There is an exuberance about Hardy Wallace that is unique in the wine world. His is the scrappy wine start-up story. After losing his sales job at Kodak in Atlanta he won a social media contest that moved him out to California wine country. Social media was the ticket that gave him access to Napa's progressive wine community where he developed his natural wine aesthetic. In 2009 he and his partner Matt Richardson established the Dirty and Rowdy label. They make eclectic but delicious wines based on the Mourvedré and Sémillon grapes.
Wallace recounts his unique wine journey to Grape Collective.
Christopher Barnes: Hardy, how did you get involved in wine?
Hardy Wallace: That's a really long story, but going back when I was coming out of college, I said I was going to travel for six or seven months. I wanted to be able to make some cash fast, so I thought a great way to do that would be to bartend, but I didn't know how to make any drinks. I wanted to find a spot that was just beer and wine only. I ended up working at a small wine bar that had a little restaurant attached to it down in Florida. I knew a little bit about wine, but very, very little.
I started working at this wine bar. It wasn't anything fancy, nothing like anything we have today. A lot of fairly common wines, but what I loved when we started doing wine training, all of a sudden, here's six different Chardonnays. Here's one from New Zealand. Here's one from Australia. Here's one from Napa. Here's one from Sonoma. Here's some white Burgundies. Just by doing those tastings, all of a sudden it was like my mind was blown. Here I always thought that Chardonnay was Chardonnay. They're all similar. They're all 99% the same. The diversity and the styles even among fairly nondescript wines was still huge. Then just, all of a sudden, it's like something broke in my brain that I just had to keep learning more and learning more.
I did that for about six months before, save up some money. At the same point, my thirst and hunger grew more and more and more. When I returned from traveling I started working there again. That grew more and more. Not obviously, I ended up going in a totally different direction for about 10 years. I fell into the technology business, and wine stayed a huge part of my life. Entertaining clients, things like that, and always at dinner and having a wine list. That became my playground. For the next 12 years I tried as much as I could to study wine, to travel for wine, to do tasting groups, in-store tastings, anywhere I could go and taste and learn.
It's great to be able to say this now, but the great thing happened in 2008 when the economy crashed. I lost my job and I was laid off and at that point I decided I was going to change my life. I made a commitment that wine is something that made me happy, and regardless of what it would look like financially, I was going to make that my goal to actually enter into the wine business. Economic despair and things like that lead people to drink heavily and just about eight months later I was living in California. I had a really wild ride to get there.
When I was laid off from my job, there's a large winery called Murphy-Goode Winery that's part of Jackson Family. Right as I got laid off, they had announced this contest called, A Really Goode Job. It was a contest to find someone to run social media for them for six months up in Healdsburg in Sonoma County. I saw that and I was like, "Oh my gosh. This could be my ticket there." They provided housing, they provided relocation. They provided a really good salary and all this awesome stuff. I thought, you know what? Even though that may or may not be the type of wines I was interested in at the time, this could provide an incredible transition to get there. I had already been blogging about wine for years. I was very active on social media in the mid-2000s, toward the later side, like seven, eight, nine.
Hardy Wallace's Murphy-Goode video interview
Fortunately out of thousands of people, I was the person they picked and hired for the job. They moved me to California, and at that point after I got there and started working for them, I kind of realized something inside myself that not only do I love to consume and drink and share wine and thoughts of wine with people via social media, but how it is produced, how it's grown, how it's made was far more interesting to me. I ended up connecting with some of my favorite winemakers in the Sonoma area, and six months later I was working for a guy, Kevin Kelly, who used to be the winemaker for Lioco, plus had his own label, Salinia and the Natural Process Alliance. Six months later, I was part of a three-person winery learning how to do everything from clean the toilets, shovel out the tanks, sell the wine, run the tasting room, and actually work on the production side.
All the glamorous stuff.
Exactly. The toilet part is really good. I'm fantastic at that.
Somebody's got to do it, right?
Exactly. It was really incredible. Really out of the darkness of borderline economic despair comes this incredible opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do. I knock on wood and I pinch myself every single day, and with that while I worked for Kevin, when I worked for the Natural Process Alliance and Lioco and Salinia, the winemaker really encouraged me to start producing wine of my own.
