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Winery Profile: Two Shepherds

I recently put together a blind tasting of 12 wines for a small panel of wine professionals. The theme was “surprising California wines” aka “California wines that even Europhiles will love.” There were a number of heavy hitters in the lineup, winemakers and wineries that have been celebrated for decades. But the favorite that night was the 2010 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc, that winery’s first commercial vintage.

I had an ulterior motive in pouring that wine. I had tasted it twice before and been very impressed. I wanted to review it, but I know Two Shepherds’ proprietor/winemaker, William Allen, well. I wanted to pour his Grenache Blanc blind for other trusted palates to validate my opinion and avoid any concerns of bias.

two_shepherds_logoAfter the formal tasting and discussion of all 12 wines, the 2010 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc was one of two bottles which my associates immediately drained. [The other was the 2006 Suacci Carciere Pinot Noir*.] They didn’t just like the wine. They were enthused by it. “Who made this?” “Where can I get it?” “How much is it?” “What do you mean it’s sold out!?!”

They might also have asked, “How does somebody make a wine like this in their first commercial vintage?” Technically, William Allen launched his winery and made that juice in just a few months. But, that wine had been fermenting in his mind for years.

William Allen didn’t grow up in the wine business. He was born and raised in Bermuda, an island country highly inhospitable to growing wine grapes. He went to college at Auburn and then dove into high-tech business on the East Coast. A tech job still pays his bills.

Allen’s interest in wine started very gradually. There was wine at business dinners and then, eventually, a bus tour of Napa Valley at the end of a sales trip to San Francisco. His appreciation for wine grew. Napa became his go-to for wine drinking and touring.

In 1999, he took a job in Petaluma. Exploring the wineries near his new home, he fell in love with northern Sonoma County. He began collecting wine and filled a 120-bottle cellar. He sought out small, unique wineries. Soon, he was also studying wine and taking classes.

Around the same time, he started to make beer at home. He quickly learned the importance of sanitation and topping. He became familiar with fermentation and working with a variety of yeasts. Five years ago he made his first garage wine.

Allen started with an old-fashioned press and carboys — thick glass bottles with a 5-gallon capacity. [Carboys are good vessels for micro-lot winemaking. Small barrels are hard to find and their evaporation rate is much higher than standard barrels.] He experimented with native yeasts. He also experienced and successfully worked through his first stuck fermentation.

By the end of that first year of home winemaking, Allen’s new hobby had become a passion. Over the ensuing four years, he devoted his off days to volunteering at wineries in order to learn all aspects of wine production. He picked. He crushed. He cleaned. Among the wineries and winemakers he spent a great deal of time were David Mounts of Mounts Family Winery, Anthony Yount of Kinero Cellars and Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wines.

At the same time, the continually sleep-deprived Allen created, a blog focused on Sonoma County’s wine country. Being a blogger brought opportunities to taste a wider range of wines and meet winemakers from all over the world. Not afraid to seem like a geek, he always asked detailed questions about growing and making wine.

Somewhere along the way, Rhone-variety wines stole his heart. He had liked Viognier for years, but not tasted many of the other wines until he started volunteering and writing. A Kinero Grenache Blanc was his epiphany wine.

Kinero is the personal project of Anthony Yount, the winemaker at Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles. For Kinero, Yount makes only white wine, experimenting with vessels, aging and what he prefers to call “feral yeast” fermentation. He strives for delicacy and finesse in his whites. In addition to Yount, Allen has says he’s been inspired by people such as Randall Grahm, who would eventually advise him on vineyard selection, and Bill Frick, who he calls an unsung hero of Rhone-variety wines in Sonoma County

Allen’s personal preference is for an “old world” style of wine: nuanced, framed by naturally-prominent acidity and made without much manipulation. As a result, he is a minimalist winemaker and doesn’t let grapes hang on the vine very long. He favors native yeasts and neutral oak barrels.

