I pulled into a Santa Rosa business park on Saturday, looking to find the location of the NPA, the Natural Process Alliance, so that I could more easily stop in one weekday to taste some of their wines.
I was thinking that, operating in a business park, the NPA might keep typical business hours and could be closed for tastings on a Saturday. I am pleased I was wrong.
I did have a brief moment of difficulty, as the business park map did not include the NPA. It did, however, have a listing for Salinia, and that struck a memory chord.
I knew I was at the right place when I saw Lioco bins in front of the roll up door; the NPA owner and winemaker Kevin Kelley is involved with Lioco and Salinia as well as the NPA. I found the winery crew busy at work, scrubbing, cleaning, and preparing for a grape truck’s delivery. Crawling out of a bin, where he had been hidden from me, came Hardy Wallace, who only moments before was on his hands and knees, scrubbing the bin clean with a stiff brush.
Hardy Wallace did some wine tasting and wine writing on his blog DirtySouthWine.com before becoming arguably the most, some would say only, famous wine blogger when he was chosen to be Murphy Goode’s Lifestyle Correspondent in a Kendall Jackson Wines media bonanza job search.
The Murphy Goode contest generated a lot of attention, and did more for Hardy Wallace’s brand than it did for Murphy Goode or Kendall Jackson. When the job term expired, Wallace did not renegotiate a new contract, or continue his employment, as expected; instead he moved without delay to work with Kevin Kelley and the NPA, the move guaranteeing that the NPA would bask in Hardy Wallace’s reflected notoriety.
I tried to be the Murphy Goode Lifestyle Correspondent; out of 1,997 video applications, mine was the 8th most popular, I would have focused more on Sonoma County and the winery brand than my own brand, and I will admit that I was a little envious of Hardy Wallace’s opportunities…and then in January this year I met him.
Surrounded by tasters at the first night of ZAP tasting, Hardy Wallace looked up, saw me – having never met me – recognition flashed, and he came out from behind a table to greet me by name and shake my hand. I can remember wines I tasted over 30 years ago, but have trouble with names of people I met only five minutes ago, so instantly I was both impressed and charmed. Hardy was friendly, warm, genuine, welcoming, as happy to meet me as I was interested to meet him.
I had read much of the story of Hardy’s move to the NPA, and reviews of the wines, but I wanted to taste the wines myself, and it was nice seeing Hardy again.
There is a near cult like feel to the reviews his fans and friends write about the NPA wines. I wondered whether the words I had read were perhaps influenced by Hardy’s personality and fame.
I need to say that Hardy didn’t leave the KJ family of wines for the easy life. Hardy could have continued where he was, traveled the country, and lived the very good life, doing very little actual good. His fame, the Hardy of KJ’s creation, meant that a lot of his talents would be wasted. A host of other social media marketers, toiling in anonymity, could have accomplished more work for KJ’s wine brands than Hardy, as Hardy had become too valuable as a publicity asset to allow to toil away behind closed doors. Hardy chose not to be a very well paid, pampered, pet.
Hardy busts his ass at the NPA, as does everyone who works there. Hardy is just one of the crew, he just happens to be the most likely member of the crew to pour wines, do a little social media marketing, and simply by being at the NPA, he continues to attract attention to the wines of the brand he works for. It could be argued that Hardy is using his fame not just in support of a wine brand or wine maker, but in support of a more natural wine movement.
What is natural process wine? It begins in the vineyard, whether certified organic, or biodynamic, or uncertified but making the same choices, not for paper but for flavor, and extends into the winery where as little of the winemakers influence as possible is involved. It is letting grape juice become wine with little intervention. Wines made naturally the way they would have been made 1,000 years ago, before the advent of harvesting machinery and the development of enology and viticulture science, before artificial yeasts, before fining with animal products, before gums, before catalogs of chemical additives and processes of manipulation.
From The Natural Process Alliance’s website:
We believe that expressive soil is sacred, responsible farming is a requirement and natural winemaking is the only option. In the creation of wine, there are innumerable natural processes that are elegant in their simplicity and astonishing in their effectiveness. Our role is but one of these processes and is no more significant than any other. We have joined a natural alliance that has been ignored for far too long.
Wherever and whenever possible we hand farm instead of using machinery. Hand hoes, shovels, machetes and callouses get the work done.
Vines and [native] cover crops have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Attracting beneficial insect, controlling erosion, breaking up, aerating and fixing nitrogen into the soil.
