BEHIND THE BOTTLE: BECOMING BIRICHINO

Naughty Bonny Doon offshoot
puts down roots in Santa Cruz

becoming-birichino
Birichino’s John Locke and Alex Krause check out the Pinot Noir vines at the
Lilo Vineyard in Aptos, which is in the process of being certified organic.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA

It all started at an epic wine lunch in Montreal. “The buyer for one of the world’s largest wine importers was basically begging Bonny Doon Vineyard or somebody to start making Malvasia Bianca again to supply 440 shops throughout Québec,” recalls Alex Krause, export sales manager for Bonny Doon and co-founder of Birichino wines.

“Randall (Grahm) wasn’t interested. He had just sold off his big production wines and downsized the company. It’s not where his head was at,” he said of his boss at the pioneering Santa Cruz winery.

So with a ready market, Krause enlisted the help of a friend— longtime Bonny Doon assistant winemaker John Locke—and the partners started producing the obscure Italian white wine in 2008, using grapes from the Delicato family’s San Bernabe Vineyard near King City.

“It’s a grape variety that nobody has ever heard of and we made only Malvasia Bianca for the first two years,” he says with a laugh.

“Then, one of our most brilliant marketing strategies was to choose a name that nobody can pronounce,” adds Locke, with typical deadpan humor.

Birichino (pronounced Beer-a-KEEN-o) is actually a name pulled out of the Italian dictionary after the Canadian importer nixed their first two choices: Arpent, which he said was “horrible,” and Alluce, which apparently means big toe.

Birichino means naughty or mischievous in Italian and seems to fit the winemaking duo that set out to defy expectations with their outrageously aromatic wines.

They describe their 2013 Malvasia Bianca, for example, as reminiscent of a Hawaiian vacation. “It’s so super-charged aromatically and has this intense jasmine, honeysuckle and lime blossom perfume that you’d expect it to be excruciatingly sweet, but we take it in a different direction so that it is bone dry in every vintage,” says Krause. 

becoming-birichino-wineLEARNING THE ROPES

Locke, who grew up in Michigan, and Krause, who is from Boston, have very similar stories of how they ended up in Santa Cruz, knocking on the door at Bonny Doon Vineyard.

Both are Francophile liberal arts majors who caught the wine bug while studying abroad in France. Locke went to Caen, where his host family took him foraging for mussels and mushrooms, and drank wine at every meal. Krause studied in Provence, where he recalls drinking liters of cheap beer in the park, but also remembers his French family breaking out occasional bottles of 1970s vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Following graduation, Locke worked at a K Street law firm in Washington, D.C. as an analyst for interstate gas pipeline regulations. “I wore a suit and felt important, seersucker with a yellow tie and braces in the summer,” he says.

But after five years of long workdays he quit. “I gave away my suits and sold a bunch of stuff and moved out here. Bonny Doon was my favorite winery, and I just showed up,” he adds.

Krause started out as a brokerage assistant at Charles Schwab in San Francisco after graduation, but soon moved south to Bonny Doon, attracted by the Rhône varietals he’d learned to love in Provence. Both worked their way up the ladder at the winery. “My first job was putting government warning labels on the eau de vie,” says Locke, who eventually became assistant winemaker and then senior creative director— visiting European projects, working on packaging and dreaming up special events for Grahm.

“He gave me way more rope than I deserved to have,” he says, reminiscing that his favorite times were driving around looking for grapes with Grahm in one of his infamous Citroën cars. “He had a big gold one with some cooling problems, so to get over the passes we would have to go up two miles and then back down one mile to let it cool down.

“One of the brilliant things about him [Grahm] and the thing that helps us in our business is that he’s both paranoid and utterly fearless at the same time. Nothing is out of the question,” says Locke.

