I’ve decided that Matthew Rorick, despite his muscular frame and the weathered crow’s feet of a classic California surf bum, is the crazy cat lady of California wine.
When I tell him this, he puts his strong-jawed, blonde-stubbled face in his hands with a mock sob and shakes his head. His longish blond locks spill over wine-stained fingers. “Its true, it’s true,” he chokes with laughter.
He raises his head with a smile. “No, I couldn’t possibly take another one! OK, OK come on in, come on in,” he pantomimes, ushering yet another obscure grape variety into the fold of his arms, out of which he will make a tiny amount of wine, in case quantities that invariably either end in the number seven, or whose digits add up to seven.
“Numerology,” he mumbles embarrassed, picking at his sweater that has at least five visible holes in it. “You busted me. Seven letters in my first name, born August 7th, 1971, but for years I managed to convince myself I was born on 7/7/71…” he trails off, chuckling. “I didn’t think it was that obvious,” he pipes up a moment later, “but I guess when you line all the bottles up like this,” he grins, gesturing at the wines we have just spent an hour or so tasting. “You can find patterns anywhere you look.” He turns his palms up with a shrug and some embarrassment.
While he may indulge himself in playful superstitions, Rorick is a deadly serious and quite intellectual winemaker, rightfully respected as one of the current pioneers of California’s wine renaissance. With far more passion than pretense, Rorick currently reigns as the champion of the forgotten, the neglected, and the just-plain-odd grape varieties that have until recently remained hidden amongst California’s vast fields of the predictable. He’s now famous for making wines from grapes that even the most die hard wine geek may not have heard of.
His adventures down the path of the obscure began with a little Verdelho, a white wine from Portugal that plays a role in the production of Madiera. He was working as an assistant winemaker at Miura Vineyards and as winemaker at Elizabeth Spencer when someone offered him a few tons from from the nearby Suisun Valley. He got excited and tried to convince his boss to give it a go.
“It was an impossible thing to get my employers to consider making Verdelho,” says Rorick, “Let alone something more common like Petite Verdot, especially if it all came from someplace off the map. ‘Suisun Valley? Oh no.'”
But Rorick couldn’t pass up the chance to try it, so he bought the grapes himself and started a project he entitled with an appropriate level of irony, Forlorn Hope, a description of his assumed commercial prospects for the wine at the time.
Over five years, that 200-case fling with Verdelho has become a committed odyssey into California’s winegrowing past that Rorick has been able to pursue full-time since 2010.
“It’s a never-ending source of delight for me that people are willing to buy and drink my wines,” says Rorick. “I’m always thinking, ‘Am I going to have to drink every bottle of this wine, or will someone else actually want it?’ Forlorn Hope was never originally intended to be my livelihood. It was a hobby. A side project. A creative outlet.”
Rorick was born in the somewhat sleepy town of Oceanside, where there isn’t much to do for most teenagers except smoke weed, surf, or skateboard. Rorick got pretty good at the last of these three, and eventually even got himself sponsored.
“I didn’t have it in me to be a real pro,” muses Rorick, “but I was making enough money to live on and having so much fun riding with Tony Alva and his guys that I told my mom I was never going to go to college and would just skate for the rest of my adult life. I said that mostly just to upset and annoy her.”
“I decided later that I actually did want to go to college, but I’m a little stubborn and bull headed,” admits Rorick. “I didn’t want to admit to my mom that I was wrong, and I didn’t want to ask her for financial help, so I decided to go the GI bill route.” he says.
Rorick enlisted in the Navy, and after boot camp he passed his aptitude test with flying colors.
“I aced it,” Rorick says with a shrug. “So I sat down with the guy who helps you select your job and he looked at my scores and said, ‘Basically you can pick anything you want.’ I looked at his sleeve and saw four bars, (meaning he had reenlisted four times), and I asked him, ‘What would you do?’
In response he was given a raised eyebrow and four carefully considered choices: Dental Tech, Medical Tech, Cryptography Tech, and Optical Tech.
