Hermit Woods Sojourn to California Wine Country
Hermit Woods Sojourn to California Wine Country
First, a little background.
Ken, Chuck, and I began our love affairs with wine long ago, with each of us following a different path of discovery. As we became friends, we learned that our paths brought us to a similar place. We have grown to appreciate and savor wines crafted from classic vinifera grapes in some of the finest wine regions of the world.
This, of course, is not what makes this story interesting. It’s when the three of us decided to open a winery in central New Hampshire that the real story began.
It goes without saying that people who have grown to love classic vinifera wines crafted in France, Italy, California, etc. seldom look to New Hampshire to satisfy their interest in discovering the next world-class wine to savor. Wineries in New Hampshire and surrounding states are still very much in their adolescence as they seek to discover their place in the deep and storied history of wine.
Like others who came before us, we also wanted to find our place and we wanted it to be about New Hampshire. First, vinifera, your classic wine grape, simply won’t grow in our climate. Hybrid varieties have been developed to grow here, but doing so organically has not proven to be commercially viable. What does grow here are apples, berries, pears, peaches, quince, rose- hips, etc.
Our challenge has been: how do we craft wines from the fruit that grows here, and do so in a way that satisfies our love of wines from the classic wine regions of the world. This has been our mission long before our winery opened in 2011, and a journey that we knew would largely have to be undertaken without a roadmap.
For over 12 years, Ken Hardcastle, Hermit Woods Winemaker, has carefully studied the classic techniques used by winemakers for thousands of years and has acquired
the tools that both ancient and modern winemakers have used in their craft. We have traveled across the eastern wine regions and beyond, visiting other wineries and winemakers, and have attended the Eastern Winery Expo every year since its conception.
We have come a long way since our earliest days of hand-crushing grapes and assembling experimental carboys around the warmth of the fireplace in Ken’s living room. Ken has since found ways to craft and blend the fruits of New England in a manner reminiscent of the classic wines the three of us grew to love, and we have begun drawing a new roadmap that relatively few have traveled.
Our winery, Hermit Woods, has been in business for almost eight years. In that short period of time, we have been recognized as one of the top 500 wineries in America by Food & Wine Magazine. We have also been credited by Food & Wine for producing the best craft beverage in New Hampshire. We have won numerous awards and recognition and have developed a following of over 500 club members from around the country. All this was done by producing handcrafted wines, ciders, and meads made from a unique combination of locally sourced fruit (mostly organic), honey, and flowers – in some cases wild-foraged. Our process is devotedly hands-on from vine to bottle, using old world techniques with the highest level of care and integrity.
So you ask, “Where does California come in?”
Let me pontificate just a moment more. I am reminded of some advice my father shared with me when I was young. He encouraged me to strive to be the best in everything I did, but he also warned me that being the best at something can also be a lonely and scary experience. He shared an analogy to support his message, pointing out that if you were to build the tallest building around, when you looked out from the top of your building, there would be no one else out there. You would be alone in your achievement. You would have no one else to look to for inspiration, and in fact, you would now be looked to by others for their inspiration. Building taller buildings means you need to be prepared for the responsibility that comes with it, as well as the challenges of figuring out where to seek your further inspiration once you do.
I don’t know that I fully understood what my father was trying to tell me when he first shared that analogy. However, 40 years later it still shapes my thinking in all my pursuits. As Ken, Chuck, and I have found our place among New England wineries, Ken’s unique wines have begun to set us apart. The roadmap we are creating has brought us to uncharted territory. To use my father’s analogy, our building has begun to rise above the others in the form of our dry, European style fruit wines. As we look out from the top of our building, we find ourselves looking further and further for our inspiration.
This has brought us to California. Deciding that it was time to step out of our comfort zone and seek even taller buildings, we set our sights on Northern California, the “Manhattan” of the American wine scene, and the place where we want to share our wine with some of the best winemakers in the country and find the inspiration to further refine our craft.
Several years ago in New York City, we were very fortunate to have crossed paths with Clark Smith, the author of “Postmodern Winemaking”, and a well known
California winemaker. Clark, with his vast experience as a winemaker, author, and consultant, provided us with some of the early validation that helped us begin to understand and refine our wines.
When we decided that we needed to bring our wines to California, it was Clark to whom we reached out for direction. Clark suggested and helped facilitate a meeting with several well known California winemakers: Randall Grahm, Founder of Bonny Doone and Popelouchum; Rick Jones, Winemaker, and Consultant; Gideon Bienstock, Founder and winemaker at Clos Saron, and former winemaker at Renaissance Vineyard and Winery; and Mark Bunter, from Bunter Springs Winery. In addition, Clark suggested we join him at the San Francisco Wine School’s “Annual Wines of Georgia Tasting”. Of course, we wouldn’t turn that down!