My first thought was, "I don't know what I'm doing." He said, "That's why you start, is to learn." Now seven years later, our winery, Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery is, it's great. Now we make about 3,000 cases a year. I support myself solely on it. My wife still has a real job, she says, but it's been something that's been an incredible journey to share with so many people. With that background in social media, it's been something we've been able to share very easily with people as well.
When you were in the phase of exploring wine and getting to know it, were there wine regions or different types of wines that really grabbed you and pulled you in?
Yes, without a doubt. I think I started my wine journey back in the mid-2000s, around '96 or so. At that time, what was really pulling me in were the blockbusters. I think it was those huge, intense, Napa Cabs and Aussie Shirazes and things like that. Whatever had the the most amount of points to it, "Oh my god! I love it! It's like a milkshake for my soul." I started that way. Then all of a sudden I hit this wall drinking those wines. Not that they're good or bad wines or anything, but all of a sudden, there was this sameness to them, and there was this power and the wines were wanting, and you weren't going to split a bottle with somebody, because it was too much. If you did, you were definitely not in a condition to walk home.
Somehow, from there, a buddy that I met in Atlanta was really into lighter-style reds. Definitely Burgundy, so we started drinking a lot of Burgs. More than anything, especially as the price started to shift in Burgundy, I started to fall in love with Beaujolais. This is early 2000s, all of a sudden the wines were, and they're still inexpensive, but talking like, incredible wines for $15. You're like, "Oh my god. How are these Morgons? This is beautiful. How are these Fleuries - so incredible and mineral?" Those wines just grabbed me by the heart and soul.
From there, I feel like my palate completely shifted to wines that were lighter, wines that had more purity, I thought, more direct access to soil, where you weren't hiding them under lots of oak and concentration and things like that. It was just like, wow, this is a very pretty, light wine that is super transparent and super reflective of soil. So I think Beaujolais was really what broke me out of one habit into another. Now it's hard for me to drink big reds. As much as I can appreciate them, there's something about having a wine being refreshing that is addictive. You get connected to that, I don't want to say gulp-ability, but that liveliness that wines like Crus Beaujolais have.
If you're talking to someone, let's say you have a cousin who's just starting to drink wine. How would you give advice to somebody starting their wine journey and wanting to learn a little bit more?
I always think the funny thing with wine that always gets me is that people feel like they need to know something about it in order to enjoy it. I think, if you can remove that from the back of your head, I mean, I don't think I need to know anything about beer before I have a beer and enjoy it. I don't think I need to know anything about how Dunkin' Doughnuts are made to enjoy it, not that I love Dunkin' Doughnuts, but we don't think about that with many other things we consume. Somehow wine, there's a thought that people have to know something in order to enjoy it.
I always think that if you can take that out of your head first and first of all, do you like it or not like it? Start from there. As you start finding things you like or don't like, your palate continually shifts and changes. If you can stay conscious about that, if you do have an interest in it, you can stay conscious about what you like and don't like. It's an amazing journey and your brain will just automatically like, "Why is this delicious? Let me go online Google it and find out a little bit more about this one or that one."
That's really how I got to predominately natural wines as well, and wines that were made with very minimal intervention. It's not that I like the idea of this. It's like, oh well, that wine's delicious. That wine's delicious. That wine's delicious. What do these three things have in common, and why am I gravitating toward this? Oh they're all made in a certain way with very limited winemaking and very limited intervention. It was more the taste that brought me there, versus the idea.
If I can offer any advice to people it is, first of all, have fun with it. Then, just stick to trying to figure out what you like and following that trend, and that will open all the doors for you. If you get weighted down with trying to learn with the pressure of, "Oh, I have to know everything about this bottle." That will provide pleasure, but it's not the only thing.
One of the things that I can sense about you, and certainly from tasting your wines and checking out the labels is that you have a lot of fun with it.
Wine seems to be one of those areas where there's just this earnestness about it, you know?
How do you deal with kind of the wine snobbery that you encounter either through restaurants or the different types of wine consumers that you'll meet here and there? How do you deal with that?
