Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Belgian Brewery Set for Cannery Row {Edible Monterey Bay}

August 11, 2015 – this piece went live on the Edible Monterey Bay blog. Read it there.

Belgian Brewery Set for Cannery Row
Story by Camilla M. Mann

Belgian Pacific is “just three Belgian guys who want to share the beer culture of Belgium with Monterey,” explains Fabrice Rondia—one of the three. Along with partners Damien Georis and Jonathan Geisler, Rondia is creating a beer tasting room and brewery on Cannery Row where visitors can learn about, experience, and appreciate the quality of Belgian beer.

The three guys are all originally from Belgium though they have been living on the Monterey Peninsula for varying lengths of time. Rondia has been here more than half his life. Having met through mutual friends, the three talked about introducing Belgian beer here and, on a trip back to Belgium, Georis found Leopold 7.

Leopold 7 is brewed by the Brasserie de Marsinne in the small village of Couthuin, Belgium, near to where Rondia’s family lives. “It’s only five minutes away from my grandparents’ house, but my dad and all my family were not aware of it. It was kind of fun for me to let them know about something so close to them.” In the three years since, Leopold 7’s momentum has picked up and their production has doubled.

Rondia, Georis, and Geisler knew that Leopold 7 was selling in Africa, so they began to research the company and considered a Beligum-style craft brewery here to be more sustainable, since no shipping would be needed.

Rondia penned a letter to the brewers, pitching his idea: “I’m passionate, not just to import the beer, but eventually brew it here.” When he and his wife flew to Belgium, the goal of the trip was to ask—can we make your beer? And, after meeting, they put numbers together. “It’s a wonderful match,” Rondia admits.

The name of their brewery/tasting room—Belgian Pacific—is based on the idea of introducing Belgian beer culture to the Pacific coast. They are in the process of opening an eco-brewery on Cannery Row. The concept aligns with what the brewers want. “They are the real craftsman, real artists. They brew just one beer and it takes a lot of patience.” Rondia continued, “It’s a bit like Grandma’s cooking. She has one special dish. You know, if you love her spaghetti and meatballs, she doesn’t need to make anything else.”

It took the Leopold brewers two years to come up with their recipe. Once Belgian Pacific is ready, they will be sending their brewers to Europe to learn directly from Leopold 7. Georis—a winemaker at Georis and Madeleine Wines—says, “My role is to import the beer from Belgium, until the brewery gets going here in Monterey in partnership with the Belgian brewers.”

Leopold 7 was introduced to the California public at the California Beer Fest in Santa Cruz last weekend. Beer lovers raved about its refreshing and unique taste. Rondia thinks that the sunny-hued brew mirrors the essence of Belgium, a façade of tradition but with a contemporary flair. And he embraces the brewery’s practices that make them more sustainable. “It’s pretty remarkable for Belgium,” he explains. “The logo used to have a lot of red and yellow, but those colors contained toxic pigments, so they changed the look to more greens and blues which don’t have the toxins.” Also, there are no paper labels on the bottles, the spent grains are used in compost program, and they are coming up with innovative ways to use less water.

Belgian Pacific will be located at 419 Wave Street—it’s the lot right next to the sculpture of Ed Ricketts. Rondia shares, “I’ve been running on that trail for twenty years and always said, ‘one day, if I could have that place….’ Now I do!” Rondia, Georis, and Geisler acquired the property earlier this year after nine months of negotiation. It’s almost a hundred years old with a lot of Cannery Row era personality and a surprising ocean view since it’s not on the waterfront. “It’s a weird oasis,” he says.

When Belgian Pacific begins brewing, they will proudly advertise their brew as “Belgian-born, but brewed right here.”

An opening date has not yet been set, so for now, you can find Leopold 7 at the Corkscrew Café in Carmel Valley Village, at Casanova restaurant in Carmel, and Rondia just dropped off shipments at Monte Vista Wine & Spirits in Monterey and Surf and Sand in Carmel.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ON THE VINE: The San Benito Wine Trail {Edible Monterey Bay}

This piece was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Edible Monterey Bay. You may read it on their website: here. Or below...

ON THE VINE: The San Benito Wine Trail
One of the Monterey Bay’s best-kept secrets is there for the exploring
Story by Camilla M. Mann

Highway 156 is a road well traveled by people heading between the coast and the Central Valley, where Interstate 5 provides an artery the length of the state. For years, I’ve driven the road without looking beyond the patchwork of fields along the often-congested, yet picturesque two-lane road.

But venturing off 156 onto Union Road just south of Hollister, I’ve made several recent detours onto the San Benito County Wine Trail, which is less of a straight path than a lattice crisscrossing the valley between the Gavilan and the Quien Sabe Ranges. The vineyards that dot the region include both some of California’s oldest and youngest grapevines, grown by some of its most intrepid vintners, such as Calera Wine’s Josh Jensen and Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, and a number of lesser known yet equally interesting personalities.

What San Benito’s dozens of viticulturists and winemakers have in common is an attraction to the limestone-rich soils and moderating ocean breezes that make the area an extremely favorable one for growing wine grapes. But the similarities end there. Like the fault lines that interlace the area—the San Andreas Fault that flanks it to the west, the Quien Sabe Fault to the east, and the Sargent, Calaveras and Tres Pinos fault lines that it straddles—the group’s members like to shake things up. And because of that, they offer a diverse array of unique wines that make their tasting rooms well worth the trip.

