The history and mystery of Scribe
Counterrevolution in winemaking (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
The Scribe boys find themselves lords of a derelict castle
And then there's Scribe Winery.
Scribe Winery is exquisitely imperfect. This is where the sheen of Wine Country ends and its patchwork, outlaw lore bubbles to the surface. It's where the dust billows over an irregular dirt road, escorted by a long row of palm trees that beckon you back toward the coarse hillsides and corrupt histories and overgrown, feral sweetness to a turn-of-the-century hacienda wiling away its hours in a state of gauzy, dilapidated bohemian grace.
It's where Andrew Mariani, his brother Adam, their uncle Andrew Avellar and Napa-based winemaker Kristof Anderson spend their hours making a neglected property whole again, and almost coincidentally, crafting lush, drinkable wine.
It is over this wine, on an early evening in July, that Andrew explains how and why this venture came to be. He and Adam are entertaining friends and family on the stone patio behind the old hacienda. Strands of Christmas lights limn the deepening blue sky, handmade pizzas bubble and brown in an artisan beehive brick oven, the lilt of conversation dovetails into laughter. There is grilled asparagus and wedges of watermelon and carrot cake for a friend's birthday. Despite the grace of generous hosts, the accommodations are rustically outfitted-no running water, no electricity. Somehow, it makes drinking and eating more rewarding. Trading pretense for practicality, I savor Scribe pinot out of a mason jar and recline on a hay bale. Life is good, and this is the point.
"We want to put wine in the best context-on a table with friends and food," says Andrew.
He and Adam are in their twenties, ridiculously young to be leading a counterrevolution in Sonoma Valley winemaking. They are laid-back, kind, earnest in their endeavors. Both began careers unrelated to wine: Andrew in international trade negotiations, Adam in business and architecture. Something about wine made the rest of it seem less immediate and real. Isn't wine, smiles Andrew, the universal enabler of diplomacy anyway? Both lived abroad at various times, working in Old World, reputable wineries from Greece to South Africa to France, learning as much as they could. Andrew has a minor in eonology and viticulture. But they've never owned a winery, never done the now-familiar matriculation from grape-picker to cellar rat to assistant to the assistant winemaker.
To a certain degree, they're winging it-which makes the journey all the more lovely.
This is not to say Scribe is a passing dalliance or a work of dilettantes. Farming runs in their blood, four generations deep. The Mariani roots stretch northeast to the little farming town of Winters in Yolo County, where their family has built one of the most prosperous walnut and almond producing operations in the nation. Their uncle, and partner Andrew Avellar, founded Carneros Vineyard Management over a decade ago and has served as an inveterate presence in some of the region's best vineyards, while partner Kristof Anderson has crafted wine with sterling pedigrees at artisan wineries in Napa. It's enough wisdom to go around and then some-certainly enough to fill a farmer's almanac and a few thousand cases of good wine.
Still, life feels a bit like an outpost here. The Scribe boys find themselves lords of a derelict castle, artisan winemakers and conscientious homesteaders upon roughly 250 acres. (Although 150 are part of a "forever wild" conservation easement.) The land is a crosshatched quilt of young vineyards and cleared land abutting chaparral, oak-strewn hillsides and bristly terra incognita. The freedom is hypnotic.
Just beyond the patio, inside the hacienda, Andrew nods to a quote by Persian poet Omar Khayyam that ribbons its way around the top of a sweet and spare wood-paneled dining room.
"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring," beckons the antiquated script. "The Winter Garment of Repentance fling/ The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To fly---and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing."
As simple as that, the essence of Scribe distilled on the walls.
Somewhere along the lines-between the hand that meticulously calligraphed these words and the 28-year-old vintner attempting to do them justice-this place wound up abjectly forsaken.
In 1858, in the backwash of the gold rush, Sonoma's unbridled badlands were being tempered into fields and farms. And it was in the clamor of this changing frontier that overseas champagne heir Emil Dresel came into ownership of a pristine property-part of 400 acres that he and three other German immigrants purchased (among them Jacob Bundschu) with the intent of staking their fortune on grapes rather than gold.
The loamy volcanic soil of the parcel proved providential for cooler European varietals. During his voyage west, Dresel had already stowed cuttings of Sylvaner and Riesling vines; they would be the first of their kind to be planted in America. His brother Julius later proved instrumental in stemming the phylloxera epidemic, as one of the first to graft native and disease-resistant rootstock onto his vines.
As the decades passed, the Dresel brand flourished and its wines won global acclaim. That success, however, proved short-lived when Prohibition extinguished the Dresel legacy, the Dresel Wine Co. bond burned to a crisp and the vineyards fell fallow.
