We caught up with Cara and Aaron Monkrish of Frenchtown Farms, via Zoom from the remarkable vineyard that goes into their Pearl Thief white blend. They told us the unusual history of the project, and about their intuitive approach to viticulture and winemaking.

Cara: “The main thing that you need to know about us is that we’re farmers before anything else. That’s the most important part of what we do”.

Aaron joins her. “This is it, this is our team [i.e. him and Cara]. Plus a handful of people who come through and help us throughout the year. Our main focus is the vines”. He flips the camera so we can see the vineyard while they talk.

A unique site

There’s an unusual story behind the foundation of their vineyard, Aaron explained: “It’s owned by a religious/ spiritual organisation, a cult. The planted 150 hectares of vines in the 70s, it was the largest single owned vineyard in California, now it’s down to 16ha, and we farm 12ha”.

All of the vines are own rooted, whether they got phylloxera, or if the wines sold and they made money wasn’t important. They weren’t building a business, it was a spiritual exercise, they were just out here to dig holes!

We asked where the vine material came from:
Aaron: “It was a selection massale taken from an old vineyard called Callaway in southern California. A German winemaker Carl Berner fell in love with a woman who was in the cult, he moved up from California with a suitcase full of vine cuttings, and started the planting here. Many of these vines were planted by our mentors Gideon and Saron at Clos Saron, Gideon was the head winemaker at the property for 30 years. They have 30 years of personal knowledge of working in these vineyards, what slopes are good, what vine problems we’ll encounter, so we have this encyclopaedia of lived knowledge. We showed up on their doorstep after tasting one of their wines and said ‘You have to teach us’“!

Vineyard work in the summer

There are pros and cons to ungrafted vines, as Aaron explained:
“Normally you’d have an American rootstock to protect the vines against phylloxera, for drought tolerance, or to control yields. They were just taking Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling or Cabernet cuttings, and sticking them in the ground. One of the cool things about that is that if we have vine or trunk diseases, we’re able to take small shoots coming from the ground, that would normally be rootstock shoots that you couldn’t use, but here it’s the same variety as the body of the vine, and because they’re on older rootstocks they can fruit quickly.

“We’ve been rehabilitating this old vineyard over the past eight years. As you walk down the rows you see the thick original vine trunks, next to what looks like a baby vine, which is actually growing from a 40-50 year old rootstock. Because the roots are deep we’ve got away with completely dry-farming the site since we took over in 2015. Plus the irrigation infrastructure’s been destroyed by our neighbourhood bears, so even if we wanted to irrigate it would be impossible”.

The harvest cycle

The vineyard where they grow the grapes for Pearl Thief covers most of a hillside, planted with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. One of the key viticultural factors is that the rows curve around the slopes on terraces, with varying orientations, it looks like the Douro. This makes ripening along rows uneven. They start harvest early, normally the first week of August. The Sauvignon Blanc is the first thing to come in, they start picking from the lower east/south-east facing rows, and move up to the west facing rows.

Aaron: “Our harvest is bringing in tiny amounts of fruit each day for 45-50 days. With our limited labour, on a typical day we’ll harvest two-three rows – between 300-550kg of grapes – take them home, lightly stomp and then press them, eat dinner, go to sleep and repeat.

“So we’re slowly building the cuvee as we pick, as Cara said, walking up the hill and chasing the ripeness. In a way it’s good that we have so many varietals, they harvest at different times, so we’re just going from varietal to varietal over 5-6 weeks and hand selecting the perfect grapes”.

What’s behind the labels? A pragmatic approach to pest management.

Aaron: “We don’t worry too much about physiological ripeness or BRIX. The real decision making factor in when we choose to harvest has to do with watching the animals in the vineyard”. This is mirrored on the wine labels, the stag for Suba Rosa, the bees and thistle for Cecilia Rose, and the rabbit on Pearl Thief, these are all animals that inhabit the vineyards, sometimes eating the grapes. “In particular locations we’re watching for when the rabbits come out, they get up on their hind legs, reach up and pull the clusters towards them. This has the effect of stripping all the berries off the stem, it looks like the cartoon fish that the cat’s eaten, there’s white grapes all over the floor and a very guilty looking rabbit”!

