Wines hinting at aromatics and flavors such as peach, coffee and even jalapeño are not unusual. A word search of my own tasting notes justifies that. But that doesn't mean someone added peach, coffee or chile pepper to the wines.
Rob McDonald figured, why not?
Wine purists may recoil, but McDonald may be onto something. The Aussie wine importer turned California vintner told me earlier about this project, a recent adjunct to his 27,000-case Art+Farm winery, where the brands include The Girls in the Vineyard and The Messenger. Last week we met at the Kitchen Door in Napa to taste his three commercially available bottlings with extra flavors. He christened the label St. Mayhem.
When he managed a pub in Perth, he saw whole categories of beer made by adding natural flavors. In 2012, as he and his crew refreshed themselves during harvest with craft beers flavored with various fruits, coffee and spices, the light bulb appeared over his head.
He tried adding sour cherries to a small vat of fermenting red wine, cacao nibs to another, and chopped red-ripe jalapeño peppers to a third. The results disappointed. "The power of the fermentation, it turns out, overwhelmed the ingredients we added," he says. "You could hardly taste them."
Next vintage he macerated finished wines with the flavoring ingredients. Bingo!
"The one that lit me up was Sauvignon Blanc with jalapeño," he says. "It's funny, most vintners in California make extra effort to get rid of chile pepper flavors in Sauvignon Blanc, and here I am adding it in."
The commercial wine used Lake County Sauvignon Blanc fermented in stainless steel, steeped with sliced jalapeños and habañeros. The flavors are present but not more than what you might find in some wines from the Central Coast. "I just want to add enough to elevate the wine itself," he says. "It's like adding fruit to sangria. Put in too much and you can't taste the wine any more."
Much as a vegetal Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with oysters, the chile pepper flavors made a tangy match with raw Hog Island sweets from next door. A Merlot from Mendocino spiked with coffee beans and jalapeño responded with glee to mushroom soup. Squash pickles the restaurant serves on its burgers woke up Chardonnay from Clarksburg and Napa in which peaches and ginger root added a spicy touch.
McDonald has the palate to get something like this right. After all, when he founded Old Bridge Cellars he had the perspicacity to choose Leeuwin Estate, Cullen, d'Arenberg, Yarra Yering and Jasper Hill as clients.
Rob and his wife, Kat (who briefly worked at Wine Spectator), sold Old Bridge in 2003 and started bottling Californian and Australian wine under the Mak label. After a horrendous automobile accident in 2008 that laid them low for a year, they picked up the pieces and started Art+Farm. A big part of their business is keg wine meant for by-the-glass pours. And who knows? Maybe some chile peppers will spice things up even more.
For now St. Mayhem is available mainly in Southern California. Escondido-based Stone Brewing, whose cofounder Greg Koch first suggested the chile peppers, distributes the wine to pubs and lounges already familiar with flavored beers. They welcome this idea more than do sommeliers in Northern California, McDonald admits. But I can see this catching on as a by-the-glass add-on in adventurous restaurants.