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Less is more at Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery

When it comes to winemaking, Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery sticks to a simple philosophy: “Nothing added and nothing removed,” says Hardy Wallace, who started the California business in 2010 with best friend Matt Richardson. That means no heavy additives or adjustments, and only in minimal amounts when necessary.

The winery currently works with four vineyards scattered across California to produce what Wallace calls “honest” wine.  “All we want to do is try to create a pure expression of the vineyards,” he explains. Wallace gave The Manual details on Dirty & Rowdy’s minimalist approach to winemaking and a glimpse into the life of a winemaker.

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Do you recall your first encounter with natural wines?

The first wines that blew my mind came from a region in France called Beaujolais. Around 2005 or 2006, I came into contact with Marcel Lapierre’s Cru Beaujolais wines. When I drank them, I didn’t realize they were natural wines. I just thought they were different—they were fresher, felt more alive. There was a life to them.

What’s the thinking behind natural or “honest” winemaking?

It’s stepping back and just letting the wines shine through to the best of their abilities. Wine isn’t just a beverage. It represents a certain time, place and space in our universe. In a way, vineyards are like neighborhoods with a specific flavor and profile. And as winemakers, we try to show what those spaces were like at a specific point of time. I think people are starting to get more aware of where their wine comes from, how it’s processed, and to tell the difference between a product from the vineyard and a product of someone’s bag of special effects.

And by “bag of special effects,” what do you mean?

Most people don’t know that winemakers are not covered by the FDA. They don’t have to list ingredients on the bottles, and can legally add about 200 chemicals into the wine without telling anyone about it.  When consumers see a wine that’s organically or bio-dynamically farmed, they think it’s awesome. But they don’t know the behind-the-scenes story. Once the fruit hits the winery,  many winemakers dump in chemicals and stabilizers instead of using the grape’s natural acidity to make wine.

What are some chemicals most used by winemakers?

Sulfur has been used in winemaking for thousands of years.  During the post-fermentation period—once the grape juice has come wine in the barrel—and when the wine has been bottled, sulfur can prevent oxygen from spoiling the bacteria in wine. Nowadays, there are wines—especially big box wines–on the market saying they use no sulfites. But they could be using another chemical called Velcorin to sterilize the wine. For our wines, we use minimal amounts of sulfur to make sure the product is as stable as it needs to be.

Are there any other common winemaking procedures you stray from?

Unless we absolutely have to, we don’t filter our wine or use a process called fining to clarify the wine. We want it to be as whole as possible, so our wine can look very hazy. The visual appearance of wine is easy to manipulate, but we just let our wine be what it is.

Also, we do whole cluster fermentation for our reds. Often with winemaking, the grapes go through a machine called a destemmer. It picks the grapes away from the stem and discards the stems. In whole cluster fermentation process, you don’t pull the grapes off the stem. Instead of crushing up the grapes and letting the juice sit outside the skins, you let the juice ferment inside the skin. You get added flavors, texture and aromatics from the stems being included. It’s definitely an old-world process.

How do you age your wine?

We use French oak barrels, especially neutral barrels. New oak barrels put so much intense flavor into wine. So we use old oak barrels that have lost their flavor, becoming what we call neutral. The oak breathes and expands, allowing small amount of oxygen and evaporation to take place. We also use stainless steel tanks and concrete egg vessels, which weigh about 1000 pounds and hold the equivalent to three barrels of wine.

What can buyers expect from your wines?

Our wines are light but still very complex. The typical alcoholic percentage of wines made in California range from 14 to 15 and a half. Our wines range from 11 to 13 and a half because we use fruit that’s less ripe. We want our wines to have a bright, fresh intensity so we pick our grapes earlier to maintain a high level of acidity. As something becomes riper, it becomes less acidic or sour. I always say we’re not picking raisins. We’re looking for that beautiful balance of sweetness and a burst of sour.

Can you tell us a little about the wine you recently released?

Our newest wine came from a vineyard called Shake Ridge Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, a really mountainous and wild area. It’s a 40-acre vineyard that grows different grape varieties for about ten winemakers. We get about two acres of it, and my wife and I lived there in 2011 to work as part of the vineyard crew. We not only farmed our own fruit every day but—and this sounds goofy—also bonded with the grapes.

It sounds like you are very involved in the winemaking process. Any challenges in working this way?

Harvest time is a pretty exciting and nerve-wracking experience. In the winemaking process, the most important decision you make is when to pick your grapes. Grapes are very reactive to weather, so you may think that they will be ready in two or three weeks but a heat spike can change that within 24 hours. I look multiple times a day at the weather for all four of the vineyards we work with. I once drove 22,000 miles in about a 3-month period, going back and forth to the vineyards nonstop to check the grapes.

And especially since we make wine in a minimalist way, we’re always on a razor’s edge. We have to make sure that our grapes are exactly the way we want them, because we’re not going to make adjustments. There’s so much commitment in terms of time and energy, but we wouldn’t do it any other way.

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