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Skin Contact Winemaking with Donkey & Goat’s Tracey Brandt

On my way through Berkeley I arranged to drop by Donkey & Goat Winery for chat with Tracey Brandt about a wine I fell in love with this year. My interest was specifically in a 2014 Ramato Pinot Gris from a Biodynamic vineyard in Anderson Valley. Ramato is an Italian skin-contact style of wine making that uses the Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris grape, similar in style to “orange” winemaking but specific in it’s varietal. To me this wine perfectly demonstrates the incredible allure of natural wines. It’s at once totally surprising and incredible approachable.

As a winery they are committed to Natural Wine making and after nearly 15 years of making wine they seem to have really honed their ability to coax out uniqueness while accepting the inherent mystery in each wine they make.

Before the interview we went into the cellar to taste through the 3 parts of her 2015 vintage Pinot Gris. From left to right we have 8 hours on skins (after being foot stomped), 2 days on skins and 6 days on the skins. While tasting I think we both agreed the wines got progressively more complex and delicious. Her intention is to blend these components back together, possibly holding some back for a more traditional Pinot Gris. We will have to wait till summer to see the final color and flavor, but after tasting the parts I have no doubt it will be worth the wait.

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Lowell Sheldon: I am going to ask you some specific questions about your Pinot Gris. In our community, my friends and our customers, we’ve found that this wine has a very unique quality to it. In thinking about a story, I thought well I just want to know as much as I can about what went into this. I wanted to start by just asking you about the farm, the Filigreen Farm – what your relationship is with the farm and why you chose it.

Tracey Brandt: Well, the farm is actually a land trust. I don’t know if you’ve been by there. It’s in the Anderson Valley off Anderson Valley Way. Chris and Steph Tebbutt, are the stewards. They live on a property adjacent to it. The farm has an amazing array of produce including all sorts of unusual heirloom variety of apples and pears and some of the best blueberries I’ve ever had in my life. They have a mulberry tree that I literally cry at. It’s so incredible. We’ll be sampling during harvest and invariably late to get back to the bay area to pick up our kids. The mulberry tree is here and the Pinot Gris block is here; they’re not close and we’ll still be like, “All right, it’s fine, kids can wait.”

Finding this farm started with wanting to find a Pinot Gris site in the Anderson Valley. For a multitude of reasons related to the really liking what happens with Pinot Noir in the valley, I wanted to try Pinot Gris there as well.  Biodynamic farming is something we’ve long been interested in as well. We’ve worked with some vineyards here and there. Chris is certainly one of the more knowledgeable people I’ve ever encountered. Sitting in there with Chris and his vineyard is hugely fascinating.

Lowell Sheldon: What was the process you went through when deciding what to do with the grapes once they were picked in the cellar? Then, just as a point of emphasis, if you could give me a sense of decision making and point of struggle in the process of deciding what steps to take about fermentation in the first year.

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Tracey Brandt:  Well, I came into this project near certain that I wanted to make a Ramato Pinot Gris. I think the only question in my mind was, did I want to also make a Pinot Gris direct press version. In 2014, which was our first vintage, Jared and I decided to go just full boar with the skin contact, Ramato style.  Another thing that was a consideration was that I really wanted to do it in concrete.
As far as struggles we had, I think any time you’re doing your first project, there’s definitely some, “I don’t know what I’m doing” thoughts. Obviously, when you’re playing around with four or five tons of fruit — that’s a sizeable investment to be risking with the feelings that you’re not sure what you’re doing.  We agreed, my husband and I, that we would put it in the concrete.  I just wanted to experiment with skin contact and not introduce the wood as a second variable which we might do at some point.
Originally, I planned for the wine to sit for at least three days before thinking about pulling a barrel or moving some of the juice. My husband actually suggested, I’m really glad he did, that I pull a barrel each day so I could see. We did pull barrels starting on Day One, which was like 12 hours of skin contact. Then, of course, the five day soak was actually way more concentrated because once you’re in five days and you removed barrels everyday prior, your ratio of skins to juice is obviously much different than it was early on. The juice that’s there is in a much higher contact with the skins. Therefore, even more tannin.
That’s kind of all we did. We put it in barrels. We tasted along the way. The blending was ridiculously easy. It was fantastic.

Lowell Sheldon: How is this wine been received by the public?

Tracey Brandt: Surprisingly well. I didn’t know what to expect with this Pinot Gris, especially when we took it out to other markets. It was a resounding success. I was kind of bold over when people that were asking, or whenever the markets and consumers were asking for more and saying it’s their favorite wine. “Really? That funky little pink copper colored thing?” “Yeah.” We’re very happy.

Lowell Sheldon: How do you personally describe this wine to people?

Tracey Brandt: To someone who’s not familiar with a Ramato Pinot Gris, I include the word funky. I think the biggest risk when in the tasting room with someone tasting this wine is when they see the color and think it’s going to be some sort of Provincial style Rosé and of course, it’s not. I definitely talk about the tea characteristics because that seems to set people’s expectations that it’s going to be a little different. It’s not going to be all about the fruit. There’s definitely some fruit there but it’s not fresh and citrusy, or bright — it’s not Sauvignon Blanc.
For us, in all the wines we make that have skin contact, it’s really all about the table. The first thing we’ll show the chefs in our portfolio is our skin contact wines because they’re the most fun to work with. They have the most possibility on the table to go in multiple directions.

Lowell Sheldon: What’s changed for you in the second year of making this wine?

Tracey Brandt:  The second year, I decided to split the lot and do some different things with regards to fermentation. Roughly half was foot stomped and pressed about eight hours later giving it the least amount of skin contact.  I’ve been referring to it as Pinot Gris Blanc, even though it’s not necessarily Blanc in the light of industry.
Then, the balance we de-stems and put in the concrete tank like the previous vintage. We did pull couple of barrels on day two but we didn’t have the volume that I wanted to pull each day because it was a light vintage. If I had been pulling each day, that five-day soak would be extremely tannic because I wouldn’t have much juice left.
Ultimately, we wound up with three variations — our eight-hour soak, the two-day soak, and then the five-day soak.

Lowell Sheldon: When is skin contact not appropriate in the making of white wine?

Tracey Brandt:  I don’t know. We have not experimented with Chardonnay but there’s really no good reason not to. We just haven’t got into it yet. Vermentino and Marsanne have been great on the skin. Obviously, Roussanne. We haven’t tried Picpoul. We probably will.

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Lowell Sheldon: My last question is, how do you see the public’s relationship with skin-fermented wines evolving?

Tracey Brandt: My vantage point is probably somewhat limited as the population that we have in our tasting room is largely local.  We don’t have a huge tourist population that drives the Berkeley tasting rooms. We have a local audience that certainly like wines that may or may not be following the latest greatest thing that’s going on in wine making. People that struggle with white wine, Cider drinkers, beer drinkers always gravitate towards the skins. It’s been interesting.

Lowell Sheldon: Cool. Thank you very much-

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