Big House, Big Value

June 16, 2011

Due to my previous life as a crime reporter, I’ve probably spent more time with prison wardens than your average wine writer.

At least as far as I know.

So, it was a particular treat for me to meet with Georgetta Dane, the “warden,” i.e. winemaker, at Big House wines. The winery is so named because of its proximity to a state prison in Monterey County. It was started by winemaker Randall Grahm, famous for championing lesser-known grapes, and although Big House was sold to The Wine Group in San Francisco some years ago, the wines continue to go well beyond the standard, cabernet/chardonnay paradigm.

Big House White, for instance, contains Malvasia Bianca, Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc,  Muscat Canelli, Viognier, Verdelho, Albarino, and Pinot Gris. It’s kind of like a Master of Wine pop quiz in a glass.

“Every harvest I get at least 42 varieties of grapes,” says Dane, who comes from Suceava, Romania, and has the charming Eastern European accent to show for it.

How, exactly, do you handle 42 varieties of grapes? Carefully, as the old joke goes. For Dane, it made for a lively first harvest on the job. “I really didn’t know what I got myself into,” she said with a laugh.

She kept the diferent types of grapes separate and then started to taste. “I was so happy because each varietal gave me something.” So, she decided to approach the task as though she were making perfume, in which you start out with essential oils and then layer elements to create just the right blend.

Gotta say the wardens of the other persuasion I met weren’t so much into the perfume.

Here are some notes from our lunch tasting:

2010 Unchained “Naked” Chardonnay. This is a break from Big House tradition in that it’s just one variety and a well-known one at that. The Naked refers to the fact that it’s unoaked, a rarity in oak-happy California. On the nose, there is a definite hint of perfume, citrus and apricot. The taste delivers tropical fruit blended with the tartness of Granny Smith apples and finishing so round and mellow you won’t miss the oak at all. Even though this is a single variety, Dane was still able to take her layering approach by mixing grapes from the cool Monterey appellation with some from the much warmer Paso Robles region.

Big House White 2010. A standout. Smells like white flowers; tastes fruity with elements of honey and peaches and a tingle of citrus.

Big House Red 2010. Not a lot on the nose, some black fruit, a little violet, but the taste is bright with cherry, cranberry and a nice freshness. An easy-drinking wine that would be just the ticket for spaghetti night.

All wines SRP $9.99 a bottle, less if you buy them in the Octavin box packaging.

Georgetta Dane /Michelle Locke



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