Late December, two thousand fifteen...
What a very special year for me.
As I remember, what a year.
Yes, I hope you were all singing these lines to the song "Oh What a Night"...because I was.
For me, 2015 was literally one of those years that I looked forward to for decades. As my son's, and youngest child's, graduation year, it was a number that I cheered and chanted on occasion after occasion. As this graduation class's sponsor, I wrote "Class of 2015" on numerous requests, invitations, and decorations. I helped the Class of 2015 fund raise, plan, and build a prom. I made my husband drive the Class of 2015's homecoming parade float four years in a row.
2015. 2015. 2015.
Really, this year was a huge part of my life. More so than almost any other--except 2010...the year my daughter graduated--and I was privileged enough to get to do these same exact things for the Class of 2010.
But now, it's nearly over. The year 2015 is almost gone.
I've become the adult who continually wonders how time flies.
Yet as I look back on 2015 and see what a fabulous year it was, I want to share some of my favorite wine moments, the writings of which I am especially proud.
I was able to meet, interview, and visit some amazing people this year. Please enjoy my 2015...what a very special year for me.
"In the Family Way"--Prairie Berry Winery's Anna Pesa Wines
"The Cheese Stands Alone"--Monte McIntrye, Veteran Cheese Maker
"Leading the Way"--Backwards Distilling Casper, Wyoming
"It Takes One to Make One"--Michelle Cleveland of Creekside Cellars
"The Wheels in the Sky"--Tom Altemus, Red Cap Vineyards
"Jerry Lohr Brings South Dakota Values to California Wine Making"
"Yak is the New Black"--Yak Ridge in Rapid City
"Size Matters: Big Adventures in Wine Country"--Sheldon Wines
Oh what a year!
May your 2016 be as wonderful. Cheers.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Friday, December 11, 2015
The first in my small series on microwineries, Sheldon Wines of Santa Rosa, California is the perfect example of the adventurous spirit required to make wine! Meet husband-wife team Tobe and Dylan Sheldon, in the middle of their adventure of a lifetime. These stories will focus on wine, but will also focus on the stories behind the wine…on the people making wine happen.
Size Matters: Big Adventures in Wine Country--Sheldon Wines
To say wine making came naturally to Dylan Sheldon would be an understatement.
At the tender age of seven, he harvested his first grapes.
Deciding he was a bit cash poor, he picked red and white grapes along the side of the road. Keeping the reds separate from the whites, Dylan crushed the grapes. Tasting the juice, he thought it was incredibly tart. He added sugar and left the juice to ferment. He did some research at the grocery store and found the proper spelling for the wine words he wanted: Burgundy and Chablis.
He went back home to check on his product before its release. Dylan’s roadside wine stand had “Burgundy” and “Chablis” for sale at twenty-five cents a glass.
His first customer rolled up to the stand, stepped out of his car, and started chuckling pleasantly. Curious if Dylan’s parents (who weren’t big wine drinkers at the time) put the boy up to this, the customer laughed even harder at Dylan’s honest no. The response was a full dollar for the glass of wine and a lasting impression in Dylan’s mind that people who drank wine were nice.
Dylan’s "official" wine-making adventure started in 2003, the year he and his equally daring wife Tobe made their first wine under the Sheldon label. This was a match set in wine-making heaven, as Tobe and Dylan found their own passion for life, and wine, reflected in each other.
Tobe explained their relationship best: “We leap into business ventures with the same enthusiasm that we leap out of airplanes or off cliffs. For good or ill, Dylan and I are very passionate people, we are inspired to create; be it wine, food, music, prose, or a new tool that will aid production. We are makers and doers.”
At first, the two split their business responsibilities almost fifty-fifty—doing nearly equal work making and marketing their wine. However, each individual’s prowess began to show through.
Today, Dylan does more of the wine making part of Sheldon Wines. As proven with that first vintage at age seven, Dylan is a very intuitive winemaker. Being very scent and taste driven, he remembers nearly everything he has tasted. This gives him a very unique way to connect the vineyard to the barrel to the bottle.
He listens to each vintage and knows what those yearly differences will mean in the cellar. He adjusts to these changes so he can “coax the best possible” wine out of his fruit. Dylan embraces the dynamic nature of wine as part of the adventure, and instead of fighting it, he adapts to it and uses it to his advantage, which is, perhaps, one of the most important talents in the wine business.
