The longer I write about wine, the more roads to passion I discover. It was only a matter of time, then, before the ranks of successful winemakers became populated with wine bloggers. William Allen is one of several people I know of whose passion for wine led them first to blog about it, and then more recently to make it. Such a journey is not remarkable on its own — more than a few wine writers have decided to try their hands at making the stuff they’ve spun yarns about for years. The fact that Allen happens to have been a blogger rather than a professional wine writer is really incidental to the whole story, which like so many, is simply about someone falling head over heels in love with the grape. The story is worth telling, though, because the wines are actually good.
“I started out on the typical, horrible path of drinking lousy wine that I thought was good,” laughs Allen. “My wine of choice right out of college was Sutter Home White Zinfandel. But then I started dating a girl that was a little older that was into wine, and she said, basically ‘There’s no way you’re drinking this shit’ and turned me on to the Bordeaux grape varieties.”
Allen was born in Bermuda, and after high school, attended Auburn University where he says he “didn’t really study anything of value.” He got degrees in Political Science and Sociology with a minor in Statistics. The numbers work got him into computing and he did a year of graduate school in Computer Science before getting recruited by AT&T into a young executive program that set him on a career path in technology sales.
“I was working with AT&T when I made my first trip to Napa,” recalls Allen, “and I completely fell in love with wine country. I went down the path of spending too many years buying big Napa Cabernet.”
In 1999, after a few years of stocking his cellar with big reds, Allen got a job working for a start-up based, improbably, in Petaluma, and got his first exposure to the “other” California wine country.
“I completely fell in love with the Russian River Valley when I discovered their Pinots,” says Allen. “My palate was tired of big California red wines, and I had been dabbling a little in Pinot Noirs but hadn’t really dived in deep. My turning point was tasting so many wines that were delivering complexity through subtlety and nuance, not through in-your-face stuff.”
It was around this time that Allen began his career as a garage beer maker, and like many fermentation geeks, it was only a matter of time before he moved on to wine. His start as a winemaker was literally right out of the pages of the home winemaker’s catalog.
“For a few years, I was buying frozen must from those home winemaker services,” chuckles Allen, “but then I eventually graduated to real grapes. Sangiovese, Trousseau Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier — I was all over the map.”
Allen moved around a lot, as high-tech salespeople are wont to do, living in Colorado, Mexico (“I had to come back because I couldn’t get decent wine”), Texas, and California. In the process he racked up two million flight miles in between rackings, so to speak.
In 2008, Allen’s friends had started to consider him their local wine nut, and were encouraging him to start a blog. Around that time, he moved again for the last time to Sonoma County, and thought to himself, “why not?” Simple Hedonisms was born.
By this point, Allen was spending most of his pocket money on wine. “I was really buying a ridiculous amount of wine,” he says. “but I think of it as a process of building a database in my head, a database that would eventually allow me to answer the question of what kind of wine would I make if I were going to make one? Eventually a pattern emerged.”
In addition to starting his blog (and ensuring that he stayed in the good graces of the folks in charge at his day job) Allen began to volunteer at wineries during harvests to do what he describes as “total immersion.” He also went to his first Hospice du Rhone event, and everything seemed to come together.
“The Rhone represents the most fascinating, the broadest, and most diverse wine region for me,” says Allen, who has decided to make the region’s grape varieties his focus as a winemaker.
But it wasn’t a Rhone variety that finally tipped him over the edge into full fledged winemaking, it was a Sangiovese. Specifically one of the last lots of Sangiovese that he had managed to cobble together in his garage.
“Alan Baker [another journalist turned winemaker] liked my Sangiovese and asked me ‘How the hell did you make this in your garage?’ and I said, ‘This is it, damn it, I’m just going to do it.'”
By this time Allen had made connections near and far in California wine, and in 2010, after setting his sights on making a Grenache Blanc, he was hooked up with some fruit by none other than the original Rhone Ranger himself, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Allen rented himself some space in a winery (whose owner adamantly refused to allow commercial yeasts in the building) and gave it his best shot.
“I was really pleased with it,” remembers Allen, “and people said you should start a label and sell this stuff.”
Easier said than done, especially for a guy who works 40-60 hours a week as a technology sales executive, but at 48, Allen seems to have found reserves of energy that would make someone ten years younger jealous.
