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Birichino: Delicious Wines from an Old-Vine Evangelist

Birichino: Delicious Wines from an Old-Vine Evangelist
Part I

Our first meeting with John Locke and Alex Krause was as chaotic and hilarious as we hoped it would be. A graduate of the University of Randall Grahm in the 1990s, Locke was part of the team responsible for probably the sharpest satire ever written on wine; The National Vinquirer. Our recent Zoom call proved that he hadn’t lost his touch. Yet Locke and Krause’s secret weapon is not only their easy-going charm and razor-sharp wit. Instead, it is the encyclopaedic knowledge of California’s most exciting old vine vineyards, garnered from 18 years with the eclectic and influential Bonny Doon Vineyards.

By their own admission, when the pair parted ways with their iconoclastic mentor in 2008, they did so with what, at the time, looked like the world’s worst business plan—which was to remake an old Bonny Doon classic, Malvasia Bianco, for two clients. Crucially, one of those was London-based importer Fields Morris & Verdin (then of Jasper Morris fame). One day, John Locke took a call from his UK agents and asked if he had anything else: “Guys, I don’t know if you have heard, but some people like to drink red wine too.”
Part II

If there was one thing Bonny Doon taught Locke and Krause, it was a reverence for California’s deep repository of historic old-vine vineyards: a resource that had somehow become largely overlooked by a generation of winemakers. The duo have a close relationship with 15 or so growers—primarily family-run, multi-generational farmers who don’t make their own wines. And this is when Locke becomes increasingly animated, his commentary zipping from the slant of this slope and soil type of that slope and to the character of the resulting wines. There’s gnarly Pinot Noir from the granite soils of Chalone’s Boer Vineyard. Then, an ancient parcel of dry-farmed Mourvèdre bush vines planted about a century ago on the limestone and decomposed granite soils of the Enz vineyard in San Benito’s Lime Kiln Valley. There’s Carignan and Zinfandel rooted in the deep, sandy soils of the San Joaquin River in Contra Costa County, established in 1895. Then there is Lodi’s prized, own-rooted Bechthold Vineyard, believed to be the world’s oldest surviving Cinsault.

Over two decades, Birichino has formed a like-minded community with the growers of these historic vineyards. Indeed, without their support, it is likely that some of the less-fashionable varieties, such as Grenache and Carignan, may have been grubbed up and replanted with a more profitable crop. And, while Birichino does not own any of these sites, when Locke and Krause feel they can help, they’ll play a guiding role in the farming decisions.

If you had to pick one place central to the Birichino story, it could be Santa Cruz’s Besson Vineyard. Locke and Krause have worked with George Besson Jr. and his exceptional vineyards for 20 years. George’s late father purchased the Grenache vineyard and farmhouse just after WWII on a gently north-facing rocky slope on the Santa Cruz Mountain, a mile and a half to the west and much closer to the Monterey Bay coastline. Zinfandel was planted in 1922 and coexists in unlikely juxtaposition with Pinot, up against the mountain’s eastern face. These old, dry-farmed vines have been tended for three generations and yield tiny quantities of intensely flavoured, balanced fruit. In homage to the grower and with a Bonny Doon-esque play on words, the Besson single vineyard wines are labelled Saint Georges; yet the character of these old vines shines like a diamond in many of the blends we offer below.

The Besson Vineyard, Santa Cruz Highlands
Part III

Locke and Krause have reassuringly little to say about the winemaking side of the equation. With precise picking deployed to capture high tone aromatics and bright acidities, the preference is for as little interaction as possible; wild ferments in stainless steel or neutral wood, no cold soaks, light and infrequent punch-downs, minimal racking and fining, avoiding filtration at all costs and only light use of sulphur. Of all the barrels they have in use, just two are new—both are sitting empty until the boys talk themselves into using them. Some stems are used for the reds, but all the fruit is initially destemmed, then only the ripest are added back to the fermentation.

Over two decades, the Birichino range has grown into an eclectic collection of 35 wines. Locke concedes that while this scale had never been part of the plan, the pair find it almost impossible to turn down the offer to work with sensitively farmed, old-vine Californian fruit. And don’t the farmers know it? “Enough people know us now and know that we pay our bills, too,” he laughs. “I think now if someone comes to us and says, ‘I’ve got his 90-year-old vineyard of…’; we say ‘Ok, we’ll take it.’”

Early releases focused mainly on the Central Coast’s repository of old-vine Rhône varieties. However, Pinot Noir has become increasingly important to the Birichino story over the years. There is now even a Zinfandel or two, of which Locke notes, “If you told me I would be making an old vine Zinfandel 20 years ago, I would have called you crazy”. But don’t expect anything from the textbooks; a Birichino Zin is anything but conventional.

Of course, we can’t offer everything in the range, so our first offer spans eight wines. If we can draw a golden thread across the spectrum, it would be that a Birichino wine stands for brightness, charm and transparency. Regardless of the variety, the wines combine the poise, compelling textures and energy encapsulating new-wave California. What they are not is flashy or overly polished. Then there is something of the playful charm of the winemakers themselves; Birichino (pronounced biri-kino) is the Italian term for mischievous. “We don’t make big and heavy one-note wonders,” explains Krause. “We want to make something delicious. A bottle of Birichino can’t be boring and must not fatigue the drinker.” Compelling wines from old vines, something tells us you are going to love these as much as we do.

The Bechthold Vineyard, Lodi

The Wines

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