Saturday 2 March 2019

If it ain't Broc, fix it.

We first came across the wines of Broc Cellars at Chambers Street Wines on New York - a recommendation in itself. That was in 2014. Since then, Broc Cellars wines have become quite widely available including in the UK where Robersons are prominent so we are now dealing with a marque of international repute.

Winery on the left, cellar door on the right

However, note the name: Broc Cellars. Yes, there is no estate or vineyard. Grapes are sourced from all over California and vinified at this building in downtown Berkeley. This kind of operation is quite familiar by now with other prominent practitioners such as Birichino making some of the best and most reliable wines in the state.

Image result for Chris Brockway
Chris Brockway
Chris Brockway is the owner and winemaker. We find every aspect of his operation cute as well as admirable including the name which even gives rise to a playful label featuring a badger. His route to Broc Cellars began in Omaha where he was born and took in a Philosophy degree from Nebraska University. There followed a spell making TV promotions in LA and then finally a period studying winemaking and enology at the University of California at Davis and Cal State University at Fresno.

A spell working at a commercial wine producer taught him 'how not to do everything'. He relates how he became an expert in commercial yeasts and additives - none of which are used in his winemaking at Broc Cellars.

He started making small batches of wine for himself and his activity just seems to have grown from there wich is immensely impressive.

 The Broc Cellars website puts their philosophy perfectly:

At Broc Cellars, all of our wines are made using spontaneous fermentation, a process that means we only use native yeasts and bacteria that exist on the grapes in order to make wine. This is unlike many of the wines you will see in grocery stores or on wine shop shelves and in restaurants. We don’t add anything – this includes nutrients, yeast, bacteria, enzymes, tannins or other popular fermentation agents. Sulphur is a naturally occurring element in all wine, the amount found can vary. We add little to no S02, depending on the wine and style.

“Our goal in making wine is to bring out the natural expression of the grape. We decide on a wine by wine basis how we want to do that. We have more freedom now to make the choice not to add Sulphur. There is a bigger market for us to go in the direction we want to go. To counter that we are doing more to insure our vineyards are using the farming practices we support. We’re also committed to detailing exactly what decisions we make during the course of our winemaking process.” – Chris Brockway.

Over the past few years as the natural wine market has evolved we have been working with our partner vineyards on a plan to insure by 2019 over 95% of the grapes that we work with will be grown without using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers. The decision to keep sourcing from the 5% of vineyards that have some exposure to these things is complicated and has a lot to do with how much we value the beauty of the fruit, the varieties that come from these vineyards, and the unique challenges of farming the areas where those grapes are grown. We have detailed any exposure in the specific wine’s notes.

So how about the wines? We find them admirable for their diversity and integrity. They belong very much to the new Californian 7 - percenters. No fruit bombs or brooding monsters but a lightness of touch and fidelity to grape variety. These include


Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc

Grenache Gris


The first bottle we opened on arriving home. We couldn't wait to find out what a Californian version of this grape might taste like. Interestingly, Broc's Picpoul tastes more like a hard core natural wine than his others. Liking natural wine as we do, that was no bad thing - just an unexpected one.


Tocai Friulano

Cabernet Franc



One doesn't fing Counoise as a monocepage in France. When we asked once why not we were told 'on ne s'amuse pas de cette facon.' Ppreviously we had found a Counoise in California by Kenneth Volk. That proved to be pleasantly fleshy with a character of its own and this one was along similar lines. We don't envisage going on a Counoise hunt any time soon but it was nice to be able to taste it again.


Lovely colour on this light-touch Lagrein


Soon after our trip to California we found ourselves in Austria where we tried a local Lagrein. By comparison the Broc version seemed to be so much more faithful to the grape's character. As you can see it was light both in colour and in alcohol (12.5%) and we infinitely preferred this style to the heavy over-extracted one.


Mission is Pais is Criolla is Listan Prieto as everyone knows. Listan Prieto is found in the Canary Islands. As the first European grape to be planted in the New World (in the second half of the 18th century), should one suppose that Listan Prieto vines or cuttings were picked up on the journey only because the Canaries were the last landfall before crossing the ocean? In any case, we are looking forward to Broc's Mission if only to convince us that this is a good variety after all.

Nero d'Avola 

Pinot Noir





There is moreof the relatively obscure Valdiguie in California than one might imagine. That seems to be down to people confusing it with Gamay originally. A bit like Carmenere in Chile or Savagnin in Australia.