The good thing is, I feel like over the past few years, I deal with it less, less, less and less. To the point where maybe 10 years ago, there was a lot of puffery about wine, and wine has become, I feel like so, I don't want to call it casual, but so much more a part of our daily lives. I think, especially where I live in Napa and in Northern California, so many people are there to explore, to enjoy, and for me that part is almost non-existent.
Occasionally that does come up, and you've got, "Wow, that's a lot of snobbery around that." Like anything, if you met someone like that in real life and they're talking about, it might be their car, it might be their house, it might be their plane or something, you just grin and walk away. I try not to connect with that. There's too much other good stuff in the world with wine, There's too many other good people that are so down to earth about what they consume, what they share with people, what they make, how they produce it, and that's the universe I try to stay in.
In terms of your wine journey, when you started making wine, how did you figure out you wanted to do Mourvedré and Sémillon? It's sort of like, those are two grapes that you don't hear about an awful lot. They're fun grapes, but they're kind of obscure, right?
Without a doubt. I like to say that we entered into Mourvedré and Sémillon by accident. My wife likes to say it's serendipity. In 2010 when we started making wine, Mourvedré was not even on the list of what we thought we'd produce. We thought we were going to make Muscat, and a dry, skin-fermented Muscat, which is bizarre just on its own. I had my reasons, but 2010 was such a weird season in Northern California. We had a super, super cold summer followed by an unbelievably hot Labor Day of like three, four days of over 105 degrees at a time. It fried about 35% of the vineyards in Northern California. With one huge waft of heat, all of a sudden the crop load of almost every vineyard, reduced by 30% or more. The Muscat we were looking to use got totally fried, so plan A is out the door. Plan B, we were looking to do some Zinfandel rosé, and it was going to be white Zin, but we wanted to do a super, razor-sharp, high-acid, no residual sugar, beautiful, crisp white rosé, almost like what Turley does right now. That vineyard got destroyed.
Another one, Petit Sirah, plan three, got rained on and rotted. At the end of the season, there was almost nothing left available. I was also working at the same winery with another winemaker at the time that was also a roommate, who was making a beautiful Grenache out of some incredible high-altitude vineyard in Santa Barbara. She mentioned that, hey, there's a little bit of Mourvedré here. You like the wine I produce. You know the soil. You know the site. Why don't you look at working with that Mourvedré? It was one of those things where, I guess if I got to work with something, it's a great vineyard. It could have had Teroldego or Norton or something on it. Okay, I'm going to learn with that. We produced the wine from it and we loved it.
What we found that we loved so much about it, and it really was a blessing to have this other winemaker's Grenache in the winery at the time. What was interesting was to see how with our Mourvedré, and obviously, two very different grape varieties, but how much each one of them showed the soil of this place. I've never really thought about that with Mourvedré. Usually it's made in a very heavy style, very intense wines, very deep, very dark. They often take years to come around. For ours, the style we made it in was very much like these Beaujolais that I loved. They were light, acid-driven. In that you could really see those beautiful sandstone and clay soils. A little light bulb went off in our head like, "Wow. If that's what it does on clay and sandstone at 3,200 feet in Santa Barbara, what's it do at 2,000 feet in the Sierra foothills on volcanic quartz and granite? Let's try that."
It's like another light bulb went off. What's that do on alluvial soils in Mendocino County? It kept growing and growing and growing and growing, into this inner nerd-quest that we entered into, that was purely about finding Mourvedré on radically different soils in California. It consumed us in such a positive way, and now seven years later, we produce nine different cuvées of Mourvedré, the blend that we have that is from a couple of the different vineyards, and then eight different designant Mourvedrés based off of completely different soils. It's become from basically this weird happenstance of a bad weather experience in the 2010 vintage to what we focus on and love more than anything.
Sémillon came along fairly in the same way. We had a certain plan in 2011 to do one thing. That fell through due to weather, and what was available from a vineyard that we loved and we knew and it was farmed beautifully was Sémillon. I never had any intention to make Sémillon, but that's what the universe provided to us that time, and we fell in love with it.
It's an interesting journey, and I think a lot of people don't realize for a lot of small winemakers in California, that we don't come from a winemaking family. We don't have historical land and historical property. There's a wide-open book of what we can do. I think one of the most beautiful things about making wine in Northern California, there's very few rules, and if you fall into something you love, all of a sudden you've got this unlimited play-book and script that you can just fall into, and it's a wonderful thing.