Turning from Union onto Cienega Road, where most of the tasting rooms are situated, you enter a world of bucolic hills, hardy wildflowers and not much else. Especially—until now—there was not much in the way of food to match the fine local wines.

But that will likely change soon, when exciting, seasonal, farm-to- table foods prepared by exceptional chefs are expected to be offered at both DeRose Vineyards and Bonny Doon’s Popelouchum.

When I first started exploring San Benito’s wines, I contacted Ian Brand, a vintner known for his Salinas-based Le P’tit Paysan label. One of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s “40 Under 40: American Tastemakers” in 2013, Brand has broad experience with grapes from across our region through making wine for more than a dozen other Central Coast winery owners.

We discussed Napa and Cabernets, Paso Robles and Syrahs, and Sonoma Pinot Noirs. When I observed that there didn’t seem to be a definitive varietal coming out of San Benito, Brand concurred.
“San Benito is a younger region, so folks are planting a wide variety of grapes to see what works. The area is a county full of possibilities.” In essence, he says, the wines coming out of San Benito are a mixture of heritage and discovery.

On the heritage side of things you have DeRose Vineyards, which occupies a site established by French immigrant Theophile Vaché in the 1850s, making its vines some of the oldest in the state. The winery has changed hands several times and, for a spell, its vineyards—like others in much of the county—were almost the exclusive domain of former wine industry giant, Almaden.

“There’s a lot of great history here,” says vintner Pat DeRose, whose family in 1988 took over the winery after a period of neglect and rescued some 100 acres of abandoned vines from the clutches of weeds and thistles.

The winery now offers a handful of unique wines, and I was instantly enamored by the exotic, century-old Négrette, whose name means “little black one.” Called Pinot St. George before 1997, legend says Négrette, descended from Mavro rootstock, was transported to France by Knights Templar returning from Cyprus. DeRose’s Négrette is inky and aromatic with stone fruit bursting out of the glass and some spicy nuance.

Just down the road is another vineyard that dates back to the 1850s, the stunning red-brick Pietra Santa Winery. Pietra Santa means “sacred stone” in Italian, a reference to its limestone-laden soil, which has helped its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese win numerous medals in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.

The 450-acre estate also produces organic and infused olive oils from its five varieties of trees, and offers picnic tables next to its vineyards. Further into the valley is Josh Jensen’s Calera Wine. The best known of the region’s established wineries, its pinot noirs, chardonnays and viogniers are perennial award winners.

Randall Grahm and his Bonny Doon Vineyards are most often associated with Santa Cruz County, where Grahm lives and established his first vineyard. His current tasting room is also in Davenport.
But early in his career, Grahm borrowed winemaking space at Calera, and in 2011 he returned to San Benito County to embark on what is arguably the most daring move of his career.

He purchased a 280-acre ranch in San Juan Bautista, which he calls Popelouchum, the native Mutsun word for “paradise,” and launched an effort to hybridize from seed 10,000 entirely new vinifera grape varietals. The ultimate aim: to make a true vin de terroir, a unique American wine that offers the fullest expression of place possible.

Thus far, just three-quarters of an acre of the estate is planted with well-established vines, and Grahm admits it may take many years to see the project through. “There’s a possibility I may not be around to know if it’s a success or failure,” Grahm says.

But the continuing drought and quickening climate change have made the need for new grape varieties better suited to the region— and to changed weather patterns in general—all the more urgent.

So as this issue of EMB was going to press, Grahm was preparing to launch a multi-platform crowdfunding campaign to raise $750,000 or more to finish the research needed to create the rest of the vines. He was expecting to offer to the campaign’s donors wine, naming rights and even early access to the plants.

Grahm is encouraged by the barrel of wine he made from Grenache harvested from the estate last year.
“I’m extremely happy with it,” says Grahm, noting that he “lives” for minerality in wines, and the deep-colored Grenache’s qualities include “really intense perfume, wonderful acidity, great body, this wonderful, earthy mineral aspect.”

Popelouchum is only open to the public during special events, of which Grahm plans a few for this fall.

Also engaged in notable new discoveries in San Benito’s wine country are two young winemakers—Ryan Kobza, founder of Kobza Wines, and Nicole Walsh, who has made wine for Bonny Doon for 14 years, and just last year bottled wine for the first time under her own Ser Wine Co. label.

Both are using an old-vine grape from the Wirz Vineyard in Cienega Valley called Cabernet Pfeffer.
Kobza and Walsh admit they were intrigued by the grape because it’s different.

“I love this wine. It’s distinctive and unique, layered with floral, fruit and spice. It’s delicate, but has structured tannin,” Walsh says. Walsh knows of less 10 acres of this extremely rare grape in the entire state of California—all of them in San Benito County.

Adding to the intrigue, the grape’s origin had been a matter of controversy until last year. A DNA study of the Wirz grapes conducted by UC Davis solved the mystery, finding that they are the French Mourtaou, which in France is sometimes called Pfeffer. The term “Cabernet Pfeffer” is used only in California, for both Mourtaou and Gros Verdot.

If there is a commonality I found in my travels to San Benito County’s tasting rooms and my encounters with its winemakers, it’s that the area’s vintners tend to be mavericks. They’re a highly varied group, but together they create a body of wines that honor the area’s heritage with distinct and delicious expressions of the region’s terroir. In short, it’s just what you’d want from a new wine discovery.

Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at and lives in Seaside.