Log in for prices and ordering

Birichino

Atypical California from Bonny Doon Alumni

In his book The New California Wine, Jon Bonné wrote of a revolution in the industry. He tells the stories of innovative and dynamic young producers making wine against the grain in reaction to the overly technocratic, homogenous approach on which the state had built its modern wine reputation. Bonné subjects were producers writing California’s future. One such producer is Birichino.

Drawing on a combined four decades of making wine in California, France and Italy, John Locke and Alex Krause (pictured) founded Birichino in Santa Cruz in 2008. They met in the early ‘90s while working at revolutionary standard-bearer (and incubator for future mutineers) Bonny Doon. Randall Grahm’s quixotic nature facilitated a creative and slightly chaotic realm in which John and Alex were challenged to “engage and stimulate as many sensory receptors as possible” through their wines. It’s an ethos they’ve carried through to their own estate. They left Bonny Doon and started Birichino with a pick-up truck, one customer and a vague plan. For the first two vintages, they made just one wine (Malvasia Bianca) for two customers.

They steadily increased production and now make more than 30 small-batch wines from several carefully farmed, family-owned, own-rooted 19th and early 20th-century vineyards. These are planted on interesting soils, predominantly in moderate climates with a marine influence. Thankfully, the number of customers has also increased. Their reach spans hundreds of kilometres and the gamut of varieties. Fruit is sourced from the southern reaches of Santa Barbara all the way up to the Napa Valley—making Birichino’s harvest particularly hectic—and they do everything from Sémillon to Zinfandel. They make wine according to a three-pronged precept: they must not be boring; they must be impeccably clean; and they must not fatigue the drinker. Their adherence to these principles can be tasted in these characterful, vibrant, pure wines.

Alex and John don’t own any of their sites but work with some of California’s best low-yielding, old-vine vineyards. And we mean old—as far back as 1866 in some cases.  They have close relationships with 15 or so growers, mostly family-run, multi-generational operations with excellent old-vine material. They prefer organic viticulture and work closely with their growers. However, their “peanut gallery comments” aren’t generally required, says Alex; these growers have already been doing the right things for years. They pay more for fruit managed to their organic specifications, and picking decisions are theirs alone. Harvest stretches them in distance and time; they pick early-ripeners in mid-August, and the last grapes arrive in late October. With vineyards from Napa to Santa Barbara, they can cover more than 40,000 kilometres during vintage. They call it dedication…

Birichino seeks restraint and elegance in all the wines, picking early to capture complexity and distinction, chasing high-toned aromas and bright acidities. Alex and John intervene as little as possible in the cellar. They favour: spontaneous ferments in stainless steel or neutral wood; no cold soaks; light, infrequent punch-downs; minimal racking and fining; no filtration; and only light use of sulphur. The reds are not overly tannic, and new wood is avoided wherever possible. Of their 600 barrels, just two are new—sitting empty until the boys talk themselves into using them. If you’re looking for a common thread across the Birichino wines, it’s the unique expression of site and this hands-off approach to production. These wines showcase their place and people, bringing mischief and a little mayhem to the table. 

Birichino (biri-KEE-no) translates from Italian to ‘mischievous’ in English.

Currently Available

Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021

Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021

Alex Krause has the Besson Zinfandel vines to thank for his nickname, “El Carnicero” (the butcher). Many passes are made through the old Zinfandel block each year, pruning out underripe, raisined or less-than-perfect berries and losing up to 80% of the crop in any given year. “It’s a miserable grape”, he tells us, only half-joking. After swearing they would never make a Zinfandel, Alex and John now make three. The first vintage of the Saint Georges Zinfandel was produced in 2013, a year of immaculate growing conditions and fruit quality. The boys succumbed to the charm of the site, the fruit and the man himself, George Besson. “We were duped,” Alex laughs, referring to the false sense of security the plain-sailing debut lulled them into. The Zinfandel vines were, by all accounts, planted by an Italian bootlegger in 1922. Rooted in granite and sandy loams, Besson’s ungrafted Zinfandel benefits from morning and afternoon sun, while the unusually fresh marine-moderated night-time temperatures permit full expression and flavour development without reaching high potential alcohol levels. The yields from these well-established, own-rooted vines are meagre, averaging just one tonne per acre. To showcase the grape’s fresh, nuanced, silky side, the Birichino boys pick their Zin early, usually between 13 and 13.5% potential alcohol. At the same time, the low-impact winemaking is geared towards balancing the fresh acidity and juicy fruit offered by this unique Santa Cruz vineyard. In 2021―a cool, even year―the fruit reached equilibrium at 13.5% towards the end of October. This was significantly later than the previous year but a full degree lower (2020 was 14.5%). “It’s very similar to our first vintage,” Alex tells us, referring to the year of the immaculate duping, “so perfumed and suave.” Fermented with 10% stems layered throughout after destemming, the wine matures for nine months in neutral wood before being bottled unfiltered. A return to the classic Birichino style, the 2021 Saint Georges Zinfandel is a million miles away from the brawny, hulk-like examples of big-brand Zinfandel.

