Rising Star Winemaker: Dani Rozman, La Onda
As natural wine has taken hold in California, aspiring winemakers have been flocking to the state to pursue their dream. If you think of this in baseball terms, a lot of people are still in the minors, working with more experienced winemakers to hone their craft, but over the last few years there have been a bunch of folks who’ve not only made it to the big leagues but have also become All-Stars. Dani Rozman of La Onda is on this team (he followed the Yankees as a kid, but since I’m a Mets/Giants fan I’m putting him in the National League).
Originally from New Jersey, Dani studied history and political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and thought about going to law school or doing development related work. He spent two weeks in Haiti as part of a relief effort after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. Feeling overwhelmed when he returned to New York, he booked a flight to Buenos Aires. He bartended for a while, but after a backpacking trip found himself in Mendoza, working at a start-up, Vines of Mendoza.* After numerous conversations about organic and biodynamic viticulture with a winemaker friend, Dani crossed the border to work in Itata in the Bio Bio region of southern Chile. He bounced back and forth a few times between the two countries putting time in with natural wineries.
Dani started looking for wine work in the United States and Spain when he was in Chile, which wasn’t easy. “I didn’t have internet on the farm so I was using a neighbor’s dial-up modem to make cold calls and send emails to wineries. Cold calling from abroad was tough; people were generally confused by my story and probably thought I was trying to prank them because the calls kept cutting out.”
Eventually, he got a response from Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron.** “Gideon responded to an email and was interested to hear about the old vines and traditional practices in Itata. The emails led to a call and then a job.”
It was at Clos Saron where Dani bottled his first wine in 2013. He went on to work at The Scholium Project and make wine in both Chile and California. Starting this year, Dani is working exclusively with the Renaissance Vineyard in North Yuba, which he co-farms with Frenchtown Farms. Very much a dream come true, his face lights up when he talks about farming this property and what it holds in store for La Onda.
PSB: Why have you chosen to make wine from the Sierra Foothills?
DR: The first time I was looking for a wine job in California I ended up working at Clos Saron (2013) and that kind of sold me on the potential of the Foothills. It’s an underdog region that has the potential to make wine as good as anywhere else in California. So now I’m farming a vineyard with Aaron and Cara (Mockrish) of Frenchtown Farms. They also worked for Gideon.
PSB: Do they own the vineyard?
DR: The vineyard is owned and was planted by Renaissance. They’re no longer a functioning winery.
PSB: Ah yes, I do remember them. What are your farming practices?
DR: It’s kind of an extension of what Gideon does, but we’re doing it on a larger scale. We’re dealing with 18 acres and at a much higher altitude (1900 – 2100). All the work is done by hand. The only thing sprayed is elemental sulfur. We have around 70 sheep and we run them through the different vineyard blocks. They basically serve as the tractor, the compost and everything else. We have to take them out at bud break because they start chewing on the shoots and they want to eat everything they can. We don’t irrigate. The vines are around 40 years old and I don’t think they’ve gotten water in at least three or four years, and they’re not going to.
PSB: What are you growing?
DR: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Semillon, a little Pinot Noir and a little Riesling
PSB: What is the total acreage?
DR: It’s 20 -30 something acres scattered over 1000 acres. It has all different exposures and microclimates. You can have a 15-minute drive from one block to another block, which adds to the difficulty of farming it. They (Renaissance) planted the vineyard without winemaking, terroir, or exposure in mind. It was more of a labor project, and beautification so they planted an incredible amount of western facing slopes that just get baked with the sun. They don’t lend towards the type of wines we like to make or drink. Most of those vineyards were ripped out so what remains are just different east, south and southeast facing for the most part.
PSB: Can you explain what you mean by the types of wines you like to drink and how do you think you can get the results you want from this vineyard?
DR: In general, I prefer leaner, more nuanced wines. I have an extremely high tolerance for acidity in wine. In terms of how you achieve those wines from the vineyard, this is the first year that I’m full on farming this vineyard. But even the wines I’ve tasted that were made in the past – the wines I made the first year when I wasn’t farming the vineyard – there’s been incredible acidity. You can pick the grapes at 12 % or 14.5% alcohol and either way you can have screaming acidity. For the most part, it’s the soil. We have a ton of granite and that helps, and it’s the hot days, cool nights.
PSB: You’re making the wine at Clos Saron, right? How far is it from the vineyard?
DR: Less than a mile. We now have this really nice thing where we have three wineries (Clos Saron, La Onda and Frenchtown Farms) and we’re all very much philosophically on the same page. It’s nice for there to be a winemaking community where we can bounce ideas off of each other and collaborate. It’s like a mini movement.
PSB: Do you have a place up there?
