Monte Belmonte Wines: The wines of Silicon Valley

“Our neighbor in France had a trained donkey and a goat. We noticed the donkey and goat were always together during the evenings. During the day the goat was around but the donkey was gone. He had trained his donkey to do weed control in the vineyard. The donkey was really stubborn so he got it a goat as a companion animal. A calming goat.”

 

That’s where Jared and Tracey Brandt, the Berkeley, California, based winemaking couple got the name for their winery.

“Tracy is occasionally referred to as my calming goat during the harvest.”

I did not ascertain whether or not Jared was the ass when I had a chance to talk with him at Provisions in Northampton.

Donkey & Goat are part of the new(ish) wave of California winemakers making natural wines. Natural wines are low intervention, beyond organic, biodynamic, let-nature-do-most-of-the-work, wild yeast fermented, funky and delicious wines. I’ve written about them before.

Despite being in California, Berkeley is not usually known for its wine. It doesn’t have the 100,000 or so acres of vineyards like Napa and Sonoma collectively do. And indeed, they are sourcing the grapes from various California vineyards outside of Berkeley. But a recent Vogue article declared the block in Berkeley where you find Donkey & Goat (not far from Alice Waters famous restaurant Chez Panisse) a “natural wine oasis,” thanks to the handful of wine makers who’ve set up shop on that particular street. But it wasn’t Napa Valley that set Jared off into the natural wine world. It was Silicon Valley.

“For a variety of reasons, I decided to take a year off tech and go make wine in France,” he said. Nice work if you can get it.

“The company I was working for was failing and I got tired of laying people off,” he added. I guess it’s easier to prune grapes than people.

“I had worked on The Flying Toaster screensaver. But I wanted to work on a real product. I wanted to make something you could touch or feel or drink. I had never even read a textbook about making wine before I went to the Rhône. I mean, I spent a lot of time drinking wine. But I went to go work for a winemaker named Eric Texier who had a similar background as me. He was a material scientist. And he wanted his wines not to represent science but to represent nature. So I didn’t go into this saying ‘I want to make natural wine’ I just loved this guy’s wine and it just happened to be natural wine.”

Donkey & Goat Wines range from $22-$40 and can be found locally by the glass at Harvest, Coco and Con Vino. And in the basement of Provisions, who carry nearly all of Donkey & Goat’s offerings, I got to taste Jared and his wife’s wares.

“Originally she really focused on the whites and I focused on the reds. But over time, it switched At this stage there are wines we make together. A lot of the blends. The Chardonnay I work on. The Pinot Gris is all hers.”

Pinot Gris a.k.a. Pinot Grigio. The most boring of all wine grapes.

“I tend to agree with you,” Jared said. “Most Pinot Grigio is really boring and really bad.”

Victory! (But theirs was perfectly good.)

The first wine I tried was “Lily’s Pet-Nat Cuvée. “Pet-Nat” is not another animal in their strange menagerie of donkeys and goats. That’s their pet gnat. Pet-nat is sommelier shorthand for Pétillant Naturel. It’s a method of making sparkling wine than is more natural and even older than the Champagne method. It’s sometimes called méthode ancestral. Winemakers bottle the wine before it’s fully fermented. The carbon dioxide produced while the natural yeast finishes turning the sugars into alcohol makes the wine bubbly. The Lily’s was wild and fizzy and fun.

“Lily’s Cuvee is named after my now 7-year-old. She’s a crazy kid. And with pet nats every bottle tends to be a little different so we named it after her.”

The next wine I tried was Donkey & Goat’s Clairette. Clairette, a white grape, is not a household name in America. And it shouldn’t be confused with “claret” which is the red Bordeaux that Carson is always pouring through a napkin on Downton Abbey.

“Clairette didn’t exist in America until 2010. I always joke that we have the oldest Clairette in America,” Jared said. “There’s no experience growing it in this country. I love Clairette in France. My favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blancs have Clairette in them.” As I have never had the opportunity to try an actual Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, this was a nice opportunity to to taste this interesting, refreshing wine with good acidity.

Donkey & Goat’s Chardonnay was exciting, especially for a California Chardonnay. It had an intense green apple flavor, almost sour, with a bright acidity and none of the oaky, buttery notes you get from a LOT of California Chards. But Jared reminds me, “people often associate those smells with Chardonnay. But that’s the barrel. That’s the winemaker. That’s not the Chardonnay.”

Then I tried Donkey & Goat’sGadabout”, a white wine blend that’s 40 percent Chardonnay. The rest is made up of Rhône varietals, with some of the Vermentino left on the skins. It’s like an orange wine, but not quite. “It’s our entry level wine. But we spend a lot of time making it. It’s almost contradictory.” This one is available by the glass at Homestead in Northampton.

Donkey & Goat don’t solely make white wine. Their red blend is called “Gallivanter”. It’s 40 percent Merlot. Jared says, “If you think of Gadabout as Burgundy meets the Rhone, then Gallivanter is Bordeaux meets The Rhone.” They also have an excellent red AND white blend of Syrah and Viognier. It’s their answer to Côte-Rôtie — which Jared, in jest, called their Faux-Rôtie. Côte-Rôtie is another French wine that I haven’t had the opportunity to try, so it was a nice treat.

What ties all of the Donkey & Goat wines together is that they are all natural wines. They’ve got that wildness. That funk. And sometimes a little sediment.

“Isabelle’s Cuvee [their rosé] used to have more sediment. A guy came into a bar I was at and I overheard him asking the bartender to try the Isabelle’s. And the bartender said ‘I can give you the last glass of this bottle but it will cost you two extra dollars.’ He asked ‘why?’ and she told him it was because of all the probiotics. He said ‘great’ and she literally shook it up and gave it to him.”

I’m going to start to add probiotic natural wine to my Beach Body Shakeology.

Jared and Tracey Brandt’s Donkey & Goat Wines may have sediment. They may vary slightly from year to year. They may look a little cloudy. They may have a wild funk. But they are not trying to make the perfect wine. They’re trying to gently assist their grapes into becoming the best wines they can be.

“You can use plastic surgery or makeup to change the appearance of a person’s body and make them look better in some people’s minds. But there’s also a lot of beauty in natural. No makeup. I think minor imperfections are more interesting.”

Does Jared regret trading Silicon Valley for a valley full of vines?

“I still do some tech consulting. Fifteen hours a week. Nine-ish months a year. Then I take the harvest off. Software is fine but I wanna do something real.”

Tweet at Monte Belmonte at @montebelmonte.

Author: Monte Belmonte

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