One might argue that the greatest collateral damage of conventional wine making is the loss of fermentation. This might sound odd as what is wine if not fermented grapes? However, in the process of adding enzymes, selecting yeasts, inoculating bacteria, and manipulating color, texture and flavor, fermentation has been all but eradicated.* If not fermentation as a whole, then at the very least, the art of it has been destroyed by conventional wine making. To make wines with minimal or no intervention is to get back to the art of fermentation, and few people do this as well as Julian Grounds does.
Before I get into the magic he is making with grapes, I need to take a moment to talk about his bread. When I met Julian he greeted me with a loaf of homemade sourdough bread still warm from his oven. Sourdough, like wine, is a product of fermentation. The difference between a good sourdough and a great sourdough is a baker who knows what is going on with their bacteria. Biting into Julian’s bread transported me to another world. In the weeks since I have tried many a sourdough loaf – some homemade, others baked by artisan bakeries – and while all were good, none held a candle to Julian’s loaf. The texture was more dense, the inside more chewy, and the taste more sour; all the result of the bacteria doing their job and doing it well. But Julian’s gift reaches far beyond his kitchen and, luckily for all of us, his bacterial mastery has found a home in his role as senior winemaker at McHenry Hohnen.
We began the deep dive into his wines with tastes of three wild yeast chardonnays all made identically but grown in different places. It continues to amaze me the scope of differences that can be tasted in wines made from the same grape, by the same winemaker, but grown in different locations. This is, perhaps, one of the purest examples of terroir expression. Each vineyard has its own unique mineral, nutrient and bacterial makeup that contributes to how the vine grows and the expressions of its fruit. Once picked and pressed those bacteria engage in the alchemy of fermentation to create a wine with a distinct fingerprint. Thus, to take a sip of the Hazel Vineyard chardonnay is to delight in grapefruits and acidity, while the Calgardup Vineyard chardonnay, 10km closer to the ocean, produces a wine with a resounding salinity.
It was hard not to be moved by Julian’s wines. I was moved by how they tasted and by the obvious care and dedication that went into their making. After the chardonnay, Julian let me taste a few wines from the barrels in his cellar, some of which were experiments, and others not. I tasted a shiraz that changed how I looked at the grape. Where I was expecting weighty and aggressive, I found bold and gentle; spicy, and tannic in taste, dark in color, light in texture, and sweet on the nose.
Julian is the type of person I could spend all day listening to – he knows what he is doing and is deeply invested in it. And his wines are the type of wines I could spend all day drinking – sophisticated and complex. The latter being possibly more accessible than the former, I suggest you start there.
*To learn more about the definition of natural wine and what goes into conventional wine you can read this little article.