DR: I stay in a tent on the property where Frenchtown Farms operates. I’m trying to figure out something more permanent and adult, but right now the grapes matter more than anything. We wake up super early and I’m out of the tent and by the time I get back in I’m falling flat on my face and then I wake up and do it again.
Every day is different and you’re reacting to some issue. The vineyard is out in the wild and there’s a ton of deer; birds are another thing. There’s a bear that lives at the bottom of one of the vineyards. Last year we got destroyed by animal damage… it was a light year in general and then the animal damage just decimated the vineyard and this year we’re trying to think of ways to keep them away. We’ve had the sheep and dogs in a section between two of the vineyards and their presence helps. We put up a very strong pot grower type of plastic fence that’s easy to take down. Deer jump into it and bounce off.
PSB: That’s not going to keep away the bear.
DR: The bear does what it wants, but it stays at the bottom. The deer are really destructive, so right now we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with that because we have a beautiful fruit set and we don’t want to lose it all.
PSB: When do you start picking in your area?
DR: It’s been earlier than it was in the 90’s. But, it looks like we might be harvesting into November this year, which we didn’t last year. It feels good that this year has gone in a positive direction. Even the idea of harvesting grapes two weeks later is a huge deal. But I don’t draw assumptions beyond that.
PSB: Coming back to my original question of why the Foothills, it sounds as if you are more attached to the place and did not go there with the intention of making wine from specific grapes.
DR: When it comes to the majority of the wines that I’m making it’s what these people decided to plant in the 70’s. If I was doing it now I would have planted different things, but they’re now 40-year-old vines and that’s a pretty rare thing for California. I’m trying to see what’s there, and what I want to do with it.
PSB: What would you plant?
DR: Cinsault is my favorite grape, hands down. There is something intoxicating about it. I have a whole bunch of Cinsault sitting in a nursery right now waiting to get planted. If I had my way I would make mostly Cinsault. It’s tricky because Cinsault needs a lot of age to make a significant red wine, but I think there’s awesome terroir and I think you could start off making rose or white wine from it. This is all multi generational stuff; planting Cinsault is essentially a gift to someone in the future, assuming nothing bad happens. But, you’re right; I’m trying to work with what I have. On the other hand, I’m making Cinsault in Chile.
PSB: Do you see making wine indefinitely in Chile?
DR: I’d like to. There’s some kind of link between Itata and the Sierra Foothills. They’re two areas that have incredible soil and climate and yet haven’t been deemed important on the global wine radar. Itata has vines that are 100 – 150 years old. It’s unbelievable. You go there and see the soil and the vines and it has all the potential in the world.
But, at this point I’m committed to the work I’m doing in California. I’d like to continue working in Chile but take a step back. I now know of vineyards and have relationships and if possible would like to collaborate with friends down there and have them be the people who are really making the wine. I wouldn’t be the true winemaker, and I think it’s important to be open about that.
PSB: How did working with Gideon influence you?
DR: It kind of reaffirmed everything I thought, but didn’t actually know. I thought if you do things a certain way you could make incredible wine; you probably don’t need to use these chemicals and things could be very simple. You go there and see the way he farms; he kneels in front of each vine and studies it. The winemaking is incredibly minimalistic. Tasting the wines and tasting the energy in those wines just blew my mind. To me, energy in wine is everything. I like them to be energetic, I like them to be clean, and I like for them to have some kind of distinctive quality that separates them from other things and I think that’s Clos Saron.
PSB: What do you mean by “clean?”
DR: I think you can make wine with native yeast and without a lot of sulfur and still not have the wine be overwhelmed by something that takes away from what the wine is. That’s what I mean, not having such an overwhelming presence of VA (volatile acidity) or bret (brettanomyces) to the point where that’s the focus. I can have a glass of something like that at a bar and find it interesting, but I’m not interested in making that kind of wine. That’s what I mean by cleanliness, wine that isn’t totally messed up for the sake of being messed up. We each have to decide what speaks to us and I don’t want that to dictate the wine.
PSB: What did you learn at Scholium?
DR: I always felt that the focus at Scholium was on white and pink wines. That had me thinking about how you press grapes. On top of that, there is a really nice curiosity there and openness where everything is open for conversation. There’s nothing to hide and they see value in tasting and discussing successes and failures even with visitors. You’ll get to taste what you want to taste. In the wine industry that’s a very refreshing thing. It was a pretty meaningful stop.
DR: The original label is a photo my mom took in the 60’s. The date is on the bottom. It says August ’69. It’s a flamenco party in Spain.
I decided to call the project La Onda based on living in Argentina. “Onda” is a word that’s used a lot. It means vibes. It could mean the vibe I’m feeling in this place like, “There’s a cool vibe,” or it could mean wave. It’s a commonly used word and it drew me in, in some way.