Through other connections, we also had an opportunity to spend an afternoon with Michael Terrien, of Obsidian Ridge and Poseidon Vineyard; and Lee Reinsimar, Wine Scout with Bounty Hunter in Napa Valley. We also wanted to make time for a visit with Steven Harrison, owner of Vinoshipper, our wine shipping and club management company.
We had four days scheduled in California, with a day of travel on either end, and an amazing list of people to meet with and share our wine. To complicate things, our visits spanned from as far south as the hills of San Juan Bautista, where Popelouchum Vineyard is located, to Oregon House, 230 miles to the north, where Clos Saron is located, with the epicenter of our activities in the Santa Rosa and Napa areas.
Upon arriving in California in the early afternoon on Sunday, June 20th, we wasted no time settling into our busy routine. We headed straight to our Airbnb located just outside of Santa Rosa, with the obligatory stops for food and drinks along the way, including the famed Lagunitas Brewery and the Russian River Brewing Company. No California wine journey would be complete without paying homage to the some of America’s finest craft breweries, right?
We were up bright and early Monday morning for breakfast with Steven Harrison, the owner of Vinoshipper. We have done business with Steven for over four years, and his company has been a tremendous asset to Hermit Woods. Vinoshipper has allowed us to make our wine available in 38 States, and to develop a wine club of over 500 members from around the country. It was a real pleasure meeting Steven and his team and putting faces to all the hardworking people who have worked with us over the years.
After our morning with Steven, we were off to the San Francisco Wine School for their “Annual Wines of Georgia Tasting” where we meet with Clark Smith, who ushered us through a wide variety of wines from Georgia, a unique opportunity to sample what is likely the largest offering of Georgian wines under one roof anywhere outside of Georgia. Feeling inspired, we made our travel plans with Clark for the next couple days and headed off for dinner and a trek to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais to watch the sunset.
On our second day, we were off to an early start for our three and half hour drive to San Juan Bautista, where we were scheduled to have lunch with Randall Grahm, Rick Jones, Mark Bunter, and Clark Smith at a favorite hangout of Randall’s, Jardines De San Juan. We picked up Clark and Rick in Petaluma and headed south. Three hours felt like mere minutes as we got to know Rick and engaged in all manner of discussions relating to wine, winemaking, and all our lives’ twisty paths that brought us to this moment.
We arrived just in time to meet Randall and Mark and take our seat at a spacious outdoor table at the restaurant. Immediately upon sitting down, wine bottles began collecting on the once spacious table, which ultimately filled up with dozens of wines from everyone’s personal collection – it was going to be a long lunch.
We sampled an amazing cornucopia of flavors and wine styles, including several red and white wines of the very first produced at Randall’s new Popelouchum vineyard. Clark shared several of his latest vintages along with some earlier wines he was quite proud of, and of course, we shared several Hermit Woods wines. We poured our Lake House White, Lake House Red, Red Scare, Petite Blue Reserve, Hermitage, and Deep Blue.
Over the course of the next three hours, we sampled over twenty-five wines and shared our stories and the details of the wines presented. We were quite proud that our wines were well received alongside world-class California wines produced by famed California winemakers. We enjoyed a few jaw-dropping moments as our wines were sampled and it was revealed that they were not made from grapes, but from the fruit native to the northeast. We also welcomed some critique of our wines, as this is why we were there. But the consensus was clearly one of admiration for the quality of wines that Ken has produced. No one at the table had ever tasted wines made from fruit other than grapes that they felt could compare with their own classic grape wines… as ours did.
We finished the afternoon with a brief tour of Popelouchum Vineyards, followed by a three-hour drive back to our lodgings – again, with the necessary stops for food and drink in downtown Petaluma. We enjoyed a glass of beer at the Taps before eating dinner at an excellent farm to table restaurant, Central Market. We finished our night with a martini at Cucina Paradiso.
Again, day three began with an early rise as we had another full day ahead of us. We began our day by meeting Clark at his office in Downtown Santa Rosa, and headed west to Oregon House, CA in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas for an afternoon with Gideon Bienstock at Clos Saron.
The three of us were honored to have the opportunity to share our wine with Gideon, a well respected California winemaker of over 40 years. We took a brief tour of Gideon’s vineyard and winery and settled in around an impromptu card table set amongst stacks of wine and barrels for the purpose of sharing our wines with each other.
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We began with a few choice selections of Clark’s, then proceeded right into the six wines we brought to share: Lake House White, Lake House Red, Red Scare, Petite Blue Reserve, Hermitage, and Deep Blue. From his very first sip, Gideon reacted with surprise and delight. He was clearly not expecting this experience! Over the next five wines, Gideon dug deep into each one, offering us critical feedback, and asking pointed questions about our methods of production and our thinking behind each blend. Gideon expressed both an admiration and respect for the wines that Ken had crafted and also a belief that our wines deserved a place at the table alongside classic vinifera wines.