Birichino Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021
Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022

Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022

The Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc came about as most great things do in California: over lunch in west Hollywood. Alex and John were enjoying a post-trade event meal with their friend, Angela Osborne. The New Zealand-born owner/winemaker at Tribute to Grace told them about an old Chenin Blanc vineyard near her house in Los Alamos in Santa Ynez Valley. Showcasing their inability to turn down old-vine fruit from well-managed, interesting and mature vineyards, by the end of lunch, the Birichino boys had purchased a parcel of fruit to be collected the following day. Located about four hours from the winery in Santa Cruz, Jurassic Park is the furthest-flung site Birichino works with. Planted in the late 1970s, the own-rooted vineyard sits at 335 metres, just above Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley. The soils are pure quartz, with beach sand at the top of the slope and chunks of limestone littered throughout. Of all the sites John and Alex work with, Jurassic Park exhibits the most vintage variation, with Chenin styles ranging from lithe and appley through saline and chalky to fully exotic. 2022 keeled towards mineral and savoury, with ocean air and oyster shell at the helm. The fruit was picked in one go; Alex and John do not make passes through the site, so varying degrees of ripeness are captured in the bunch, lending tension and freshness to the sunny, ripe fruit. The fruit was picked in the second week of October and fermented spontaneously in stainless steel. The wine then matured in a mixture of stainless-steel barrels (80%) and neutral French wood (20%).

“Subtle aromas of honey, crisp apple and pleasant honeysuckle meet with wet slate and light wool on the nose of this old-vine bottling. The palate is wrapped in a steely frame, offering delicate apple blossom and pear-flesh flavors, bolstered by a thirst-quenching and vibrant acidity.”
93 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022
Birichino Scylla 2022

Birichino Scylla 2022

A change in make-up for Scylla this year, with Carignan leading proceedings and Mourvèdre in support. The Carignan (78%) is sourced from two century-old vineyards―Montague and Mule Plane―located within 500 metres of each other in the Mokelumne River area of Lodi. The Montague site―with its big plump berries and bunches―lends a juicy, crunchy and outgoing character to the more dense, dark, savoury and mineral profile of Mule Plane. Both sites give low yields―averaging two tonnes per acre in Mule Plain and four in Montague―and lie on the region's fine, sandy loam soils, though Mule Plain is closer to the river and has a higher rock content. The Mourvèdre (22%) is from the Besson Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley in Santa Cruz, from very low-yielding vines grafted over from 1920s Marsanne using cuttings from Beaucastel. It ‘fills in’ the texture and body of the Carignan, according to winemaker Alex Krause. The varieties spontaneously ferment separately. The Montague fruit (accounting for about half the blend) was destemmed, while the Mule Plain fruit had whole bunches and stalks layered throughout the ferment. The Mourvèdre component fermented in a small bin. After 10 days with once-a-day punch-downs, the wines were pressed off and blended before maturation in neutral wood until the following summer (about eight months). Comparing Birichino’s two Rhône-inspired blends―Rokurokubi & Inugami being the other―winemaker Alex Krause describes Scylla as the brighter, juicier, more immediately approachable wine.

Birichino Scylla 2022
Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021

Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021

Napa Valley. When John Locke and Alex Krause realized they might find enough drinkers to join them in their old-vine quest, one of the first sites they turned to was the Pelissa/Hoxsey Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville, southern Napa. The Pelissa/Hoxsey family have been farmers here since 1903 and planted their head-trained vines in 1962. Today Kendall Hoxsey farms the soils, and the Semillon is the only organic and dry-farmed parcel. Located at the cooler ‘Paris end’ of the Valley (the French Laundry is nearby), the site is on the fertile valley floor with its alluvial, sandy loam soils.These Semillon vines are now 60 years old and yield tiny amounts of flavour-packed juice. Birichino picks on the cusp of ripeness to temper the power at low potential alcohols (typically between 11 and 12%). In doing so, the boys feel they can capture the best of both worlds; the varietal’s pithy freshness alongside its dashing honey-drizzled texture. Wild fermented and raised in a mix of steel tank and old barrel. The 2021 blends the creamy, textured roundness of stone fruit and green fig with the zesty cut of lemony citrus and a nip of mouth-watering phenolic bite.

