Matthew Rorick changed his style of winemaking about five years ago because he wasn't making wines he liked to drink.
That's not an unusual story in California these days, as a number of winemakers are dialing back on ripeness. But even in that group, Rorick's wines are unusual, which is why he calls them Forlorn Hope.
Rorick specializes in making wines from grapes that aren't well known in California, like verdelho and alvarelhão. If you haven't heard of alvarelhão, it's not surprising: even in its native Portugal there are only 67 hectares of it, and Rorick himself has never had a single-variety alvarelhão wine other than his own.
The 2011 Forlorn Hope Alvarelhão is reminiscent of pizza topping: savory, gamey, with notes of sage and black olive along with fruit that's not sweet. It's light bodied with soft tannins, and at first strikes you as the kind of wine European cafes serve by the carafe, but the aroma keeps you coming back. It's much more interesting than his first attempt at it, probably because he started picking earlier to reveal the grape's unique character.
"Every wine you drink is not going to be the most amazing wine you've ever had," Rorick says, "but it should be honest. This wine is like your happy-go-lucky friend from the country. You can write him off as a simpleton, but he's really interesting to talk to."
Except for the simpleton part, the same could be said of Rorick. He looks like the anthropology professor he almost became, with a prematurely graying beard and a warm smile. He loves baseball, and though he's an Oakland A's fan, his girlfriend used the rival Giants' star Buster Posey's face as her digital image.
"Every time she called me, I saw Buster Posey's face. It was driving me crazy," he said. But he married her anyway.
As for alvarelhão, he didn't even know what it was: he felt obliged to take some from farmer Ron Silva so he could get some torrontés from him the following year. Many small California wineries make similar deals to get, say, prized pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon. But those are not Rorick's prizes: he sees beauty where others see filler.
Rorick also makes a single-vineyard semillon from grapes from the Yount Mill Vineyard in the middle of Napa Valley.
"These vines are giants. They're not trellised; they're at least six feet tall," he says. "Duckhorn takes a huge amount of this fruit to blend into their sauvignon blanc and picks at about the same ripeness level as me. They pick their sauvignon blanc really ripe, with no acidity left, to get those tropical fruit flavors, and they blend this in to get the acidity back.
"A Duckhorn guy told me, 'I love this [Forlorn Hope] wine but when I tasted this fruit when it came into the winery, it didn't seem like much.' It's an issue of perception. You taste fruit when it comes in really ripe and it tastes like candy. Picking the semillon at 19 brix, there are a lot of herbaceous characters. The first time, it doesn't taste right."
Rorick likes his semillon to age like a Hunter Valley example, but this presents a commercial problem - it takes a long time to reach maturity. While his 2007 is drinking beautifully, his 2010 is still green on the nose, and he's inclined to wait to release it. When he finally does, it will be one of the oldest current-release white wines in California.
It's not just grape varieties that Rorick has an unusual-for-California attitude. His thoughts on hygiene are similarly curious. He shares a winery in Fairfield with Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project. Neither has ever used cultured yeast in the winery, so whatever yeast ferments the grapes is whatever came in with them, or lives on the not-so-clean walls.
"It's like the homeopathic idea," Rorick says. "If you've got benign bacteria in your gut, you're going to be okay. But if you use antibiotics, you'll be hugely open to infection. We don't clean drains or rigorously sanitize pumps. Flush it with water; you're good. People tell me I'm crazy. But after three years of winemaking in a cellar that is one of the dirtiest places that I've ever made wine, if a hose falls on a dirty floor, I'm not worried about it."
This doesn't mean Rorick has a casual attitude about bacterial spoilage.
"I practice lazy winemaking," he admits. "But I spend a lot of money on lab analysis as a window into the wine."
As part of his mission to make wines he likes to drink, Rorick takes small steps to naturally reduce the alcohol, including open-top fermenters that allow some of the alcohol to escape as gas, and including stems. He says those two moves combine to reduce the alcohol of his wines by about 0.5 percent.
There are some winemakers who steer clear of grape stems, worried that they will add a green, bitter edge to their wines. But there are others, most famously Burgundy's Domaine Dujac, who like the lift, spice, drive and structure that stems can provide.
"I like stems. They can be peppery, spicy. It's another flavor."
Rorick produced about 18,000 bottles of wine in 2012, but he makes at least a dozen wines every year in a Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non fashion, with some in extremely limited quantities. He made just 324 bottles of the ribolla gialla. But he says his production size feels enormous compared to when he began seven years ago.
"I've finally grown to the size where instead of saying, 'I'll take two tons [of grapes] from you,' I can take a whole block – like one acre," he explains.
Two tons? That's home-winemaker volume.
"Exactly. And that's how I've been operating."
A selection of Forlorn Hope's unusual wines and their prices on Wine-Searcher (in USD, ex-tax per 750ml bottle):