Natty & Nasty: Angela Osborne, A Tribute to Grace
Angela Osborne thought she was going to be a filmmaker. She wanted to make documentaries and didn’t think her job at a wine shop in Auckland would lead to anything other than a way to pay her bills during her studies. Little did she know that 15 years later she would become one of California’s most respected winemakers.
Her journey started after graduating when a winemaker friend of the shop owner suggested that she try her hand in wine production and then encouraged her to go to California and work with another Kiwi, Nick Goldschmidt, who was the winemaker at Simi. That was in 2002. She spent twelve weeks in what she called the “barreldom,” cleaning barrels and loving every second of it. During this stint, Goldschmidt took her to Unti Vineyards where she tried Grenache for the first time. She recalled, “It was the ‘99 and my world turned on its head. I realized I wanted to make wine and that varietal.”
Instead of going back to New Zealand she moved to San Diego, where her father lived, and got a job in a wine shop, The WineSellar & Brasserie. After one year she moved to London and worked in wholesale, first for a big distributor and then for a Burgundy specialist. Three years and one viewing of Sideways later she was ready to come back to California. She returned to the wine store in San Diego and during a Grenache tasting met Russell Fromm of Hermann Story Wines who let her piggyback fruit onto his order.
Over the next five years, she worked for Beckman, Failla, Kevin Kelley, Anne Kramer and other growers and winemakers throughout California. All the while, she was making her own wines and finally, in 2012, Angela realized she needed to be closer to her grapes so now with a husband in tow and kids in her future moved back to the Central Coast and dedicated herself full time to ‘A Tribute to Grace’ and shortly thereafter, raising her boys.
A Tribute to Grace has set an unparalleled standard for Grenache in California and not only among natural wine producers. Angela is not trying to make a super light style as has become somewhat fashionable over the last few years nor is she going for the heavy, high alcohol wines that gained popularity in the 90’s. As she will tell you, she is letting the grapes do what they do and it all begins in the vineyard and sourcing from good terroirs.
What makes A Tribute to Grace wines more than just delicious juice but also a topic of conversation is that they really do show terroir and tasting one next to another can be a revelation. As one of the most widely planted red wine grape in the world, Grenache can be pretty ho-hum and outside of the southern Rhône and Priorat it is rarely memorable but Angela Osborne has shown what is possible in California and the name she chose for her wines, A Tribute to Grace, could not be more fitting.
PSB: Why did you choose the name “A Tribute to Grace?”
AO: It was a tribute to my grandmother, Grace. My parents split when I was very young so my grandmother was a very big part of my upbringing and we were very close. When I first got back to the States in 2006 I was walking on the beach and thought of her and I wrote her name in the sand with my big right toe and thought that is going to be the name of my label.
PSB: Would you mind running through the story of how your friend in Dublin came up with the design after you sent her your toe etching?
AO: Yes! Peggy Sue is her name, well her real name is Nicole Sykes but we’ve been friends since we were 13 and her nickname has always been Peggy Sue. It was 2009 when the time came to bottle and release my first vintage (2007), and I sent her my ‘label’ and she came back with a “Mmmm let me see what I can do with that Angite.”
Peggy was living in Dublin at the time and working as an illustrator for an ad agency and she spent a weekend working on some label concepts. On the way to the office, she stopped off at a vintage market and picked up a book that had a pressing of Queen Anne’s Lace in it. She was moved by the pressing and bought it, took it to her creative space, and it ended up being the touchstone of the label I chose. I should go back through my emails and find that original set of beauties. It would be wonderful to see that now.*
PSB: Why did you throw your lot in with Grenache?
AO: Grenache is the most graceful of all the grapes. It’s the one I love the most. It’s more the yin/yang balance that first struck me, with the balance leaning ever so slightly towards the yin, the feminine. Each element is supported by its opposite, like anything – though when the wine is made with a delicate touch, the whole is carried by this ethereal energy that I haven’t experienced in any other grape. I’m using a fairly big benchmark with that analogy, but that was the wine that inspired me to make Grace as I do. There are other grapes I’m enamored with. I really love Cabernet Franc, I love Gamay and I love Chenin. But to focus on one thing makes a lot more sense for what I’m trying to achieve.
