It all began with a little generosity from Mother Nature. “We had a Pinot Gris block come in heavier than expected,” says Joy Ting, enologist and project manager at Michael Shaps Wineworks. “Since the excess had not been slated for a specific wine, and it was early in harvest, we realized we had the time and opportunity to do something a little bit different with the extra tonnage.”
Ting and winemaker Jake Busching teamed up on the experiment. “Joy and I balance one another really well as winemakers,” says Busching. “I tend not to measure much and she has the precision of a stooping falcon.”
They crushed and destemmed the grapes. But, instead of pressing juice as you would a normal white wine, Ting says, they let the juice ferment on the skins before pressing it off.
Skin-contact wines, also known as orange wines or amber wines for their deep golden hues, are experiencing a comeback. This style of winemaking has millennia of history in the country of Georgia, where wines ferment with juice, skins and seeds in large underground terracotta vessels. Though this age-old method of winemaking was likely the way the first white wines were made, modern winemaking tends to discard the skins of white grapes directly after pressing. Skins change the flavor and tannin structure of a white wine, and they also adjust potassium, acidity and microbial environments, which can change the direction of a fermentation.
After Ting and Busching pressed off their experimental wine, says Ting, “it was pretty rough—literally.”
“It had tannins, and they were pretty aggressive at first,” she says. “But, it had some really nice potential flavors hiding amidst all the grip.” At that point, they decided, the best course of action was putting it in a barrel and waiting it out.
It sat in a barrel at Michael Shaps Wineworks for about two years until Ting pulled a sample and brought it to a gathering. Ting knew Busching would be there, and she wanted to blind test him on his own experiment.
Most wineries have a random barrel or two of experimental ferments, or fermentations that didn’t go quite as planned. If the wine is sound, these barrels will often be blended into a larger-volume product, because labeling a few odd bottles separately can distort business models and confuse regular customers who have grown to expect a certain type of wine from the winery.
But what if there was an outlet for small-batch, unique wines that don’t quite fit with a winery’s model?
Enter Will Curley and Priscilla Martin Curley. Will runs the beverage programs for Will Richey’s Ten Course Hospitality restaurant group, and Priscilla is the general manager and wine director at Tavola. The husband-wife team tasted the Pinot Gris sample at the party and became enchanted with the idea of saving this orphan barrel from a near-certain fate of obscurity.
A few days later, the Curleys got together with Busching, Ting and Ting’s husband, Paul, to discuss the idea further. The meeting turned into a blending trial. They decided to mix in a small amount of Riesling to boost the acid, and a tiny amount of Viognier to round out the mid-palate and add aromatics. The wine is still predominantly Pinot Gris, with hints of the other elements to bring the wine into a nice balance.
“We decided we were just going to sell it at Tavola, Brasserie Saison and through Jake’s wine label,” says Martin Curley—a focused outlet for its limited 58 cases, to give The Orphanage (so named because Ting continually referred to it as the orphan barrel) a platform its creators feel it deserves.
The orphan barrel of skin-contact Pinot Gris has found a happy home. But the larger idea behind the project hints that there are more interesting one-off barrels in local wineries that could use The Orphanage series platform as a way to enter the market. The amber Pinot Gris is the debut release. What will be next? “Jake and I are talking about a vermouth,” says Curley.
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.