Mike and Anne Dashe
Wine lovers come from all walks of life, and a few wineries can count famous scientists among their fans. Dashe Cellars is no exception, and it was as much for the wine label featuring a monkey riding a fish as it was for what came inside the bottle.
“It was supposed to be a whimsical label, and the illustrator came up with the image out of her imagination,” says winemaker Michael Dashe, who owns the Oakland, Calif., winery with his wife and fellow winemaker Anne. “I got a phone call from Jane Goodall, the primatologist, who loved the wine and wanted to know how we came up with the label design. It was a highlight of our early days in the business.”
Founded in 1996, the now 16-year-old winery is known for more than just its labels. The winemaking couple has earned accolades for its top-shelf varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Riesling and Grenache. But Zinfandel seems to beat closest to the heart of Dashe Cellars. The pair’s predilection for what is considered by many to be America’s native wine grape has as much to do with the winemakers’ past as it does their preferences.
“We naturally tended towards Zins as our first wines simply because I had been assistant winemaker at Ridge Vineyards and had access to great grape growers in Sonoma,” Michael says. “People also knew me as a Ridge guy, so I knew I'd be able to at least have people look at our wines in the beginning if it was a zinfandel from someone trained at Ridge.”
The Perfect Blend
Ridge also was central to the couple’s meeting. Ridge lab manager Cherie Melka and her winemaker husband Philippe spent considerable effort trying to introduce Michael to Anne, a fellow graduate with Phillippe from France’s University of Bordeaux. At first, Michael resisted the idea of meeting Anne, who was working as master distiller the former Carneros Alambic Distillery at the time. Their divergent backgrounds had convinced him they would not be able to relate.
“I resisted dating a French woman for reasons known only to my younger self, thinking we wouldn't be able to communicate well,” Dashe says. “Boy, was I wrong. We met in 1995 and got married in 1996.”
The couple’s marriage coincided with the founding of Dashe Cellars and, with dual backgrounds steeped both in Old World and New World approaches to winemaking, set the Dashes off in a unique winemaking direction. Yet both were steeped in the other’s traditions even before they met.
California native Michael Dashe, who began brewing his own beer age 15, eventually converted his focus to winemaking, receiving a master degree in oenology from the University of California in Davis in 1987. Before taking the position at Ridge, Michael studied at a variety of wineries around the world, including Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, arguably the premier Bordeaux winery, where he learned a great deal about tannin management. He brought that knowledge with him back to California, and its influence shows in his wines today.
Anne Dashe, a native of France’s Brittany region, studied biochemistry and science at the University of Bordeaux, but it wasn’t until an internship at Chateau La Dominique in Saint-Emilion that she fell in love with winemaking. After receiving her degree in 1991, Anne moved to California, taking a position at Chappellet Winery in St. Helena, followed by a period at Napa’s Seavy Vineyards before becoming brandy-maker and research enologist at what eventually became RMS Brandy Distillery, and has since been sold to Beringer Blass.
“Anne and I have both wanted to use the great expressive fruit that we get here in California, and give more of an Old World subtlety and texture for the wines,” Michael says. “Our decisions on selecting vineyards make it easier for us to produce wines with slightly higher acidities and lower alcohols, specifically because we like those kind of Old World characteristics in the wines.”
Urban Wine Guerillas
But that wasn’t the only characteristic to separate Dashe Cellars from other wineries. There also is a little matter of the winery’s location just blocks of Jack London Square in downtown Oakland. Dashe Cellars wasn’t the first urban winery, but it remains one of the few, Michael says, and the location comes with its own opportunities and challenges.
“The advantages, of course, are that we are close to customers and to the restaurants and retailers who carry our wines,” says Dashe, who lives with his wife across the bay in San Francisco. “The disadvantages are that it is difficult to get people to realize where you are and that you are making excellent wine even though you're in a city and to come to a tasting room in an urban environment. But now that there are more urban wineries, it will be much easier to attract people in the future to our tasting room and prove that ‘garage-ists’ can make extremely good wine.”