It turns out that everything loves sugar water. The rabbits determine when things are ripe, and rather than be mad at them or find ways to fight them, insects, or weeds that we don’t like, we try to find ways to have a sense of humour about it. We try to focus on growing and the joy of farming, rather than thinking of all these things as pests or annoyances”.

“It’s challenging at times not to be emotional about it: there’s a herd of water buffalo that live in the next pasture, there’s an Italian guy who milks them and makes beautiful mozzarella and it’s a joy all year long, but sometimes they get into our vineyard, poop in the rows and knock over fenceposts. We live in a wild place”!

The practical business of winemaking

Their second-hand Wilmes press can take two days worth of harvest to fill, so depending on the picking schedule Pearl Thief gets wholebunch direct pressed, or stomped and soaked on skins and stems overnight, in anticipation of having a full load to press the next day.

Aaron: We’re not particularly interested in making orange wines, there’s never maceration in the presence of ethanol in our cuvees. Water soluble phenolics [from a short overnight soak] are different structurally and flavour-wise to an orange wine.

Pearl Thief is made like many white wines: aged in neutral French oak, on gross lees, topped regularly. But there are oxidative notes, which has a lot to do with how we handle the grapes as they come into the cellar, with foot-stomping, but also because of how we press. We expose all of the wines, both red and white, to a lot of oxygen during the pressing, which helps protect them in the long run and brings out Jura-esque oxidative flavours.

“The choice of Sauvignon and Semillon, and sometimes some Rousanne, for Pearl Thief is based on what’s planted here. Our interest is more in terroir than in varietal, if we had 10 different varietals, if I could also add Chenin, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Macabeo… I would love to over time, because I think as you obscure the varietal influence, what comes up underneath is the actual hillside”.

A eureka moment about their soils

We asked about the geology of the hillside Pearl Thief is planted on.
Aaron: If you’d asked us that question a year and a half ago we would have said ‘we’re on decomposed granite’ along with everyone else in this area. One of our recent interns was a geology major, Sam took a look and said: Where’s all this granite you guys are talking about! It turns out geology students come from all over the world to study the Smartville Complex, a famous little pocket with all sorts of studies written about it.

“In this 40km stretch of North Yuba there was volcanic activity millions of years ago that melted the granite, a mixture of basalt and schist came up from underneath, and lots of quartz was formed. The granite cooled too quickly to reform underground, it exploded up onto the ground and because it was in contact with air it becomes something called rhyolite which almost feels like limestone, but it’s a much lighter colour and very soft, it’s easy to break with your hands almost like slate. Same with the schist and the particular type of basalt that we have, it’s very hard but brittle. I think that’s the reason we’re able to dry farm here, even though we’re basically on a big pile of rocks with a thin veneer of grass on top, the vine roots are able to find their way through these layers. But there aren’t many vineyards here so the two haven’t connected until now”.

The technical answer to your question would be igneous, intrusive, metamorphic rock.

“This answers some important questions for us. We’ve worked with purchased fruit in the past, from vineyards which are just an hour away, and they’re drastically different. Structurally the tannins, the acidity levels, everything. You could look at yields, or irrigation or exposure, vine age, but there’s something you can’t explain until you start to understand the soils we’re on.

“If you’re walking around in the vineyard you’ll notice you’re constantly stubbing your toes on big chunks of quartz. I know it’s a little woo woo but I do think there’s an energy in the vines that directly translates from being on these mountains full of vibrating quartz”.

Our enology background is learning on the job

Cara explained that Gideon, their mentor, had a very technical winemaking background and that over the course of the 30 years he experimented with many different winemaking practices for fruit from the farm. “He started super technical and pared it down to the most simple, but we’re going backwards. Starting with this really paired down, as simple as it gets method, we’ve added de-stemming, all the different quirks we do”.

