Sonoma’s Birdhorse Label Has a New Take on Chuggable Wines

Bottles of Birdhorse, a new Sonoma County wine brand, feature brightly colored wax caps and labels with a sparse line drawing of two animals in profile. They look playful, not even serious, the kind of vessels one would expect to hold glou glou – the onomatopoeic term for the easy-drinking wines that are so all the rage right now.

But Birdhorse’s wines are deviously complex, and not remotely glug glug. A Barbera from Amador County, which tastes of strawberries and licorice, has heart-rending acidity and gripping tannins. A Carignan from Mendocino County, reminiscent of mixed berry gummies, is textured and heavy.

“Lacking structure reds are very much in vogue right now, but that doesn’t always do the vineyard justice,” says Corinne Rich, who crafts Birdhorse wines with fiancee Katie Rouse. When they started making Carignan, in 2018, the couple tried to mold it into something light and bright, but the wine just didn’t fit the mould.

It’s a good thing they didn’t force it. Birdhorse wines are refreshing, quirky and delicious, and proof that some esoteric varietals like Verdelho and Valdiguie don’t have to make simple wines – they can also make wines with gravity.

Birdhorse Wine co-owners Corinne Rich, left, and Katie Rouse, right, work alongside Lydia Chavez to pick leaves from a bin of Vermentino grapes.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Rouse and Rich met while attending UC Davis graduate school for wine and viticulture. After graduating, they traveled to South Africa together, where they both got winery jobs during the 2018 harvest. They found themselves surrounded by people who were working to diversify the southern wine industry. -African – both in terms of the people who work there and the types of wines they make.

At Mullineux, the South African winery where Rouse worked, one wine made a particular impression. The vineyard had a plantation of old vine Verdelho, a white grape variety from Portugal. This is not a common sight in South Africa, where the dominant grape varieties are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage – the equivalents of California Chardonnay and Cabernet. Conventional wisdom dictates that Verdelho yields a light, fruity, not particularly remarkable wine. But at Mullineux, Rouse saw how, with the proper care and attention, Verdelho could turn into a layered, complex and textured wine.

“That was the spark,” Rouse said.

They returned to California that year, inspired and ready to make their own wine. That year, 2018, they fermented the first wines for what would become Birdhorse. One was Verdelho, whom they managed to locate at a vineyard in Contra Costa County. Today, this 2018 Birdhorse Verdelho tastes incredibly rich, with steely minerality and a big hint of golden pear flavor – a successful proof of concept.

Corinne Rich, co-owner of Birdhorse Wine, left, works alongside Lydia Chavez to inspect newly harvested Vermentino grapes.

Corinne Rich, co-owner of Birdhorse Wine, left, works alongside Lydia Chavez to inspect newly harvested Vermentino grapes.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The genesis of the word “Birdhorse” comes from a segment on the NPR game show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”, describing a theory that all people can be described as a combination of two of the following: horse, bird, and muffin. (Some versions apply the theory to people’s personalities – a horse is a hard worker; a bird needs freedom; a muffin is lazy – while others use it to describe a person’s physical appearance. ) inward, trying to understand each other. But also, said Rich, “it was just kind of silly.”

Four years later, while still working day jobs — Rouse as an assistant winemaker at Bedrock Wine Co., Rich as an assistant winemaker at Scribe Winery — the pair made up Birdhorse Protocol. (They have a third business partner, Tyler Ernst, a friend who works in finance in New York and can provide the “untrained winemaker voice in the room,” Rich says.)

A Birdhorse wine is a single varietal (i.e. not a blend), made from a less common varietal in California (so no Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir). Most of the wines happen to come from warmer climate regions like the Suisun Valley in Solano County, the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, and Interior Mendocino County, which shows that it is possible to make balanced and restrained wines from warmer regions. This is important, because even the cooler climate regions of California for viticulture may not stay so cool in the future.

Rigoberto Solano Garcia handles a bin of harvested Vermentino grapes.

Rigoberto Solano Garcia handles a bin of harvested Vermentino grapes.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Partly because “there’s no standard in California for anything we do,” Rich says, the pair got creative with their winemaking. To make their Valdiguie, they use a method they call “wine in a bag”: after harvesting the fruit, which currently comes from the Back Road vineyard in the Suisun Valley, they put half a ton of grapes in a giant plastic bag, squeezed out all the air and close it with a zipper. The bag swells and they expose it to the sun for two weeks. The rest of the fruit begins its fermentation in the classic way, in a large open-air bin.

The portion in a plastic bag, little exposed to oxygen, ends up creating a denser, less fruity wine, which brings weight to the final product during the assembly of the different batches of Valdiguie.

Another technique used to give concentration to reds is the use of saignée, which means to bleed in French. During fermentation, as the grape juice soaks in a vat with all of its grape skins and seeds, the winemakers will “bleed” or remove some of the juice. By changing the ratio of juice to skins, the skins impart more tannin and flavor to the remaining liquid, resulting in a bigger, more concentrated wine.

Harvesting vermentino in the Dry Creek valley in Healdsburg.

Harvesting vermentino in the Dry Creek valley in Healdsburg.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Saignee is more commonly used by old-school vineyards in an attempt to make over-the-top fruit bombs; it’s much less fashionable with the crowds of progressive, younger vintners that Rouse and Rich race among. But they are not particularly concerned with fashion – they just like the result.

Along the same lines of trends, they are hesitant to adopt natural wine as their Birdhorse identity, despite being frequently associated with the natural wine movement. Depending on how you choose to define natural wine—admittedly, a minefield—Birdhorse probably qualifies, because the wines ferment with ambient yeast and their acidity and tannin levels aren’t adjusted with chemicals. . Winemakers add nutrients during fermentation, as well as limited amounts of the preservative sulfur dioxide, which some natural winemakers avoid.

They welcome the association insofar as it reflects their interest in minimal intervention protocols favoring the unique expression of a vineyard. Still, “we never called ourselves natural wine,” Rich says. “I don’t want that to be the reason people come to us.”

Birdhorse wines are all made from lesser-known California varietals, such as Vermentino.

Birdhorse wines are all made from lesser-known California varietals, such as Vermentino.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The reason to come to Birdhorse is rather because the wines taste good.

My favorite is Arneis, a white grape variety from Piedmont in northern Italy. Rich and Rouse buy the fruit at a small place in Mendocino County on the Russian River called Spirit Canyon Vineyards. The 2020 edition of the wine unmistakably smells of lemon verbena and wild fennel, with vibrant, bright, lemony acidity that cuts through a round and rewarding texture. It’s not light, soft, or chuggable. It is a wine that asks its drinker to stop and pay attention.

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @Esther_mobley

Shirley M. Pinder