We were at a large tasting hosted by the Association of African American Vintners in Oakland a few months ago when John sampled a Grenache Blanc, a variety we generally consider more solid than exciting. This was an exception. It had a combination of generous fruit, tropical life and an earthy roundness that made it complex and delicious. When John said all of this, the man who poured it smiled and said: “That’s good to hear because otherwise I wasted a whole lot of money on terra cotta pots.”
John rushed to get Dottie to taste the wine. Then we vowed we’d find out more about this man and his wine.
The man is Raymond Smith, owner of Indigené Cellars, with a winery in Carmel Valley and a tasting room in Paso Robles. It turns out he has a story quite unlike any other we’ve heard over the years, featuring bottling lines, the value of mentors and even a soul food supper club for at-risk youth in San Francisco.
And many amphoras.
Amphoras are ancient, but also a little bit of a trend in local winemaking. Famed Napa Valley winery Dalla Valle Vineyards has used some since 2018. In a recent press release, winemaker Maya Dalla Valle said the use of amphora “adds to the complexity of the wine without introducing higher quantities of new oak to overpower the fruit and nuances it contains.”
Smith, who is 59, studied journalism in college, but he found a job at a large winery in Paso Robles. “I learned all about bottling and barrel work, like the mid-part of winemaking,” he told us when we called.
A few years later, someone contacted him about helping to start a mobile bottling operation. “So we got this business up and running,” Smith said. “These guys were the money part and I was the sweat equity part, the guy who had the knowhow. It changed my perspective of winemaking from learning from one guy to learning from 400 guys because I was traveling all over California and meeting new people and learning about new ways of blending wines, new ways of making wines.”
As a result, Smith speaks with intimacy about multiple regions of California in a way we’ve rarely heard.
In a short time, Smith bought the bottling business. That’s when his education really took off. He told us he always had mentors, winemakers who were eager to discuss everything with him. Many had one thing in common: “I always for some reason was hooked up with some crusty old Italian guy. I always met Italian varietal makers for some reason and kind of stayed close to them and these were guys who I had a deep relationship with.”
We think his secret was that he listened. As he put it: “I had no problem ever saying I didn’t know and once I did that they had information for me every time I showed up.”
Wine writing is in the midst of a revolution and if you don’t think the wine on the shelves is affected by who writes about the subject, we have two words for you: Robert Parker. For a long time, wine writing was mostly the province of white men, many of whom we admire, like Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent. But the world has changed and so have the voices in the wine world.
If you follow wine today, especially on social media, and your feed isn’t bursting with new voices, you need to refresh your feeds. People from all backgrounds, of all kinds, from everywhere, now are writing about wine from different perspectives. It’s a very exciting time.
For almost 20 years, the premier gathering of wine writers has been the Wine Writers’ Symposium in Napa Valley, founded by Meadowood Napa Valley and Napa Valley Vintners. We were keynote speakers in 2019 and Dottie joined the advisory board this year.
Before COVID and the Napa fires and a gap year in 2020, WWS, formerly known as the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, was an in-person event. But last year and this year, it has been virtual. The three-day session was just held, with 253 registrants from around the world and a stunning list of speakers, from Ruth Reichl to MJ Towler. We also spoke this year.
Even if you’re not a wine geek or a wine writer, we wish you could have been there because so much of the discussion and advice was more about life than wine. Here are some of our takeaways and our favorite quotes:
Ruth Reichl, food writer, eater, cook: “The things that are the most worth doing are the things that frighten you the most.”
Madeline Puckette, creator, Wine Folly:“My two business partners, one was a friend who became CEO of another company and he left and the other was my husband. Turns out – I love my husband, he’s an amazing dude – but he’s not that fun to work for. So we kind of went our separate ways. He said this is really your project, you should take it over. I spent the next couple of years trying to figure out how to be my own boss, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
--Wine writing should be about more than wine.
Talia Baiocchi, Editor-in-Chief, PUNCH: “We’re always looking for the writer who’s going to ask the bigger question. Why does it matter?”
On the scenicslopes of Sicily's Mount Etna on the northern side of the volcano in Castiglione is Produttori Etna Nord - an association of five small family producers that have united to share the indigenous varietals of the region with the rest of the world.Though the wineries are in close proximity to one another and have a common winemaker, the variations in the terroir allow for differences in their grapes and wine styles.
In Castiglione there are 45 contrade, or subdivisions, with five producers including Davide and Adriano Dì Bella of Tenuta Antica Cavalleria, Papa Maria Pietro Dì Giovani, Azienda Agricola Giuseppe Platania, Azienda Agricola Villabosia and Azienda Agricola Platania Umberto. The consortium focuses on producing terroir-driven expressions of native grapes Nerello Mascallese, Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante and Catarratto.