Upon finishing our last wine, we were then honored by Gideon’s willingness to open and share some of his finest selections, including a wine ‘Taken from Granite’ (Renaissance Vineyards) Cabernet Sauvignon “Village”, a 1997 vintage. Gideon is truly a master at his craft. His wines were outstanding but his true greatness comes from his humble and simple approach to his craft and his willingness to share his expertise with others. The three of us left in awe of our experience and thankful for Gideon’s generosity with his time and his warm embrace of the work we are doing at Hermit Woods.
It was an amazing afternoon of sharing wine, winemaking techniques, and waxing philosophical about our experiences and the wine industry. Gideon, his wife Saron Rice (the wineries namesake), and of course Clark, were very generous with their time as we spent over three hours immersed in discussion. The sun was setting and we need to begin our long drive back to Santa Rosa.
As we headed back to our base, we made the necessary stop for food and beer in Yuba City at Sutter Buttes Brewing and enjoyed a nice dinner with Clark while reviewing our day’s adventure.
With day four bringing us to Napa, we had relatively little driving to do, so we took some time for a side adventure to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve along the Russian River and the famed Korbel Winery.
However, there is no rest for the weary, and by noon we were off to Napa to meet with Michael Terrien, owner of Obsidian Ridge and Poseidon Vineyard. Ken had met Michael in NY at an event at which he and Michael both poured their wine. While Michael’s time is largely consumed by his efforts in California, having roots in Maine, Michael started a small project crafting a sparkling blueberry wine from wild Maine blueberries called Bluet.
We met Michael at Obsidian Ridge’s tasting room and sat down to share our stories and sample wine. We shared our Lake House White, Lake House Red, Red Scare, Petite Blue Reserve, Hermitage, and Deep Blue; and Michael shared several of his wines.
Having crafted classic California vinifera as well as wine from wild blueberries, Michael brought an entirely new perspective to our conversation. Ken and Michael sipped each other’s wines and compared notes, sharing techniques used in crafting vinifera as well as their blueberry wines. Michael shared with us a new blueberry wine he was about to release. Even though Michael himself had made wine from wild blueberries, he still expressed that, prior to our visit, he was dubious about what he might expect from a New Hampshire fruit winery; however, as with others, he was truly impressed by the character and style of Ken’s wines.
After sharing our wines and stories on Obsidian’s porch for about an hour, we reconvened at Michael’s winery a few miles down the road for a brief tour of his operation and some barrel tasting. There was something truly special about sharing our wine with a California winemaker who also produces wine from blueberries in Maine. We agreed to convene in Maine during the production of Michael’s Bluet at some point in the future. We look forward to it.
Pressed for time, we bid goodbye to Michael and made our way to downtown Napa for our last visit before departing for home. One of our long-time customers, Kevin Kelly, had referred us to his wine buyer- or Wine Scout, as otherwise known – Lee Reinsimar at Bounty Hunter, a famous Napa wine bar and restaurant. When we arrived at the Bounty Hunter, Lee had reserved a large table in the middle of the restaurant for us and proceeded to order a huge platter of the Bounty Hunter’s famous BBQ.
Within short order, our wines were brought and tasting commenced. Again, as with all of our hosts, Lee expressed his doubts about sampling wine made in New Hampshire, not to mention from fruit other than grapes. And again, from Lee’s first sip of our wines, those doubts were assuaged. With Lee’s vast experience in the wine trade, having sampled some of the greatest wine in the world, Lee’s reflections on our wine were invaluable. He spoke freely of his reactions, offering both critique and praise, and again, deepening our own understanding or our wine.
We took our time enjoying the wonderful food Lee had offered as we sampled through our collection of wines. With each pour of Hermit Woods wine, Lee offered the opportunity for the three of us to sample some of Bounty Hunter’s finest wines. We savored our last moments in Napa with Lee, spending the better part of three hours engaged in a deep discussion of all things wine.
I am quite certain we could have continued our time with Lee into the wee hours of the morning. He was the most gracious of hosts and a purveyor of stimulating conversation. However, both our time and Lee’s was running out and we had an early plane to catch the next morning.
In our final moments with Lee, he pointed out that Stone Brewing had recently opened a new brewery in Napa within a “Stones” throw from the Bounty Hunter (sorry for the pun). Keeping with tradition, we headed straight there.
We flew home the next morning, exhausted and elated at the same time. Our trip to California had been everything we expected and much more. We shared our wines with numerous well-respected winemakers and sellers, all of whom gave high praise for the work that Ken has done in crafting our wine made from fruit other than grapes.
Both inspired and humbled by our experience, we understand that the crafting of great wine is a journey. However, we left California with a new affirmation that we are on the right path. We also understand that our road of learning and growing remains long. Please follow us as we endeavor to perfect our wines and draw new maps…or as my father would say, build taller buildings.