“I always regretted not choosing Crypto,” says Rorick wistfully. Instead he spent Operation Desert Storm repairing submarine periscopes forty miles from the house he grew up in.
“Join the Navy, see your hometown!” he laughs. In fact, Rorick had his sights set on the submarine bases in Corsica, Osaka, or Edinburgh, but one of his drinking buddies ended up running the base assignments, and thinking he’d want to be close to home, assigned him to San Diego.
His plans for international adventures dashed, Rorick settled into his new job and spent a lot of his time off with his grandfather who lived nearby.
“My grandfather is really to blame for my interest in wine,” relates Rorick, who ended up moving in with the widower after his stint in the Navy. “He was a huge wine enthusiast and loved to cook. He taught me how to cook and had this cellar full of wine and no one to share it with. He and my grandmother had gone to Burgundy in the late 60s and bought a bunch of wine and then had bought a bunch of California wine from the 70s and 80s, and then Bordeaux form the early 80s. Needless to say, I had a really interesting introduction to wine. We’d sit down for dinner together and he’d pull three or four bottles out for the two of us to compare. He’d ask which one I thought went better with the food, and which didn’t.”
“What really got me, what really sunk the hook so to speak, was the stories he’d tell about visiting vignerons in Burgundy or driving through wine country in the late 70s. Just hearing stories about people who were framing and making wine sparked an interest.”
Rorick, who had used his GI Bill funds to begin a degree in English Literature transferred to the U.C. Davis program for a dual degree in viticulture and enology. His career path then quickly resembled a typically ambitious David graduate. He spent the next few years bouncing between the northern and southern hemispheres, squeezing two harvests into each year: Dashe cellars in Sonoma, Errazuriz in Chile, Peter Michael in Sonoma, Waterford in South Africa, then back to Chasseur in Sonoma.
By 2002 Rorick was feeling burnt out, and his grandfather’s health was declining, so he took a year off to spend time with him.
“I did some soul searching, and told myself that while I had a good time making wine, what I was really interested in was the human side of wine,” remembers Rorick. “So I decided to go back to school and headed off to the University of Chicago to do a graduate degree in Anthropology with a focus on wine, and while I was there my grandfather passed away. I was in heaven in that program, but after his death I thought a lot about it. I was ten years older than everyone in my cohort, and I had begun to think about what would happen after I graduated, with everyone fighting for the very few tenure positions out there. I realized my heart was really in the vineyard and in the winery.”
“I’m still on my indefinite leave of absence,” says Rorick with a wry smile. “I promised I’d come back and finish my degree in retirement.”
Rorick returned to California in 2003 to work as assistant winemaker at Miura Vineyards under Byron Kosuge, and then in 2005, after working on a now defunct project in New Zealand, returned to his post at Miura while simultaneously assuming the role of winemaker at Elizabeth Spencer in time for that fateful offer of Verdelho.
Since then Rorick has been making his small batches of wines, some regularly, some purely as happenstance, and has grown his production to about 3000 cases, which is where he believes it should probably stay. “Big enough to actually, maybe, make me a little money,” he says, “but small enough that I can manage it with me and another pair of hands.”
Other than unloading the grapes once they’re picked, and moving things around in the cellar, Rorick doesn’t need a lot of help because he doesn’t do much to his wines. (Though after having a harvest intern this year for the first time, neither he nor the intern can believe that he used to do everything himself).
“The only thing I ever try to add to the wines is a bit of sulphur,” says Rorick. “When I was thinking of moving in with Abe [Schoener] he told me that he was quite particular about some things, and in the spirit of open communication that he wouldn’t be comfortable having commercial yeasts anywhere near the winery. ‘Thank God,’ I said, and we’ve gotten along famously since then.”
As we stand in the compact and quaintly unglamorous winery in Fairfield that Forlorn Hope shares with Schoener’s Scholium Project, tasting his 2013 barrel samples that have fermented to dryness, Rorick shares with me the big news about what the future holds for him: he’s bought a vineyard in partnership with some cousins.
