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Faces in the Wine Industry: 12/01/2019

Georgian wine takes “all natural” to a new level

caleb in wine cellar
Caleb Leisure is one of the only people in the United State producing Georgian wines aged in clay vessels called qvevri that are buried in the ground. Photo by Alec Peters.

Every vintner in Wine Country tries to create an identity, tapping into microclimates and appellations to forge a one-of-a-kind identity.

But when it comes to absolute uniqueness, Caleb Leisure Wines isn’t just a local rarity, but one of only a handful of wineries in the nation utilizing centuries-old techniques from Georgia – the former Soviet republic, not Alabama’s neighbor state.

You might think the French or Italians were the first to ferment grapes into that wondrous nectar named wine, but plenty of historians say Georgia is the true birthplace of viticulture. And in the recent years since Georgia escaped the Soviet Union and was finally freed from nasty embargoes, the wine industry is taking a new look at its Eurasian history.

Caleb Leisure happens to be at the forefront. Taking up residence at the former Coturri Winery on Sonoma Mountain, he is adopting Georgian techniques to the last detail. Anyone visiting a winery has seen the large oak casks, with tour guides explaining how the wood plays a role in each varietal’s taste and composition. There are no oak barrels in Georgia. Instead, Leisure imported 10 qvevri – clay vessels which are buried underground, embodying that country’s winemaking customs.

“Working with qvevri and long skin-macerations seem to me to be the best way to make truly natural, unsulfited wines,” Leisure said. “Working with qvevri is humbling. Working completely naturally can be humbling, as well. I’m learning constantly.”

It’s a peculiar odyssey for Leisure, whose family is not Georgian, nor any winemaking connections.

“I come from a family of artists and, though I grew up in California, I had no real interest in wine until I moved to New York. I was teaching and writing and very much on an academic path. A friend of mine happened to work for the fine wine department at Christie’s, and we would go to these ridiculous auctions, raid the buffet table, and pretend to belong. We would often hang out with young somms [sommeliers] after the events and that’s where I discovered natural wine. I’ve been slowly sucked into that world ever since.”

Two years ago, Leisure launched his micro-vineyard project. Initially, he said, he planned to import just two qvevri, but it turned out that the shipping rate would be the same for 10. He found the funding – about $6,000 – and went to work.

“The most difficult challenge was getting the vessels installed before the harvest of ‘17,” he said. “The qvevri were locked in customs purgatory for several weeks and a heat wave pushed the harvest forward. So I had about two weeks to get them in place. And then the rains came and actually popped one of the empty vessels out from the earth.”

The qvevri themselves provided a bit of a mystery. Qvevri are a commodity, even in Georgia; there are few craftsmen who can create the egg-shape pots – ranging in size from 300 to 600 liters, about six feet tall and more than four feet at their widest point.

Leisure did his research but found conflicting information at every turn. Some say the qvevri vessels can last hundreds of years. Some Georgian winemakers replace the beeswax interior every year based on sanitary reasons, but some never tinker.

“The vessels can get sick,” Leisure explained of a potential bacterial infection. “But some can last a hundred years.” The beeswax interior is a sealant and defender against bacterial disease.

Leisure said the end result is “ancient, simple, beautiful ... wines of real distinction.”

It’s an art form and Leisure said the learning is ongoing.

“I’m beginning to trust my instincts much more. The qvevri are more neutral than oak. They have an oxygen exchange that is similar to wood. The clay shows its direct influence mostly in texture, perhaps with some minerality. The wines are typically clearer, requiring no filtration. There hasn’t been much research, but there is evidence that mineral components in the clay can help stabilize wines. There is a purity of fruit that is communicated with clay. I’ve heard winemakers say that clay amplifies fruit, showing more readily both its beauty and its warts, and I think this is true. Oak can help ‘correct’ or mask wines in a way that clay cannot.”

There’s an ironic twist involved here. Georgian wines are as natural as possible. In a region where people champion all-natural foods with as few weird ingredients as possible, they’re lagging behind when it comes to pure wines. Leisure hopes people begin to embrace the naturalness of Georgian-style wines.

Leisure isn’t looking to be a novelty.

“My goal is to make better wines every year, to farm as much of the fruit as I can, and to get my production to the point of financial stability. The ‘19 vintage will produce around 800 cases and I’d like to make 1,000 to 1,500 each year. I’m also hoping to work with local potters and tighten the connection between the earth of the terracotta and the earth in which the vines live,” he said.

It’s a family affair. His mom created some labels and his wife – his “biggest supporter and first taster,” he said – helped during harvest. Their baby son didn’t do any heavy lifting but was an occasional visitor at the winery. “So he makes many small contributions,” Leisure said.

“I’ve been very lucky to have the support from local folks in the natural wine world,” said Leisure. “In particular, Tony Coturri [Coturri Winery] and Darek Trowbridge [Old World Winery].”

Leisure is also dealing with the area’s new norm of PG&E power outages. “We were lucky this year regarding the fires – in ‘17 the fires came within a half-mile of the winery on three sides. We were without power for a week at the winery and I was evacuated from my home in Sebastopol for a stint, but it was a week of frustrations and inconvenience, not anything worse. We’re learning that these outages will be the new normal and we know we need to invest in a new generator. Beyond that, it’s out of our control.”

As for the wines themselves, SF Chronicle’s Esther Mobley said they’re “less eccentric than they might sound” and “taste resoundingly clean.”

In what seems like an anti-grassroots marketing campaign, Leisure’s wines are distributed in major markets like New York and Chicago and poured in Oakland restaurants. He hopes his natural wines will gradually find a home in their own home. He’ll be doubling his production, so Leisure Wines may soon be on wine lists in Sonoma and Napa counties.


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