The Enz Vineyard
Hardy, you don't own vineyards. You buy grapes, and you're dealing with people who professionally grow grapes. You want your grapes a certain way to make the wine you're interested in. How does that relationship work?
I think a lot of people don't realize many, if not most small producers in California, and these aren't just small producers that have a little garage here or there, a lot of them are some of the greatest wines right now being made out of California, but very few of us own our land. The cost of vineyard land, first of all, has gone absolutely insane. We work with 12 vineyards right now and we just actually added a 13th this season. If we were to purchase the land that we have those 13 acres on right now, we'd be looking at a little over $15,000,000 in land costs. Take away farming cost. It's absolutely insanely expensive.
Most small wineries and even some large ones too, developed relationships with people that, their entire goal and their entire career and their entire livelihood is based on growing grapes on incredible vineyards.
There's vineyards out there like Hirsch Vineyards. Yes, they produce their own wines, but they also grow fruit for several amazing wineries like Failla and Littorai and things like that.The biggest thing at first for us is to find the soil, more than anything, that we want to work with. We start at soil. Then obviously we're looking for farming, and how those vines are farmed, and then that relationship we can develop with the grower. Though we purchase grapes, we work and manage that relationship and that farming all along the way.
We don't own the land. Each vineyard has a vineyard manager and a crew, but we can have a lot of input from day one, every year, on how those grapes are grown, really to our specifications, because though there may be three blocks of Mourvedré on one vineyard, what we're doing is very different than the other two vineyards, so how we want our canopies, whether or not anything should be irrigated, what sort of fruit load do we want. When do we want to pick is obviously very different.
It's finding those vineyards and those vineyard owners that not only have all that right stuff, they have the right soil, they have the right plant material, they have the right idea that they're willing to work with us, and then beyond that, that they're obviously good human beings to work with. It's a complex series of relationships, but it's how so many of us small wineries and even some mid-sized wineries produce their wines every year.
Do you have to pay them by ton or do you work out a per block fee? How does that work?
It can be either way, so some spots you pay by the ton. Some places you pay by the acre. It really depends on the length of your contract, the amount of detail that you want done, and whatnot. So, we have both.
Okay. I imagine if you're paying by the ton, then there's almost like a push and pull because they want to have more grapes, and you want to have a certain minimum yield to achieve the kind of quality you're interested in.
Yes I think it's really interesting because I think with managing yield and managing expectations, as long as you're up front about that you can always build that into the price. There are certain vineyards that I work with that I know I pay more per ton than the person right next to me. That may be due to a couple things. Maybe that 50 feet away, maybe the same grape variety planted the same time on the same rootstock, the yield may be different. Also, my farming is organic on that block versus someone else's, so there's all these things that we work in up front. As long as you have that conversation early, that's great. If you're trying to have it at the end of the season, they you're like, "Oh, this yield's too high and this farmer's trying to do everything they can to put as much fruit out there." Yeah, you'll learn the hard way.
Do you ever have issues where you meet somebody, you love the vineyard, you're excited about the grapes that they're growing, you do a deal and then all of a sudden you find out that someone's spraying a bit here or there or kind of doing things a little bit sneaky that you weren't expecting? Does that happen?
Yep. It has only happened to us once, and we no longer use that vineyard. It was a vineyard we had a multi-year contract on that had specified organic farming, and all of a sudden things changed. Fortunately it was early in the season, but it was a wine that was 20% of our production. To lose 20% of your production like that is ...
We could have still purchased the fruit. We could have still worked with that vineyard, but it went counter to everything we believe in, both in the vineyard treatment, but also that same point that, this is our deal. We actually have a seven page legal document of our long-term contract here and it was just tossed out the window. I don't even like to talk about it. It gets me all fired up.
Walking Through Antle Vineyard from Hardy Wallace on Vimeo.
You have these 13 sites now. How do you find them? How do you find Mourvedré in California?
It's really hard, but it's really fun at the same point. I think what most people don't realize too is, with our different cuvées of Mourvedré, how small most of them are. A lot of times we're dealing with vineyards that we're dealing with less than an acre of vines of Mourvedré on each block, so a lot times people that have planted Grenache and have planted Syrah usually have a little Mourvedré in there that they've been using for blending for years. It's trying to find those sites that, not only do they have Mourvedré, but they have it on really compelling soils.
