A natural approach: Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat winery

Jared Brandt, co-owner of Donkey & Goat, takes a wine sample from a barrel

The exterior of Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat winery is urban in the extreme. Its entrance sits behind steel doors in a concrete tilt-up building on Fourth Street, and the front door looks out on a parking lot. Interstate 80 is less than 1,000 feet away.

But inside, the eight-year old winery is a throwback to another era. There is not a stainless steel or plastic fermentation tank in sight. Instead, stacks of old wooden French barrels rise 15 feet into the air. Two massive 1,600-gallon tanks made from Hungarian wood dominate a corner of the winery.

“We ferment all of our wine in wood — white, red, rosé,” explains Jared Brandt, 40, who started Donkey & Goat in 2003 with his wife, Tracey, 41. “I like the way wood breathes during fermentation. It is a natural insulator.”

The Brandts’ emphasis on natural extends to their wine making. They are part of a new breed of vintners who tinker with their wine as little as possible, preferring that grapes and terroir, rather than designer yeasts and processing, determine a wine’s flavor.

“For us we are interested in letting the wine speak for itself with as little intervention as possible,” said Brandt.

The Brandts’ emphasis on natural wine making — which even has its own manifesto — is drawing attention. In January, the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine writer, Jon Bonne, named the Brandts as one of his top five winemakers to watch in 2011, writing they were “starting to redefine the standards of California wine.”

“The Brandts’ methods can be strict; their model is the do-less method advocated by the Japanese philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, whose radical farming concepts eschew chemicals and machines and allow only minimal plowing, mowing, and pruning,” Bonne wrote in Saveur magazine in October 2010 in another article about Donkey & Goat. “But the proof of the Brandts’ success is in their fascinating wines. Untrammeled by oak, gorgeous berry flavors leap from their 2008 mourvèdre, a red grape originally from Spain. Brambly and mineral, it tastes of the granite-rich Sierra foothills where the grapes were grown, but with a leather edge that’s reminiscent of the southern Rhône.”

The Brandts are turning California wine upside down from inside a cramped 2,800-foot space near two Chinese herbalists, a solar company, and, until recently, an Indian food purveyor. But this is about to change. Donkey & Goat is moving in mid-July to a 4,000 square foot space in the old Flint Ink building on Fifth Street near Gilman.

The new space, besides being bigger, has a 2,000 square foot outdoor patio that the Brandts intend to use for tastings and their popular release parties, which were previously held in their parking lot. The back wall of the patio is covered in graffiti (enhancing the urban sensibility of the place) and the Brandts are adding picnic tables and a full size bocce ball court to create a distinctive courtyard.

The outdoor space that will become Donkey & Goat’s patio when they move to new premises

The move will also bring the Brandts into Berkeley’s burgeoning “drinks district.” Eno Wines and Broc Cellars are right around the corner at 805 Camilla, Trumer Pils Brewery is on Fourth near Camilla, and Pyramid Brewery is on Gilman near Seventh.

Brandt is passionately devoted to Donkey & Goat, but he eschews all the usual gimmicks that wineries use to attract buyers, like artfully composed tales of how a winery came to be or tasting rooms where visitors can pretend they are in a Mediterranean villa. “No-one writes about the beautiful drive to the warehouse,” he jokes.

But the Brandts’ transformation from high-tech insiders into wine makers is a twist in the usual story.

In 2001, Tracey was working for a JP Morgan spin-off that sold secure messaging services for financial service companies and Jared was a vice president for the gaming company IGN. Then the dotcom bust hit. Tracey was laid off and Jared found himself firing 30 of his co-workers, a task he abhorred.

Over a great glass of white Chateauneuf-du-Pape one night, Jared and Tracey decided to try something new and their thoughts turned to wine. It wasn’t a far-fetched idea as Tracey had been one of the early investors in Crushpad, a custom wine making facility then in San Francisco.

The couple decided they wanted to learn more about wine and snared a year-long internship in France with Eric Texier, an up-and-coming Rhone winemaker who made wines as naturally as possible. During their year abroad, the Brandts were exposed to many Old World wine-making practices, such as farming without irrigation, leaving leaves on the vines to shade grapes, and not tinkering too much with the wine.

They also got the name for their winery in France. Donkeys have long been used for weed control in Europe, but, while they are hardworking, they can be stubborn and uncooperative. Farmers discovered that putting a goat nearby calmed the donkeys down.

“There was a joke in France that Tracey was my goat,” said Jared. “It’s a yin and yang thing. But sometimes she can be really stubborn.”

When the Brandts moved back to California to start a winery, they brought those European techniques with them, little realizing they were out of style in California, where fruit-forward, big wines garnered the praise and the dollars. They made their first batch of wine in 2003, but didn’t release any commercially until 2004.

They moved A Donkey & Goat winery (they later dropped the A) to Berkeley from San Francisco in 2006, choosing the Fourth Street location because its proximity to the bay kept the wine cool on hot days and warm on cool days. Tracey now works full-time at the winery while also caring for the couple’s two daughters. Jared still works as a high-tech consultant three days a week.

The Brandts pursued their vision of natural wines by seeking out interesting grape varietals grown by farmers who adhered to Old World techniques. They found an overgrown Chardonnay vineyard in Filo in El Dorado county in the Sierra foothills that had vines growing on their own rootstock . (Vines are usually grafted onto American rootstock to reduce the risk of phylloxera.) They later found other vineyards in Mendocino and Monterey counties with Syrah, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache and Chardonnay grapes.

