Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm

La Clarine Farm is a favorite of the natural wine crowd and wine critics alike. Eric Asimov writing in the New York Times wrote, "I love their minimalist approach in the vineyard and the cellar, and I've loved all their wines." He also described the wines as "alive in the glass."

Hank Beckmeyer and his wife Caroline Hoel started to make wine commercially in 2007 in California’s Sierra Foothills. On their 10 acres at 2,600 feet of altitude they practice organic, non-interventionist winemaking following the principals of Japanese natural philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. They share the vineyards with goats, dogs, cats, chickens native herbs, and flowers.

Grape Collective talks with Beckmeyer about his journey into natural wine, and how John Cage and Frank Zappa became influences on his winemaking. 

La Clarine FarmChristopher Barnes: La Clarine Farm. How did that name come about?

That comes from my wife, Caroline, who is French. And when she was a kid, her family would go up into the Savoy region of France to vacation. They had an apartment up there. She loved it, obviously, as a kid. It's a great place to grow up, I think.

But when we started the farm, we were looking for a name that kind of had a little bit of that history to it. And we chose it because a clarine, in the local Savoy dialect, is the bell that they put on the cattle when they send them into the pasture. And so, each shepherd can find their herd at the end of the day because there's no fences up there. We thought that was kind of an interesting kind of evocative name to use, and it's kind of tied to her past a little bit, and that sort of thing. Yeah.

And you started in Germany, importing wine.

Ages and ages ago. Yes.

How did you end up in Germany importing wine?

Well, I was a musician, and did a lot of touring in Europe, and-

Were you following in the footsteps of the Beatles?

No. No way. No way. I wish, but no.

But touring in Europe is much more pleasant than touring in the United States. I will say that. At least it was at the time. This is late 1980s. And I liked it a lot.

I had really no desire to go back to the United States when the tours were done because I just enjoyed myself, and I just decided to stay, basically, after one tour.

And ended up working in the music business in various capacities, mostly in Hamburg. And at the same time, I'd met my wife, who ... now, my wife. Then, she wasn't, but we would travel to France, obviously, to visit her family, and do some traveling around the South of France.

Started drinking wine, which I never did up until that point. I'm from a Midwestern family. We did not drink wine at dinner. Yeah. Started enjoying wine, and enjoying producers, and I would say, "Yeah, I really like this bottle. We should go visit these people." And so, we would go visit these people, and every year we would do it, and we ended up befriending four or five different producers, and I just kind of loved the whole vibe of it.

And then, being an American, I said to myself, "Well, I could make wine," and, "Why don't we do that?" And we were both getting a little burned out on the music business anyway at that point. This was late '90s. And we kind of hatched this plan to come to the United States, make wine. My wife had trained, and learned to make cheese, and we thought, "Well, that would be a really interesting thing to do." We were both still young enough that we could get away with doing something like that. And that's what we did.

So, I came over in 1999, she came over in 2000, and we found a property, and got a herd of goats, and built a little facility that was half cheese-making facility, and half winemaking facility, and started there. And then, in the meantime, we had planted a vineyard at our house, and that sort of thing. So, yeah.

La Clarine FarmAnd how did you decide on the property that you ended up in?

We looked around a lot of different regions in California. And a lot of them are really nice, and beautiful, but frightfully expensive for vineyard land. And we didn't have that much money, we wanted to finance everything ourselves, so we looked in regions that were maybe a little off the beaten path.

The Sierra Foothills has a really long history of winemaking in it, but a lot of the wine was not very good. We went out and visited. It's a beautiful area. Land is reasonable. We found a nice 10-acre property with a house on it. Looked pretty good, and the potential of the region from a wine standpoint was definitely there, I thought. It's kind of untapped a little bit, and I like that feeling too.

Much of my music that I played was improvisational, and so that appealed to me in that respect. It's like, "Okay. Let's see what happens. Let's try it out."

Talk about the Sierra Foothills as a region. What kind of wines come out of the Sierra Foothills?

Well, it's an old wine-growing region that dates back to the Gold Rush times. A lot of the people who settled in the Foothills were of Italian origin, and of course everyone planted a vineyard. Some of those vineyards still exist today, back from, like, the 1880s. So, that's pretty cool.

It fell through hard times, like much of California did, in Prohibition. Most of the wineries that were there kind of folded.

And then, I would say, probably early '70s, maybe, there was kind of a re-interest in it. A lot of Bay Area people who came up from the tech industry. It was like aerospace tech and that sort of thing, and they came up and bought property, and planted vines, and there was kind of a little resurgence then.