A lot of it's talking to other winemakers, talking to growers. Some of it's driving around and looking, like literally, "Let's get in the car and start looking this weekend," and peeking over fences, and sticking business cards in mailboxes and things like that. As we've grown, the beautiful thing too is, we actually get calls from growers, just saying, "Hey, I know you focus on this and we'd love for you to come down and walk the vineyard with us. Check it out. Tell us what you think and if you'd be interested in working together."
It started off really at first like super exploratory where it felt like we were doing 99% of the legwork. Now, it's about 50, 50, where we're finding things, but also people are finding us as well.
How would you describe the wines and what is the relationship between the taste of the wines and the places where the grapes are grown?
If we're speaking about the Mourvedrés, the nine different Mourvedrés, I think one of the things you'll find in all of them, first of all, you'll find out that they're all different, but there is a thread that goes through all of them that is really this purity of fruit that we don't often experience with Mourvedré-based wines. Often Mourvedré-based wines, we think of weight. We think of these almost meaty, savory, herbal notes, and what can be just really wild and aggressive wines. I think with ours there's this linear, purity of fruit, and this bright strawberry and raspberry, plus spices around that. Almost like when you think of Pinot Noir, that's going through all of them.
Where they differ though, is each one of these sites is so different that I think we go from weight and mouth-weight profile to very light reds to, I call them heavy reds, but the reality is, compared to everything else it's medium-bodied wines. I think you'll have a spectrum from light to medium-bodied, but what really drives everything is really those mineral notes from all the different soil types.
If we compared say, Angela Vineyard, which is our vineyard in the Chalone AVA in Monterey County that's planted on limestone and granite, to say, our vineyard in El Dorado County called Skinner Stoney Creek which is planted on pure decomposed granite, looks like a bocce court. With those two wines, the profile of them, yes you can tell they're made from the same grape, but all you got to do is take one whiff and you're just like, "Oh!" One is just this chalky limestone and the other one is just this electric granite-like powder that you can almost feel in your nostrils.
I hope people find in the wines, this continuity of this fruit, but with these really beautiful surprises in each place. I think we also focus on keeping the wines refreshing, as I was saying before with the Beaujolais. I want these wines to be acid-driven. I want these wines to have a liveliness to them. I want them with that liveliness. I often describe the energy of the wines using the Chinese term, chi. I want them to have a life force. I want them to be alive on the palate and not to be dead, or even worse than dead, to be zombie wines, where it's just like, "Man, you're not alive, but you're crawling." We really focus on that.
(Matt Richardson and Hardy Wallace)
Grapes of Wrath, the New York Times Magazine piece. It kind of pitted two camps in the Napa community, the muscular wines against the lean, acid-driven wines. Is that the case?
There's so many different styles of wine being made in Napa Valley. As a Napa resident, I'm very defensive of Napa Valley. I love Napa Valley. It's one of the most beautiful places you can ever live and visit and everything tastes good, smells good. It's a beautiful place. Like any place that's commercial and a lot of people want to go to you've got places that want to appease to bigger is better, and you have places that on the flip side want to make something pure, elegant and refined. I think Napa has both of those.
I think its easier to find the big blockbuster, the Cabernet equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. It's like Transformers special effects. Those wines are easy to find. People make a lot of those. There's just as many wines, I think, that if you start peeling back the skins of the onion, you'll be able to find things that are actually also beautiful and savory and elegant. I think Napa has a lot of different faces. If you just go straight up and down the highway that leads right up and down the valley, yeah, you might encounter more bigger things because you're also on really expensive properties. A lot of them are corporately-owned. And yeah, there's multi-faces, multi-facets of the entire valley.
32 Days of Natural Wine: Re-Edit-- Dirty South Wine from Hardy Wallace on Vimeo.
So Hardy, we've talked to a number of older generation Napa winemakers over the years and one of the questions I ask is, if you were making wine today and starting out, could you afford to do it in Napa Valley? A lot of people have difficulty coming up with an affirmative answer to that question.
