Just after Christmas, thanks to a windfall of Williams-Sonoma gift cards, we purchased a Soda Club Penguin Soda Maker. We really enjoy sparkling water, but more or less stopped buying it out of guilt for the amount of bottle waste involved. That, and our preferred brand is Gerolsteiner, out of Germany, and we just couldn't justify consuming such an absurd amount of food miles for something as pedestrian as water, when we live in a society where what comes out of the tap is more than adequate.
Now, with the Penguin, we have four one-liter carafes that we reuse to carbonate our Hetch Hetchy. The carafe goes into the device, the top is lowered, and you press down on a lever, which releases CO2 into the water. It makes a series of amusing sounds, starting with a gurgling that escalates to a high-pitched whine, and then a satisfying PFFFF as you release the pressure. And voilà, sparkling water.
Shortly after we became Penguin addicts, I jokingly mused that they should also make a device that turns water into wine. They could call it the JesusTM. After all, we face the same issues of bottle waste and food miles with wine (though we do drink a lot of locally-sourced wines), and there's not really an alternative.
Or is there?
I recently made the acquaintance of a certain Hardy Wallace. Anyone who dabbles in the intersection of social media and food/wine may find that name familiar. Last year, Murphy-Goode winery held a contest to hire a social media "lifestyle correspondent." Out of 10 finalists, Hardy, who writes the blog Dirty South Wine, was selected, this kicking off a six-month gig as blogger, vlogger and all-around evangelist for the brand. At the end of that six months, Hardy opted to take things a different direction.
Among the many people Hardy befriended in his tenure was Kevin Kelley of Lioco and his own label, Salinia. Kelley was in the throes of starting up a new wine product, called The Natural Process Alliance, a.k.a., The NPA. Hardy found something he could be passionate about.
The NPA's manifesto goes beyond the garden-variety green practices that --thankfully! -- are infiltrating the wine industry today. Sure, the grapes are organic at least in practice if not always certification, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Kelley is taking winemaking back to its roots, if you'll pardon the expression.
Hardy invited me to the NPA's command center, not officially open to the public. Wine tasting may conjure up visions of a Falcon Crest-esque manse with an elegant tasting room chockablock with gourmet food product, but not so here. The NPA is in an industrial park in a nondescript corner of Santa Rosa. The entrance looks like every other door in the complex. Nothing indicates the presence of a serious winemaking business until you enter the door and are confronted with the tremendous steel fermentation tanks that are the backbone of every winery.
Hardy walked us back to where a couple dozen casks sat in pyramidal stacks. He explained not only about the land stewardship and agricultural practices behind the fruit, but about how their winemaking itself is different. The NPA uses no commercial yeast, for example, and uses sulfites only when absolutely necessary and in minimal amounts. The wines are unfined (outright murky, in fact), which means they're also vegan. (In case you didn't know, egg whites or fish scales are fairly routinely used in fining wines.) The lees, or expended yeast, is not stirred up as is sometimes done to enhance flavor. Basically, these guys harvest and crush the grapes, and more or less let it do its thing from there. This is winemaking as it was done in the time of Christ.
But the most revolutionary thing they're doing, in my mind, is overturning the distribution model of wine itself. The NPA does not bottle its wine; it decants it into steel Klean Kanteens, which are rather like the reusable water bottles you see at the gym (except no BPA lining). The wine goes from the cask into the canteen and straight to the consumer. You invest in the canteen, and basically just pay for refills. Because of this delivery mechanism, and because of the relative youngness of the wines themselves, these are meant to be drank more or less immediately.
Hardy started us off with a cuvée of sauvignon blancs from three different casks, each lending different notes to the final product. One held forth grassy and almost jalapeño notes; another was markedly citric; the third was full of apple and pear. I was expecting the wines to be off-dry or even outright sweet, but was pleasantly surprised to find them crisp and dry. Hardy explained that, since they are trying to avoid using sulfites, they have to ferment everything all the way through, lest the residual sugars open the door to infection.
Next up, pinot gris that started off light and lemony and finished with a hazelnut note. The chardonnay's juice was left on the skins for an extended period of time, lending it a richer color, quite like the orange wines of the Adriatic. (This is very apparent in the picture above.) It also lent structure and a bit of funk, pleasantly. Finally, we tasted the one red they're producing now, called Sunhawk, which is a melange of so many varietals I lost track as Hardy rattled them off. This was big wine, assertive, jammy and seemed to be hot, though Hardy assured me the grapes are harvested early and therefore at a lower brix, around 22-23. Hence, the alcohol content of the wines tends to run lower as well.
At that visit, we ended up taking home two canteens each of the sauvignon blanc and Sunhawk. And here's the thing: By the time we drank the second canteen of the sauv blanc, just a few days later, it had changed. The apple and pear notes gave way to apricots and peaches. And while wine always changes as it airs in the glass, these seemed to undergo extreme transformations. It's as if the wine were alive in the glass.
The NPA wines are available at certain like-minded restaurants, such as Nopa and Aziza, and they're just now getting into direct-to-consumer sales. The goal is to operate much like a CSA, distributing the wines to customers within a 100-mile radius either via distribution points or taking it on the road with a truck. They're still working it out.
So let's recap: Wine grown naturally, minimally manipulated, distributed via reusable containers to a strictly local clientele. This is Kool-Aid I can drink. Take a closer look at that pic at the top. NPA chardonnay, bottle #1. Oh yeah. What can I say, I'm an early adopter.
Disclosure: This is a purely editorial post; I have not been compensated in any way to write about the above products. However, the link to the Penguin is an Amazon affiliate link, from which I could potentially derive revenue as a result of sales driven from the link.