Typically, the wines tend to look toward the Napa paradigm as a guide. So, everything is pretty ripe, lot of new oak, little bit of sweetness in there, that sort of thing.

But that may be slowly, very slowly changing up there.

La Clarine FarmAnd let's talk about natural wine. It's kind of a thorny term. Your t-shirt says, "Drink natural or sulfur the consequences." What does natural wine mean to you?

Wow. It is a difficult thing because the word "natural" is so loaded with baggage, and it means different things to different people.

My preferred way to view it is to go back to the original French term, which was "vin naturel," which just basically means, like, "plain wine," not worked over too much, you know? You can order an "omelette natur," which is just eggs, you know? There's nothing else in it.

And that's the spirit of the thing that I like, that you can make wine, and not do this super-extracted, oaky thing, that you can just let the grapes, and the place, and the vintage speak. So, for me, that's what's appealing about that.

Now, like I said, unfortunately, natural is kind of this loaded term for a lot of people, and causes much consternation and argument. 

And do you have a sort of sense of, like, you have to use this amount of sulfur, or that amount of sulfur, or are there sort of guidelines you use in your own winemaking?

One of the things that appealed to me about working this way was that there weren't really any rules, that you could kind of be an individual, make your wine.

So, I think it should be up to anybody who's making wine how they want to do it. And if you want to make, you know, 16% alcohol Cabernet, I think you should be able to do that. But I should also be able to make 10.5% Syrah if I want to. So, yeah.

I like the no-rules aspect of it. It's kind of an unfortunate human trait that we tend to want to make rules about everything, but, you know, what are you going to do?

I read in an interview, somebody asked you what your influences in your winemaking are, and you said, "John Cage and Frank Zappa." Not many winemakers would list those two as influences, I would think, right?

I don't know. I guess not.

It's a pretty good pair, I think. John Cage was definitely a free thinker, definitely thought out of the box, so I like that. I think Zappa was much the same way. Very individualistic. So, yes. That definitely speaks to me that way.

Hank, how has your winemaking changed from when you first started as a winemaker to today?

It's gotten a little more confident.

The early days were certainly full of experimentation, not quite knowing how things were going to turn out. And that was okay. That was what I wanted to do.

And has your sulfur usage changed over the years?

No. Actually, it hasn't.

That was a thing that I always was kind of fixed on. I didn't want to add any sulfites until I bottled because I didn't want to kill off any microorganisms that are in the grape must, so I wanted to let everything do whatever it was going to do to make the wine.

But I always wanted to use a little bit of bottling because that's a really hard process on the wine, and introduces a lot of oxygen. So, I wanted to help protect it a little bit.

I've monkied with no-sulfured wines, and it scares me a little bit. Once the wine leaves your place, you just don't know what's going to happen with it.

La Clarine FarmThere's a lot of bottle variation?

Could be. Could be. Maybe not, but it could be that way.

And, you know, I've walked into wine shops where it was 85 degrees in the wine shop, and, you know? It's like you can't control stuff like that. So, maybe that little bit of sulfites at the end helps.

Although, on the other hand, I do think sometimes that it's all just to make me feel good, and, you know ....

And were you always using native yeasts from the very beginning?

Yes. That was definitely important for what I wanted to do.

And again, early on, that was very nerve-wracking because fermentations took a long time to get going, and maybe took a long time to finish, and it was definitely quite different than any other winemaking I had done, which was inoculated stuff. Fermentations happened really quickly. It's done.

This was like a whole new territory. So, yeah, the first couple of years were a little bit weird that way, but I learned to trust the process. And then, as the population of yeasts in my winery kind of grew, and there's always something in the air. Things get a little more, let's say, reliable that way.

It's interesting. Every year, you bring in kind of new genetic material with the grapes. There's new yeasts and things you bring in, and those kind of mix in with what's already there, and so every year you get something a little bit different because of that, and I think that's kind of cool. That's part of the vintage thing that I want to bring into my wines. That's pretty important.

And how did you decide on the grapes that you work with?

I'm a big Rhône fan, so I was very much drawn to things like Syrah, and Mourvèdre and so I started looking around for things like that.

Other times, it's just like, I was walking in a Syrah vineyard, and we found four rows of Petite Manseng in this vineyard, and I was like, "Wow, I'm going to make that wine." I can't say no to Petite Manseng kind of thing. So, it's a lot of that. Sometimes accidents.

Sometimes I'll have somebody plant something for me because I think, "Oh, this would be a really good spot for maybe some Grenache, and Tannat, or something. That would be interesting here maybe," and so we'll do that. Yeah.

And you talked a little bit about experimentation. Like, what are some of the experiments that you think, "Wow. That really worked." And what are some of the experiments, where you're like, "What was I thinking?"

