Volume 1 , Issue 3: What Lies Beneath

by Leslie Pariseau

This month, our theme was inspired by a wine friend’s musings on horror. When Neil Gernon of distributor Select Wines presents bottles, he doesn’t just give you a tech sheet with a data download of price and variety and growing practices. He illustrates each wine in a tableau of psychedelic cartoons, often with a whimsical unifying theme. A month or so back, he brought a particular sheet broken down by horror tropes, including Teutonic’s Rauchwein under “do not trust.” It is a mind-bending time capsule that will hopefully surprise and delight you (as this club is meant to do).

In short, this month is all about wines that appear to be one thing, but are actually quite another when you begin to peel back the layers. I delight in having my expectations defied, in finding something beneath the surface that wasn’t supposed to be there at all. I was one of those kids always peeking around dark corners for a ghost or trying to climb up in everybody’s attic, which I was sure was full of treasure, or possibly more ghosts. (I am still one of those kids.) These wines give me a similar, albeit adult, thrill.

Teutonic “Rauchwein” 2018, Oregon/Washington
This is the nexus of this month’s club. Before you read on, I recommend opening up the bottle, pouring a glass, and giving it a sniff. Maybe you’re not blinding things yet (one day!), but note what you smell anyway. For me, it’s full of waxy pears and soft apricots; it’s lean and oily, and super mineral. All things that point to riesling, maybe sylvaner. It would make sense if you know Teutonic's winemaker Barnaby Tuttle who focuses mostly on Alsatian, German, and Austrian grapes and styles. That’s what I guessed when I first tasted it anyway.

Mais non, my friend, this is merlot. Merlot! Merlot from Washington! (Made in Oregon.)

What’s the one thing you know about merlot? It’s a red wine grape, right? Right. And here we are with a white merlot that presents like some fine treasure of Austria or Germany. “I wouldn’t say I like to be provocative, but I like to see alternative points of view and ask questions,” says Barnaby. This wine is one big alternative point of view.

The Rauchwein may give you a first date vibes of riesling, but beneath that silky minerality, you’ll find a smokier finish than you’d expect from any teutonic style wine. And you want to know why? Forest fires. The grapes from this vintage were exposed to smoke from the fires on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge in 2018, and when Barnaby tasted them, he made the connection to “rauchbier,” a German style of beer brewed with kiln-smoked malt that was quite common 500 years ago, but no so much anymore. There are lots of opinions about what to do with grapes that have been exposed to smoke. Some winemakers won’t buy them. Some distributors won’t pick up wines made with them. But Barnaby is devoted to his growers and refuses to leave them holding the bag. In fact, he’s leaned into it.

As he explained to me, grapes absorb smoke in the form of a chemical called glycol, and like anything you introduce to wine through air and soil, the grape metabolizes it. "When it’s done, it’s some sort of alchemy and it’s become this new thing,” he says. In some ways, the smoke has created an interesting harmony in his wines, which is, he admits, is entirely up to the drinker. “I think a lot of this is subjective, art and music is in the eye of the beholder.”

Enderle & Moll “Weiss & Grau,” 2020 Baden, Germany
I love everything about Enderle & Moll: The simple, old school labels that hearken back to estates of the 19th century; the wonderful balance of classic and weird each wine presents. The disruptive nature of their biodynamic vineyards and intimate, hands-off process in a pretty traditional region; the fact that when I asked Florian Moll, one-half of the E&M winemaking team, for notes on this year’s vintage, he sent me 20 voice memos over Instagram from somewhere in the mountains of Switzerland, carefully articulating each point of each question I’d asked in English that is much better than my German.

This wine is a great example for the first-time E&M drinker. They’re known for their very old vine pinot noir, but this is a nice parallel route into their whites, which have become pretty culty of late. The Weiss & Grau (translation: “white and gray”) presents like a white wine, but has been fermented on the skins for three to four days, bringing it to just this side of skin contact. (Some people call these “orange wines” for the color imparted by the skins’ contact with the juice, which can range from very pale straw to deep amber; for all intents and purposes, we’ll stick with “skin contact” for now.) It’s about equal thirds pinot blanc, pinot gris, and müller-thurgau, the latter of which is a new integration over the last few years.

Florian attributes the introduction of the müller-thurgau in part to the wine’s popularity. “It gives it more fruit and less acidity than our other wines. It’s smarter and smoother, not as funky or or wild as the other wines,” he says. (If you want something a touch freakier, go for the nearly red skin contact Grauburgunder, which has the savory quality of a juicy tomato sandwich or a tomato tarte tatin; it's on Ryan Plas's wine list over at Coquette right now.) This is an all-season wine, good for fish fries, good for tonight or tomorrow, good for introducing your mom to skin contact wine made by cute German men with big beards. 

Cutter Cascadia “Ashes to Ashes” 2020, Columbia Gorge, Oregon
“Please understand this wine is smoked before purchasing,” reads the annotation of “Ashes to Ashes” on winemaker Michael Garofolo’s website. Some might take this as a warning, but I feel it is an invitation. 

Yes, this is the second wine in this month’s club to feature smoked grapes. This isn’t meant to be a proclamation of novelty, but rather a clarification of reality. The fact is this: Much of America's produce comes from regions that are experiencing the dramatic impacts of climate change via extreme temperatures and forest fires, which means the agricultural products of these places will manifest these shifts in price and flavor. Wine is no exception. 

At Cutter, Michael Garofolo only buys grapes from vineyards he works himself, and holds a mindset similar to Barnaby of Teutonic in that he refuses to pull his support from the vineyards that have experienced smoke taint, even in years like 2020 when the skies were darkened with smoke and ash for three weeks, blocking sunlight and giving everything beneath its penumbra a quality of having been cooked over campfire. 

Luckily for Michael, this dolcetto—pressed over top of zinfandel skins—is the only thing that showed smoke that year, but the vineyard from which he harvested was “microcosm of what 2020 was,” he says, calling it a “sad sally block.” Where usually he can get 1.7 or 2 tons of grapes from this particular block, in 2020 he picked only over half a ton due to bird damage, which he attributes to the fires affecting migration patterns. That said, this is not sad sally wine. “I can’t be mad at it. The zin kind of fortified and galvanized it, and gave it all this plummy, darker date kind of fruit. It turned it into something singular, unlike anything else I make,” says Michael. Because of its weight and higher alcohol, he recommends decanting it or leaving the bottle open for a day and then pairing with something fatty like smoked brisket to amplify its inherent quality. “It pulls out other things in the wine—there’s a lot more to it than smoke,” he says. Like Barnaby at Teutonic, Michael is noticing the ways in which smoke finds a synergy with the grapes, creating harmony in ways that totally defy expectation.

This concludes the third edition of the Patron Saint wine club, friends. It was a weird one, but that’s why we’re here. Love to know what you loved and what you didn’t. As always, if you feel compelled, post about it on the socials. We’re @patronsaintwine on IG.