If an award were given for quirkiest art on a wine label, Dashe Cellars would win for its painting of a monkey riding a fish. It might be different if Michael and Anne Dashe owned a chateau or a vineyard, traditional inspirations for label art, but they don’t.
As a consequence, they asked San Francisco artist Vivienne Flesher to come up with a painting to represent “two little animals on a journey,” which is how they saw themselves in 1996, when they married and when they founded Dashe Cellars.
That Michael Dashe grew up in Tarzana and Anne Dashe grew up in a fishing village in Brittany was all the further inspiration that Flesher needed.
“We take our wines seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a wink on the label,” says Anne Dashe of Flesher’s colorful and cartoonish illustration.
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The original hangs in their San Francisco home, but an enlarged version flanks the tasting counter at their Oakland winery, a massive former warehouse whose railroad-trestle roof means that the Dashes don’t have to fret about running into support pillars as they drive forklifts about the premises. There, they make around 10,000 cases of wine a year, with enough room to double production in the long run.
Michael Dashe earned his master’s degree in enology at UC Davis and put in stints at wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, New Zealand, Napa Valley and Bordeaux before he and his wife founded their own brand.
Anne Dashe earned her enology diploma at the University of Bordeaux and was working as a brandy maker and research enologist in Napa Valley when she was introduced to her future husband, at that time assistant winemaker to Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Paul Draper is definitely my mentor, certainly when it comes to zinfandel. I learned a heck of a lot (at Ridge). Paul is such a master blender,” Michael Dashe says.
Another lesson taught by Draper was the significance of finding and treating respectfully choice vineyards. “We want vineyards that we feel are going to be unique, providing characteristic, reproducible site-specific flavor profiles,” Michael Dashe says.
By and large, those are small family-owned vineyards with rocky soils, relatively cool temperatures and typically small yields, more often than not in Sonoma County. “Cooler climates give us the natural acidity we want for the wines to be balanced and to age better. They taste good early in their development and they age well,” he adds.
In making their wines, the Dashes adhere to a minimalist philosophy – native rather than cultivated yeasts, natural malolactic fermentation, little sulphur, light filtering, not much oak. Their releases could qualify for the popular if ambiguous designation of “natural wines,” but they shy from embracing that classification.
“We don’t highlight our natural winemaking. A lot of winemakers who tout (natural winemaking methods) have wines that are not necessarily stable. I feel my wines play well on the world stage. They are not bizarre wines. They are lovely wines, made for drinking,” Michael Dashe says. “To call us ‘natural’ would pigeonhole us into a category we don’t necessarily want to be in.”
By exploiting individualistic vineyards and only gently manipulating the juice their grapes yield, Dashe Cellars has built a reputation for wines graceful, energetic and distinctive for what they say of site and season. The latest version of their flagship wine, the Dashe Cellars 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($26), is sturdy but gregarious, its juicy fruit running to clear and traditional suggestions of boysenberries with a thread of anise and a dash of cloves.
Other zinfandels in the Dashe lineup include the lean, elegant and quietly complex Dashe Cellars 2012 Dry Creek Valley Louvau Vineyard Old Vines Zinfandel ($35); the frisky and spicy Dashe Cellars 2014 Potter Valley McFadden Farms Les Enfants Terribles Zinfandel ($26), a take on zinfandel lighter and fresher than usual in large part for the partial carbonic maceration of its grapes and for its aging in 900-gallon oak barrels from Burgundy; and an increasing rarity on the California wine scene, the Dashe Cellars 2013 Dry Creek Valley Late Harvest Zinfandel ($24), a decidedly sweet take on the varietal – 9.5 percent residual sugar – but more silken than sticky, and exceptionally zesty and complex for the genre, its fruit racing from boysenberries and pomegranate to a sprinkling of cherries and raisins.
While Dashe has built its standing largely on zinfandel, its portfolio has been expanding, with the current inventory also including the bright, floral, lean and almond-accented Dashe Cellars 2014 Monarch Mine Grenache Blanc ($22) from a high-altitude vineyard near Forestville in Placer County; the berry-saturated and spicy Dashe Cellars 2014 Evangelho Vineyard Old Vines Carignane ($26) from a 125-year-old vineyard in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta; the exceptionally aromatic, spirited and spicy Dashe Cellars 2014 Dry Creek Valley Les Enfants Terribles Grenache ($24) from a vineyard in a rocky old riverbed near Healdsburg; and the Dashe Cellars 2014 Potter Valley McFadden Farms Dry Riesling ($22), a brassy, sleek and apricot-punctuated riesling from a Mendocino County plot that has been yielding exceptional interpretations of the varietal for three decades.
Though the Dashes come from far different wine cultures, they look to have merged successfully the winemaking traditions of France and California, overseeing a style that celebrates and balances the fresh and forward fruit for which the Golden State is recognized and the lean, dry and sharp shaping that long has characterized European winemaking.
“We have similar tastes,” Michael Dashe says. “She concentrates on texture and restraint. I’m more (about) mouthfeel, fruit intensity and fidelity to vineyard characteristics.”
“At this point we don’t have much debate,” says Anne Dashe of their collaborative winemaking.
They recognize, she says, that he favors more fruity wine while she leans toward the more austere, but when they huddle over stylistic consideration they base their conclusions on overall expression and balance. “California and France is a perfect mix.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Dashe Cellars has two tasting rooms:
In Oakland, the winery and tasting room are open noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, Mondays by appointment only, at 55 4th St., southeast of Jack London Square; tasting fee is $10 per person.
At Healdsburg, Sonoma County, Dashe Cellars wines are poured 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily at Family Wineries of Dry Creek Valley, 4791 Dry Creek Road.