While Dylan is channeling his passion into the grapes, Tobe does more of the winery operation and marketing of Sheldon wines. Her talents lie in artistic ventures like writing. She welcomes guests to the tasting room while focusing on sales…not to mention the piles, and piles, and piles of state and federal paperwork to sell wines in both in-state and out-of-state markets.
Together, they believe that good wine making starts in the vineyard by doing the right thing, “or maybe even before that with the intention of the owner, grower…a synergistic desire for balance and integrity.”
They source fruits from vineyards to which they are attracted based on several factors. The first focus is sustainability, shown through organic farming. Next is the site itself; it must be unique in its soil, slope, and sun. Then, the vineyard must be exciting to the Sheldons. Finally, the people connected to the vineyard must be “good” people.
Dylan and Tobe work with small vineyards, usually just one to two acres. They have full control over how the vineyards are treated, from farming to harvest. Often times they do all of the work; other instances they may just consult on the site but never actually “get dirty.” No matter the case, the only person who has more say in the final fruit than they do is Mother Nature.
These small vineyards have allowed Sheldon Wines to produce some very unique selections from equally unique grapes. Sheldon and Tobe were influenced by their time in the southern Rhone Valley of France. They often make wines that have “high aromatics, acid, and sass.”
The list of wines past is quite long: old vine Chardonnay, Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache rosé, Tempranillo, Tempranillo rosé, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, and Gewurtztraminer.
Current wines in the bottle or barrel are equally as distinctive: Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Vinolocity (Grenache), Red Hat (Petite Sirah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend), Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano, Syrah, Tempranillo, Brut Rosé (Tempranillo), Viognier, Mourvedre, and port (Syrah).
True to the microwinery label, all of these wines are small-lot productions. Some of them are part of Sheldons’ Lower 48 line, wines that only have 48 cases produced from two barrels. These all add up to between 400 and 500 cases a year, except 2005 when Dylan and Tobe made 1200 cases. (This number only includes the actual Sheldon Wines label. They often custom crush and/or consult on additional projects and labels for others as well.)
Many of the Sheldons’ wines are one-of-a-kind and exceptional, like the Graciano rose—a very rare grape find in California. Though Cabernets are not uncommon, the Sheldons' is. It is the complex, high-acid, sassy style for which they strive, one of the most unique Cabs in the area.
To continue to show Tobe and Sheldon’s diversity, they are currently making a traditional method sparkling wine from Tempranillo grapes. Even though the young vineyard’s grapes only spent fifteen minutes in contact with the skins, the must was slightly colored from the strength of the Tempranillo, leading to a beautiful shade of pink for the upcoming Brut Rosé.
All of this happens in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. It is this “wonderland of microclimates” that allows the type of wine making for which Tobe and Dylan aim. Tobe loves the county for so many reasons. First, “It still retains its farmer soul.” It is filled with small wine producers who form a community of support to build others up by lending a hand whenever needed. They all work hard to craft delicious wines “with integrity” and celebrate others’ successes.
Tobe says it best when she states, “I am very proud and thankful for the gift of living here.”
At this point, Sheldon Wines is at a cross roads. Passion…adventure…these are what drive Dylan and Tobe, but they are not always what drive the operation of a winery. Making wine is an incredibly expensive endeavor. Making wine from small acreage plots and exceptional vineyards takes a lot of resources, both time and money. In order to make more money, Dylan and Tobe would have to make much more wine. However, to do this they would have to increase from their small lots, which is against what Sheldon Wines represents.
In order to preserve the passion and excitement the Sheldons feel for their craft, they have decided to stay at the current 500 case total production level. This means they are focusing on direct-to-consumer sales in the tasting room, on their website, and through the wine club. Off-site sales will happen at select restaurants and wine shops with “excellent, authentic customer service.”
Together, Tobe and Dylan see wine making as a calling, as part of life’s adventure. Every day they want to learn. To create. To experience. To never settle. “It [wine making] fulfills a need, and we will give it our all until it doesn't....and then a new adventure will make itself known and we will dive in.”
*All photos provided by Tobe Sheldon of Sheldon Wines with some photos by Will Bucquoy*
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
As Julie Smoragiewicz walks up the short hill behind her home in the beautiful Black Hills, she shakes her bucket of treats. The large pellets of compressed alfalfa make a familiar noise, and her furry pets come running toward the fence line to greet her for their special snack.