The 2021 blends the creamy, textured roundness of stone fruit and green fig with the zesty cut of lemony citrus and a nip of mouth-watering phenolic bite.

“Vines planted in 1962 in Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville, southern Napa, and picked at low sugar ripeness. Does this remind you of anything? Despite the Hunter-like approach, this Semillon is quite Barossan to me, if you’re into these sorts of comparisons. Or I might be all off as it’s its own, Yount thing. Quite appealing quinine bitterness to start and a lightly creamy, milk powder texture. There’s almond essence, pithiness of a ripe yellow grapefruit and an aniseed tone. A hint of gingery spice lingers in the aftertaste along with a mineral feel of crushed rock. Lovely stuff.”
91 points, Kasia Sobiesiak, The Wine Front
Birichino Yount Mill Sémillon 2021
Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022

Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022

Saint Georges Pinot Noir hails primarily from the very old, organically managed Besson Vineyard, established in the early 1900s at the southern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The site is at the base of the mountains and is marginally too low and on the wrong side of the road to be included in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Instead, the wine is labelled as a homage to George Besson, with whom Birichino has worked for more than 20 years. The site, previously planted to Bordeaux varieties, was grafted over to Pinot Noir in the 1980s with cuttings given to George’s late father by the legendary Josh Jensen of Calera. The roots are old and sit in porous soils of decomposed granite and clay. It’s quite a cool site, heavily influenced by the mountain and the winds and fog passing through the Hecker Pass Gap from Monterey Bay, just 30 kilometres away. Winemaker Alex Krause tells us that Pinot Noir from this site has a “distinctive floral character”. “It’s never super dark; it’s actually quite pretty,” he says. “It’s the heart of this wine.” Seven barrels of Pinot Noir from two sites in the Gabilan Range in the Chalone AVA were added to the blend, bringing a different soil, flavour and texture profile to the mix. The Rodnick and Boer vineyards―from which the Birichino boys make single-site wines―sit at much higher elevation (500 to 600 metres) and the vines are rooted in limestone, dolomite and granite, bringing a “stony resolve” to the blend. As is the Birichino way, new wood, extended maceration and long maturation were avoided to preserve the fruit's fresh, vivid, savoury nature. The wine fermented spontaneously with 30% stems, layered throughout the ferment after destemming, followed by 10 months in old wood.

“A prevalent sense of chaparral and wild herb marks the nose of this appellation cuvée, which also shows dark cranberry and baked pastry. The palate picks up a gamy quality that gives savory edges to the dark plum and cranberry flavors.”
92 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
Birichino Saint Georges Pinot Noir 2022
Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)

Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)

Santa Cruz. On a south-facing slope perched at 300m elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Lilo Vineyard opens to an unobstructed view to the South over Monterey Bay. Planted a dozen years ago on a complex mix of schist, shale and sandstone soils, the steep slope and yields can be stunningly low. Just above the fog line, this is viticulture on the edge: a marginal site fully exposed to late frosts at bud break and spring rains that can affect flowering, along with every other torment the weather coming off the Pacific can bring.

“Dried strawberry, light sage, scorched orange, anise and rusty earth aromas show on the nose of this single vineyard expression. The palate’s dark, earthy fruit flavors are lifted by herbal edges of bay leaf and sage oil.”
93 points, Matt Kettmann, Wine Enthusiast
“Limpid red. Spice-accented red fruit and floral qualities on the perfumed nose, along with hints of botanical herbs and smoky minerals. Juicy and penetrating on the palate, offering gently sweet strawberry and cherry flavors and a refreshingly bitter touch of blood orange. Finishes long and silky, with well-judged tannins framing lingering red fruit notes.”
92 points, Josh Raynolds, Vinous
Birichino Lilo Pinot Noir 2018 (1500ml)
Show All

Country

USA

Primary Region

Central Coast, California

People

Owners & vignerons: John Locke and Alex Krause

Availability

National

Most Recent Offer

  • Birichino
    Birichino
    By their own admission, John Locke and Alex Krause’s aim is simple: to make “delicious ...
    By their own admission, John Locke and Alex Krause’s aim is simple: to make “delicious wines that give pleasure”. Judging by the splash Birichino’s...

    Read more

While you're here