Yamakiri: Lisa Bauer Interview
By Jake Wright, Annex Wine & Beer Buyer/Manager`
Some of my favorite wines here at Annex Wine & Beer come from Lisa Bauer of Yamakiri Wines. A relative newcomer to the winemaking world, Lisa managed by pluck and luck to bring forth distinctive, unique wines that speak vividly of the places they come from and the hands by which they are made. Her wines have been a hit with our customers. At our recent spring wine tasting, they were clear standouts.
I am grateful Lisa chose our store to hawk her wines. That is how I met her, when she walked through the door with a business card, a firm handshake, and a great story. When I tasted her wines, it was clear I was experiencing something special. Some wines are distinctly a reflection of their maker, and Lisa’s are no exception: outspoken, gregarious, and willing to push the edge. Yet the wines (like Lisa) also have depth, a soulful dimension that invites reflection. Camaraderie and reverie in the same glass.
Lisa’s first career was in the world of recycling, first in San Francisco and finally at UC Berkeley. Her wine appreciation evolved over the years, but at the core of her experience is memories of her German father who imported wines from Germany. It was with her father in 1979 that she made her first trip to the Anderson Valley. One destination was Navarro Winery, because they had German varietals like Riesling and made wines like Edelzwicker. Thus Lisa began a love affair with the region where she now lives.
As her own wine palate matured, she found herself appreciating European wines more and more. She sought out smaller wines shops and learned from their proprietors. Then, following her close-to-the-land, DIY spirit, she started to make wine at home. Her first attempts were by the book, with lots of measuring and manipulation. By following the rules, her wines turned out good, if a bit jammy to her taste.
Around this time Lisa acquired some property near Yorkville, high above Highway 128 in southern Mendocino County. In 2009, an abundant year for grapes, a neighbor offered her some free Pinot Noir—second pick—she jumped on it and pulled in a quarter ton. This wine she started with native yeast and very little manipulation, and the results were stunning. She knew she was on to something.
At the bottom of her road, another neighbor had a field of derelict grapes. These grapes—Sauvignon Blanc—were feral, unkempt, and feeding the birds. Her winemaking friends, seeing the quality of the grapes (even in their neglected state), asked Lisa to ask the neighbor if they could pick them. The answer came back no; another ask, another no, and so on. After nearly giving up, Lisa finally asked if she could pick the grapes for herself, and the answer was “yes: but you have to take all of them.”
Now, 2½ acres of grapevines would yield a far larger amount of fruit than she had ever worked with before. A little spreadsheet analysis, a candid call to a custom crush facility, and some good advice from friends convinced her that she could do it. “But I didn’t think I was going to sell it. I thought I was just going to have a whole lot of white wine to give away as gifts.”
When Lisa first tasted the young wine, she thought “this is delicious!” A professional winemaker friend, Alex Crangle, replied “yes, these are really good grapes. And they were abandoned? Can you drink all this? You should sell it.”
“What?! I’ve got to get permits, I’ve got to get licenses, I’ve got to…” But the allure of having a saleable product proved too enticing to refuse. Jumping through the hoops, Lisa was in business.
At this point Alex Crangle became Lisa’s winemaking partner in the emerging adventure. It is a creative partnership, with each bringing balancing strengths and talents, but resting on a shared philosophical bedrock. It began with Lisa sharing what she wanted: a dry wine that tastes of terroir, with nothing added to it, save a small amount of SO2 [sulfur dioxide] at bottling. And she had an idea that she would find older, dry-farmed, ignored vineyards as sources. Then Alex handed her a copy of One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. She had read it back in her co-op days, but this time she read it “with completely different eyes.”
Fukuoka is known for his natural, no-till, “do-nothing” organic farming techniques, and through this lens Lisa saw the potential in the abandoned, derelict, and marginal vineyards she was discovering. This of course dovetailed into her earlier work ethics: “That’s also my recycling background. That’s ‘waste not, want not.’ If I hear about something not getting used, it pains me.”
So with a nod to Fukuoka, and acknowledging her own land, her Yorkville property that often sits just above the fog line, Yamakiri—Japanese for “foggy mountain”—was born. Under the heading “Found Wine,” their website sums up their approach:
Our intent in making wine is simple: we tend older vineyards, pressing them into gentle use. We seek low-till and dry-farmed vineyards for their depth and low yield. We let native grasses grow because vitality and diversity in the vineyard translate to a distinct expression of terroir and produce wine with a light footprint. We work closely with the land and its stewards in an effort to craft exceptional and unique wines.
Speaking of “found” wine, Alex knew of a few barrels of Syrah that were rejected by one winemaker for being “too smoky.” But Alex and Lisa saw the potential. And, as Lisa observes: “Alex really, really gets how not to mess with wine. He’s patient, and he has a palate that allows him to taste forward and anticipate what it’s going to taste like.” This wine became the stunning “Papillon de Nuit.” Alas, it is truly a unique wine, since the vineyard that it came from has been torn out.* Then came a rosé, a blend of press rosé and red and white, and before Lisa knew it, she had a product line.
Still, it hasn’t all been roses. “A lot of the older vineyards I had my eyes on died last year. They didn’t make it; they couldn’t last through three years of drought.” And while Lisa loves the concentrated flavors older, dry-farmed grapes give, there is a lot more work involved. Nevertheless, she’s looking ahead to planting her own vines on her property, to be dry farmed biodynamically, but thinking forward to warmer and drier conditions that appear to be in store for California.
When I ask Lisa to describe her wines, she demurs. “I’m not good at characterizing in any one way. They’re like children. They all have their own character.”
But I press her, to speak generally if possible.
“They are just at the edge of what the varietal dictates. I like pushing that, expanding that. We pick at lower brix. I don’t like high alcohol, I don’t like anything heavy or jammy. I think it obfuscates the rest of the flavors that are there. Racy, edgy, the complexity of the grape, not anything else.”
I can certainly agree to that, and I think a lot of our customers find that to be true, as well. Finally, I ask her: how does it feel being a small fish in big pond?
Here is where Lisa lights up, the scrappy passion coming through: “It’s clear to me, that in the midst of all the hype and drivel and marketing bull**** driven by these massive companies, there’s still room for human interaction and small producers that have unique products and interesting stories. I think that’s pretty cool. And I never thought I would be on the receiving end of it… I was always one of those people looking for that product. And now I’m making it. How cool is that?”
Very cool. And the proof is in the glass, right under our noses.
Yamakiri “Papillon de Nuit” Syrah
Mendocino Ridge 2012
*As of this writing, we have seven bottles left to sell before it is gone forever.
Yamakiri “Filligreen Farm” Pinot Noir
Anderson Valley 2014
Anderson Valley 2014
Yamakiri Sauvignon Blanc
Yorkville Highlands 2014
For more information, visit: http://www.yamakiriwines.com/