It was during this time the Dresels' grandly appointed hacienda began an even grander descent into decay and more debaucherous incarnations.
Just north of the hacienda, a thriving moonshine industry permeated the barbarous tangle of Lovall Valley. Bootleggers were as common as coyotes, their liquor trail glinting its way down from "Rogue Ridge," past the hacienda and on into San Francisco. It only made sense the property should morph into a safe haven for lawlessness, lust and libation. Rumor has it a speakeasy and brothel blossomed by lantern light.
The house and land passed through multiple owners. In 1939, it birthed Nicholas Turkey Farms, a local business that grew into a national brand and commercial powerhouse. A good portion of a century later, when the company packed up and relocated to West Virginia, it left a string of detritus, debris and factory entrails in its wake-dissuading buyers and blighting the property's beauty.
For years the hacienda incited little more than passing wonder. Set back from the road, edges blurred by distance and neglect, it represented that vestigial sort of landmark we see but never really see, the spectral silhouette and spindly palms doubtless flicking across a million pair of indifferent eyes on their way to or from Napa.
"When we first got here in 2007, it was a nasty farm," says Andrew, a forlorn turkey factory entirely sequestered "behind barbed wire fences." He and his uncle had to strip down to endure a full-body sterilization process to even set foot on the property. And yet Andrew perceived a raw loveliness in its dilapidation.
"It was the first-and last-property we looked at," he smiles. "I've always been attracted to things that are a bit broken, a bit derelict, but have some level of spirit or potential, that can be turned into something beautiful."
He proceeds to lead a tour of the hacienda before it gets dark.
As we wander, its atmosphere heaves under the strata of history like a sunken ship. Built in the style of Mission Revivalism, there is a terra-cotta tile roof and warped floorboards and stuccoed walls thick and milky as bars of soap. Set within the solemnity of dark, wood-paneled rooms, stained-glass colonial windowpanes seep amber light like jars spilling honey. A hodgepodge of decor and styles has been hammered and pasted onto the house in the passing decades.
And the ruin is everywhere-in the walls, where the bees burrowed and built hives. In the rafters that a fire charred black. Under the eaves, where hundreds of barn swallows have built colonies from mud and saliva. In the foundation, which actually sits partially upon the original Dresel home-whose brick facade, windows and living rooms hunker beneath the hacienda like musty catacombs. (This is apparently where the alleged speakeasy hid.)
The hacienda is both peculiar and lovable-a warmblooded mongrel of a place, slightly menacing after midnight, with secret rooms and otherworldly ambience. It is an orphaned soul accustomed to fending for itself, with a numinous, wild aura Andrew does not want to change.
There is an inherent magnetism to the property. "People are just drawn to this place," he says. "If you spend a lot of time here, you start to lose track of everything."
But in a matter of weeks, a renovation will begin. The aim is to make it safe and livable again since, as of now, it is neither. Andrew explains that Scribe Winery's goal is not to reform the hacienda into something new, but to leave the shabby "soul" of the place intact and expand upon it.
"We want it to be a merging of old and new,"-in which the Marianis add a layer of their own making.
There will be a tasting room downstairs, rooms for food and drink and music and art, and beyond that, Andrew's not sure what will be appointed where. He does know that the peeling paint and the rust stains and the vintage newspapers pasted on the walls hold far more enchantment than a Tuscan-themed tasting room or a sleek modern wine bar.
We find ourselves out on the hacienda's wide balcony overlooking the vineyards. The sun lowers, lavishly spending itself out across the grape canopy. Clouds of swallows weave in and out of the updrafts. The light around us feels older than the hills. With such strange histories and without humans for so long, the place exudes a preternatural hum that makes us feel privy to something larger.
Something larger is the sentiment underpinning what Andrew, Adam and co. are trying to accomplish at Scribe. They realize they have merely scratched the surface of these 250 acres, that the mysteries of this site-animal, vegetable, mineral and otherwise-remain legion.
As they've restored the land, Andrew explains, "We've uncovered so many old relics," -from Prohibition-era medicine bottles and work tools to vintage china and opium vials, likely from Chinese laborers who lived on the property in the 19th century. Crumbling stone walls-the 150-year-old foundation of an archaic winery-revealed themselves only after acres of hillsides had been cleared of poison oak.
As self-appointed "scribes" of the land, the team at Scribe hopes to give voice to these elements-by expression in the wine, through environmental restoration of the land and a thoughtful evolution that bridges past with future.
"To us, it's the idea of letting the natural inspire the human, instead of the other way around," says Andrew.