These are no average pets.
These are large, woolly, horned, and unique; so unique, that they are the only ones of their kind in the area.
|Yaks waiting for snacks.|
Though neither Jim nor Julie was raised on a farm or ranch, all four of Julie’s great-great grandparents homesteaded on the other side of South Dakota, and Jim’s father was a young, farm boy in Poland before moving to the United States. All of these familial influences worked into the formation of Yak Ridge. Attempting to connect to the land and be more self-sufficient were important to the Smoragiewiczs, especially after the death of Jim’s dad. They felt this little bit of land helped honor him and his Polish ancestry.
The idea may seem very unusual, but raising yaks made perfect sense to Julie and Jim. When planning their farmstead, the two did much research to decide what livestock to raise. They looked into sheep, goats, and cows. However, the benefits of raising yaks kept outweighing what they learned about other possibilities.
Yaks are very self-sufficient while being easy on the environment. For their size, they eat less food than other herds and produce less waste, as well. Because of this, pound-for-pound, they take less of a toll on their surroundings and their owners’ pocketbooks. Keep in mind where these animals originated, and it is clear that they can be left alone for longer periods of time, even in the winter. Yaks will break through ice to find water if they have a source nearby and will even eat snow instead of drinking water. They will also dig through snow, much like buffalo, to scavenge for food underneath.
Yaks give birth to smaller young, making it easier for caregivers and healthier for both yak momma and yak baby. They are also very, very friendly animals. Yak young are incredibly playful, and when raised with regular interaction with humans, trust is developed with the caregivers—much like Julie and her social, furry friends.
The benefits Julie and Jim learned aren’t just about caring for their animals, yet that is a major plus. Yaks produce many products. Yes, they have tasty, lean, red meat that can be cooked just like beef, but there are also other uses for yak goods. The milk is high in fat, making wonderful cheeses, butters, and yogurts. The wool can be harvested from trimming the long yak skirts or combing the thick under-layer of yak fur. They can even use their own fitness to be pack animals—remember yaks were originally used for this in the cold, Himalayan Mountains—and can carry up to 300 pounds of cargo.
If all of these reasons weren’t enough, the glorious hillside just opposite the newly-built Smoragiewicz home is in the shape of a yak’s back, the buffalo-like hump of the shoulders clearly visible through the trees.
Yes, Yak Ridge was meant to be.
However, it isn’t just a place to pet a friendly yak or source some wonderfully-lean meat. Yak Ridge is so much more. Jim and Julie also built three guest cabins in addition to their home, garage, and barn. These cabins—which were first rented out to the public this fall—sleep 4-6 people, with private kitchens, baths, and porches for Black Hills travelers to enjoy. In the summer and fall, the front porch flower boxes are actually not filled with flowers but with tomato and herb plants for use in the modern kitchens.
|Books about yaks in the cute, comfy, and modern cabins.|
There are plans for two more cottages in the future, but it is important for Julie—former owner and chef of Dakota Thyme in Rapid City—to keep the operation small enough for the two of them to manage and maintain all aspects of the business on their own, while still having some semblance of a life Jim and Julie can enjoy.
Other small expansion plans are in the works, but most of these plans are Mother Nature’s doings, not necessarily Julie’s. For instance, over 40 baby chickens are currently growing in Julie’s new barn. They should be laying eggs by the spring. The bees living in Yak Ridge’s hives produced an abundance of honey this fall, and signs are good that will continue for next year as well.
|Yak Ridge's chickens...staying warm.|
A slight expansion is planned for the yak herd…actually quite soon. One of Julie’s cows will be giving birth to the newest addition of the Smoragiewicz herd next month! Yak Ridge will soon have a baby in its midst.
As Julie gives one more treat to Houdini—her steer that is soon headed for the greener pastures of yak heaven—she ruffles the fur on another yak nudging its way toward the treat bucket. The friendly livestock has surely made the past construction-filled year at Yak Ridge worth every moment. She has gotten to know more about these majestic creatures, all while creating an inviting place for tourists to stay. Yak Ridge is definitely in style as it helps Jim and Julie live the lifestyle they desire.
|Houdini eating his treat!|