If you’re like me, you’ve had a lifelong attraction to artsy-craftsy live-work utopias. Artists’ colonies. Monasteries. Spas. Places with a creative mission and a certain get-your-hands-dirty, chop-wood-carry-water vibe. Places that exist out of time, or seem to, and have an aesthetic that centers community, co-creativity, mutual generosity, and dedication to craft. Not all wineries have it, to be sure. But the ones that do can become more than a place to try a new beverage. They can be community focal points, places to connect, places that inspire long-term loyalty not just to the product they’re selling but to the people and the place that make it what it is. But what does that look like when we’re facing an extended period of “gathering is problematic?”
At Bricoleur Vineyards, it looks pretty sweet. Honestly, there are worse places to be locked down than a 40-acre wine retreat with onsite dining and extensive kitchen gardens.
Since the Bay Area shut down in mid-March, I’ve discovered that Zoom-based wine tastings aren’t the worst thing. I’ve been able to check in with Champagne producers without having to go to France (but it’s not like I was exactly avoiding going to France, or relieved not to have to). I’ve been able to meet different groups of wine folk, producers and journalists and storytellers, than I would have done in normal times. That’s all good. But one misses the hands-on, in-person kind of wine experience. So I was pretty excited to get on the road for my first trip to Sonoma County post lockdown.
Bricoleur was scheduled to host a grand opening of its sparkling new facility just about exactly around the time the entire region found itself struggling with the realities of social distancing in a business paradigm that’s all about the personal touch. A “bricoleur,” for those of you who didn’t take French, is someone who makes things out of whatever parts are lying around. A cobbler-together-of-stuff. The term suggests a certain insouciant OK-with-what-is quality, and that turns out to be the best possible attitude in a time of shifting, confusing, and sometimes apocalyptic public health and public trust meltdowns. Owner Mark Hanson has discovered that the bricoleur spirit has helped his winery to weather the situation in relative comfort, not to mention high style. Just as those of us who already grew vegetables and kept hens might have tended to find that has reduced our stress around obtaining food, Hanson and his team have enjoyed an immediate benefit from their commitment to creating something a little more than a crushpad and a tasting bar.
Walk onto the manicured grounds of Bricoleur Vineyards and it’s hard to even imagine finding it intimidating from a social distancing perspective-happily, the place had already been designed to maximize far-flung small nooks and alcoves for people to be alone-together. The tasting room is a capacious repurposed barn, with a massive vaulted ceiling and tables and chairs sprinkled at a judicious distance for intimate small group conversations and minimal crowding. There’s an open-concept kitchen with a chef’s-table type counter (not doing a ton of seating there at the moment but it’ll be ready when elbow-to-elbow is safe). There’s a ton of seating outdoors on beautiful, landscaped patios. The grounds include vineyards, ponds, orchards, rose gardens, and a bocce court. The gardens are extensive, gorgeous and also functional-chef Shane McAnelly said it’s not uncommon for most of his ingredients to be sourced onsite; those that aren’t come from nearby. Menus follow the seasons and definitely respond to the wine. There’s overnight accommodation onsite (a couple of outbuildings on the property have been used to house people displaced by wildfires), a place to host meetings and get togethers. It’s splendid. Manicured rustic-chic, with a ton of attention to detail.
All of which would make it a fine place to hang out even if the wine weren’t great, but the wine happens to be great! We sat down with a tasting flight accompanied by McAnelly’s extremely excellent snacks and couldn’t have been happier. While this is the Sonoma Coast and thoroughly ruled by Chardonnay and especially by Pinot Noir (and Bricoleur certainly has those), winemaker Cary Gott is tinkering with a bricolage of historic and nouvelle cultivars including Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Zinfandel.
We started with Flying By the Seat of Our Pants Brut, a pale-pink sparkling wine based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s lovely, with a distinctly “duet” versus “blend” feel, by which I mean I had the clear and pleasurable impression that I was tasting the two varietals in layers; first the peachy, citrus-blossomy Chardonnay and then the tangy raspberry character of the Pinot. A still rosé also under the Flying by the Seat of Our Pants label (Grenache) had a lilac-reflexed, sunset-cloud pink tone and an ultra-quaffable core of lemon zest and alpine strawberry with overlaid white florals and tart cherry candy.
All of the Bricoleur wines are delicious. I’m a bit of a secret Sauv Blanc hater, and even I didn’t hate this one. It had a wonderfully fresh-faced, pineapple-heavy character and a long trailing finish that leaned on wet river rocks and honeysuckle. Their Viognier is slightly on the unctuous side, with honeydew melon and apricot jam alongside the more typical peach, honey and seawater notes. They have both oaked and unoaked Chards, and both of them are admirably balanced, though I slightly preferred the steely one; fall-forward with oddball notes of Hachiya persimmon and pear with a tracery of yellow florals, along with a scattering of tropical fruit notes (pineapple again) and something in the baked-goods category (brioche? Vanilla cookies? Not sure.) The Pinot Noir was lovely, full of spice and cherry and peach notes, and the Zin was richly herbaceous and plummy with a lingering, very suave finish. That’s a significant number of varietal wines to do equally well, and they honestly do.
While we got plied with one excellent wine after another, we enjoyed a secluded, spacious table full of spectacularly tasty snacks-I especially loved the wild mushroom pizza, but every little amuse-bouche was fresh, vivid and thoughtful, leaning on herbs and greens and fruits from the back forty and served with the kind of enthusiasm you can’t fake. The whole experience is genuine and friendly and just … satisfying. Hanson’s like any winery proprietor in that it’s a labor of love for him and his family; he cares whether people enjoy the wine, and the food, and the grounds. But where he especially lights up is talking about the sometimes numinous concept of connection and forging a community. He sees Bricoleur as a way of enlarging his family to include other families (not just through wine and food but also through community engagement and philanthropy-they partner with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They also host yoga classes and make their facilities available for events). It’s a simple enough sort of magic, really. Gather the things you care about together and offer them to a community of like-minded friends and fans. It’s not a revolutionary idea, so why does it always feel like one? But it does. Maybe especially right now, but even without the context of Le Pandemique, places like Bricoleur feel special, and needful, and inspiring.