The Dish @ Dashe
Fish Tales and Monkey Business from the Team at Dashe Cellars
Mike Dashe Co-founder & Director of Winemaking
Anne Dashe Co-founder
Rene Calderon Winemaker
Stephanie Flasher DTC & Wine Club Manager
Monica Chappell Project Manager
Jiliane Patriarca Tasting Room Teammate
Back in 1995, before Dashe Cellars was a gleam in the eyes of Michael and Anne Dashe (and back when Anne’s name was Anne Bringuet), a visit to Brittany France, Anne’s homeland, was a revelation.
It started with the cuisine—creperies that were on almost every corner; oysters that were plucked right out of the river and eaten in front of your eyes; the freshest langoustine and fish you’ve ever tasted; butter that crunched in your mouth from embedded salt crystals; Kouignman and croissants so delicate that they melted in your mouth. The food simply was spectacular.
But beyond the cuisine, there was artisan wine. First, I was surprised to learn, there wasn’t any local stuff. There are no grapes grown in Brittany (to speak of). Lots of apple cider that went beautifully with crepes, but no Bretagne natural wine.
Instead, there were the wines of the Loire Valley, a scant 2 hours away from Brittany at its closest edge. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Loire wines. I had worked in Bordeaux, visited Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, the Jura. But the Loire? It was a place I knew about because of Sancerre and Poully-Fuisse, and I knew that Vouvray existed. That was it.
What blew my mind, in retrospect, is that the stores in Brittany were just filled with amazingly inexpensive bottles of Loire wines that I had never imagined. Just a few euros (francs at the time, but who’s counting) would buy you a great bottle of wine in the local supermarket. Whites from Montlouis and Touraine, beautiful light reds from Chinon and Bourgueil, crisp dry white wines from Muscadet. For a bit more, you could have beautiful complex wines from the hills of Sancerre, a balanced and age-worthy Vouvray or Savennières, or a luscious red from Saumur.
We devoured lots of Loire wines, every time we came out to visit Anne’s family in Brittany.
Dashe Chenin Blanc Makes its Debut
Years after that first introduction to the wines of the Loire Valley—and after we had started Dashe Cellars—we became dedicated drinkers of Loire wines.
We especially learned to love the many aspects of Chenin Blanc, a varietal that had a terrible reputation in the US (mostly because of years of uninteresting white wines made from huge vineyards in the Central Valley of California). The more we looked at wines made from Chenin, the more we learned to appreciate the spiciness, acid balance, and texture that make it one of the great varietals of the world.
At Dashe Cellars, the focus had mainly been on red wine varietals, except for a wonderful little Riesling that we had made, since 1999, from organic grapes on the McFadden Farm. We had made a conscious decision not to make Chardonnay (too many Chardonnays made in CA!), but our customers were constantly saying that they wanted us to make another white wine. We thought about what kind of wine WE liked and decided that if we ever were to find a region and vineyard with excellent Chenin Blanc grapes, we would try our hand at it.
Luck came our way in the form of the Heringer vineyard in Clarksburg, CA. This region has one of the largest concentrations of Chenin Blanc vineyards anywhere in the state. The reason is wildly logical: the local government paid for a soil and vineyard consultant to analyze the terroir of the region and recommend what varietals the area would be best to grow. The consultant came back with “Chenin Blanc,” which puzzled the local growers since it was not considered a top grape varietal. But to their credit, they started planting it and found that the resulting grapes and wine were of unusual quality.
We Start Making Chenin Blanc: Black BART arrives
Dashe Cellars made its first artisan wine Chenin Blanc under our Les Enfants Terribles label from the Heringer Ranch in 2016. It was a hasty decision (we had just found the vineyard just before harvest) and came with another hasty decision: I wanted to make Chenin Blanc in a concrete egg. I had talked with other producers of Chenin Blanc, both in the US and in Europe, and there seemed to be a consensus that the complexity, texture, and aromatics of Chenin Blanc were all greatly highlighted when fermented as a natural wine, in concrete. We paid a ridiculous sum to purchase the perfect concrete egg (the price of impulsive buying), and the only one available so close to harvest was jet-black. They threw in a bright red DASHE logo for free, to make us feel better. We nicknamed it “Black Bart,” although really it looked more like Humpty Dumpty.