“Everything was bottled before I got it all set,” says Allen. “I completed the paperwork and got approved in November of 2011, and was able to release my 2010 vintage for sale.” Two Shepherds Vineyards was born, and before he knew it, the wine sold. All 175 cases of it. The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma picked it up by the glass, and Allen had enough friends and followers of the blog to make selling the wine relatively easy.
Allen bottled 500 cases of the 2011 vintage, and will bottle 650 cases of the 2012 vintage. That’s a lot of wine for someone who still has a day job.
How does he do it?
“I have no life,” he sighs. “I feel sometimes like I’m not going to survive to fifty. I cover a six-state territory in my day job, but I’m completely in love with the insanity. Other than writing, I’ve never felt like I had a true artistic expression of myself. Without trying to sound egotistical, I think I’ve found that creative outlet. I’ve taken a class here and there, but I’m not a trained winemaker. Yet the process comes naturally to me.”
“I remember the days when I just used to drink the stuff,” laughs Allen. “I could live a pretty cushy lifestyle if I abandoned all this stuff, but I’m completely in love. I wish I had two more lifetimes. I’m sick of bad California Cabernet Franc. I want to make a Grüner Veltliner. Did I say two more lifetimes? I wish I had five more lifetimes. If I had unlimited money I’d go south and do two harvests a year. I’m compelled to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can. People say, ‘You’re insane to make 9 different varieties in 25 case lots, what is wrong with you?’ but I can’t help myself.”
Allen claims, with credible earnestness, that he has no master plan, and that he’s just following his gut for a wild ride. I ask him what his pocketbook thinks of that and he laughs.
“Break even? No, no, no, no, not even close. The production costs are insane. I spent nearly $4000 just for the labels for the bottles this year. Nothing scales down in this industry. I don’t anticipate being able to quit my day job for some years now. But even if I was profitable, everything would be reinvested back into the winery anyway.”
Allen now shepherds a jewel box of small wine lots to completion each year. Most are barrel fermented in neutral oak barrels with native yeasts, go through the full secondary malolactic fermentation, and age on their lees in primarily neutral oak barrels. He experiments a bit with some wines on the fringes (such as the skin fermented “Centime” below), while keeping Grenache Blanc at the center of his focus. He’ll be doing a rosé and a Grenache Gris in the future.
And the blog? It has largely fallen by the wayside. “I would like to still occasionally write about wines,” says Allen with more than a small amount of chagrin, “but I’m still struggling to find the time to do anything with it.”
If it’s any measure of his focus these days, he’s considering hiring someone to write the blog for him. And while I enjoyed reading his blog when that was his main outlet, with a glass of Grenache Blanc in my hand, I’m quite happy with where he’s chosen to place his energies these days. If you don’t know the wines of Two Shepherds, they’re ones to keep you’re eye on.
Full disclosure: I received the wines below as press samples.
2012 Two Shepherds “Saarloos Vineyard” Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of unripe apples and crabapples. In the mouth, crisp crabapple, unripe pear and unripe apple flavors have a nice sourness to them mixed with a nice melon rind note that lingers through the finish. Nicely textured, with a hint of weight on the palate, and good acidity to keep the wine crisp. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Two Shepherds “Saarloos Vineyard” Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and faint citrus zest. In the mouth the wine has a nice silky texture and a very nice mineral backbone, off of which hang flavors of apple, citrus, and a tinge of floral and herbal character that lingers through the finish. Pleasant and savory. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Two Shepherds “Pastorale Blanc” White Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of apricots, lemon curd, and wet sawdust. In the mouth the wine has a wonderfully rich texture and juicy flavors of unripe apricot and peach which morph to a distinct quince/membrillo quality shot through with citrus on the finish. A compelling wine with real personality that is a pleasure to drink. It is a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Two Shepherds “Centime – Saralee’s Vineyard” White Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark gold with a hint of orange, this wine smells of wet leaves and dried citrus rind. In the mouth, the wine has a dried citrus and dried herb quality with a hint of sharp bitterness that lingers in the finish. A blend of Roussanne and Marsanne fermented on their skins with a small bit of Grenache Blanc blended in. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30.
2011 Two Shepherds “Saralee’s Vineyard” Grenache, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of strawberry jam and cedar. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of strawberry and cedar have a slight medicinal edge to them that adds complexity to the wine. That herbal note lingers with woody tones through the finish. Good acidity. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2011 Two Shepherds “Saralee’s Vineyard” Syrah, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and wet earth. In the mouth, flavors of green wood blackberry and a hint of cassis have a tartness to them and a stoniness that is quite interesting. Restrained and taut, with fine grained subtle tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.