Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Matthew Rorick and his Forlorn Hope winery

Matthew Rorick, the antiques dealer in California’s vineyards, has acquired a precious family heirloom.

Rorick, whose wine brand Forlorn Hope has been generating buzz for his bold take on such dated and obscure grape varieties as trousseau gris, torrontes and picpoul, is now vested substantially in the landmark former Stevenot Winery and the old neighboring Dragone Ranch just outside of Murphys in Calaveras County.

Up to now, Rorick has been most closely identified with the Napa and Suisun valleys, but since establishing Forlorn Hope in 2005 he’s wandered widely about Northern California in search of fruit.

He, three cousins – sisters Lauren Colvin of Oceanside, Eleanor Athens of Monterey, Alexandra Athens of Napa – and his uncle Dave Rorick of San Francisco had been scouting potential vineyard sites throughout the north state when last summer they learned of the old Stevenot site, which occupies a small valley along San Domingo Creek. The family bought it for about $4.7 million.

“I kept coming back to the foothills for the soils it has and for the chance to play in different climates because of the area’s shifting elevations,” says Rorick.

He and his cousins refer to the property as the Shaw Ranch (after the original owners), though they expect to eventually come up with a new name.

“The soil is the one thing that I became so excited about with this property,” Rorick says. “It’s almost entirely schist, which provides a really fun geological profile for wine grapes, though not so much for other crops. It has this layering characteristic, like the pages of a book, and moisture gets trapped in there. The most compelling wines are grown on schist.”

With the purchase, Rorick and partners got 80 acres of vineyard planted to 18 varieties, many of them underappreciated strains like tempranillo, verdelho, albarino and graciano.

But the stand that most excites him early on is hardly unknown – chardonnay. The Stevenot block was planted in 1978, and on its own roots, a rarity. “That’s very exciting for me, to work with chardonnay of that age and on its own rootstock,” Rorick says.

After a few vintages to study how existing varieties perform and learn where he might plant additional vines, he speculates that he’ll be putting in such unheralded varieties as green Hungarian, trousseau noir, grey riesling, vermentino and chenin blanc.

Since he founded Forlorn Hope in 2005, those are the kinds of heirlooms he’s sought to salvage and revive, and he’s been successful in cultivating an enthusiastic market for his releases. “I like to get cuttings from existing pre-Prohibition vineyards and start new plantings.”

He chose the name “Forlorn Hope” to represent his commitment to unfashionable grape varieties from largely uncelebrated wine regions.

In making wine, Rorick prefers a largely non-interventionist approach. “I feel strongly about putting place first, and the best way to do that is to add little to the grapes. Sulfur is the only thing I put in, and little of that. I add no water, no acid adjustment, no cultured yeast, no nutrients, no enzymes, no malolactic cultures. My intention is for everything you need for a wine to come out of the vineyard,” Rorick says.

His wines tend to be lean, acid-driven and lower in alcohol than generally prevailing levels. Those weren’t his philosophical principles early on as he worked for wineries in New Zealand, South Africa, California and Chile after earning his degree in viticulture and enology at UC Davis in 1999. Then, he took full advantage of all the tools of modern winemaking to turn out big, ripe and concentrated wines.

“Then I began to ask myself, ‘What does this wine show off about the site? If the site is special, why fine tune this and tweak that? If you have the right spot, and if you are tending the vines well, you shouldn’t have to change anything,’ ” Rorick says.

Rorick and his partners expect to take advantage of the winery on the site, but for now, Rorick continues to make his wines at Tenbrink Winery of Fairfield.