Big House Wines
wine pixies

Big House Wines

Big House Wines hail from Soledad, California, right up the street from Soledad State Correctional Facility, hence the prison-oriented nomenclature. While produced within the letter of the law, Big House Wine Company may be viewed a committing what could be called a crime in the world of wine. I lunched with winemaker (AKA “warden”) Georgetta Dane the other day and she proudly spelled out her transgression in no uncertain terms. “No Chardonnay. No Cabernet Sauvignon.” Gasp! Can it be?

Georgetta, Romanian born and educated, is willing to do time to back up her winemaking philosophy (in the vineyard and winery of course). “When I was educated in Romania I could have easily gone into food science,” she explains, “but wine seemed the more artful way to go. I look at making a wine as if I am putting together a new perfume: base notes, middle notes, top notes, and essential oils.” She asks me if I think hers seems a feminine approach. I agree that it seems just that. In my experience, women do things differently than do men. It would be an awful shame if a female winemaker (and winemaking is a man's world still) bent over backwards to make wines just like the boys do.

The question of gender aside, Georgetta does it her way, striving for an honest approach despite the criminal references. The opposite side of Georgetta's eschewal of the two big “C” wines is her employment of a veritable alchemist's storehouse of grape varieties, all of which she vinifies separately before deciding on her final blends. You'll see what I mean when I move to the individual wines.

The 2007 Big House White brings a lot to the table for $8, for starters, six varietals: Muscat Canelli, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia Blanca, Vermentino, and Muscat de Gaillo. Residual sugar is a proudly low 4.1 grams per liter. Peach, mango and pineapple combine with floral elements on the nose. On the palate the wine shows a nicely rounded citric acidity, apricot and pineapple, a touch of mineral. Finish is crisp and clean. We agree this is a fine summer quaffing wine.

The 2008 Big House The Birdman Pinot Grigio, $15, seemed at first glace to be a standard version of this increasingly popular varietal, but I was not surprised to experience the result of Georgetta's rather impish mind: a good dollop of Chenin Blanc to give roundness, with Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. The wine recently won “Best Pinot Grigio” at the California State Wine Fair scoring a 94. I don't give out numbers, but I will score it “on my radar as a California Pinot Grigio with some real character.” The wine has excellent floral spice on the nose, fruit on the palate with grapefruit and melon, acidity in place and a mineral backbone from the Chenin Blanc.

The 2008 Big House Pink, $10, thrilled me by its very name: not rosé but pink! That's what rosé means in the first place, but we cannot bring ourselves to call a wine pink. Georgetta does, and if she has transgressed in other areas this bit of iconoclasm ought certainly to be taken into consideration when she becomes eligible for parole. Based on 42.5% Syrah, Georgetta adds Charbono, Grenache, Tannat, Zinfandel, Barbera, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Cinsault, Sagrantino, and Petit Verdot. The pink is all accomplished using the very-French saignée method, producing light colored juice through a “bleeding” of red grapes (rather than blending red and white wines). Residual sugar is a “keep it dry” 5 grams per liter. Straightforward and refreshing with a definite feminine lilt, this wine brings ripe strawberries and raspberries.

The 2006 Big House Red is an amalgam of 20 Mediterranean grapes for less than $10. Petite Sirah and Syrah lead, but such maverick grapes as Aglianico, Touriga, and Nero d'Avola find their way into this extremely dry red blend. “Restrained use of oak is the key here,” Georgetta relates, “and most of the wood is entirely neutral.” The nose on this wine is deliciously fruity, with touches of spice, clove in particular. “This is our main red blend and is designed to pair with a wide range of foods,” Georgetta adds, as I navigate through a wild mushroom salad. The palate and finish of this wine brings some wood notes, restrained, but enjoyable chocolate and vanilla just the same. Showing very nicely integrated tannin and acidity, essentially the Red is a food friend.

The 2006 Big House The Lineup, $15, is a GSM blend: 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre as is associated with the southern Rhône. Georgetta describes this wine as the combination of a man, and woman and their “funny friend” (the Mourvèdre). I've always liked this combination (as I am a fan of its three constituents): blackberry spice from the Syrah, warm red fruit from the Grenache, and a bit of earthy meatiness from the Mourvèdre. This wine emjoys six months in American oak.

The 2006 Big House The Slammer, $15, is 84% Syrah and 15% Petite Sirah, most of which is sourced in Big House's home county of Monterey, the scene of hot days, cool nights, and a lengthy growing and ripening season. On nose and on palate this full-bodied wine is deeply concentrated, with blackberry jam and chocolate and yet a soft and fruity finish. It is as food friendly as all the rest of the inmates.

The 2006 Big House The Prodigal Son, $15, requires a first class level of cultural literacy to fully understand. It is 100% Paso Robles Petite Sirah. “We call Petite Sirah Prodigal Son,” Georgetta explains, “because the French said the grape was too rustic. It has tight clusters and is prone to mildew. Now, here in California, it has finally ended its search for a loving home. Among the four clones we use, there is no DNA connection to Syrah. We are careful not to over-extract and use a colder fermentation temperature.” This wine is aged a year in American oak. Thick black fruit, blueberry and blackberry, meets the nose, with chocolate and sweet oak. These notes continue a friendly rivalry in the mouth, where they are accompanied by chewy tannins. This is a big wine, meant for big meats.

The 2006 Cardinal Zin, $20, is 95% Zinfandel and 5% Mourvèdre. Most of this comes from the Oakley area near San Francisco Bay, grown by a third generation of Italian growers on fairly sandy soil. Georgetta and I agree that this Zinfandel shows a distinctly gentle feminine touch (in fact, all the wines do). The wine is aged eight months in American oak. Georgetta points my attention to the fact that this Zin is only 14.5% alcohol, lower by several degrees than many. On the nose along with black fruit it has a violet and rose floral aspect with dried robust herbs: sage, marjoram. The medium-bodied wine brings rich black fruit to the mouth, with a special flavor of licorice, especially on the finish. I was having soft shell crabs by this point, and I noticed no sensory interrupt. All in all, these wines each show an artful attention to detail. The perfume making analogy is apt.

Verdict: Distinct feminine touch despite the tough-guy talk.

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No Chardonnay. No Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet still plenty to choose from.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Big House Wines Georgetta Dane

Big House Prison Motif.

Big House Wines Georgetta Dane

Big House Winemaker Georgetta Dane.

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