And not just any vineyard, but an 80-acre hillside vineyard in the Sierra Foothills that is knee deep in fractured schist and limestone hosting a crazy amalgam of old-vine grapes that would make you think it had been planted just for Rorick.
He excitedly ticks off the varieties: “Trousseau Noir, Trousseau Gris, Chenin Blanc, Green Hungarian, Mondeuse, own-rooted 34-year old Wente clone Chardonnay” he grins. I’ve got a tank sample of that Chardonnay in my glass as we talk, and I’m enjoying every last bit of its lemon-oil and wet chalkboard crispness.
“We’ll be working on a new classic California white field blend, among other things,” he says. “I have this opportunity now to put my money where my moth is, and really dig into what I’ve found my way towards doing all this time: reimagining our viticultural heritage here in California, and relinking to that history.”
What began with curiosity has settled into something akin to monastic devotion. Rorick clearly seems to be channeling all of his pent-up intellectualism into a deep understanding of California’s pre-Prohibition history of viticulture. When he is not in the fields or in the winery, he is likely to be found combing the libraries of Sonoma, Napa and U.C. Davis for early accounts of winegrowing in the state, jotting down names of vineyards and of once successful wine grapes, like Feher Szago, a grape of Hungarian origin which happens to be his latest obsession.
Just how much time he’ll have for his library work remains to be seen, what with 80 planted acres now to tend.
The majority of these grapes will be bottled under another label, yet to be determined, that will focus on a red field blend and a white field blend in homage to the origins of California wine.
But even as we sat there, Rorick couldn’t help himself. “In addition to the two field blends, I have to do a Trousseau Noir, and a probably a Chenin. I’ll use some of the fruit there for wines I’m already making like the Pinot Gris and the Verdelho, and then there’s this Chardonnay, which definitely has to be its own thing….” He stops and sees the look I’m giving him.
“Yes,” he grins. “I’m in so much trouble. It’s like having the angel and the devil on each shoulder. One is saying, ‘Keep it simple!’ and the other one is saying, ‘But think of what you could do!'”
If past performance is any indication, I’ve got my money on the little guy with horns. There’s always room for one more little castaway in Rorick’s growing menagerie, and there are always folks like me who look forward to what this guy can do with it.
For all the playfulness, and even seeming preciousness of the Forlorn Hope concept, Rorick’s wines are seriously good, and worthy of anyone’s attention, especially if they are looking to try something that will challenge their perspective on what California wine is all about.
2008 Forlorn Hope “Nacre” Semillon, Yountville, Napa
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a very nutty and slightly funky aroma. In the mouth the wine has an incredibly saline quality, like a mix of seawater and fresh water, with flavors of nut skin, pear skin, wet chalkboard, and the oily, slightly gamey aroma of lanolin. The fruit, what bare whiffs exist, leans towards citrus pith. Austere, and quite interesting. This wine will put on flesh over time, and continue to express itself. The 2008 is the current release because only after about four years does Rorick think the wine resembles something most people will want to drink. 11% alcohol. 77 cases produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. Sold out.
2012 Forlorn Hope “Que Saudade” Verdelho, California
Light yellow-golden the glass with a cloudy haze, this wine smells of lemon oil, grapefruit, and lemon curd. In the mouth, the wine has a creamy silkiness to it and bright lemon curd and candied grapefruit flavors, along with a deep mineral underbelly and a faint aromatic sweetness. Stunning. Certainly the best version of this grape I’ve tasted outside of Portugal or Spain. 13.58% alcohol. 457 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $24. click to buy.
2011 Forlorn Hope “The Fraufreluches” Gewurztraminer, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
Dark gold in the glass with a slight orange cast, this wine smells of beeswax, dried lychee, and desiccated orange peel. In the mouth, the wine has a lightly tannic quality to it and flavors of peaches, orange peel, and a hint of rosewater mixed with a nice wet chalkboard minerality. Quite tasty. The two weeks of extended skin contact has added a more rustic quality to the wine. For the record, Rorick hates Gewurztraminer, but just as a challenge to himself, decided one year to see what he could do with some free fruit he was given, and has been hooked on this approach ever since. 13.02% alcohol. 27 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $24.
