A Donkey and Goat – yes, that’s the winery name, though the “A” sometimes gets lost – is a darling of the natural wine movement, champions of minimalist winemaking. Right in the heart of California, the husband and wife team of Jared and Tracey Brandt craft fascinating and unconventional wine using techniques they learned from French winemaker Eric Texier, who is famous for rejecting traditional winemaking methods.
On “natural wines”: “We make ‘natural wines,’ but I confess I have some trouble with that term. For one thing, nobody agrees on what a natural wine is. I don’t like industrial wines on a philosophical basis, although some industrial wines taste great. And there are some natural wines that don’t taste very good even though they are philosophically attractive.”
On natural winemaking: “We don’t like to acidify, and we pick our grapes accordingly. When we need to acidify, we like to use verjus made from grapes green-harvested in July. The green harvest helps reduce yields and improve quality, while the verjus means we don’t have to add powdered acid. It’s a technique we learned from Eric Texier, who learned it from a winemaker in Chablis. It’s a manipulative technique, but it’s true to the taste of the place.”
On organic certification and eco-friendly viticulture: “One of the organic vineyards we work with had a mildew issue, and we used a binding agent that was not organically certified, so we lost the certification for the vineyard. But we cut our spraying from 14 times to two – so which method is more environmentally sound?”
On wine labeling: “I think we are going to start putting ingredients on our labels. Our ingredients are grapes and sulfur, and sometimes we skip the sulfur.”
Donkey and Goat wines are produced in small quantities, often fewer than 200 cases. As a result, they have limited retail availability and can be difficult to find. Out of Site Wines in Vienna features them regularly. The wines are distributed locally by Nice Legs of Sterling.
My favorites of the tasting at Out of Site Wines included the 2010 Chardonnay called “Improbable,” ($30) as it was produced on ungrafted vines in El Dorado and made the old-fashioned way – with foot treading and natural yeast fermentation. It is wildly exotic with surprising acidity and structure. The 2010 “Stone Crusher” Roussanne ($35) was even more flamboyant, in a style trendy among wine hipsters called “orange wine.” Fermented on its skins in an oxidative style, the wine looks older than its age but still tastes lively. It is definitely heavier than we are used to in white wines, even accounting for oaky Chardonnay.
“It solves a lot of pairing issues,” Brandt said of the Stone Crusher. “Many white wines are too wimpy for some dishes – they need tannin.”
Among the red wines. I was particularly fond of the 2010 Carignan from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County ($30). Only 75 cases were made, from fruit grown on 120-year-old vines at 800 feet elevation. The wine is rich and spicy, with deep color and a hint of minty freshness. Delicious. The 2010 Pinot Noir from Broken Leg Vineyard in the Anderson Valley ($50) offered deceptively light aromas, but followed through with tasty flavors of Rainier cherries and a delicate balance that nimbly carried the fruit through an impressive finish.