Returning to California’s Roots with Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope
Illustration from The Wine Press and The Cellar, A Manual for the Winemaker and the Cellar Man
After graduating from UC Davis, Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines, made wine for clients and realized that he wasn’t making wines that he wanted to drink. “Everything I was excited about came from outside the country,” he said, and then he had an epiphany. “I came across this book from the 1880’s– The Wine Press and The Cellar by Emmet Rixford, that was being reissued by UCD. He chronicled the way wine was made in California at that time, the methodology and process. It’s become my touchstone. Should I rack this red now or should I wait? I flip the book open and see things in an era with no electricity and no mechanized techniques…keeping things simple. That’s our tradition, how things were being made back then.”
“In the beginning,” he added, “I thought it was all in the cellar.” He worked harvests in the northern and southern hemispheres, with “full throttle intensity, over-the-top New World wine producers…that were making big, rich concentrated wines,” and then something happened…”The shift was gradual,” he said. “I became less excited about what I was making and I became more excited about what I was tasting from Europe: Etna, Loire, Ribera Sacra and Jura. There was a purity and focus to them. An honesty in the glass that I didn’t find in the wines I was making. I don’t know when the lightbulb came on, that I could make something in California like this…” When he thought back to the wines that his grandfather had tasted him on, he remembered that the wines weren’t big alcohol. They were beautiful. “It occurred to me that maybe there was a shift in winemaking style. We were making wines that were modeled after European wines [with] restraint, balance, and elegance, and not just power and alcohol.”
After a stint in the Navy, Rorick lived with his grandfather, who first introduced him to wine and taught him how to cook. “He and my grandmother had gone to Burgundy and Bordeaux in the late 60’s and 70’s, and were in California in the late 70’s,” he said. “He’d open bottles that would and wouldn’t go with what we’d cook– Burgundy, Bordeaux, and old California wines from Ridge, a lot of Stony Hill…I had good exposure to what was going on in California in the 70’s and early 80’s.” And though Matthew hadn’t yet realized that he could someday make wines like that in the present moment, these were the bottles that had formed his palate.
After starting Forlorn Hope, Matthew began talking to Tegan Passalacqua, the Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Turley Wine Cellars. “I was out in the vineyard tasting fruit with him, and tasting [Dan] Petroski’s wines and tasting with him. It all kept piling on. It kept shifting until it became a conscious thing, and then it really shifted,” said Rorick. In 2003, he planted the seed with Petit Syrah and in 2005, he started his own label, championing the varietals that didn’t stand a chance against California’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I studiously avoided California Chardonnay for four years,” said Matthew, until a friend invited him to attend In Pursuit of Balance in San Francisco. At the event organized by Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74 and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, “to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay,” Rorick said, “I was floored. There were beautiful wines [that were] compelling from Arnot-Roberts, Hirsch and Sandhi.” Which made Rorick realize that California hadn’t abandoned its winemaking roots; that there were a number of winemakers who were not only returning to, but also reinventing the craft of winemaking in the New World.
After crafting wines with Trousseau Gris, Alvarelhao and Semillion, Rorick recently made Valdiguié, “a Napa Gamay that had been planted in the 1960’s.” Made with 20-year-old vines from Suisun Valley, that were fermented with natural yeast, this is a new take on an old classic grape. “It’s amazing that it wasn’t ripped out in Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon,” said Matthew. Lean with bright acidity and a light grip, the Valdiguié just arrived at TEW with its abundance of fresh red cherry and raspberry fruit. Incredibly fresh, the Valdiguié is perfect when served at cellar temps for your holiday summer drinking.