The Wild Side of Porter Bass
“Growing up with a house in the middle of a vineyard, I have lots of fond memories running around the vineyard, tasting the fruit, watching my parents make homemade wine,” said Luke Bass, who now lives with his family in the midst of these same vines at the Porter Bass Estate. In some sense, Luke’s life hasn’t much changed since he first moved to this property in 1980, at the age of five. “I’ve been pruning and working the vines with my parents for as long as I can remember.” Selling fruit to Littorai since 1993, and overseeing the vineyard’s transition to organic and biodynamic farming in 1999, Luke has worked his way from Porter Bass to Flowers and back again, to bring us these incredible wines of place from Guerneville, CA, just nine miles from the Pacific Ocean.
“All through college and after, hiking our vineyard with Ted [Lemon], hearing his thoughts on grape-growing has been a real influence,” said Luke, who after college joined Flowers, where he worked with Greg La Follette. Inspired by the community of winemakers that his parents joined, Luke said that he found the same sense of community at Flowers.
“Greg liked using native yeasts and taking the chance to let the fermentation do its own thing. From the beginning I felt it was more interesting to run the risk of letting things get out of control then trying to control everything. The idea that if you controlled every step of the yeast’s life and every turn of the wine’s path with a big catalogue of products, I never thought that was interesting. There were a lot of wines that were boring,” he added, “that didn’t need to be boring. It came from the fact that they were overmanipulated. I’d rather be on the wild side of things than painfully safe. It was worth the risk, and I thought, eventually the world would agree with me.”
Farmed since the late 1800’s, the estate at Porter Bass had seen a lot of chemical use, prior to the arrival of the Bass family, and so it first underwent a detoxification period for five years. “Some of the vines struggled…as they were being upheld by ammonium nitrate. In the weakest areas, some vines just died. I think it would have been much less so in an area that had been farmed for less time,” he added. Replanting the vines from 1980-84, Luke’s parents left a small “mother block” of Zinfandel that became “Dot’s Garden”, using the budwood from these vines to help maintain the estate’s character.
A few years later, when Luke and his mother first discovered and then took classes with Andrew Lorand, who has been responsible for converting a number of top wineries to biodynamics, they were inspired to move away from traditional farming. “We were in a rut,” added Luke. “The vineyard wasn’t as lush and beautiful. We needed change. He inspired us to make a change and to change our attitude.”
After converting the vineyards to organic/biodynamic, Luke said, “We had many more birds, more species, more insects. Many people ask, ‘Well, isn’t that bad?’ But there’s more biodiversity, so it’s better. If you have a vital ecosystem, you have lots of insects, but there’s more balance. You might have something that you’re not excited about, but it’s in check. It’s now a rich, vital ecosystem.”
And though the family’s 20-acres had to undergo this transition to reach its current state, the fruit was still valued before the change in farming techniques. “They sold right away,” he said of the fruit. “The quality was recognized, with the vineyard name on the bottle and with vineyard designate bottling.
“In 2001, I remember lots of nights just going out to the vineyard and sitting there with a glass of wine and just staring at it, communing with the space. It’s hard to put a value on…just getting to know the feeling of a place. It ties into biodynamics,” he added, “being acquainted with your land. It makes it easier to have faith that things will work out.”
In 2009, Luke stopped using new oak. “We talk about terroir all the time, but what about new oak barrels?” he said. After working “hands-off” in the winery, it made no sense to impart the flavors of new oak into the wines. And while farming biodynamically did not change the flavor profile of the wines in an obvious way, Luke said, “We get people who say, ‘Drinking your wine makes me happy.’ So perhaps it’s more engaging. More alive. More energetic.” And after one sip of the Porter Bass Estate Zinfandel “Dot’s Garden” 2011, one can certainly agree. One of the most vibrantly bright and elegant Zins that I’ve ever tasted, the “Dot’s Garden” Zinfandel is fresh and tart with notes of blood orange and cranberry that are supported by the wine’s graphite minerality. “I think a lot of that is really just the site,” said Luke. After a whole berry fermentation, he presses the juice when it’s still sweet and lets it finish its fermentation in the barrel. “This site is really too cold for Zin,” he added. “Most years, we wonder if it’s going to ripen. It’s really cool climate Zin. It’s pushing the limits.”
To read more about the wines from Porter Bass Estate, click here.