As well as this straight Zin, Broc makes a White Zinfandel!

From these varieties they make over 75 different wines. Styles include single variety wines, whites, roses, reds, blends, pet nats and sparkling often from surprising varieties such as Cabernet Franc and even what they call Mockvin - a take on the Macvin of the Jura.

Quantities are very small, often no more than 300 bottles. Alcohol levels are modest and so is the pricing if you buy from the cellar door as we did. By the time Broc wines reach the UK they are rather more expensive of course.

The day of our pilgrimage, there were plenty of other fans of Broc wines tasting and buying. Everything about the operation is cool. We especially like the distinctive labels all by Marta Johansen.

We were really taken by these wines and rate Broc Cellars up there with Forlorn Hope which is saying something.


Sonoma drive-by.

A few years ago we made a memorable visit to Napa. This time it was the turn of the much larger and more diverse region of Sonoma. A dull, cold and rainy day was not very conducive to getting out of the car so we carried out what we call a drive-by, clocking some famous names sich as Mumm and Cline, leaving visits to cellar doors and tastings for another journey.

yes, there is a Napa Street in Sonoma. City Hall is in the background.

the historic Sebastiani Theatre is also in the City Plaza
Instead we stopped at the town of Sonoma itself which was quite impressive even in these circumstances. There is a cute City Hall, the old Sebastiani Theatre and a plethora of estate tasting rooms which are no doubt heaving on weekends. Indeed we saw somewhere that winetasting is second in popularity to whatever activity is first (Basketball?) in the state of California.

Pangloss Cellars tasting room in City Plaza is one of the most prominent

Sbragia is also on the Plaza

No doubt the wines on tasting here were admirable examples of what Sonoma has to offer. For the purposes of this blog however the characteristic grape varieties of CabS S and F, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Grenache and Co. are not what we are about.

One doorway aptly named 'Passaggio' however drew us into a more diverse world which included wines from Chenin, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and even Teroldego.

The charming people running 'Passaggio' consist of Cindy Cosco (winemaker) and Frank Romaguera (Tasting room Manager and Wine Club Ambassador) among others.

Cindy is a 'Garageiste' buying in grapes and making all her various wines from her facility without a vineyard. In the case of the Teroldego, she buys from a lady who farms only a very small quantity of this grape.

The wines were all beautifully made, exhibiting varietal flavours. From the whites we thought the Grenache Blanc was particularly fine, having a restrained touch of wood in its background.

sign outside Irish pub in Sonoma

We visit UC Davis Foundation Plant Services

Among the great vine research, propagation and certification institutes throughout the world, the University of California's Foundation Plant Services Facility is one of the most hallowed. Their certification of virus-free plants is the gold standard accepted everywhere without demure.

The university's  sister institution of Viticulture and Enology is where anybody who is anybody studied but the Foundation Plant Services Facility is equally influential athough much smaller and without the public profile of the Viticulture and Enology school.

The long-standing Director of Foundation Plant Services is Dr. Deborah Golino. Dr. Golino was kind enough to give us some of her time and received us very graciously. She explained that she is responsible for many plants in addition to grapes. These include many fruits and nuts. She was particularly proud of the institute's work on Strawberries and indeed the strawberries we were offered at hotel breakfast buffets while in California were exquisite both in looks and in taste.

young vines in pots
Her work in winegrapes consists of developing 100% virus-free material which once certified can be released in the form of cuttings to nurseries who then propagate the vines and sell them in California and worldwide. This process takes many years and is very costly involving thousands of dollars per variety. The institute is not publically funded so relies on commercial and private sources of income.

Nevertheless over the years certification has been completed in the case of 620 varieties of grapes for wine, food, juices, raisins and rootstock. This work takes on enormous significance when you realize that whole countries such as Australia, Israel and others only permit the importation of material certified by the FPS. There are also many South American countries who look to Davis before importing material even if not exclusively.

Compared with the VCR (Vivai Cooperativo Rauscedo) the FPS is small but they stand at the apex of a triangle and it is the vast Californian nurseries that carry out the propagation.

Staff at FPS are only 45 in number. The former ranch which UCD bought in the 1920s amounts to 300 acres of which 100 are devoted to vines. these produce 20 - 30 million plants per year as opposed to Rauscedo's 80 million.

At the moment, Dr. Golino explained, some of their most important research is being carried out into finding a solution for Pierce's disease which is becoming an increasing problem worldwide. We wish Dr. Golino and her staff the greatest possible success in this and the other important work of the FPS.