Monday, June 8, 2015

Forestville's Emtu Estate Wines: Sonoma MicroWinery With Gourmet and Global Connections

Visit Emtu Estate Wines, and you'll find yourself driving down a semi-suburban street a few minutes away from the center of Forestville. Friendly black dogs greet you, with tails wagging, outside the owners' home. 

Go to the "tasting room" and you'll be seated at a picnic table next to the tiny winery, looking out over proprietor John and Chris Mason's three acres of vines. 

The two have what is one of Sonoma's tiniest boutique wineries. But from this humble abode, they make wine deemed world class enough to be served in to the creme de la creme of Bay Area diners. Their small lots of $40 Pinot Noir go directly to Chez Panisse and A16. 

They also sell to a small email list of Emtu fans, winery visitors and, since the launch of a new web site this spring, online.

John Mason: Emtu's co-founder, vineyard manager,
winemaker, tasting room director, and delivery man
The label's foundation's were laid when John Mason bought the rundown Forestville property in 1997. "It was basically abandoned when I got it," Mason says.

In 1999, he took a leave of absence from his job as a paramedic for the Berkeley Fire Dept. to work in Kosovo to help with relief efforts there. He got hooked on disaster relief, and he and Chris, a former nutritionist, started spending part of each year working on international relief efforts around the globe.

But when he spent time back in Forestville, he developed ambitions that were more local than global.

"I decided after awhile that I wanted to do something agricultural with the land here," says Mason. 

The Masons began working on the vineyard in 2003. From the start, they were certified organic. A third of the vineyard is planted to Dijon clones 115; two thirds is Pommard. They fill in replacement vines with Dijon 667 and AS1.

"We get about 3-3.5 tons per acre and make about 350-400 cases a year," Mason says. 

Two years ago the county's general plan changed, enabling the Masons to build a tiny winery adjacent to their house and the vineyard. Mason constructed a modest straw bale structure that houses four  small tanks and three barrels. The three foot thick walls keep the interior temperature constant and cool.
About as green as you can get: the winery is made of straw bale;
the roof is covered in solar panels.
Though Mason's taken classes at local institutions on viticitulture and wine making and worked at Marimar Torres, he credits a stint in Mendocino as his most formative wine education experience.

"I was working for Farmecology Labs in Hopland for awhile," he says. "The company does vineyard monitoring, looking at water use, insects and more, I'd visit a 100 different vineyards a week in a season and see the practices, talk to the vineyard managers and field crews and look at the vines. That formed my philosophy."

Which is...? "That irrigation and canopy management are the most important aspects of making wine. Wine is made in the vineyard."

Mason didn't water for 6 years. Now the two water the baby vines.

Mason says he thinks most Sonoma growers overwater. "Most vineyards in Sonoma could be 100% dry farmed," he says. "People fear their vineyards won't thrive," he says. At a minimum, he says, Sonoma growers could improve irrigation monitoring to better manage water.

When the Masons started their vineyard and winery venture, they'd hoped it would fund their relief efforts. Though that hasn't panned out (since the recent downturn), and they rely on family and friends primarily to fund their nonprofit, the two still divide their time between the winery and working on international relief efforts. And what profits there are from the winery go to their nonprofit.

"I've been involved in the building trades for most of my life," says John,  a native of San Diego. "I enjoy contributing my skills in relief areas." This fall the couple will head to an earthquake striken village in Nepal. 

"We've helped in a number of earthquake areas," says Mason, who is a a logistics expert as well as a builder, "In Peru, after their earthquake, we helped the locals to adopt safer building construction methods. It meant a change from their traditional ways." 

To date, the couple has worked in Sumatra, Thailand, Cameroon, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan (in Central Asia), Haiti, Peru, and Pakistan.

Back home on the ranch, Emtu Estate Wines makes two different wines - a Pinot Noir ($40) and a rosé of Pinot Noir ($20). 

The 2013 Rosé - dry, crisp, tart, with spice notes
The Emtu Pinot Noir
How did Emtu manage to place its wines at Chez Panisse? "We just went to dinner there, and left a bottle of our wine for the wine director to try," says Mason, "with a one pager about what we were doing. Three weeks went by and we thought, well that was that. But then the phone rang and it was Jonathan (the wine director) saying they'd like to carry our wine on their list." Later A16 followed suit.

While Mason makes trips to Berkeley to deliver wine, he's now getting focused on the fall trip to Nepal. "We'll be going to a village 50 miles outside Katmandu where we have a connection to a woman running a local orphanage there."

The orphanage, which was built according to more modern construction methods, Mason says, is one of the only buildings in the village to withstand the earthquake. "We'll be helping the village rebuild so it can withstand the next earthquake."

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