2010 Forlorn Hope “Morrow” Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, Napa
Dark gold in the glass with an amber tinge, this wine smells of crushed stones, bee pollen, and wet leaves. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful stony character with notes of bee pollen and wet leaves, but also with a pluot and orange peel fruit character that sits almost below the minerality of the wine. Incredibly unusual, and quite unlike any Sauvignon Blanc most of the world has ever had. Just bottled this summer after spending three years in barrel, during which time it was never topped up or sulfured and it tasted, according to Rorick, “awful.” But since he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out we all stand to gain now that it has transmuted to something beautiful. 14.5% alcohol. 17 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2011 Forlorn Hope “Suspiro del Moro” Alvarelhão, Lodi
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of prunes and dried flower petals and a melon-like character. In the mouth, this wine has a bright mulberry and cassis character, and huckleberry cocktail of fruit that is almost grapey, but that leans a bit toward the woody and bitter in the finish. Decent acidity, and only the barest perceptible tannins. Rorick got this Portuguese variety after he showed up at a vineyard looking for Torrontes but it was all sold out. Rorick had never heard of the variety, so when the guy offered to put half a ton in his truck, you can imagine his response. Rorick ferments it as whole clusters. 12.56% alcohol. 177 cases made. Score: between 8 and 8.5 . Cost: $26.
2012 Forlorn Hope “Sogni della Speccia” Sangiovese, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cinnamon and mulling spices on top of dried cherry, dried flowers, and mulberry. In the mouth, the wine is incredibly juicy and delicious with mouthwatering acidity and a firm tannic grip that wraps around a core of cherry, sandalwood, and bright citrusy notes that linger through the finish. Remarkable, and one of the best renditions of Sangiovese I’ve had from California. Comes from a barely surviving patch of vines planted on exactly the wrong rootstock for their rocky, parched location, but somehow struggles through to become something extraordinary. In this vintage, the vineyard was literally hit by a plague of locusts. 14.63% alcohol. 77 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $24. click to buy.
2011 Forlorn Hope “San Hercumer Delle Frecce” Barbera, Amador County, Sierra Foothills
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green wood and cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a bright juicy cherry and raspberry fruit character tinged by a deeper aromatic green herb quality. There’s even a stony character to the wine that matches nicely with faint tannins. Notes of huckleberry linger in the finish. Delicious. Rorick ferments the wine 100% whole cluster. He always makes one barrel of this wine without any sulfur addition at all, and calls that wine “Asino Santo — The Sainted Ass.” This version, it seems, got a little bit of sulfur. 13.9% alcohol. 127 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30.
Just for fun, here are my notes from the 2013 barrel samples we tasted when I visited. These wines are still becoming their future selves, but here are my notes for your interest or curiosity.
2013 Forlorn Hope Chardonnay, Calaveras County, Sierra Foothills
Light cloudy gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of golden apples, green plums, and a hint of chamomile. In the mouth, bright lemon and wet stone flavors have a grapefruit pith piquancy that is quite delicious. Long finish. Will probably be put in neutral oak to finish. 90% of the fruit from this year was lost to a late season frost. Made from own-rooted Wente clone vines approximately 35 years old from Rorick’s new property.
2013 Forlorn Hope “Kickon Ranch” Riesling, Santa Barbara County
Pale gold in glass with a hint of haze, this barrel sample smells of unripe pear and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, very pretty grapefruit pith, unripe pear, and fresh lemon juice have a nice brightness to them. Nice salinity on the finish. Rorick may end up making this into a sparkling wine.
2013 Forlorn Hope Ramato-style Pinot Gris, Calaveras County
Light ruby in color with a hint of even a muddier red color, this wine smells of plums and wet leaves and a hint of dried fruit. In the mouth, the wine hangs in an uncanny no-man’s zone between white, red, and rosé. It has a distinct tannic grip, and flavors of lightly tinkling clear river water running over plum skin, rainier cherry, and white mulberries. Exotic and very tasty!