I have no difficulty coming up with an affirmative answer. There is no way that we could, and there's no way that we really even do. We live in Napa. The winery's over the hill in Petaluma. We only have one Napa vineyard out of our 13. It is so prohibitively expensive for most people. Unless you bought the land 50 years ago, unless you've come from multi-generations, or unless you're coming with this giant fortune made elsewhere, it is so tough.
You've got, in some areas, vineyard land in Napa going for over a million dollars an acre, for agricultural land. That is crazy. It is so challenging, but at the same point it's an incredible area with incredibly diverse soils. People want to be there for a reason, and not just because it is world-renowned. It's because of that soil and that climate, but it makes it all so very difficult to operate in.
Again, our winery is 35 minutes away in Sonoma County. Only one of the vineyards is in St. Helena, in the middle of the Napa Valley which is stunningly beautiful. If I could work with more vineyards like that, I would love to, but it is hard. That's where I think you will find a lot of us wineries that are on the smaller side, or maybe have only been doing this 10 years, 15 years or so. A lot of us are using vineyards that we work with in El Dorado County, in Amador County, in different parts of Mendocino, Monterey, corners of Santa Barbara, where we also have incredibly diverse, really beautiful soils, different climates and are often much more geared towards, very few of my vineyards would I want to plant Cabernet on, or Pinot Noir, but boy do they do great for Mourvedré, and they do great for Petit Sirah, and they do great for, whether it's Grenache or Syrah and some of the Rhône varieties.
I think so many of us do different things due to the fact that we can't do Napa Cabernet. We can't pay $20,000 a ton for fruit, and then operate a business in Napa that's so cost-prohibitive, then sit on that money for three years. Make wine two more vintages, and then expect to like, "Oh yeah, now it's time to break even." It's never going to happen.
We have figured out a way to make it work for us, and we're so happy for that, too. I think people forget with wine that just because the most expensive thing out of California may be Napa Cab, or coming out of France might be first-growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy that that's all there is. That's the penultimate of everything. Then you start looking at other nooks and crannies and there's wines that are equally as stunning, equally as beautiful. If you're searching out and open to different flavor profiles, different soil profiles, different grape varieties, there's a lot more than Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay out there in the world.
Back in the day, if you were a winemaker and you wanted people to know about your wine, you would try to get Robert Parker to give you a big score. You'd be thinking like, how do I stroke Robert Parker? Who do I know that can stroke Robert Parker? What do I need to put into this wine that can Robert Parker excited about it? That was how you approached it. Today it's very different. With a lot of younger people, it's like, "Robert Parker? What?" It's not as important anymore. Social media has become incredibly important. What you've done is fairly brilliant in the way that you've created this communication channel with wine consumers via social media and you have fun with it.
Without a doubt.
Talk a little bit about that strategy.
I think first of all, I always have to tip my hat to people like Robert Parker and The Spectator. That older generation got people excited about wine, got people studying wine and got more human beings in America to drink wine. First of all, those people deserve, to me, so much respect because their kids are who are drinking my wine now, so it's like, thank you.
I think we realize too as palates and things change the wines that we produce are very different from wines that may or may not be appreciated or scored highly in those publications. I think we make wines that are a little bit lighter, a little bit more acid-driven, and kind of appeal to a different crowd.
The crowd that's most important, not to sound selfish, the crowd that it's most important that they appeal to is my wife, Rowdy, and his wife. The four of us, we need to produce what we want to drink, regardless of whether we think it would get a high score or be lauded in the press and things like that. With that, the beautiful thing about social media and the beautiful thing starting in the late 2000s, the beautiful thing with that is, first of all, working with social media as a means of communication the most important thing I think people need to remember is that it's free.
We didn't need a PR person. We didn't need an agency to work with. We weren't spending money sending samples to anyone. It was like, hey, this is what we're doing, interacting with people out there online, showing the soil, showing the vineyards. If someone came across a bottle and was consuming that, I'm immediately interacting with that person. The most important thing I think we can do in social media is to say thank you. Someone's getting a bottle. They may be drinking it like we've had customers in Jakarta, in Indonesia. Someone's drinking a bottle of our Chardonnay in Jakarta and you're like, how in the hell is this happening?
