Philosopher, rock star, farmer, artist….Hank Beckmeyer is dedicated to minimalist, organic viticulture and winemaking. Since 2001, along with his wife Caroline Hoel, he has been making wine in El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills of California. He adheres to the principals of Japanese natural farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, along with Rudolph Steiner, Austrian founder of biodynamic farming. Their 10 hectare estate, La Clarine Farm, is a cohesive ecosystem of vines, trees, indigenous herbs and flowers, goats, chickens, dogs and cats.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Hank on 2 occasions within a 3-day span; the first was a winemaker dinner hosted by Kevin Eidens of natural wine importer David Bowler Wine at Post on Lark restaurant, followed by Peripheral Wine, a natural wine tasting event held each year in Hudson NY.
Hank’s commitment to minimalist winemaking and zen-rebel approach radiate thru in conversation and wines. He deciphers and resolves the paradox of the “natural farmer”; conceding that farming is solely a human activity; “There is nothing really “natural” about it. It is a process by which Man exploits Nature for his own gain. But the depth of the exploitation, it seems to me, is entirely up to the farmer and his or her mindset.” Acknowledgment is the first step; the next logical question is “What is the role of the farmer? To promote life and to help set up an ecosystem as close to Nature as possible, whereby natural processes and systems can function. To promote the possibility of “naturalness”.”
Since the release of his first vintage in 2007, Hank is constantly experimenting and questioning the grape and terroir restrictive methods of many winemakers. Common processes such as adding yeasts rather than rely on native yeasts for fermentation, adding enzymes, multiple sulphur additions and ageing in new oak. These methods assist in guaranteeing a sellable product, but they result in a generic wine without sense of place. Hank’s persistence in making wines as naturally as possible means that he is constantly involved and tasting every step of the way, developing an awareness for all the possible turns a wine may make. “I have also learned that things which “may” signal a problem (like a strange flavor or a hint of reduction) may not mean that I must act now to save the wine. I’ve seen strangeness appear in wines, have left them alone, and seen that strangeness disappear again, somehow absorbed into the fabric of the wine itself. The sky never does seem to fall.”
The selection of wines I tasted [and those subsequently purchased] are a reflection of this dedication and obsession with crafting wines with respect to terroir, grape and vintage. Wines made from grapes not typical in California vineyards, or paired together, such as a Nebbiolo/Syrah/Mourvèdre blend, or a skin contact Albariño. Pure, distinctive, engaging and memorable, these are rebel wines that champion “possibility of naturalness”.
La Clarine Farm ‘al basc’ Sierra Foothills 2018
Winemaking: Grapes are from the Rorick estate vineyard with limestone soil. Skin fermented and macerated in an open top fermenter with native yeasts for 10 days and then transferred to flex tanks for 7 months.
Tasting Notes: Light orange in colour, very aromatic, with orange, pink grapefruit, peach, sea spray, a drizzle of caramel and a trace of jasmine. Orange, red apple, pink grapefruit, apricot and saline minerality glide across green tea tannins and good acidity. Orange, lemon, peach, along with a nutty trace linger on the zippy finish. Engaging and striking.
La Clarine Farm ‘piedi grandi’ Sierra Foothills 2016
Winemaking: From vineyards with volcanic loam soils at 2900 feet in elevation.
Whole-cluster spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts, aged in tanks. [Frost in 2018 decimated the Nebbiolo vines, 2017 is the last vintage.] Along the label bottom, in very small letters: “Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.” J. Cage
Tasting Notes: Garnet in colour, with aromas of morello cherry, wildflowers, roasted chipotle, earth and smoked sea salt minerality. All the cherries [red/black/sour], black currant, raspberry, blackberry, pomegranate, orange peel and white pepper glide across a backbone of grippy tannins and fresh acidity. Saline minerality glosses eucalyptus, cherry and earth on the lip-smacking finish. Silky and fresh.
38% Nebbiolo, 32% Syrah, 30% Mourvèdre
La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre ‘cedarville’ Sierra Foothills 2017
Winemaking: Whole-cluster spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts, the inclusion of stems balances the Californian super fruitiness. Aged about 1 year in 600 liter neutral barrel.
Tasting Notes: Garnet in colour, with aromas of black cherry, blackberry liqueur, blackcurrant, coriander and smoky earth. Morello cherry, red currant, blackberry, cranberry and a shake of white pepper are framed by tart acidity and fine tannins. An herbaceous streak fused with a dash of star anise/cinnamon/licorice runs through to the tangy, fruity finish. Distinctive and captivating.
La Clarine Farm ‘PRIMAL!!!’ Sierra Foothills 2017
Winemaking: Grapes are from the coolest block in Matthew Rorick’s estate vineyard, Forlorn Hope, with a mix of schist & limestone soils. Whole-cluster spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts, aged in puncheon.
Tasting Notes: Inky red violet in colour, with aromas of tart cherry, earth, bramble and peppery spice. Cherry, blueberry, black currant, morello cherry, pomegranate, red currant and white pepper fuse with fresh acidity and grippy tannins. Orange zest and berry pie filling linger between each plush sip. Ripe, juicy and lush.
*Tasting Notes are from February 2020.
For a closer look at Hank and his approach to wine and farming, please check out his comprehensive site here