The Brandts ask their farmers to intervene as little as possible. The vines are not irrigated, weeds are controlled through tilling, and no herbicides are applied.

“It’s pretty minimalist,” said Brandt. “Some people say it’s do-nothing farming. I don’t think that’s accurate but I am pretty pleased with the wines.”

When it’s time for harvest, the Brandts set up a huge refrigeration truck in their parking lot. While workers from a vineyard management company pick the grapes, the Brandts and their friends drive them back to Berkeley.

Some of the grapes are then put in the huge Hungarian 1,600 gallon vats and different friends take turns crushing the grapes – by foot. (The crushers, who last year included an executive from Pixar, members of the UC Berkeley Frisbee football team, and the Brandts’ then five-year old daughter, Isabel, wash their feet and legs before stomping on the grapes.)

“We just find that feet are really good,” said Brandt.

The wine is then transferred into old French oak barrels that they got from famed winemaker Helen Turley’s Marcassin Winery. They then try to leave it alone. They don’t add yeast, enhance the maloactic fermentation, or clarify the wine with egg whites. They use verjus, the juice from unripe grapes, rather than tartaric acid, to balance the wine. They sometimes add a little sulfur during bottling to prevent oxidation, but they try to minimize this.

Though he strives to keep his wines as natural as possible, Brandt has no interest in becoming biodynamic, a philosophy that uses cycles of the moon and various  techniques, like cow manure buried in a cow horn, to determine how to treat grapes. Biodynamics is too interventionist, in Brandt’s opinion, because it involves the application of copper sulfates, a toxic substance.

Not everybody is a fan of the Brandt’s naturalistic approach to winemaking. Proof of that came right after the winery’s first release in 2004. James Laube, editor of the influential magazine, Wine Spectator, gave Donkey & Goat’s Chardonnay a 78 score out of 100.  That low rating would usually send a winery into purgatory, but it didn’t bother Brandt at all, he insists.

“It’s probably the score I am most proud of because it shows he doesn’t understand our wine,” he said. “He just didn’t like our style, which is totally cool.”

Other influential critics such as Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer praised the wine and have gone on to give high scores to Donkey & Goat. But Laube’s rating showed the couple that relying on scores was not a reliable way to attract people to the wine, so they reached out to cultivate customers.

Jared spends a lot of time traveling to New York, Chicago, Denmark, Sweden, and other places to explain his wine. (In fact, he was in New York on March 11 when Tracey went into early labor. He missed the birth of his second daughter, Lily.) He tweets regularly, uses Foursquare and Facebook and uploads videos about Donkey & Goat on You Tube. The efforts to reach out have worked. In 2009, at the height of the economic meltdown when exports of California wine dropped for the first time in 16 years, Donkey & Goat’s export actually went up, said Brandt.

On a recent damp weekend in March, more than 400 people came to the winery for a spring release party. The winery was offering samples of its 2008 Fenaughty Syrah, which sells for $35 a bottle, the 2009 Four Thirteen, which sells for $32, the 2009 The Prospector, Mourvèdre, which sells for $27, the 2009 Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay, which sells for $40, and its popular 2010 Grenache Rosé, Isabel’s Cuvée, which sells for $18 a bottle. In addition to sampling the forthcoming releases, visitors snacked on grilled calamari and other dishes prepared by Sean Baker, the chef of Gather restaurant.

“It was great,” said Bill Newton, who was at the event with his wife Carol Lashof. “Lots good food and wine. We couldn’t help ourselves but had to buy six bottles!!”

Donkey & Goat’s spring 2011 release party

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  • berkeleyhigh1999

    great article and great company. one would hope that that the workers picking
    the grapes from the vineyard management company hired to get that vital part of
    the process done are treated fairly.

  • Diane

    Sounds like a nice winery.  It’s exciting to hear about a winery with their production facilities right here in Berkeley.

  • Andrew

    These guys make great wine! They are committed to doing it their way and committed to always learning more and more and improving what they do. The Donkey and Goat wine on tap at Gather is fantastic and reminds me so much of the wines straight from the barrel that we had in Italy. I just wish I could have my own wine cask on tap at home!

  • http://caviarcommunism.wordpress.com/about/ West Bezerkeley

    Great article. My wife and I enjoyed the wine & the tasting event we attended there.

  • maurice pate

    Must agree that their wines are good although a bit on the pricey side.

    But I must say that their events at the winery leave much, much, much to be desired!  Never have so many waited for so little….a complete lack of organization, food that ran out as soon the the event started, crowd control that was nonexistent…no value for the $10 cover charge!

    Just like the Off the Grid event it proves, that even in Berkeley, undiscriminating hipsters will stand in line for anything!

  • Part-time Berkeleyite

    I attended the event catered by Gather back in the spring, and while I agree that the food portion of the event was poorly organized, the Gather crew was still putting out food until the event’s scheduled ending time.

  • http://twitter.com/winecountrygeo WineCountryGeographi

    Just make sure to ask them if their grapes are certified organic. (Which they are not.) Natural is not the same as organic. Check wikipedia “organic wine” for more info…(on natural versus organic)