Aaron: “Since we started we’ve done stages at other wineries to get other perspectives and to learn. It’s been challenging at times to learn from scratch, but it’s also been a freeing way to explore our terroir. We’ve had a lot of freedom to experiment, and change small things with each cuvee”.

Would they describe their methods as natural winemaking?
Aaron: “It’s incredibly simple winemaking. The three important decisions for us are: When you pick, when you press, and when you bottle. Those are timing decisions that determine a wine’s character, personality and nature. A lot or the rest of the decisions are just meaningless fluff, that’s what Gideon would say. Sometimes in young wines you’ll taste the hand of the winemaker, but over time, what really comes out is those three decisions. We are experimenting year by year, aiming for more finesse and elegance”.

There’s downsides to not being based in a winemaking culture or community like Napa or Sonoma, but there’s also some benefits to being out here in the wilderness with nobody looking over our shoulder.

Aaron: “We think about winemaking as a year long process. We think about building a cuvee as we’re pruning. How we’ll select shoots, how long they are, how many nodes we leave, whether we give one side or the other a year off, that’s all building the cuvee. We ask the vines questions, and try to read the energy levels and health of the sap flow. Similarly with shoot thinning, tying or tucking, hedging or any other action throughout the year when we’re paying attention to the vines, we’re building the nature and character of the wines”.

By the time harvest comes around it isn’t so much us making the wine as us celebrating the end of a long process. We don’t have the energy to put our ego or our stamp on anything at that point. We’re relieved we’ve brought the fruit in that we’ve worked hard on all year, and there’s no need or desire to manipulate it.

Learning from Burgundy and Jura

Pierre Overnoy’s grandson Batiste came to Frenchtown for a six week stage. He’s only 16 but grew up in Pierre’s vineyards and cellar, they were discussing de-stemming, with reference to Cara and Aaron’s red wine Cotillion, made from Grenache and Syrah, and the only wine they de-stem. Batiste showed Cara and Aaron a video of Pierre Overnoy de-stemming Poulsard, using a apparatus they had built themselves. It’s a board with a small holes drilled into it, that sits at a 30 degree angle, you push the grapes up and they tumble back down, it takes the berries off the stem without breaking the skin. They get around 450kg of grapes with about a bottle worth of juice.

Aaron: “We’re interested in paying around with intracellular fermentation. We started to learn about what Tomoko Kuriyama is doing in Chanterêves in Burgundy, where they do whole cluster or whole berry for a period of time, then they slowly start punching down. This is how Cotillion was made, the bin of unbroken berries sits for 2-5 days, after which instead of pumping over we’ll get in and do a small amount of stomping in the morning and the evening. Progressively over the course of 10 days we’ll stomp 5-10% of the fruit until everything is smashed. Intracellular fermentation starts, and just as it’s about to take on some of the carbonic characters that we aren’t in love with we crush all the fruit, and it goes into the ‘normal’ oxidative fermentation.

For Cotillion we’re not interested in carbonic maceration, which creates the same flavours no matter where you do it in the world, and obscures terroir really badly. Drinking carbonic can be fun but this isn’t the vineyard to be doing that.

Cotillion is a place where we experiment with the process, we’ve always wanted to make something bit more elegant and smooth from these rustic vineyards, and pull out the elegance of our terroir each year. We haven’t totally figured it out, but we think the whole berry helps with that. This is our attempt to make less tannic, less structured, less grumpy wines”.

What next?

They bought their own property last year, when we spoke they had recently spent a couple of days putting in posts and trellising for a new vineyard block. According to Aaron this site is also abundant in quartz: “The whole hillside is just schist and quartz. It’s some of the most interesting terroir I’ve seen anywhere in the region. We’re going to plant Sauvignon, Semillon, Rousanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and they’ll all go together into what will one day be the new Pearl Thief”. Inspired by visits to Jura they’re also planting Savagnin, a tiny plot of Mondeuse, and 1ha of Syrah which they’re planning to use for a sparkling project.

Cara and Aaron have accomplished a lot on their relatively short winemaking journey, but there’s more to come. Read more about the project and wines here. Or contact us if you’d like to try the wines.