Allen says, his homemade wines were good. But making Southern Rhone-style wines at "friends and family volumes" was difficult. To make the blends, he had to vinifiy tiny amounts of several varieties. After a few vintages of that — and of championing low-alcohol, less extracted wines on his blog — he decided it was “time to put his money where his keyboard was.”

Two Shepherds first commercial vintage, 2010, was made at Old World Winery. Once vinification was complete, he moved to Inspiration Vineyards where Jon Phillips helped him with bottling, TTB approvals, etc. Total production was 175 cases. The 2011 Two Shepherds’ wines were made at Inspiration Vineyards from start to finish.

The 2010 and 2011 Two Shepherds wines include only sourced fruit. The Grenache Blanc comes from the Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez. Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne and most of the red wine grapes are sourced from Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. For 2010, he also took some red from Livermore. Now, he’s also working with Ron Mansfield, an acclaimed grower and vineyard manager in the El Dorado AVA.

In a few seasons, there will be estate fruit in Two Shepherds reds. In 2011, William Allen began planting a 1,500 vine Grenache vineyard of his own in the Russian River Valley. He doesn’t have plans to grow other varieties there. The plot is limited in size and he’s also concerned suspects site would be too cool for grapes such as Mourvedre which can be unpleasant if not thoroughly ripe.

Of the four wines in Two Shepherds initial offering, the Grenache Blanc might be considered the flagship. The variety has become a critical darling in recent years and, of course, it’s still the one closest to Allen’s heart. His version of Grenache Blanc also differs more from convention than do his other wines.

The common perception of Grenache Blanc in the the Southern Rhone is that of a somewhat neutral grape prone to high-alcohol and flab. Many California Grenache Blanc varietal wines show complexity and balance. But they still tend to be treated like Chardonnay: achieving medium+ to full body and getting an aromatic and flavor boost from new oak. In contrast, the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc sees no new oak and wears acidity as a badge of honor.

Tasted: Three Wines from Two Shepherds’ 2010 Vintage

2010 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley, $24
Pale-lemon green with tartrate crystals. It smells of lemon rind, herb, tart peach, green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, there is a lightly creamy medium body with medium+ acidity and flavors that include grapefruit rind, green apple skin, preserved lemon and mineral. The finish is long and juicy. A refreshingly crisp and tangy Grenache Blanc. 13.8% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

This wine is sold out at the winery. You may still be able to find some at retail. The 2011 has just been released and was recently recommended by Jon Bonne of the SF Chronicle. I’ll be picking up a bottle to review soon.



2010 Two Shepherds MRV White Rhone Blend Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $24
This blend of Marsanne (47%), Roussanne (47%) and Viognier (6%) is lemon-colored in the glass. The nose is of moderate intensity with an interesting range of flavors: delicate white flowers, lightly buttered toast, yellow apple and balsa wood. In the mouth it has medium+ body and acidity creating creamy and juicy sensations simultaneously. The flavors are understated, yet attractive. I found citrus, yellow apple skin, clementine peel, baking spice and mineral, culminating with a medium+, mouth-watering finish. 14.2% alcohol. Highly Recommended


2010 Two Shepherds GSM Blend Russian River Valley, $32
Medium ruby colored, slightly foggy and showing a little sediment suggesting that the wine is unfined and unfiltered. On the nose there is sour cherry, raspberry, black tea, rhubarb with a happy freshness overall that reminded me a little of some Beaujolais. The palate is medium-bodied with medium+ acidity and medium tannins. Flavors of tart red fruit and rosemary linger for a medium+ finish. A light and lively Grenache-centric wine that will go well with roast chicken or steak tartare. Grenache 50%, 25% each Syrah and Mourvedre. 13.8% alcohol. Recommended+

*The 2006 Suacci Carciere Pinot Noir is no longer available at the winery in sufficient volume to sell on it's own. (I bought the last available cases a few years ago, but did give you guys fair warning in an article... Anyway, the few remaining bottles they have are being sold as part of a wood-boxed, three-vintage vertical set.

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