Immediately if you can, while they're consuming it, say thank you, half-way around the world for something that we made 450 bottles of. That's crazy. I think that not only does it make us feel good, but it's such a great way to directly interact with these consumers. What I think people forget, though our wines may be challenging to buy as far as their very small production, you can't go to Trader Joe's and get one of these. You have to go to a great wine shop. You have to go to a great restaurant. We have a very small mailing list that people buy those from. At the same time, I think with wines like these 20 years ago, you'd have to fill out a little name card. You sent that in. You'd hope that you got an allocation from them. The only time you'd ever hear from the winery was like okay, you can either buy wine this year or you can't buy wine.
I think it was Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about a few of us that with the old guard, it seems like there's still the velvet rope to get in, and you don't go past that. With some of us in our generation, it's like, no, it's all-inclusive. The wines may be difficult to find, but we still want to engage with you. Everyone's invited to the party. It doesn't make a difference if you've passed the test. "You're not on the list. You can't get in."
We want to interact and communicate and at the same point, share what we do, because we love it. People say we're really great at marketing. I take that as a compliment, but at the same time I'm like, I don't know. I can barely call it marketing. Is saying thank you and posting a couple of pictures and having fun marketing? If that is, then we do a good job. It doesn't hurt too that Rowdy's brother designs all our labels. I will consider that marketing. They are eye-catching. You want to touch them. You want to look at them.
I was going to ask about the labels, because they're some of the most interesting wine labels out there. I almost think about the great Ralph Steadman labels on the Montes bottles. They're in that league.
What was the genesis of the labels?
Rowdy's brother is a graphic artist and when we started making the wines, Rowdy was like, "Hey, Marcus can do these for us. He's brilliant. Also does some comic book stuff on the side. Let's give him a shot. Let's see what he could do." The first thing we did was that we just sent him a couple ideas. I was doing a lot of our vineyard work at the time at one of our vineyards. My wife and I actually were living in a barn at one of our vineyards, which was an interesting experience. Beautiful though. What we were doing was a lot of weed whacking and a lot of trimming and things like that. We're in an area fairly remote in the Sierra foothills. When you're weed whacking you always had headphones on because the weed whacker sounds so loud, but at the same point, under the ear protection I had earphones, listening to music because you're doing this with the weed whacker for six hours.
When you've got the weed whacker going on, there's two things you can't hear. You can't hear a rattlesnake. The great thing about a rattlesnake is that it has a rattle, so it's like, "I got to run." Or the other thing is, if you're early in the morning or late at night, I was always paranoid, like it's going to happen one these days. This mountain lion's going to jump up behind a row, get me in the back of the neck when I'm not looking and drag me off to dinner.
So I sent Rowdy's brother, I sent him a thing like, "Hey it'd be really nice if we could have some pruning shears on there, a weed whacker, and a mountain lion and a rattlesnake," and what he came back with, like in about four days, it was the most beautiful label I'd ever seen. It was this really fantastic kind of exaggeration of all that, and it became our first label that we used on several different wines. Now every year from there, every new cuvée has a slightly different label. They all have a story behind it to some extent, and they've all had an exaggeration of that story, but they do make you just look. They're beautiful at the same time, but they're also quite playful and hopefully it gives someone an idea too of who we are as a winery, that yes, it is beautiful. There is serious wine in here, but there's a joyous spirit behind it.
I always think when, there's the whole thing about, you have to buy what's in the wine and not the label, but for me, somebody who cares enough to be creative with their label, to be creative with their marketing, is more likely to be very careful about their wine and passionate about their wine.
For us it's the whole package. Obviously we want people, they're walking through a wine shop, we want them to be able to stop, look, touch, make them think, but at the same point we take that with all our packaging. Our packaging is the lightest glass we can purchase that's produced domestically here in the US. We want to cut down our carbon footprint with making lighter packaging. The labels are almost all recycled coffee bags, and on our earlier bottles, we used what we call a Nomacorc, and this is made from bio-polymer derived from sugar cane. Sugar cane is plant-based. It's recyclable, it's breathable, and it's carbon-neutral. We're trying to put all of this thought into everything we do, not just obviously what's in the bottle. We want to extend that to on everything outside the bottle as well.
(Banner art by Piers Parlett)
For more on Hardy Wallace check out his interview on I'll Drink To That
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