SA Winemaker Profile: Wayne Ahrens

Have you ever stuck your hand into warm, sweaty garbage? I’m not taking about putting your hand in a trash can stuck in the sun. I’m talking about going full hog into a New York City black bag mountain in the middle of July. Have you ever felt hundreds of decomposing fruit peels and half-eaten salads coming back to life and pulsating with a kinetic energy that could fuel several Equinox treadmills?

When Wayne Ahrens, winemaker and viticulture magician, asked me to stick my hand into his compost pile, I almost gagged. I’m not a dirt person. I didn’t play outside a lot as a kid. My boyfriend brought home potted rosemary plants for us to grow in the kitchen and my first response was to worry about the windowsill paint.

I stuck my damn hand in there. Wayne has an incredible ability to make you forget that a conventional winery – one where say, a “site visit and tasting” consists of looking out a block of manicured vines while sitting with a pre-prepared cheese plate – would never ask you to experience the heat of the compost.

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Smallfry Wines is true to its name: the winery is the business of just two people, Wayne and his wife Suzi Hilder, who are the owners and only employees. It was incredible upon meeting them both that they have any energy left at all for hospitality. (They’re not on the Santa Clarita Diet, don’t worry.) On the day we met them, it was nearly 95 degrees and yet the two of them were chipper magpies; Wayne whipping us around through their shockingly old vines (some of which are over 150 years), Suzi putting together a feast composed of vegetables and chicken grown either on their property or sourced from neighbors just down the road. That vitality might have something to do with the particular agricultural ethos to which they subscribe and which – to this writer’s eyes – contributes to the phenomenal quality of their wines.

Wayne and Suzi
Wayne and Suzi

 

Wayne’s vineyards are biodynamic, a word which often gets thrown around but is rarely explained to a consumer. Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified and balanced ecosystem that creates the fertility and vitality of the farm mostly on its own. To convert a conventional vineyard to biodynamics requires the use of prepared solutions – potions, if you will – that help reignite the vines’ natural life force, while simultaneously introducing nutrients that can improve the quality and flavor profiles of the grapes. These potions can include worm farm juice,  nettle teas, chamomile… and buried cow manure. (Just go with me on the last one.) Biodynamic winemakers rely on native yeast to ferment the wine in the cellars. (The kind of yeast that is flying through the air at all times, sort of like drones at a Superbowl halftime show.)

All of this sounds pretty straightforward in concept, but what often leads many wine buyers, sommeliers and even wine educators to roll their eyes about biodynamics is that it is connected to spirituality. Biodynamic viticulture is holistic and sees a need to balance the resonance between vine, human, earth and stars. To be certified biodynamic, you must follow a special calendar which dictates the best days for planting, harvesting and pruning. These days are determined by associating that specific calendar date with one of the four classical elements: Earth, Wind, Fire and Air. People who really want to just work off ‘instinct’ or, more often, company timetables, find this type of scheduling deeply frustrating and virtually impossible to maintain. This is amusing when you think that American farmers used the “Farmers Almanac” for generations to guide healthy harvests and that we made wine for centuries by just looking at the stars.

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Many critics also question whether biodynamics make any difference on wine quality. This is harder to say, because people measure quality wine in all sorts of ways. Innumerable environmental factors can impact flavor intensity, structure, alcohol content, etc., not just viticultural practices. However, if you are like me and find enjoyment both with what is in the glass and also with the story of the grapes, then vineyards like Wayne’s offer you a really exciting and ever-changing narrative. Envisioning a vineyard as an ecosystem that can depend on itself for all of its own growth and regeneration provides a cyclical journey that doesn’t start and stop with pesticides, imported water and chemical yeasts.

 

A selection of Smallfry's bounty.
A selection of Smallfry’s bounty.

Whether you care about biodynamics or not, there is no getting past that Smallfry’s wines are really something remarkable. Wayne and Suzi are total foodies (did I mention how effing good that lunch was? #zucchiniflowers4life) and their wines are made to compliment a well crafted meal. The 2015 Stella Luna Shiraz/Cinsault blend is floral, spicy, a little stinky, and rich with flavors like cranberry sauce and rosemary that make you want to spread it all over a pork chop. The 2015 Tangerine Dream (yes, named for the 70s krautrock band) is a blend of Riesling, Semillon, Pedro Ximenes, Rousanne, and Muscat, fermented on the skins, is like a picnic by the sea where all you brought was grapefruit, oatmeal and your cat. It’s a hella perfect pairing for orange chicken or salsa verde tacos.

To Australian readers, the below were our highlights from the tasting. A select few of Smallfry’s wines are available in the US and can be purchased from Chamber Street Wines.

2015 Tangerine Dream – $28 (Different Drop)

2016 Stella Luna – $28 (Different Drop)

2016 Grenache Petillant-Naturel – $40 (Cellar Door)

 

 

 

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