The first time I made wine it was just for friends and family and then Gideon and I thought I should probably sell it because it was good enough. I thought of the picture of this party and this flamenco dancer. La Onda is the vibe it captured. I’m now collaborating with a friend who’s an artist and making a bunch of different labels for the wines I’m farming. She’s making different interpretations of the original labels.
PSB: What’s your dream?
DR: To farm a reasonable size vineyard and make a bunch of wine and be able to do a bunch of fun stuff.
PSB: It sounds like you are well on your way. Thanks for you time.
La Onda Current Releases
2016 La Onda Blanco de Tinto
(North Yuba, California) $30
Vineyard: Renaissance Vineyard, Slope 1 planted in 1976 at 1900 ft elevation.
Farming: Farmed by hand and sheep without the use of chemicals.
Vinification: Whole-cluster pressed, fermented in tank and aged in puncheon on its lees. Racked and given a small SO2 addition the day before bottling. Bottled unfined/unfiltered. 600 bottles.
Tasting note: Dani calls this Blanco de Tinto because it is more of a white wine both in color and texture than a rosé, even though it is made from a black skinned grape. At first, I detected a mossy, mildly peaty Scotch type of aroma, but that dissipated over time. There was a salinity that remained, with star anise, tart blackberries, and scorching acidity.
Dani’s suggested food pairing: A seafood pairing is an obvious choice but I eat way more pasta than seafood. Something like Caccio e Pepe, Carbonara or the veggie version of Carbonara with saffron, zucchini, egg, and Parmesan. The wine needs some fat or dairy for the acidity.
2015 La Onda Carignan
(Mendocino, California) $28
Vineyard: Poor Ranch, Coyote Rock vineyard, planted in 1940’s at a 900-foot elevation.
Farming: Certified organic.
Vinification: Whole-cluster stomped, fermented in an open-top container and aged on its lees in old French oak. A small amount of SO2 added the day before bottling. Bottled directly from barrels with a small amount of lees inclusion, unfined/unfiltered. 576 bottles
Tasting note: While the fruit has a ripe denseness there is also a refreshing quality, with savory underpinnings.
Dani’s suggested food pairing: Grilled lamb and veggie kabobs with labne. *** The Carignan has a little grip so it’s nice to pair with grilled meat. Frenchtown Farms and Clos Saron both raise their own sheep so we are somewhat spoiled in that regard.
(Itata, Chile) $28
Cinsault (70%), Pais ($30)
Vineyard: The Cinsault is from Guarilihue and is 80 years old at a 400-foot elevation. The Pais is from Quillon and is 150 years old with a 350-foot elevation.
Vinification: Whole-cluster stomped Cinsault, fermented in closed containers. There was a small SO2 addition, after malolactic fermentation and the wine was aged on its lees until bottling. The wine was racked and bottled unfined/unfiltered and without any additional SO2. 864 bottles
Tasting note: This was one of my ten most memorable bottles in 2016 and it was just as delicious when I tasted it last month. The eucalyptus character that was very present nine months ago has mellowed a drop and the wine is more integrated with equal parts spice, fruit, and earth.
Dani’s suggested food pairing: It has to be something from Chile such as Porotos con Riendas y Longaniza, a regional dish which is basically a thick soup with beans, noodles, and sausage. The rusticity of the País is perfect with the Longaniza.
Alcohol: 13.3% Alc.
2014 La Onda Cinsault/Syrah
Cinsault (90%), Syrah (10%)
(Lodi/Sonoma Mountain, California) $28
Vineyards: The Cinsault is from the Bechtold Vineyard and it is 130 years old at a 20-foot elevation. The Syrah is from the Feingold Vineyard in Sonoma and is 20 plus years old at a 570-foot elevation.
Vineyard: Whole cluster stomped, fermented in open top containers and then combined. Aged on lees in French oak and racked the day before bottling with a small SO2 addition. Bottled unfined/unfiltered. 720 bottles
Tasting Note: Dusty with cocoa and blue and black fruits, this wine has a brooding quality, but there is also a lot of acidity, which seems to both literally and metaphorically lighten it up.
Dani’s food pairing: One of the dishes I cook most is Shakshuka. I’ve been making it for years and anyone who has had dinner at my place has had It. It’s not an obvious pairing, but the acidity in the dish and wine are able to balance out. Most importantly, it’s a homey communal dish and kind of encapsulates how wine should be enjoyed.
*Vines of Mendoza is an American owned vineyard, resort and spa in the Uco Valley in Mendoza.
** Gideon Beinstock is the winemaker and owner of Clos Saron, the first natural winery in Oregon House, California. Prior to this, he was the winemaker at the Renaissance Vineyard & Winery.
*** Labne is a soft cream cheese made from strained yogurt.