Yes Yes. There's been all kinds of interesting things.

Recently we started making really long skin-macerated whites, specifically from Albariño. For some reason, I just thought, "Oh, this could be a good grape to do that with," and we started doing six, seven, and eight-month long macerations. And that turned out really cool. So, that was definitely a plus, a success.

There's been other things that yeah, you try. I messed around with some Sémillon from a vineyard for a few years, and it just never spoke to me. I could never get in sync with it. So, I stopped doing that.

And then, of course there's always the barrel or two over the last 10 years that maybe has gone south for whatever reason. Something happened, you know? And nobody gets to try those.

And in terms of your production, has it grown steadily, or where are you in terms of the amount of wine?

I make 2,500 cases.

It's just my wife and I doing it, and that's a really comfortable level for that size of a crew.

Our first vintage was three barrels of wine. So, 75 cases. And every year, we took whatever money we made, and grew a little bit. It was very organic. So, you know, maybe the next year we made 200 cases. And then, we bumped it up to 500 cases. And then, we were like, "Oh, jeez. This is a lot of wine."

But thankfully, we've found a bit of an audience, and we've been able to grow a little bit every year, and do it in a way that wasn't painful, you know? In terms of, like, taking out loans or things like that. Yeah.

Talk a little bit about the terroir in the Sierra Foothills.

It's an interesting place. It's mostly granite in various forms and states of decomposition.

But in El Dorado County, where I am, we have a lot of old volcanic rock. We've got some areas with some really interesting yellow slate. And then, a little bit south of me, there's these little, like, kind of little islands of limestone. So, it's pretty cool.

You can choose to work with a number of different soils if you wish. Sometimes it's fun to use the same grape on different soils, and see how the differences are.

And then, the terrain is very hilly. It's very varied. The vineyards I work with are between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in elevation, and there's all kinds of different expositions; east, north-facing, south-facing, whatever. So, it's a pretty interesting place.

It's a little confusing, but I've kind of found my little things that I like, and that I look for in vineyards.

So Hank, ambient yeast. What are some of the challenges with working with ambient yeasts?

Every year is a little bit different, so that's definitely a challenge.

If I were the kind of winemaker that wanted to make this very consistent, year-to-year product, I probably wouldn't use it, but I'm not trying to do that; I'm trying to bring in vintage differences, and using ambient yeast is one way to do that because they're different every year.

Other things we do: we ferment all our reds outside with no temperature control. And so, what ends up happening is the early-picked grapes that come in and ferment, it's still pretty warm out even at night. Those fermentations happen very quickly.

Stuff that's later-picked in the season, it's starting to cool off, maybe the fermentation goes a little slower at the beginning, or lingers on a little bit. So, it kind of is like my last chance to get some vintage into the grapes before it becomes wine. So, we look for things like that. I find it really interesting that a wine can be different every year.

Now, we do work with the same vineyards every year, over and over, so that is a consistent point. So, around that consistency you can have slight variations. Yeah.

And when you vinify, you're doing whole cluster?

We're doing whole cluster. Right. Everything comes in whole cluster.

I don't own a destemmer. Everything is foot-crushed. All our punch downs are done by climbing into the vats, and pushing the cap down with our feet. Yeah. So, it's all very tactile. It's all very hands-on.

And I like that. That's a great way to judge what's happening in your ferments because you get the temperature, you get the strength of the cap, all these things.

You talked about influences, and, you know, John Cage, Frank Zappa. What about winemaking influences?

Yeah, I guess there's a few.

One of the wines that I loved from the get-go, early on was Domaine Tempier, down in Bandol. Those were some folks that I got to know very well, and I got to hang out with, and that's a definite influence. Not only the wines, but also just the kind of spirit and outlook that they brought to winemaking, and to life in general. Yeah. So, they were definitely a big influence for me.

And then, I do taste occasional other wines too that are, like, "Oh, that's pretty cool." You know, "I'd like to meet the person who made this," kind of thing.  

And what wines are you drinking, in what regions are you drinking that you're excited about at the moment? 

I love Loire Valley Cab Franc a lot. So, we do drink a bit of that. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Provence. So, occasionally those will be on the table. Love northern Rhône Syrah.

Yes, you know, this trip, going through New York, we got to go through the Finger Lakes. We don't get Finger Lakes wines in California. So, I got to try some of those, and man, there's some pretty good Riesling. I gotta say. That's an interesting area for Riesling.

It's very exciting.  

And they're making some nice reds too. 

Yes. I think Cab Franc has a lot of potential there, so it's kind of cool.