Grape Collective talks with Davide Dì Bella about the uniqueness of winemaking on Etna, the impact of the volcano, and how the region has evolved over the years.
Davide, what is Produttori Etna Nord?
Davide Dì Bella: We are five small azienda that seven years before, began to work together, so we are a small association called Produttori Etna Nord. But of course, our family has made the Nerello for centuries. We started here you see in our palmento Etneo, 150 years before. But in the last seven years, we had this idea to work together with many ideas, to export, to develop our project, to make also different wines in different contradas, because even though we are very small, we have Nerello and Carricante in six different contradas.
What I say to you in Castiglione di Sicilia there are 45 contrada, and in Etna, this is very important, because each contrada, also sometimes inside the same contrada, you make different wine.
Talk a little bit about the size of each individual producer and how that relates to Etna in total. Because you have some very big producers, and then you have more small family operations like yourself.
Yes, we are very small. We are also native of Etna. And I just like to say this because now Etna is very fashionable. We have people from Asia, from northern Europe, from of course, northern Italy, Tuscany, Piemonte. So we're still alive, because in the last 20 years, it's been a big revolution and we're still alive and we go to work. We are very fast. We have our project and between the five associations it is not so different. Each association has about one half to two hectares. So that means together, we have 10 hectares with Nerello Mascalase, a little bit of Nerello Cappuccio, and Carricante and Catarratto.
And so how long have your families been in Etna making wine?
My family, and that of Piero, the winemaker, and Giuseppe, started 150 years ago. You can see in our palmento Etneo. And of course, between the '70s and '90s everybody stopped going to Etna. So there wasn't big business. The people paid not so much for wine. And at the time, everybody stopped with this kind of work, but in the last 20, 25 years, we got started again. That's meant like this, that we were putting in new grapes. These grapes are now 25 years old, but also for the Feudi di Mezzo we make the alberello. A little bit of new alberello, but also the old one. And yes, this is very nice because the alberello, the Nerello, all this are here in our hearts. We are really from the family, from this area.
For somebody that's been here for generations, how have you seen the changes in Etna?
Oh, of course, the change we see in a positive way, but also big changes and also big business changes, because all the grapes go up with money, with value. So we try in our small situation to develop and we like... But also for example, like Tornatore, we are from the Castiglione. This is little bit the difference, but we see this as a positive change, because in this way, we have more new winemakers, new technology and for everybody, it's always good. But for us, it's important, our tradition.
And do you have any concerns when you see a big winery moving to Etna?
No, we don't have concerns, because we hope that the people that come here, they'll respect our territory and respect our vineyards.
And how would you describe your terroir here in Etna?
The first thing you think about regarding the terroir is mineral, about the volcano, about minerality, but I like myself to think finesse and elegance to describe our wine.
Talk a little bit about your philosophy of viticulture and your philosophy of winemaking.
Our philosophy is a green philosophy. That means that we use just copper and sulfur. And our philosophy is also to try to not make much influence on the ground and with the grapes. For example, with the Feudi di Mezzo, we have prephylloxera vines. For us, prephylloxera is just 100 year before, it stays the same. We don't like that you make some show or some museum about prephylloxera for example. No, prephylloxera stays, so it's in my family always. This is a natural process.
And your winemaking philosophy?
The winemaking philosophy for us, what I say is the objective, is always to try to develop finesse, elegance and of course acicity in the Nerello and the Carricante. This is a little bit of our philosophy. And we like, of course, not to have too much influence. So we don't use much wood, but just a little bit in some wine, 5%, 10%, so this is our philosophy. We use also in a couple of wines, red, some amphora. And we try when we use wood, to use big wood.
Talk a little bit about the palmento.
In Castiglione, we have maybe two, three palmento, and it's our story. It's where you as children go inside with family and go make wine in the old way. Of course, now, we started a new cantina with modern technology, but for us it was tradition, the wine was ready in December, in January, and also after this day was of course a big party. Because we invite all the family for nice Sicilian food. What's important is of course, our wine and the combination with food.
So the EU banned the use of palmento, but there's some producers now that are fighting to bring palmento back. Do you have an opinion on that?
Yes. My opinion is that this will be very difficult, because with the hygienic norm, the new way of certification, that maybe it's impossible.
And in terms of the growth of Etna internationally, how do you feel the small producers are being included in this massive growth?
We are just part of this development for sure. We are what we say, the small producer. We have the big producers, but on Etna, there are also many very small producers. We speak about bigger, but also have very small producers. We have contact together. We try to think together, we try to do some projects together. The small producer, I think always stays very important on Etna, because this was always so. On Etna 25 years ago, everybody has half a hectare, one hectare, two hectares, and so it's not so they have a big extension and this is something that you can't change.