From the start, we wanted to make a “Loire-style” Chenin, whatever that meant. The goal was to have something with great texture, good acidity, lovely minerality, and a long finish.
We found that fermenting Chenin as an artisan wine in concrete and in stainless steel fermenters made a HUGE difference in the resulting wine. The same juice went into the fermenters, but the resulting wines may well have come from completely different places. The concrete fermented wine was quite different in texture (round, velvety, mouth-filling) and had toasty elements to the flavors, almost like champagne. We presumed that the egg-shape promoted lots of yeast contact during fermentation and aging, which (like Champagne) resulted in the characteristic toasty, fresh-bread aromas.
In contrast, the stainless-steel fermented wine had much more structure, almost steely, and was fruit forward. Together, the two lots made for an extremely vibrant, complex wine. We loved it.
In the end, we blended the two together to highlight the best parts of both fermentation styles and released it to customers who were delighted to have another white wine available from Dashe.
Cabernet Franc Rounded Out the Loire Valley Connection
We enjoyed the Chenin Blanc from Heringer vineyard so much that when we found out that they had a few rows of Cabernet Franc on their home ranch, we had to see if we could make a lighter-bodied Cabernet Franc—something in the style of a Chinon or a Bourgueil from the Loire.
When we first made the wine from these grapes, we simply couldn’t get our heads around it. It showed flavors of cassis and black cherry, which was lovely, but also had an edge of green olive and herbs, that simply was confusing to us when the wine was young.
We decided to put the wine into some nice French oak and waited until the next year or so to see how the wine would evolve.
Some time went by until, one day, Rene Calderon was racking the wine from barrel to barrel and we suddenly remembered that the wine was languishing in barrel without us tasting it for quite a while.
With no expectations, we tried the wine and looked dumbfounded at one another. In the past year, it had changed from a gangly child to a full-blown mature wine. Simply put, it was gorgeous and had nothing in common with the wine that we had tasted when it was in its youth.
This wine was filled with aromas of blueberries, and cherry, and spice. Just lovely. Anne remarked that it reminded her of some of the delicious and structured Chinon wines that were made from Cabernet Franc, which her family loved drinking when she was growing up.
We had gone from wondering if this was just a wasted experiment to asking ourselves how fast we could get it into bottle so that we could share it with our Dashe fans.
Here at Dashe Cellars, we have always been known for our Zinfandels, especially wines that reflect the combination of New-World fruit and Old-World balanced style. We’re proud of being standard-bearers for that style of Zinfandel.
But every once in a while, it’s great to get back to our roots and make wines that we fondly remember from when we first met. The wines of the Loire are never far from our hearts, and these versions of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are some of our favorite wines in the Dashe Cellars lineup of wines. They are often our go-to wines when we come, tired from work, to pop open a cork and relax, sipping, at the end of the day.
Well, we certainly have quite a bit to talk about these days, eh? As I write this, there are lightning-sparked ﬁres, viruses, political campaigns, economic upheavals. What’s next, locusts?
One thing is for sure: we have learned to appreciate our friends and family more than ever. Our extended Dashe Cellars family has been an absolute source of joy to us these past months, keeping us busy during some dark times and ﬁlling up our new “City View Patio” at the winery every Saturday. Every day has been sold out since we opened again. Thank you!
For those of you who haven’t seen our patio, complete with 18 new “wine cabanas” for eating and drinking, we highly recommend it. Looks a bit like a cross between an art installation and a collection of tiny Stonehenge structures, with a killer view of the San Francisco skyline. (Except you can’t order wine in most art installations and can’t have food trucks like “Bacon Bacon” or Gerard’s Paella in them, either).
