Natural Wine from the “California Alps”?

The valley where Chad Hinds is making wine is straight out of a Western. Surrounded by mountains and blanketed with forests and farmland, the Scott Valley is just south of the California-Oregon border and northwest of Mount Shasta, the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range. There, in a remote and rugged place that feels like it could conjure a cowboy at any moment, Hinds and his wife, Michelle, are pioneering an alpine wine region in California. Under the label Iruai, after the earliest name they could find for the Scott Valley, the couple is exploring the possibilities for trousseau, savagnin, mondeuse and poulsard in what is largely uncharted wine territory. 

“We see similarities between the French Alps and what we call the California Alps, and when we realized we could grow grapes here, we saw an opportunity to tell a different story,” says Hinds. 

In 2013, Hinds started making wine under the label Methode Sauvage while living in Berkeley. Like many young winemakers, he sourced fruit from around the state and worked out of an urban winemaking cooperative. He liked the wine he was producing—cabernet franc, chenin blanc, syrah, all made with minimal intervention—but he couldn’t shake his love for alpine varieties, and specifically trousseau from the Jura valley.

The other wine that solidified Hinds’ devotion, and that pushed him down the unusual path of making wine around Mount Shasta, was Domaine Belluard’s Les Perles du Mont Blanc, a Champagne-method  sparkling wine made from gringet, a rare grape variety indigenous to the Savoie, an alpine region in eastern France near the Swiss border. 

“My friend was like, ‘This is a silly thing to care about,’” Hinds recalls, because the grape was so obscure and hard to come by. “You’d have to plant it to get it, and the only place you could plant it in California would have to be Mount Shasta.’”  

Iruai Wine

As fate would have it, Mount Shasta was the only place that Hinds might be able to plant anything in California, anyway. Michelle was from the town of Etna, and the couple regularly made the five-hour drive up from the Bay Area to visit family and friends. More importantly, though, it is one of the few places in the state where land is relatively affordable, where someone could feasibly experiment with esoteric alpine varietals and have their own winery without major investment.

Hinds discovered there was a tiny AVA in Siskiyou County, Trinity Lakes, that included an organic vineyard and winery called Alpen Cellars. He visited to taste, tour and ask questions, and found that the cheapest white wine in the lineup was his favorite. When he asked what it was, the proprietor said it was a variant of gewürztraminer that didn’t pick up any color. That caught Hinds’ attention, because traminer, which is a nonaromatic forebear to gewürztraminer, is identical to savagnin blanc, a white grape that is most commonly found in the Jura. Savagnin was on his wish list of alpine varieties he’d hoped (but not expected) to find in California, and here it was. 

When the grower said he was planning to rip it out, Hinds offered to buy whatever he could spare. In 2018, he trucked the fruit down to the Bay Area, turned it into wine, and was pleased with the results; he’d managed to make a wine inspired by and reminiscent of the Alps, but one that was also evocative of California. Hinds described that wine, which he named “Arcana” (and subsequently renamed “Elphame”) as a “Margarita doused with snow from the top of Mont Blanc,” with a complex white flower character alongside savory umami notes. The wine was proof of concept. 

“It lit a fire under my ass, because our love of alpine wine led to a desire to create a place for it that didn’t exist,” Hinds said. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment where something clicked.”

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As with wine regions near the Alps, the area around Mount Shasta is at a higher elevation and has a continental climate. It has a short and intense growing season, which Hinds believes creates the tension between high acidity and ripe fruit flavors typical of many alpine white wines, as well as the bold texture and power that places the wines firmly in California.  

As the Iruai project began to grow in scope, Hinds purchased fruit and leased additional vineyards from Trinity Lakes and from vineyards in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. The couple’s plan had never been to permanently relocate to the Scott Valley, but then pieces started falling into place. In 2018, a family friend offered them a building on their alfalfa farm to use as a winery and they found a cozy house with a hilly backyard that was ideal for planting 1.5 acres of trousseau. In December 2019, the Hinds took the leap and moved. Chad focuses on the winemaking and cellar work, while Michelle focuses on the viticulture, as well as the business operations and accounting.  

The current winery is in a blue and tan steel building that sat vacant for years. On a clear day, it’s possible to see sweeping mountain vistas; hills and farmland stretch out back toward a huge horizon, dotted with cows, horses and sheep. Hinds had to redo the insulation to ensure temperature control and make a few other fixes, but was able to get the winemaking operation up and running pretty quickly. 

Iruai Wine

From his start with Methode Sauvage, Hinds has always worked as a natural winemaker, but as he gained more experience, and particularly as he moved from living in an urban environment to a rural one, his approach has become even more hands-off. “In the past, I’d say I was constantly trying to do new things, tweaking, changing,” Hinds says. “Now, I’m trying to hone things and find slower ways of getting better results.” 

There are, of course, challenges to being in a place without existing infrastructure for viticulture. To start, planting vineyards from scratch is a time-consuming process. The couple expects that the trousseau behind their house, which they planted in 2020, will be ready to pick next year. In addition, they purchased a 10-acre site on what used to be the historic Meamber Ranch and planted 5 acres of savagnin, using permaculture methods at both sites. Once all those vines are producing fruit, they say, it could be difficult to find people to help with harvest, because there aren’t teams of seasonal workers readily available for hire, as there are in established wine regions.

The Meamber Ranch property is where the Hindses are preparing to build a new winery from the ground up. The location is idyllic, with a view of the Marble Mountains, the remnants of a horse barn and corral, a burbling creek, oak trees and a fairy ring of pine trees. The more they plant and build and experiment, the bigger their vision gets. Hinds said he looks forward to working with different fermentation and aging vessels, like concrete and terra cotta, and to planting additional alpine varietals, like teroldego, one of the main red grapes found in Italy’s alpine Alto Adige region; he is hoping to get some cuttings of gringet next year. The couple’s long-term plan is to create a new AVA for the Marble Mountains, the specific part of the Scott Valley where they have planted their own vines, both to codify their vision of what the region can offer, and, maybe, to inspire other people to follow in their footsteps.

“It is exciting to establish a place that has no real wine history,” says Hinds. “No preconceived ideas means the freedom to put our flag in the ground. And maybe, in five or 10 years, more people will start moving here to make wine as well.”

May Queen

This savory, floral and energetic sparkling wine is made with 50 percent savagnin and 50 percent chardonnay from Trinity Lakes. It was inspired by the wine from Savoie that Hinds first fell in love with, but this is unfiltered and in a more party-ready format.

Shasta-Cascade White

This skin-contact blend of savagnin, grüner veltliner, chardonnay, savagnin rose musqué and riesling is sourced from Trinity Lakes in California and Oregon’s Rogue Valley. The high-elevation sites and array of alpine varieties produce a wine that shows the hallmark tension between rich fruit and high acid that is typical of many alpine whites.

Sylvan Trousseau

Hinds’ goal is for the trousseau from the Marble Mountains region to become “benchmarky,” in that it’s reflective of the more structured trousseaus of the Jura. The wine has a distinct earthiness to it, alongside notes of tart red fruit, with an underbelly of California ripeness. It’s best served chilled.

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