To this end, they have razed and cleared "mountains" of debris, including the demolition of 225,000 square feet of turkey sheds. They've ravaged their own skins ripping out poison oak and invasive plants, removing hillside terracing, extricating the bee hives, (which are now part of their own homegrown apiary. )
The land is slowly reciprocating.
Native plants to attract the beneficial bugs thrive in a fledgling insectary. They've planted 60 acres of grapes, more than 50 fruit trees and a robust garden that, by July, is swollen with tomatoes, sunflowers, cosmos, ruffled rows of kale and all manner of vegetables.
Andrew eschews the notion of cultivating a grape monoculture. Instead, Scribe aims to fuel a thriving ecosystem of flora and fauna that segues nicely into their culinary endeavors and wine philosophy.
Food and wine together is, of course, of prime interest to Andrew. Through his agricultural upbringing, experiences abroad, personal connections (he casually speaks of "falling into a group a chefs"-which just happens to include luminaries at Chez Panisse and Bar Tartine) and value systems, he makes a point of eating well and eating as purely as possible. The Slow Food movement naturally informs the Scribe ethos.
While Slow Food is basking in megastardom among foodies today, the adulation often ends as lip service and little more. But Scribe truly tries to live it. For their own culinary purposes, they've kept pigs, ducks, guineau hens and, right now, some chickens that lay so prolifically, "we've eaten about two dozen frittata scrambles" according to Andrew. They pickle their own fruit and peppers every season. They make their own honey. They slaughter their own livestock.
It is not an unusual occurrence for a chef from San Francisco's upper echelon of eateries to spontaneously appear over their bee hive oven on any given night, sizzling and stirring up mouthwatering meals from a brief forage in their garden.
Through it all, interlacing the evening-words, tastes, smells-is the beguiling stamp of Scribe wine. As of now there are four vintages-a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and a 2008 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
For such a young enterprise, these wines brandish maturity, personality, beauty and dimension.
The wines, and the winemaking, are still just embarking on what inevitably will be a graceful and gradual flowering. There are no delusions of grandeur as far as case production-Scribe will likely remain boutique-sized, with yearly numbers not exceeding 4,000.
After reconditioning the long-barren soil, the property has been planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling as well as the uncommon Sylvaner varietal-to honor the grapes that were first planted here. Grown primarily in Germany and Alsace, Sylvaner is a highly acidic varietal whose neutrality is sometimes described as a "blank canvas" for reflecting the nuances of terroir.
"We got the cuttings from one single plant at U.C. Davis. They have only one plant," marvels Andrew.
Because the estate grapes won't yield fruit until next fall, all of these wines derive from acreage Scribe leases on Atlas Peak in Napa, as well as a handful of vineyards within a few miles of the hacienda-all managed under the watchful care of Avellar. Their methods are meticulous and intimate. Grapes aren't just picked by block, they are selected by individual row and over the coarse of days. Working with Kristof Anderson, the winery's official winemaker, Scribe is perfecting artisan winemaking techniques and natural processes-such the incorporation of wild yeasts into their wines.
Ultimately, their intent is predicated upon making wine to rival the best in the world.
But there is refreshing lack of concern over point systems or awards. Adam insists that they don't buy into the elitism of wine culture or "the wine hierarchy."
He wishes people could see past the "sipping and swirling" and the rarified adjectives of wine rituals to understand that the people "who actually make the wines are just farmers."
He and Andrew also know that the best wine is coaxed from pristine terroir, organic and unencumbered by too much influence of humans-part of something much larger and more complex than simply growing grape crops alone. Good wine is a metonym for the land from which it springs-one reason why restoration of the property shares equal footing with the crafting of the product.
"We want people to be able to (experience) the nuanced details (of the wine)," says Andrew.
And enjoyment of the wine is the liquid impulse that has sparked a ceaseless number of parties billowing in and out of the twinkling courtyard. Some parties are planned, some emerge from the woodwork, most are filled with artists and musicians and chefs and filmmakers and interesting sorts who share the Marianis' love of good wine, food and company. Andrew likes to think it's in keeping with the traditions of the hacienda's role as a hedonistic hostess to long-ago and round-the-clock revelries.
Indeed, this is the best way to experience Scribe wine-to attend one of their gatherings, eat their freshly grilled food, sit on their hay bales and watch people and memories materialize like gypsy moths to the light. At a time when tasting room culture too often isolates the experience of wine from its making, Scribe is bridging the divide. Add to that the mystery of lost histories, the magic of new ones, and it makes a hay bale seem like the best seat in Wine Country.
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)