PSB: Can you talk about how your wines are similar and different from one another?
AO: They are similar in that they are 100% varietal, made with the same music and the same feet. Elévage is the same and the barrels are given an identity through name (Lakshmi, Sarasvati etc).** The wines though, they are site specific and for that, they have very different voices. Depending on how the stems taste, I may use 20%, I may use 80%, I may use more new wood, I may use only neutral barrels. The Highlands, for example, always has the most whole cluster (between 70% and 80% currently) because my senses truly love how the tannins taste on the stems and I am a huge lover of sandalwood. Shake Ridge Ranch receives more new wood as the cooper I love has this alchemy when housing the tannins of Shake Ridge fruit. And Murmur Vineyard called for freshness and therefore had no new wood and less whole cluster (50%). But there are no rules really, each year the fruit or my palate or a combination of the two moves things down different paths.
PSB: What’s your take on other Grenache that is made in California today?
AO: Stylistically, it’s definitely shifting. I was looked at as having an unusual style because of how I did it (a relatively lighter style). Certainly, in the beginning, I was regarded in a patronizing way because Grenache was meant to be bigger in style. I don’t know how they could do those kinds of things because in the vineyards I was working with we weren’t getting that kind of fruit.
People have asked me if there are other Grenaches I love in California and only recently I’ve been able to say yes which is unfortunate because the climate is perfect. There is one made by Drake Whitcraft that is the best Grenache I’ve had from California.
PSB: You use more sulfur than let’s say other natural wine producers and we’ve discussed that before. What is your reason for it and what is your defense against SO2 haters?
AO: I need to use it because I’m working with a high ph variety that oxidizes very early. The color doesn’t so much bother me because I don’t believe in using a tool to judge but the oxidation changes it. The perfume is changed completely. What I’m trying to convey is not oxidation. I’ve worked in wineries that use a lot of SO2 and I’m very sensitive to it. But with Grenache and the climate I work with, I need it. I like it fresh and that takes away from it when it’s oxidized. I asked Nicolas Joly at a conference once where he was on a panel and he said you can’t take dogma and apply it to every wine.
PSB: I’ve been hearing more and more people say recently that they are over flawed natural wines.
AO: Reduction is interesting from an intellectual perspective but it doesn’t make me want more. I don’t want to put Grenache through an oxidative frame that ends up tasting like tortilla chips. I like freshness and length and direction.
PSB: Have you ever made white wine?
AO: Last year for my consulting job I made Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. We planted Grenache Blanc and Clairette Blanc. It’s very different than making red wine. At Salinia, we made skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, which is more tactile. With white wine, you literally press it and put it into barrel and wait.
PSB: Where is your consulting job?
AO: Folded Hills. It’s an amazing opportunity to work for a project such as this, where the land is treasured not just by conscious farming, but also with a whole ecosystem that keeps the elements in balance. There are organic row crops, the produce is then sold in the farmstand; KuneKune pigs, heirloom chickens, and goats are raised. The eggs are sold through the farmstand and the meat through a range of local restaurants, or to individuals who like to buy the whole animal, which I wish I could do for my family but our freezer is teensy. The entire property is 600 acres, with only 15 acres planted to grapes. And it’s in a magical valley the Chumash Indians named Nojoqui, which means ‘honeymoon place. Truly a magical place to grow Grenache…and Syrah, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Clairette Blanc.
PSB: What made you decide to go down the natural path?
AO: When I was at university I did a double major in film and German. I lived in Germany between high school and college. I wrote my thesis on the influence of German immigrants/culture/practices on the New Zealand wine industry and interviewed a bunch of people, including James Millton who had studied at Geisenheim.*** I was already a huge fan of his philosophies from the wine shops I worked at (Point Wines and Caros)****, but to hear of his first experiences with biodynamic teachings and how he brought those philosophies back to Gisborne in the early 1980’s, was spellbinding.
PSB: And you dream of making wine in New Zealand?
