grapes earlier in the season (the 2015 clocks in at just 10.7%), preferring the nerve and tension of the lower ripeness in the Sémillon, and often crushing and soaking the grapes on the skins for 4-5 hours before pressing. She ages the wine partially in stainless steel and partially in barrel, and then ages in bottle for several years before release. 

It’s such a pleasure to enjoy a white with a little age on it, especially from California! The toasted brioche and the rich nuttiness are a beautiful base note to all that zesty acidity. There is some sweet white nectarine fleshiness and even a hint of peach pit, leading into a lovely rich texture like bee pollen and sea salt sprinkled on a cheese plate. The velvety silk texture winds together with the striking acidity to build a long and balanced finish that pulls on the tongue. This is one to open and keep coming back to, give it the time to unwind, just like Erin did.


El Dorado, California 2019

Another menu item from the southern Rhône, Counoise is not typically served à la carte but rather as a spicy ingredient added to blends. It is one of the 13 grapes allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but it still makes up barely a fraction of its vines. There are only a handful of plantings in California, but as it is vigorous and loves the warm and semi-arid Rhône valley, it may be catching on. It is sort of a goldilocks grape, not too dark in color, not too high in acid, tannin or alcohol, and that hint of cracked pepper is juuuust right. 

Keep is the homespun project of winemakers Jack Roberts, formerly assistant at Matthiasson Wines, and Johanna Jensen, formerly of Scholium Project and Broc Cellars. They have a mutual appreciation for the old world style and they seek to replicate that old world personality in their wines by picking fruit at lower sugars, employing minimalist natural winemaking and doing much of the vineyard work themselves. The Keep namesake and the label crest are an homage to Beverston Castle, an 11th century Norman stronghold in Gloucestershire, England where Jack’s father was born and raised. The tower or “keep” was the safest place of last resort in a siege and was also where the most precious possessions were kept, especially wine,  (keep comes from the middle english “kype”, meaning barrel). Their Counoise comes from the Sierra Foothills, from the organically farmed David Girard Vineyard which is entirely dedicated to Rhône pursuits at 1,400’ elevation in decomposed granite soils. The Counoise is made using the carbonic method with 14 days of enzymatic fermentation, wherein the grapes are uncrushed and “preserved” in tank with a heavy blanket of CO2. A little foot tread and a few months in neutral oak and voilá, Counoise sans soufre, Counoise like je ne sais Counoise. 

Don’t be deceived by the color, this wine packs so much spice into this pale red punch. True, it leads with a wallop of candied strawberry, maybe even a raspberry jolly rancher left out melting in the sun, but it carries through into a deep forest of incense cedar and redwood tips.  This is like a Counoise cocktail of blood orange rind floating in campari stirred up with a cinnamon swizzle stick. The fruity playfulness leading into all that forest duff and spice makes this wine an ideal complement to picnics, gardening, and poolside lounging.