I had a meeting today with a winemaker that I hadn't seen in eons, Mick Unti. He has a wonderful, family run winery in Dry Creek Valley whose wines I have carried at AOC and Lucques in the past. It's been quite a while since I've tasted or carried his wines. So, when he contacted me about meeting, I was intrigued. Where had he been all this time? And how are his wines?
We got to talking immediately about how long it had been since we'd connected last and he filled me in about Unti Vineyards. Apparently, he's been concentrating on family life for the past few years and focusing for quite a while on his mailing list clientele. As is the case with so many small businesses over the last year, he finds himself looking to market himself and his winery in new ways. For him, new is a return to the old, basically searching our those restaurants with whom he has lost contact and re-establishing those relationships. I'm personally thrilled that he looked me back up. I've always admired his winemaking and felt that his wines were a great fit for my lists.
Over the past couple of years, Mick has expanded his line-up from focusing solely on red Rhone varieties and is experimenting with some interesting grapes like Picpoul and Montepulciano from Italy, unusual choices for California. Additionally, he's been farming his vineyards biodynamically for the last four years which I really appreciate.
I tasted through four of his reds today and really adored his 2007 Grenache. What struck me about this wine was how un-Californian it was. It probably drank more like a Rhone wine than any other California red I've had. Much of this is, I'm sure, due to the fact that Mick has adopted traditional Rhone winemaking methods, like whole cluster fermentation and the use of indigenous yeasts, to give the wine a broader flavor profile, more structure and finesse.
He also shies away from the use of new oak. There is a tendency on the part of some winemakers to broaden the profile of Grenache grown in California by aging it in new oak. Sometimes I feel that by doing this, big gets piled onto big, resulting in mammoth wines that are too rich and jammy for my taste. Mick, on the other hand, ages his Grenache in large 600 gallon foudres, rather in small barrels, which results in wines that have less exposure to oxygen and that feel less of an impact from the oak itself. Even though he harvested the grapes for this wine at full ripeness, the wine has restraint, elegance and acidity.
Like Grenache from the Southern France, this wine shows rustic notes of game meat and a smoky earthiness in a background of bright, red fruits like cranberry and red currant. On the mid-palate bacon fat, tar and black pepper elements come in to play with touches of dark green herbs like rosemary and thyme. The wine has excellent acidity and elegant tannin structure that allows for a long and lively finish.
If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was drinking wine from Gigondas or Côtes du Rhône. If he is able to achieve this with Grenache in California, I can't wait to see what he can do with his Italian varieties. So few winemakers in California are able to do those wines justice. There may be hope for for us yet.