By Mary Orlin
Every once in a while I’ll taste a wine that makes me think, “Who made this? I want to know more.” I had that reaction when I tried the 2009 Roussane from Berkeley’s Broc Cellars. When I found out it was a skin-fermented Roussanne, something I’d never heard of, I had to find out who was making this wine and why. I mean, skin-fermented Roussanne? Who does that?
Chris Brockway does. He’s a man with a clear vision — a point of view when it comes to making wine— a trait he admires in other winemakers. I don’t think he quite recognizes that quality in himself, but that’s what drives him and his winemaking.
Brockway is a Nebraska boy, born and raised in Omaha, who became interested in wine and dreamed of moving to California. When he finally got up the nerve, he drove west and enrolled at the University of California, Davis. Because UC Davis didn’t have a working winery at the time (in the late 1990s), he transferred to Fresno State University.
Upon graduating, Brockway came to the East Bay and worked at several local wineries.
“I always wanted to work in an urban winery environment. It’s just felt more comfortable to me,” he said.
He cites his time at Rosenblum Cellars as having the most influence on his winemaking style today. The winery brought in grapes from everywhere, including Solano and Contra Costa counties, places that Brockway didn’t even know had wine grapes.
“I was able to see how Kent [Rosenblum] did things,” said Brockway. “I learned a lot.”
When Brockway struck out on his own, he decided that Napa was both too daunting and too expensive and those constraints might lock him into a certain style or locale. An urban winery was the way to go, he concluded.
“Here, I feel like I have a lot more freedom because you’re kind of your own entity,” he said.
Brockway’s inaugural release, a 2002 Zinfandel, was about 25 cases. He’s now up to 3,500 cases and still growing.
Brockway moved into his winery on Camelia Street in West Berkeley in 2008. Now, he is preparing to move closer to his neighbor, Donkey & Goat Winery, to a space on the corner of Fifth and Gilman streets. He hopes the building in Berkeley’s burgeoning “Drinks District” will “become known as the Broc building.”
His space on Camelia Street is packed with barrels, making it hard to get around and work on the wines. The new space, divided into two rooms, is brighter and more airy, with high ceilings and lots of windows. There’s a much bigger tasting room, too, which will allow Broc Cellars to host more visitors and expand its weekend tasting room hours to include Friday afternoons. Currently, the tasting room only operates on weekends.
Having more space will give Brockway room to make wines the way he wants to, some of which may be considered experimental, or in his words, “off the wall.”
Take Valdiguié, an old world varietal native to the Languedoc region of southern France. Brockway was puzzled when a grower in Solano County told him he had a supply of Gamay—he knew Solano County was too hot for Gamay—and he thought it might really be Validguié, often called “Napa Gamay.” He was further surprised when the grower said the grapevines were about 70 years old, because Brockway didn’t think Gamay had been planted there that long ago. Suspecting the wine was indeed Validguié, he told the grower he would take it.
When Brockway makes Valdiguié, he ferments it using a technique most common for Gamay, the grape used for Beaujolais wines. The technique is called carbonic maceration and involves fermenting whole grapes with carbon dioxide before they are crushed, so that the juice ferments inside the skins. This makes the wine very fresh and fruity. Brockway says carbonic maceration works beautifully on Valdiguié, which has a lower alcohol content and softer body. He’s sold out of the entire 2011 vintage, but is getting ready to bottle and release the 2012 this summer.
Another varietal, Carignane, is one of Broc Cellars’ “core wines.” Carignane is an old world Italian varietal, which Brockway sources from vines in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley that are more than 100 years old.
When Brockway first asked to buy some of the Carignane grapes, the owners told him they were planning to tear out the vineyard. They agreed to leave it, but only if Brockway agreed to buy all the grapes.
“Driving home I was like, ‘What did I just do?’” said Brockway. He now makes more Carignane than any other wine—about 800 cases. Brockway also uses carbonic maceration to make the Carignane.
What I find—and what I think you’ll find—in Brockway’s bottles are wines with soul, with a distinct personality and point of view. I’m looking forward to what Chris will do in his new winery home.
Broc Cellars Winery and tasting room will open July 1 at 1300-1310 Fifth Street in Berkeley. Phone: 510-542-9463.
2012 Santa Ynez Rosé ($20): This is a crisp and juicy but dry Rosé—a blend of 50% Counoise and 50% Cinsault. There’s a rush of watermelon and strawberry, followed by white pepper. Lovely for the summertime.
2011 Roussanne ($30): Full of white flowers, honey, and a hint of savory tarragon, with a long, luscious finish. The juice stays in contact with the skins for about 40 days, giving the wine a focused, almost racy character that keeps it from becoming too flabby or dull. It’s the most decadent Roussanne I’ve ever had.
2010 Carignane, Alexander Valley ($25): This red wine is an explosion of berry and spice. Fruity, full of blackberry and black cherry, along with white pepper. It’s soft and easy to drink but still has complexity and a lingering finish. It’s fresh and fruity, thanks to the carbonic maceration.
2011 Vine Starr Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($27): Brockway calls this wine “the pretty side of Zin,” and I have to agree. It’s jammy but also has an earthy aroma, with strawberry and black fruits, plus black pepper spice. Elegant and nicely balanced with acidity, which you don’t often find in California Zins.
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Berkeley wine maverick: Kermit Lynch [04.08.10]
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Crush time at Berkeley’s Donkey and Goat [10.3.11]
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Mary Orlin is the WineFashionista, writing about wine, food, fashion and fragrance. She is the James Beard Award and Emmy Award-winning co-founder of Orlin Media, specializing in multi-media story telling on wine.
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