A Wine Adventure: Donkey & Goat Winery

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Donkey and Goat is a cerebral winery. By design and by default, it has to be because D&G is a natural wine producer. As Tracey Brandt, the wife of the husband and wife team behind the winery told me, D&G uses only one of the 350 chemicals and additives that are legally permissible in making wine. One is a small number, but it’s also unusual in this regard. Many of these chemicals and additives are used because they prevent or correct problems. Remove them and winemakers don’t have as much control over their wine. This increases the chance of problems – wine-wise and economic – but also increases the amount of nature’s intent that comes through in the glass. This kind of wine, the one that eschews chemicals, additives and certain processes, has been termed “natural.”

The effects of the non-natural process on the final product and the consumer’s health have been deemed unacceptable by D&G. That’s fine in theory, but it makes every decision made throughout the entire wine-making process, from the vineyard to bottling, more important because if something goes wrong, the winemaker doesn’t have a chemical toolkit to draw from. This, in turn, means Tracy and Jared must, because they want to make good wine and pay the bills, pay a lot of attention to what they’re doing and put a lot of thought into it, especially the cleaning process (a good chunk of the legally permissible chemicals are ones that sanitize).

Natural winemaking has received a fair amount of press, and it would be wasteful to focus too much on what “natural wine” is because there isn’t a set definition (a criticism routinely levied against it). Natural wine, according to my own thinking, is wine with as little influence as possible from chemicals/additives and processes that are by definition and science not necessary to produce wine. Tracey and Jared use their own words, and they aren’t exactly mine, so I won’t meditate anymore on it.

What I will do is talk more about how D&G does it because it’s quite interesting, and because it works. I walked away from my visit to D&G – a tasting and a conversation with Tracey and Jared – with two pieces of information etched in my mind: first, the natural process is fundamental to their ethos, and second, they are laser-focused on making wine for the table (food friendly wines). For the winemaker or astute wine drinker, you know that these two things are fundamental to the decisions made from cradle to grave.

The outcomes are medium-bodied wines on the acidic end of wine’s sweet spot in the potential of Hydrogen (pH) spectrum. To get there, the grapes are picked with relatively high acidic levels, closely but not obsessively sorted, crushed under light pressure, fermented with native yeasts, neither cold nor hot stabilized, and aged mostly in used oak (sometimes stainless or cement is used, but new oak is forbidden). Some whites get skin contact during fermentation. And, wines get blended by the barrel to achieve the same outcomes that some chemicals or additives achieve. For example, the high acid barrels are blended with low acid barrels to achieve the right level of acidity. While many non-natural wineries follow the practice of mixing barrels to achieve a specific profile, this kind of blending, I was told, is nothing short of critical to D&G’s success because they do not call on chemicals, additives or processes often used in the blending process to deter or accentuate certain properties in the wine.

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Tracey and Jared Brant. Picture from donkeyandgoat.com

I asked Tracey whether being a natural producer was good for the bottom line, and it turns out: not necessarily. Yes, it’s true that people who seek out natural wines come to know D&G, and so that crowd is an important part of their customer base. And while it’s also true that many people who drink D&G do so without the knowledge of its ethos, there is hope in Tracey and Jared when they talk that as the natural wine movement becomes more successful there will be new converts that widen that base. Either way, though, they’ll stay true to their code, and people will enjoy their wine regardless of whether they know it’s natural.

This last point is one that I find pretty interesting because D&G has a signature style that isn’t mainstream American (though apparently it is signature Norwegian where D&G is in hot demand). Those who drink D&G are consuming medium bodied, acidic wines with apparent skin tannin, bright fruit and Earthy flavors – a far cry from the New World style of Californian wine and America’s general palate preferences. The natural wine movement holds an appeal to its adherents that one might call “healthy” in that it reflects nature’s intent without adulteration, but I can’t imagine many natural wine followers consume wine they dislike simply because it’s natural; D&G isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, and wine is an elective, luxury product. As for D&G’s fans who aren’t inclined to seek out natural wines, or simply don’t care, they are drawn to the profile. All of this leads me to believe that the America’s palate isn’t as singular as it once was. The popularity of Washington’s savory syrahs and Oregon’s Burgundy-styled pinot noirs offer additional evidence of this.

The evidence of growing American wine sophistication aside, D&G offers wine worthy of your table. I visited three wineries while in California (Jaffurs and Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, plus D&G in Berkley), and I found several commonalities: they all offer superb values with most of their wines in the $25-40 range, and they all hold strong immediate appeal while offering evidence that they’ll evolve with short-term cellaring. These are wines you can drink now and over the five years following release.

As with my short trip to Santa Barbara, my experience at D&G doesn’t lend itself to full reviews. Erin was generous with her pours in the D&G tasting room but the situation wasn’t right for fair assessments. What follows are my tasting notes minus scores and value ratings. If you like wines that hit on the high end of the acid spectrum, are ready made for food pairings, and offer good balance and pure expressions then D&G may well be for you. Their tasting room and winery are located in an old warehouse in Berkley and is worth a stop if you’re in the area. Their wines are also decently distributed around the United States, and if you live in the Washington D.C. area you can find them at Weygandt’s.

2014 Stone Crusher Roussanne: very tropical palate with cocktail fruit flavors. Hefty skin tannin adds weight and texture making it a really complete wine. Strong white pepper, tropical fruits and a bit of mustiness. This was probably the most impressive of the lineup for me.

2013 Untended Chardonnay: prototypical chardonnay nose of vanilla, grass and citrus. Medium bodied and very smooth, high viscosity mouthfeel. Medium acidity. Little bit of butterscotch on the palate along with honey and green tea.

Mou-Rou Nouveu: 36 bottles produced (yes, bottles, not a misprint), it’s 50/50 mourvedre and roussanne, lightly pressed and bottled following fermentation in the style of Beaujolais Nouveu. Really flesh with a very interesting hoppy flavor and a ton of strawberries.

2013 Broken Leg Vineyard Pinot Noir: very bright raspberry, strawberry and cherry medley on the nose. Medium bodied, light skin tannin. Bright, bursting red fruit and tangerine. White pepper, mushroom and a little bit of greenness. Acid really kicks in on the finish and cleans the palate.

2013 El Dorado Syrah: savory nose with smoked meat, tar and cigar tobacco leaf. Medium bodied with fine grain tannin. Salty plums, smoke and blackberries are apparent along with black pepper beef jerky. Will evolve nicely over the next five years.

2013 Perli Vineyards Syrah: kept in bottle for an additional year prior to release. Pretty, floral nose with big violets, rose and burnt orange rind. Medium plus body with bursting red fruits, forest floor, black pepper, saline and iodine. Over time a healthy meatiness developed.

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