The Sip: Wild and Regal – The California Alps Are Alive

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I’m just going to come out and say it: Americans are flavor wimps.

While Europeans are off enjoying the good life with their delightfully bitter spritzes and herb-infused digestifs, we stick to our same old licorice that doesn’t taste at all like licorice — I’m looking at you, Twizzlers — and feign excitement each time someone hands us a Dr Pepper instead of a Coke. Meanwhile, we can’t help but wonder: What the heck are we missing?

The answer: a lot.

That’s why it’s time to buck up and embrace the kaleidoscopic flavors of alpine wine — an emerging genre of crunchy, herbal wines from Europe’s most remote, snowcapped regions. No wine category is better suited for broadening your flavor horizons — or for keeping you company on a brisk fall night.

American winemakers are jumping on the bandwagon too. Inspired by places like France’s Savoie and Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, a new generation of domestic producers are venturing into uncharted territory, betting their careers on the theory that alpine varieties are the next big thing.

Take winemaker and Methode Sauvage owner Chad Hinds. In 2018, he and his wife, Michelle Westbrook Hinds, left the Bay Area to start a new project called Iruai in Northern California’s rugged Siskiyou Wilderness — land of gold mining, beaver trapping, and now a wine movement. The area, which the couple refer to as the California Alps, lies at the southern end of the Cascade Range  —  that chain of ancient volcanoes that sweeps down from Canada and through the Pacific Northwest. Above their newly planted vineyards looms Mount Shasta — California’s answer to Mount Fuji — which nudges the whole scene into a near-mythical realm.

“It’s Switzerland meets Montana, with a heavy dose of ‘Twin Peaks,’” says Chad, whose personality blends Walt Disney imaginative powers with the cool calm of a riverboat gambler — the right combination of traits, it turns out, when it comes to building a wine region from scratch.

As if the stakes weren’t high enough, the couple are also putting their more radical agricultural philosophies to the test. Led by Michelle, who is the viticultural director, they are applying a stripped-down method of permaculture, adopted from the Japanese farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka: no tilling, no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding. Known simply as natural farming, the method can be seen as a kind of agricultural rewilding  — an attempt to grow the grapes as they might want to grow themselves.

Here are two of Iruai’s wines I absolutely love — and which beautifully capture the project’s freewheeling spirit.

Iruai Shasta Cascade Red 2019 — California

A taut disco of wild blackberry fruit, savory spices, and brisk alpine acidity that snaps like a pair of fuchsia Spanx. Trousseau, Mondeuse, Blaufränkisch and Pinot Noir combine to provide juiciness and vibrant energy. $28.

Iruai Shasta Cascade White 2019 — California

Hums with the neon flavors of alpine agave and prickly pear — the margarita of your dreams doused with snow from the top of Mont Blanc. A bracing combo of Savagnin, Riesling, and Chardonnay. $26.

A native of West Tisbury, Sam Decker is a writer, certified sommelier, and co-founder of Wine + Peace (wineandpeace.com), a direct-to-consumer marketplace for handmade American wine. Connect at @drinkwineandpeace.