Head north from Santa Barbara through rural San Luis Obispo County about sixty-six scenic miles and you’ll find yourself in the picturesque Santa Maria Valley at the Bien Necito Vineyard. To the east rise the granite peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, the Salinas River below them has meandered down almost two hundred miles from Steinbeck country, and about twenty miles to the west rocky cliffs give way to the Pacific Ocean. From here the salty breeze, cool fog and California sunshine are never far from the vines.
This is where winemaker Jim Clendenen chose to open his winery, Au Bon Climat more than thirty years ago, and it is good climate indeed. Historically it is a fine climate for grapes to grow, as vines have been grown in the area since the Mexican colonial period of the 1830s.
The relationship between Jim and Michael Schwartz is not quite as old, however it has stretched about as far back as the winery itself. “I met him when I was living in Vail, Colorado,” Michael says, “at my first chef job. We did a wine dinner together, it had to be 1990, maybe 1989.” Back in the days of Nemo they worked together on a few private wine labels named for Michael’s daughters, a white Italian blend called Cuvee Ella and a red for Lulu, long before Lua Rossa came about.
Those bottles had pictures of baby Ella’s foot and baby Lulu’s hand respectively, so it was no surprise that the proud papa debuted his latest private wine label, Lua Rossa,with a label that was designed by a more refined and artistically developed hand of Lulu’s – an idea Michael had decided upon even before the blend.
I spoke to Eric Larkee about how that blend came about.
“Au Bon Climat is a great California wine maker, well known for their pinots and chardonnays, but also has a passion for Italian varietals. Il Podere is the label that they produce Italian wines under and we opened Harry’s with an Il Podere Barbera. Apart from it being a guest favorite, and perhaps more importantly, it was Chef Schwartz’s favorite of the eight wines we opened Harry’s with. Of course the wine ran out, then last December I got a phone call from Jim. We were just catching up and talking shop, and he mentioned that he had a few barrels of the ’07 Barbera unbottled that was beautifully aged, and beautifully aged Barbera is a great base for a blend. I told Jim that I would need to talk to Chef about it, and as I hung up the phone Michael walked in the door. I told him I had an idea. After we talked about it, he said, ‘Lulu will do the label’ and within two weeks we were in California.”
Once in California at the Bien Necito Vineyard, Michael and Eric tasted the barrel sample of the Barbera. There were a few things it needed to be complete: aromatics, fruit and structure. The day carried on with a tasting of fifteen of the Au Bon Climat family wines, followed by them smelling about thirty barrel samples and tasting seven of them. Finally, they broke out the graduated cylinders and started making blends. Both the Nebbiolo and the Syrah had the beautiful aromatics and tannic structure that had been lacking, and the Syrah added the fruit and spice.
“We were thinking about these wines of Langhe Rosso, very versatile, tomato sauce wines, wanting some acidity,” Eric continued, “we were most happy with the wine being 70% Barbera. That meant we couldn’t label it a vintage, because it has to be 75% to be a vintage. Honestly, I think people would be surprised how often older wine gets mixed with new juice in California. Say you’ve got a barrel of 2011 Pinot Noir that tastes a little old, add something new to give it a little fruit and make it taste fresher, and you don’t have to change the vintage. Not having a vintage date ruins the narrative for most people, they want a vineyard and a year, and the story becomes convoluted when you blend vintages. But for us, the wine was never about a vintage, it’s about it being a wine. It’ll never be made again, because it was unintentionally done.”
Born out of a couple of extra barrels, our Genuine house wine has grown an anatomy of its own, a body coming together with individual parts. The Nebbiolo is like the skeleton, creating a structure in the wine, an uprightness, the Barbera is the soft tissue, adding depth and roundness, and the Syrah is like the muscle and skin that holds it all together and makes the wine function. The face would be the bottle, and so Lulu was presented with a creative brief including this metaphor. She created a label that has a fluid spirit, that is both masculine and feminine, and which gave the wine its identity.
Lua Rossa comes together in what some blind-tasters have called “an old world wine”, and what without question has been finished by an artists touch. Next week, find Lua Rossa in good company of fine design at our Design Miami Cafe, but until then come to our Michael’s Genuine happy hour to taste a glass weekdays from 4:30pm – 6:30pm, anytime at Harry’s Pizzeria, and at any of your lunch or dinners at The Cypress Room.