Krause—who continues to work at Bonny Doon—started out in the tasting room, then learned to drive a forklift and clean tanks in the cellars before switching over to the commercial side. “One of the things I love and admire about Randall is his incredible intellectual curiosity, his passion for what other winemakers are doing throughout the world,” he says. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

“It just drives me nuts when
some winemakers talk about
how they do nothing, that the
wine kind of makes itself,”
Locke says. “I think what
we’re doing is fairly simplistic
but quite difficult.”

becoming-birichino-people

OLD VINE OBSESSION

After a couple of years, a British importer suggested Birichino might want to diversify, and they began producing their second and third wines: an Old Vine Grenache, using grapes from the Besson family vineyards planted in 1910 just over Hecker Pass; a pretty pink Vin Gris, made with Grenache from the same vineyard; and Mourvèdre from Contra Costa County grapes planted in 1918.

Like their white predecessor, both wines have a wow factor that comes from being exceedingly aromatic and deliciously dry. Locke and Krause credit the special vineyards they choose for the intense aromas in their wines, searching out old vines that get some marine influence.

“Any time anybody says ‘we have old vines,’ that immediately perks our interest,” says Krause. “And the nice thing about our Rolodex is that even though our company only started in 2008, we have many, many years of contacts and connections.”

“Old vines probably have deep root systems so they are going to be less susceptible to heat and drought and cold and stress,” explains Locke. “After a certain age, they don’t push out a huge crop, so there is more intensity of flavor and more contribution from what’s in the soil.”

Currently Birichino offers more than a dozen varietals, including an “against type” Zinfandel from the cool-climate Besson Vineyards; a Pinot Noir from the organically cultivated Antle Vineyard near Pinnacles National Park; and a Chenin Blanc from the Jurassic Vineyard in Santa Inez, planted in “the late Disco era.”

Production from the 2016 harvest was just under 10,000 cases and most of the wine is made at the Salinas custom crush facility owned by Ian Brand—a close friend and fellow Bonny Doon alum. Like Brand, they prefer the lower-alcohol, minimalist style favored by the school of “new California” wineries.

“Our winemaking approach is largely informed by what we like to drink, which isn’t super-extracted, high-alcohol, hit-you-over-the-head wines,” says Krause. “We crave something that has freshness and vibrancy. I almost think of it in auditory terms, like this bell tone clarity and uplift that leaves you wanting to have another sip.”

The partners pick early, use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, work with old barrels that don’t impart much oakiness and they don’t age the wines a long time in barrels. In other words, “We don’t adhere to the Napa lifestyle of the rich and famous,” jokes Locke, adding that their minimalist style of winemaking is not as easy as it sounds.

“It just drives me nuts when some winemakers talk about how they do nothing, that the wine kind of makes itself,” he says. “That’s a kind of perverse false modesty. I think what we’re doing is fairly simplistic but quite difficult.”

SETTLING DOWN

Thanks to numerous contacts around the world, Birichino has won plenty of honors and is sold in international markets including Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Lebanon, Singapore and Scandinavia. Denmark and Finland are two of their biggest markets, and they are about to add New Zealand, thanks to an importer there who was impressed by the wine while dining at a restaurant in Helsinki.

They were also approached recently about offering Birichino in the first-class cabins of Etihad Airways, which flies out of Abu Dhabi. The high-flying global brand is, perhaps, less well known here at home, but that is about to change as Birichino is set to open its first tasting room. Construction is underway, and an April opening is planned for the new tasting room on Church Street in downtown Santa Cruz.

Located in a vintage 1947 Airstream-style building, it will be a bare-bones tasting room with a custom-made pewter bar and artwork by Krause, an accomplished photographer. “No barrels or plastic grapes,” they promise.

It will be the first wine tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz, and the partners are looking forward to joining the city’s exciting local food scene.

“We love Zach and Kendra from the Penny Ice Creamery and are super excited to be around the corner from them,” says Krause. “There are so many talented local artisanal producers of chocolate, ice cream, food, beer and charcuterie that—kind of like us—are really well-known outside our own backyard. It’s nice to be able to try to build a little critical mass.”

The new tasting room is long overdue, he concedes. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to brainwash the public and convert them to see the wisdom of our ways.”

Deborah Luhrman is deputy editor of Edible Monterey Bay and editor of our weekly newsletter. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Birichino
204 Church St., Santa Cruz
birichino.com

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