AO: We would love to buy some land in the Tuki Tuki Valley (Hawkes Bay) and farm biodynamic and make Chenin and Cab Franc. It’s been a dream for a while. It would be a healing retreat and a place where we could make wine but we wouldn’t want it all planted with grapes, we’d want livestock and Harakeke and yurts…A balanced circle.
PSB: Slightly off topic, Have you made any films?
AO: No, I haven’t picked up a camera since 2003! And even then it was only my little home one, the degree I did focused on film theory and the practical element was to follow once I graduated.
PSB: Do you find that winemaking and filmmaking are similar in some ways?
AO: Absolutely. There’s an enormous amount of work from so many different hands that goes into the finished product. But, they can be very invisible hands that one doesn’t have to know about or even spend a second thinking about to enjoy the film/the wine/the moment. And once you do know about those hands, it’s impossible to enjoy the end product without breaking everything down! It took me years to see a movie and not dissect it in my head and most winemakers will agree it is a conscious effort not to analyze the wine as you drink it. Sometimes it’s nice to just be carried away by something, and when a wine does that to me, or a movie, I am truly grateful.
PSB: Lastly, What advice would you give to someone and especially a woman who wanted to become a winemaker?
AO: Interesting, I just had a phone call last night from a wonderful woman who was an intern years ago…My advice to anyone would be to focus on what you love most and strive for that one thing to make up the majority of your work. It’s a very dynamic industry with lots of different skill sets needed within the whole, which is great as that means there’s lots of diverse ways to begin. For instance, if you love farming, find a company that holds it highly.
Above all, be honest about what you wish for and find like-minded people. The hours can be brutal so the latter is vital, as you will spend enough time meditating on the former. And as a woman specifically – if you come across sexism (which I have experienced more from women, than from men, unfortunately), stay true to why you love it, and email me for a visual meditation a friend taught me in Ojai, that has helped me in spades 🙂
Recently tasted A Tribute to Grace Wines
2016 A Tribute to Grace Rosé of Grenache (Santa Barbara, California) $25
Angela sources the Grenache for her rosé from valley floor in the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. It is the only wine she inoculates. I tried this rosé blind with two others and it really stood out. It seems to have a touch of residual sugar but I wouldn’t say it tastes sweet. With apple skin, berries, lemon meringue, and mineral underpinnings, this is far from a one-note rosé but does not need to be accompanied by Proust.
2014 A Tribute to Grace Grenache, Highlands Vineyard (Santa Barbara, California) $30
The Highlands Vineyard is situated on a high desert, 3200 feet above sea level. It has sand and exposed rock. Angela works with eleven rows. Summer days are hot as Hades but the evenings cool off so while the wine has 14.5% alcohol, there is also a lot of acidity. Savory with a core of vibrant berry fruit, a smidge of underbrush and balanced tannins, this is the first wine she made and a perfect gateway to her other bottlings. Drink now – 2021.
2014 A Tribute to Grace Grenache, Vie Caprice Vineyard, 2014 (Santa Ynez, California) $49
Vie Caprice was planted just ten years ago on a sandy loam plot in Santa Ynez. It renders tight clusters with tiny berries. In 2014, the grapes underwent 50% whole cluster fermentation so there is some rambunctious tannin going on which, with its white pepper speckled cherry, berry fruit and kirsch creates a lush, rich mouthful of wine. Drink now – 2024.
*Angela’s other grandmother also influenced the label. In her words, “Grace was my maternal grandmother (born and raised in New Zealand). I was spending six sacred months with my paternal grandmother, Marie (whom I called Gfunk), when it was time to design the labels. I had taken time off my winemaking job in Ojai to nurse Gfunk in San Diego following a bad fall where she broke her hip, and it was her that identified Queen Anne’s Lace for me from Peggy’s label. Gfunk was born and raised in Indiana, and she shared with me that Queen Anne’s Lace grew wild there, and they would pick it for wedding bouquets, or any sacred bouquet when she was growing up… And it was one of her favorites.”
** Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of health, wealth and prosperity and Sarasvati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, wisdom, music and aesthetics.
***Millton Vineyards in Gisborne was one of the earliest organic and biodynamic producers in New Zealand.
****Both Point Wines and Caro’s are in Aukland, New Zealand.