Dashe wines, several of which are distributed in Madison by wholesaler L’Eft Bank, have won their share of awards. But tasting a number them across the spectrum indicates an overall quality and unique approach that are no doubt the results of the winemaking couple’s combined background and cross-cultural pollination.
“I do the everyday winemaking work, selecting vineyards, making vineyard and picking decisions, managing the cellar activities such as fermentation, barrel selection and aging, deciding on specific winemaking techniques,” says Michael. “Anne and I both do all the blending trials together for the wines, so she has a dramatic impact on the taste and textures of the wines.”
A Bevy of Zinfandels
That dual influence shows, particularly in the Zinfandel’s the winery produces.
The 2010 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($24), the latest iteration of one of the winery’s first releases, pours a deep purple with reddish hues into the glass. The Zinfandel blend, with 16% Petite Syrah and 1% Carignane, has a blackberry/black pepper nose with a touch of minerality, flavors that carry over to the palate and enhanced by the wine’s fine balance, layered characteristics and velvety texture.
The 2009 Zinfandel Florence Vineyard ($32) offers a 100% Zinfandel varietal produced from younger vines. The same deep purple color and black cherry notes characterize the wine, which also sports notes of lavender on the nose and earthy/spicy qualities and a pronounced, persistent finish.
The 2009 Zinfandel Late Harvest Dry Creek Valley ($24 for a 375 ml) is one of the winery’s most surprising and delightful offerings. The vines, grown on a rocky hillside, struggle to survive. The resulting grapes, harvested in late October, yield concentrated and complex juice that offers a flavor profile significantly more complex from the other Zins. Add aromas of cranberry, plum, vanilla and cocoa to the nose and black currant, chocolate and vanilla to the palate and the result is a delightful, well-balanced dessert wine.
Older vines play a significant role in the 2008 Louvau Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($32). The vines produce limited quantities of jet-black concentrated fruit, resulting in a wine that pours a reddish black. Spicy and even floral notes enhance a nose dominated by stone fruits, and the palate enjoys the wine’s velvety mouthfeel, soft tannins and a long finish of black raspberry, stone fruit and spices.
The Wild Children
But Dashe Cellars has taken yet another departure from the normal California winemaking approach, one that honors both the background and roots of their wines, Michael says.
“We enjoyed the wines we made, but as time went on, we looked for vineyards and clones that would produce wines that were more like the wines we enjoyed from the Loire and Beaujolais,” says Michael. “We created the "Les Enfants Terribles" series of Zins and Grenache that were more European in style.”
The 2011 McFadden Farm “Les Enfants Terribles” Zinfandel ($24) benefits from its organically grown Mendocino County grapes and native yeast fermentation. The 100% Zinfandel wine pours an unusual ruby red, much like a Gamay, with a wild strawberry/white pepper nose underscored by an earthiness and minerality. The aroma elements carry over to the palate, which features a velvety texture and clean, lingering finish.
The 2011 “Les Enfants Terribles” Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($24) follows much the same pattern. Fermented from Sonoma Valley fruit, the wine pours a lighter strawberry red as befits the grape. The aroma and palate are much the same in their flavor elements as the Zinfandel in the series, but with lighter, brighter and almost wilder characteristics. In both cases, grapes more organically grown serve the wines well and help define the future of the industry, Michael says.
“Some of our vineyards are certified organic, but even those that are not certified are farmed as if they were organic vineyards,” he says. “They produce the best fruit for "natural" winemaking, and since we don't use cultured yeast we need as natural of a microflora on the grapes as possible. This is also the path for having wines reflect the vineyard's terroir and to make wines that are uniquely reflective of the place that they're grown.”
From a winemaking perspective, the approach makes sense for Dashe Cellars. Based on the couple’s wines, it’s seems like it could be a sound strategy for winemakers from both the Old and New Worlds, regardless of whether they have a monkey and fish on their labels.