We’re weathering the storm as well as can be expected. Since we typically sell a LOT of wine to restaurants, we are suffering along with our restaurant friends. But our direct sales have deﬁnitely taken off, spurred on by “shelter-in-place” workers and our valiant Wine Club members who have stepped up to the plate and purchased wines to keep us aﬂoat and their dinner tables full of delicious wines. Anne and I have been hand-delivering to the Bay Area, and have loved exploring all of these neighborhoods we would never have seen before. The East Bay is remarkably beautiful and diverse; we have been AMAZED at the beauty in the hills of Oakland and Berkeley.
And even though I can barely believe that I’m writing this, harvest is starting. (Sounds very “Game of Thrones” when I write it down, but it’s true.) Grapes are ripening fast, despite ﬁres, pandemics, and elections. They wait for no one. So, here we go. Grape picking and crushing with masks; winemaking with threats of power outages; lots of cold beer to cool off the hot winemaking staff. Takes a lot of beer to make good wine. Ask any winemaker.
- Michael Dashe
Baking Bread, Making Wine, and Pairing Cheese
When my kids were unceremoniously kicked out of university and the entire family was bunkered at home, I decided it was time to step up as a fermentation scientist and get to work: fermenting sourdough starter; figuring out the best wines to match with fresh-baked levain bread; and pairing it all with the perfect cheese (a necessity with a French wife and kids).
After all, the best way to keep everyone happy when in close quarters is to keep everyone well-fed and focused on a task that would take everyone’s talents to succeed. My wife is also a winemaker and a hell of a baker, so she would be natural help (although half the time she acted more like a Greek chorus than a French baker). My daughters were brought up as both French and American, so I figured that they would throw themselves into the project simply because they love good food. Not insignificantly, I also figured that baking my own levain bread was going to save me a bundle of money. A good loaf of bread in San Francisco costs a small fortune, so baking my own bread for $0.50 of per loaf was going to be a perfect way to economize while simultaneously creating something we all could enjoy.
The First Step: Natural Yeast or Not?
The winemaking was already taken care of, and the cheese selection would be the last step, so baking the bread was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. It took only a few minutes to decide to make bread with natural yeast starter rather than buying commercial dried active yeast. As someone who has lived in San Francisco since the early ‘80s, I already had an affinity for sourdough bread as a daily staple. Having a warm loaf of sourdough, and then matching it with a freshly steamed-and-cracked crab (with melted butter) and a salad is just about as perfect a meal as there is in my book. There are dozens of great bakeries in the Bay Area that supply bread to the local stores, so our family had already zeroed in on levain—a bread made with wild yeast—as one of our favorite styles of bread.
The first issue was that I hadn’t ever made sourdough bread, much less created a wild sourdough starter. But as a winemaker, I felt that fermentation was going to be the least of my problems, because if anyone could detect a fermentation going wrong, it was going to be me.
Full-disclosure, I cheated at the start, because rather than create my own starter from scratch I decided to get a bit of actively fermenting sourdough starter from friends. It’s a time-honored way to get one’s starter, and it has the advantage that you know from the start what kind of bread the starter can produce. One call to a couple that I knew made great bread, and they were happy to give me a half-cup of starter.
Start with a Good Starter
If there’s anything I learned during this whole process that I could offer as a tip is: get a good, strong, actively fermenting starter. A good starter is the heart and soul of a good levain bread, and it is the one ingredient that requires a bit of work and understanding. For one thing, it is messy. And sticky. And it smells…yeasty. The aroma is not bad at all—in fact, it smells a bit like a very toasty champagne if the champagne was left out overnight—but it is not everyone’s cup of tea. But even if you find the tangy aromas of your starter off-putting, it only requires that you fold it into your dough, because the eventual bread itself has only a slight hint, a whiff, of the tanginess of the starter.
Just a word to the wise: if you need to get a starter and you live in an urban environment, like San Francisco, there are many bakeries out there that will just give you starter if you simply ask them. It is not as if you need a lot of starter, because you only need a half cup or less of starter to commence.