We strive to allow the character of the location and vintage shine. Our annual goal is to have a label that reads, “Ingredients: grapes.”
Sulfur is hesitantly used only when absolutely necessary and in very small quantities.
We will never use: commercial yeast or bacteria, enzymes, chemical or natural additives, animal byproducts, fining agents, filtration.
Our stainless steel bottles are filled and delivered to our partners regularly while the empties are returned to the winery for reuse.
Our wines are intended for the San Francisco Bay Area and all points within 100 miles of the winery.
Much like the first time I met Hardy, directly from grape bin scrubbing, he recognized me, and reached out his hand in welcome, greeting me by name. I explained that I was hoping to taste the wines. I confessed to a skepticism regarding the unwaveringly positive wine write ups, and opined that the cult of Hardy might be at work in the overly enthusiastic reviews I had read.
Hardy just smiled, perhaps he has seen the look on enough faces upon tasting the wines to let the wines do the work.
I wish you could smell a winery in action. Just being at one is a gift to your nose. A winery at crush is an even more special place to be. There was an Italian deli, Traverso’s in downtown Santa Rosa, that had been in operation so long that the aroma of Salami, meats, and cheeses had permeated the wood of the walls, floor, and ceiling. I remember our family’s disappointment when they moved to a larger new location without the built in olfactory richness. We experienced a similar sadness when, recently, Traverso’s moved again.
The aromas of fruit, crushed grape, juice, fermentation, and wine at the NPA is heady and wonderful. Bins of grapes arriving, crush, and wines stainless steel fermented, neutral French oak held.
The first wine Hardy poured for me was the 2009 The Natural Process Alliance Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley $12. The aroma rocked my head back. Incredibly fruity, it reminded me of a Jimmy Buffett song, “Grapefruit – Juicy Fruit.” The wine was unfined and unfiltered, a little cloudy, darker in color than ordinary. Made from foot tread grapes, 1/3 direct pressed, 1/3 skin fermented, and 1/3 whole cluster fermented, neutral oak, no additives, no nothing. Just fermented Sauvignon Blanc grape juice. Just wow. Hardy smiled a knowing appreciative smile as, from my stunned, amazed, thrilled look, he knew I got it. Citrusy lemon, lime and grapefruit, apricot, pineapple, coconut. Juicy, bursting with flavor, delicious, different.
Hardy shared with me the work that goes into, and the work that will never go into, these wines. Never better than right now, the wines of the NPA, when ready, are made to be enjoyed now, nor cellared. No bottles, corks, shipping, or sitting on shelves. The wines fill 750 ml stainless steel canteens, similar to the reusable metal water bottles you see fitness folks drinking from. The canteens can be returned to the winery for reuse and refill. The Canteens have a one time cost of $20 each. The wines are not intended to travel more than 100 miles from the winery. With an emphasis on locality, freshness, and flavor, the canteens are delivered to restaurants, including Chez Panisse, which may be the best fit of wine to food ever.
I have never tasted a Sauvignon Blanc like this before, but one taste and I was instantly appreciative of Kevin Kelley’s winemaking, and I was coming to understand that all of the good reviews were not hype.
The 2009 The Natural Process Alliance Pinot Gris Chalk Hill $18 was skin fermented, has much more color and juicy flavor than other Pinot Gris, and showed nice dried fruit and floral notes; cranberry, and blackboard chalkiness.
The 2009 The Natural Process Alliance Chardonnay Sonoma Coast $30 is also 100% skin fermented, with no racking, no fining, no stirring, just sitting and becoming itself. Bright lemon and apple with an herbal artichoke note. Never in my life did I think I would write I smelled or tasted artichoke in a Chardonnay, and if you told me that I would find it, I wouldn’t have thought that it would be a good thing. I love artichokes, and my wife and I used to buy them 20 at a time fresh off the plant in Castroville weekly during season, but in a wine? Well, it was here, it was clean, it did not come off as cooked vegetal, but just a surprising and interesting note. Hardy told me this wine was especially vulnerable to oxidation, and could throw an oregano note if exposed to air for long. In my glass, it didn’t have the chance.
The final The NPA wine is called the unicorn, because as wonderful as it sounds, it didn’t exist. Seriously, it is called Sunhawk, it is co-fermented from a Mendocino County field blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Roussane, Marsanne, and Viognier. That it was sold out is like being told that Willy Wonka has closed his factory, or Disneyland is closed for cleaning. It is enough to make the baby Jesus cry. The unicorn, when available, runs $24.
