Growing up at a winery suggests that one might be inclined to either flee from or embrace completely this heritage.
Morgan Twain-Peterson did both.
His father Joel Peterson founded Ravenswood, known for its Zinfandel, in 1976; Morgan joined the family in 1981. Then, in 1986 at the tender age of five, he made his first wine.
It “just sort of happened,” Morgan says, as he describes a childhood spent among the vines, riding bikes and playing. “I wanted to make Pinot Noir, because my dad didn’t, and asked Angelo Sangiacomo [a local grower and the winery’s landlord at the time] if I could buy some grapes. ‘Are you serious?’ he asked; my dad said yes.”
Angelo donated a small half-ton block of Pinot Noir grapes to the boy, and father and son sat down with several examples of Pinot Noir, tasting and talking about what the young artisan liked (or didn’t) about the different styles. Morgan leaned “toward the [Burgundy estate Domaine] Dujac…so I’m told. I don’t actually remember that part!”
Though he made wine for the next several years, the interest didn’t stick. “There was never any push from my mom and dad to go into the wine business,” Morgan explains. “Science and math were my weakest subjects.”
Instead, he went to New York for undergraduate and graduate schools, studying political science and history, with the goal of getting a PhD and teaching.
Yet, Morgan never fully left the business. As a buyer at (now defunct) Pet Wines in New York City, he enjoyed the wine budget the job provided and frequented the industry’s tasting events.
“I got a broad palate and came back to wine. Some things I tasted got me excited about California wine again.” Besides, he pointed out, being a professor means going where the job is, and Morgan knew he would eventually return to California.
“Eventually” happened in 2005, but Morgan didn’t stay for long. After a brief stint at Ravenswood, Morgan worked in Australia and throughout France, “visiting, trying to get a full sense of what was going on,” he says.
Two years later, the plan was set: Morgan re-returned to California and established Bedrock Wine Co., a boutique estate specializing in old vine wines and creating what Morgan calls “heirloom wine.”
A little history: Back in the day, “vines were planted [by winemakers] intending to make ‘claret’ or ‘Burgundy’, not varietal Zinfandel,” explains Morgan. “Many of the greatest Zinfandel isn’t so much Zin according to labeling laws.” He cites Ridge as an example, an estate with a reputation for Zinfandel – though there actually is a wide array of grapes in the bottle.
However, the mania for single-varietal wines that started in the 1980s moved many winemakers to create 100% Zinfandel, a move away from the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of yore.
“We all know the potential flaws in Zinfandel,” Morgan says, reciting everything from the grape’s cluster morphology (each grape ripens at different rates, so a bunch can have everything from very underripe to very overripe grapes), concerns with too-high alcohol levels and the potential for a stuck fermentation.
Still others, he continues, “slather their Zin with oak. There is a lot of distinctly unpleasant Zinfandel out there!”
Morgan solves the problem of the grape’s fickleness by creating “a more classically structured wine with better balance, the way Zinfandel was historically meant to be framed.”
The history buff got his love of old vines from his father, and among the vineyards Morgan works with are 15 planted prior to 1935, which he describes as a “melting pot of vines.”
Among the rare and ancient varietals that find their way into his wines include Mollard, a French grape well-known prior to 1870; Aubun, a Rhône varietal related to Carignan; and Valdique, a grape from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Working older vines isn’t too different from younger ones, with a key exception. “Older vines force you to spend more time in the vineyard,” Morgan notes. The largest challenge, he says, is dealing with the owners! “It’s not pernicious, but if a vineyard is owned by an old-school family, they work the land in the same way their grandfather did, which is not necessarily a good thing.”
When possible, Morgan works with such farmers to induce them into using modern growing techniques, such as dropping fruit, to help improve the quality of the grapes.
But while meticulous farming is important to getting good grapes, Morgan also notes that these old vines have already shown their mettle.
“The potential of these grapes is so amazing, even if they’re not grown perfectly, they make better wine than newer Zinfandel [grapes.] There’s a reason these vines are still around 100+ years later!”
Morgan’s winemaking style hasn’t changed much since he was five. “I still use native yeast, limited amounts of good oak. The basics are the same, it’s just a more perfected form of winemaking.”
He would, however, go back to remind his 13 year old self to top the barrels more completely.
While much of my conversation with Morgan focused on Zinfandel, the grape isn’t the superstar at Bedrock Wine Co. To be sure, it plays a key role in several of the 24 wines produced at the winery – but is on slightly lesser footing with Syrah, with two varietal Zins produced in 2010 to five varietal Syrah wines.
Not to mention, there is equal emphasis placed on white wines, including field blends, varietal Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and an homage to white Bordeaux.
I got to taste through several of Morgan’s wines and one word that kept coming to mind was “smooth.” So I asked Morgan what gave the wines their light, ethereal quality.
Two reasons, he explained. “They’re from the 2010 and 2011 vintages, which were cooler so [we weren’t] battling alcohol issues. [Plus] I value acidity in wine and tend to pick early, the moment the flavors turn.”
Flavorful with a food-friendly acidity: what’s not to like in these wines? Here’s the scoop on what I tried:
Abrente Albariño 2011: This wine is more restrained than a Spanish version, and I found it completely delectable. Fruit is sourced from the Stuart Ranch and American Canyon vineyards in Napa. This is the second vintage Morgan has made with his friend Michael Havens, a pioneer in new world Albariño.
Sauvignon Blanc Kick Ranch 2011: Morgan picked these grapes a week before anyone else was picking their Sauvignon Blanc, per his desire for acidity in the wine. Morgan describes it as having “plenty of richness…perfumey and high-tone.” My notes call it “round, mellow, almost Chardonnay-like.”
Cuvée Karatas 2010: Crafted with 120-year old Semillon vines from the Monte Rosso Vineyard and Sauvignon Blanc from Kick Ranch (the blend is 55% – 45%, respectively), I found this wine to be smooth, round and floral. Morgan calls it a “hypothetical crossing of the rich 2008 and bright 2009.”
Rosé of Mourvedre Ode to Lulu 2011: The Mourvedre grapes for this wine come from vines planted in 1888 and 1921. Additional brightness comes from younger vine Grenache, which makes up 9% of the blend. Morgan writes that this is the most delicate version of this wine yet. My notes concur: “delicate and smooth.”
Syrah Hudson Vineyard T’n’S Blocks 2010: This wine is comprised of two different blocks of Syrah from the Napa side of Carneros, one of which is the oldest remaining Syrah vineyard in the area. (Planted in 1993, that is perhaps a dubious distinction.) According to Morgan, this is an ageworthy wine that needs some time to come into its own. I found the wine enjoyable now, with notes of pepper and tart cherries.
Casa Santamaria 2011: A white wine field blend of Muscadelle, Chasselas, Zinfandel (yes, the red grape), Semillon and Chardonnay from a vineyard planted in 1905. The grapes were picked and pressed together, helping create this unique cuvée. To my palate, this wine was round and floral with nice depth. Morgan’s notes cite the wine’s “uncanny density and lift.”