Once you have located a source of starter, the fun has just begun. Once you’ve obtained the starter, you must cultivate it and coax it to be the best starter that it can be. And there is only one way to do that—by feeding it, like it is a living being. Regularly. Every morning and every night. It’s like a pet that doesn’t have the decency to respond to you. Feeding it is not so hard (it is actually just a few spoonfuls of flour and a bit of water), but it’s got to be done regularly if your starter is going to be active and create a semi-decent loaf of bread. You wake up in the morning, say hello to your starter, dump most of it out, and then give the remaining half cup or so some flour and water. By the afternoon, it has doubled or tripled in size (like a man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors) and is ready to be used.
The Zen of Baking: If You Aren’t Patient, You’re Screwed
As a winemaker nothing gets me as worked up as a good fermentation, and although wine still captures the prize for heart-racing full-tank fermentation, a good sourdough starter and bread-making marathon comes in a close second. To start out making bread for the first time, I heartily recommend the YouTube video “15 Mistakes most Beginner Sourdough Bakers Make” from ProHomeCooks—I followed the instructions to the letter and came out with a more than decent result.
I must confess, it takes patience to make levain. Realistically, it’s a day and a half process. I’ve now made bread five or six times, and the only time that the results were less than ideal (i.e. the shape and density of a Frisbee) was when I tried to shorten the process by not giving it the necessary time to rise.
So, take a breath and prepare to make yourself useful while you wait. I won’t go into every step of making the bread (that’s what YouTube videos are for!), but I will let you know a couple of things that I learned in the process.
- First of all, make sure that your starter is as active as possible, and has risen three-fold or more at the time you use it. It should have lots of bubbles on the surface and smell tangy.
- Second, don’t get impatient during the bulk rise step, when you are waiting for your dough to rise before putting it into its final shape. I made the mistake of trying to shorten this step, assuming that the bread would rise as much as it needed during it’s second rise (the “proofing”), but sadly, it didn’t.
- Last, make sure you have a decent Dutch Oven (Le Crueset is the best) to bake your bread. It creates a little steam oven to bake the bread and creates a great crust.
- As extra credit, it helps to get a spiral basket—called a “banneton”—for the final proofing of the dough. It creates the spiral effect that gives the bread a professional look.
You’ve Baked your Bread, Now Select the Wine
There’s nothing quite as gratifying as slicing into one of your loaves—your creation—and seeing a bread that rivals the best you’ve bought in a bakery. It has a great crust, and the crumb of the bread (the interior structure) is light and airy.
Now, the question is: what wine to pair with the bread? It’s been hot lately, so I’m always partial to rosé this time of year. Personally, I think that rosé goes with almost anything when it’s hot outside, and it goes so well with salad, cheese, and bread that it’s a natural choice.
One of the best aspects of a levain bread is that the subtle nuttiness and tanginess of the bread goes perfectly with a range of wines, especially when you put cheese selections into the mix. In the summertime, I prefer light reds, so Cabernet Franc, Grenache, or Gamays all do well. As a winemaker that specializes in Zinfandels, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest a lighter Zinfandel style such as our Les Enfants Terribles Mendocino Cuvee, our biodynamic Heart Arrow Ranch Zinfandel, or our Dry Creek Reserve Zinfandel.
Don’t Forget the Cheese!
My wife and kids provided much of the enthusiasm for creating the bread, trying to keep things into perspective when I was certain that the bread wasn’t rising correctly, etc. They also were the first people in line to slice a piece of warm bread (please, let it rest an hour out of the oven before cutting, so that the texture of the bread isn’t moist and gummy) when the bread comes out of the oven.
Any French family loves to eat their bread with fresh butter—and definitely salted butter if you’re from Brittany, and salted butter with crystals that crunch if you’re actually IN Brittany). Cut some slices of a nice Comté or Gruyere cheese, or maybe a sheep cheese such as Petite Basque or a Spanish Manchego to go with it, and now you’re talking some serious hedonistic pleasure. We even used a fine English white cheddar and some fruit, to pull everything together.
Combine that with a view of the San Francisco skyline, and the current problems seem much more manageable.