The three wines I tasted were fun for being different, not boring, not old, exciting. Listening to Hardy Wallace share little tidbits, winemaker notes, I could see why Hardy Wallace won the Murphy Goode competition. His enthusiasm is infectious. Hardy is one of the most upbeat, happy, positive people I have ever met; his vibe is genuine, and would not become tiresome. Heck, I was starting to like Hardy Wallace more than I like myself.
Hardy moved from the “drink right now” wines of the NPA to Kevin Kelley’s “held before sale and can/should be held onto longer” wines of Salinia. Kelley picks his fruit on acid, not on brix, leading to structured wines of round drinkable fruit.
2006 Salinia Chardonnay Heintz Vineyard $45 30% skin fermentation. I have described wines as being straw gold, pale gold, white gold, yellow gold, and golden, but this wine’s color is gold. Really, just plain, genuine gold. Butterscotch and caramel nose, richly aromatic, lemon, apple, clean olive oil, and brine. Round, balanced, integrated flavors. Lemon, lime, lychee, wet stone, cream, apple. Light honey and white flowers on finish. Delicious. Showy, without trying, sometimes quality can’t or shouldn’t be hidden.
2006 Salinia Pinot Noir W.E. Bottoms Vineyard $45 Russian River Valley Occidental tree shaded vineyard below the fog line but protected from the afternoon sun’s intense heat. Gorgeously round, round, round. Nose: smooth, completely lacking any harsh notes, rose petal, cherry, spice. Many noted, integrated. Mouth: Oh, my God. Gorgeous flavors. Easily, one of the best Pinot Noir I’ve tasted this year. Beautiful, cherry, cranberry, herb, spice. Drinkable, accessible wine.
2007 Salinia Syrah Heintz Vineyard $45 Chocolate, cigar box, cedar nose. Round, not typically off-puttingly astringent, woody or green. 50% whole cluster. I am not generally a fan of Syrah, but this wine, bursting with juicy drinkable fruit, is the best Syrah I have tasted this year. I like it long time. Just as I was writing a note that this is Pinot Noir approachable Syrah, Hardy was telling me of a blind tasting where a wine writer asked for notes on this Pinot Noir. We also shared anecdotes about the difficulties of marketing Syrah, no matter how good. The good news for Salinia, this Syrah is great, and they don’t make much. It will all sell, and those lucky enough to buy it will have a true gem.
I have worked for a winemaker I loved, whose every wine was delicious. My job selling that wine, marketing it to those who had not yet tasted it, was one of the easiest jobs I ever had. It never felt like work, I loved marketing those wines. I see in Hardy Wallace a similar happiness, a love of what he is doing, a little boy allowed to play all day at something fun. I am grateful to Hardy for his time, and for the chance to get to know him better; it is wonderful to see someone so good at what he does getting to do it for the perfect purpose. Hardy Wallace and Kevin Kelley are a match made in Heaven.
Kevin Kelley makes amazing juice. Hardy Wallace brings more attention to that juice. The juice is worthy of the attention. It is a perfect cycle. The production is small enough that not much of Hardy’s social media marketing pull is needed, and Hardy gets to help make the juice, while Kevin gets a cheerful, dedicated cellar hand. I am heartened that such perfect matches exist.
I bought a bottle of the Salinia Pinot Noir, and a canteen of the NPA Sauvignon Blanc. While the Pinot has been put away, last night I marinated bright clean bay shrimp in zest and juice of lemon, lime, and grapefruit, added razor diced shallot and some cilantro, then just heated the shrimp mixture in a light cream sauce, which I poured over flat spaghetti, and paired it with the Sauvignon Blanc.
The recipe was inspired by the fresh fruit and citrus flavors of the wine, and the dinner was stunning, both for the simplicity and the utter deliciousness.
Bottom line, there really isn’t any hype regarding Kevin Kelley’s wines. They are delicious, and stand out in a crowded field of other wines available for their honest, unmanipulated fermented grape flavors. In a world of winemakers pretending to seek terroir expression, Kelley’s wines, devoid of artifice, may be the truest expressions of terroir available in California wines today. These wines are worthy of the praise wine writers are heaping upon them. Hardy Wallace is about as effective a brand ambassador as The NPA and Kevin could hope for; you can’t meet Hardy and not like him.
The Natural Process Alliance and Salinia wines can be tasted at the Santa Rosa business park winery location, 3350 Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, CA 95403. For more information, call (707) 527-7063.