Messrs Andrew and Adam Mariani on how two California farm boys turned their Scribe Winery into the toast of Sonoma County
Seven years is enough time for a child to run through their first set of teeth or for a couple to fall desperately into and hopelessly out of love. It’s also a sufficient period for a high-flying startup to circle the drain and quietly disappear. But any venture that survives for that long – especially while spanning a great and terrible recession – will be rewarded with some invaluable perspective. Which is certainly the case for the Mariani brothers, Andrew and Adam, founders of Scribe Winery (scribewinery.com) in Sonoma, California.
The hotshot grape farmers who, in 2007, coaxed Scribe to life from the vestiges of a rickety turkey farm, cringe at the arrogance, folly and ambition of their youth. Not that they’re old now. “In the first couple of years, I was just f***ing psyched that we got a wine into a bottle that had a label on it that was legal, and that maybe one restaurant had it on their wine list,” says Andrew, the 32-year-old big brother with steel-blue eyes and chestnut brown hair pulled back in a samurai bun. “When I think about that time now, I’m like, how did I even think that we could do it? I got in pretty raw.”
“Really raw,” adds Adam, 28, donning a backward trucker’s hat with the logo of their parents’ business, Mariani Nut Company, a walnut and almond ranch situated about an hour to the east.
It’s a summer Friday and the three of us are sitting just outside Scribe’s tasting room, a tastefully adorned open cellar that could pass for a wine bar in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighbourhood, but for the hundreds of acres of rolling vineyards below and golden mountains as far as the eye can see. “We’ve had time to figure out what actually works and the best way to showcase the vineyard, vintage, varietal nuances,” says Adam. Part of that has involved taking a more hands-off approach. “We’re always thinking, how can we intervene less in this natural process? But we’re also driven less by a narrative idea now than we were in the beginning. We’re just like, taste the wine! Who cares how we make it or how many months we did this or that to it?”
Since its founding, Scribe has received more than its share of attention from the mainstream media and wine press, most of it enamoured of the brothers’ collective handsomeness and of the feel-good story of their emergence from Winters, California (population just less than 7,000) into the San Francisco wine-and-food establishment. All the while, they’ve been experimenting with everything from varietal plantings to farming techniques and challenging the traditional winemaking methods.
For example, no chemical intervention is allowed. The on-site vegetable and fruit gardens were designed to feed staff and guests, of course, but also to attract the right insects to battle potential scourges. The winery uses only native yeast; an unusual choice in California, where readily available commercial strains make the fermentation process far more predictable. Scribe is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, staples in lower Sonoma County, especially among nearby producers such as MacRostie and Patz & Hall. But the brothers also planted Riesling and Sylvaner. Both varietals may be common in climates resembling Germany but have been complete ausländers in northern California for decades if not longer.
The Mariani brothers credit their upbringing with imparting a certain confidence and willingness to take risks. Walnut farming gave them a baseline knowledge about what it means to care for a crop, or perhaps even more so, about what it means to have your finances and your lifestyle inexorably linked to one. Of course the duo also brought a certain ignorance about the winemaking process with them from Winters, which they’ve also used to their advantage. “Especially with the, you know, the University of California at Davis influence, there’s this structure to how you make wine and how you communicate what you’re doing with people, how you run your tasting room,” says Andrew, referring to the Harvard of viticulture and oenology education. “There’s a system there. We didn’t really know that much about that. So we did things that we thought would be cool.”
One thing the brothers knew from the beginning was that they wanted to surround themselves with friends. Their first employees were long-time pals. They’d work long days and then relax with a communal meal and party around an open fire. Even these days, the entire staff will pack up and drive to, say, Santa Barbara, for a Scribe vertical tasting and all have dinner together. It doesn’t take more than 10 minutes into a conversation before Andrew and Adam begin recounting tales of last night’s wine-fuelled antics.
Of course the circle has grown substantially over seven years to the point where Scribe has become something of a revolving door. Scribe gatherings have become legend among the San Francisco foodie and hipster sets. Wine magazines recommend subscribing to the Scribe Viticultural Society merely to gain access to the quarterly “pick-up” parties. And those who come for a relaxing summer afternoon an hour from the city often seem in no rush to leave. On a walk around the vineyard, Andrew points out a twentysomething hipster stretched out with a book under the shade of an oak tree. “That guy’s been here at least four hours,” he says.
It’s no wonder, really. Andrew and Adam, both of whom live on site, just seem like guys you’d want to hang out with. They’re self-effacing and gracious hosts eager to share both their home and the fruits of their labours. “I feel really lucky and happy to be working here with people that I really love, with my brother, building this thing together,” says Andrew. “It’s not a very private life. We’re open every day and there’s s*** going on all the time. But wine is super fun to make. It’s so interesting and super complicated. It’s also a business, where you’re trying to figure out everything from geeky soil samples to worrying about whether you’re in the right restaurants in Copenhagen. All of it comes together in one place. That’s what I love about it. You forget sometimes what a lovely way this is to live.”
01 RITCHIE CREEK CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Andrew: We have this perception of what old California wines taste like. This wine, which we had at Press [a St Helena restaurant] blew us away because it was so vibrant and fresh. It felt like a rustic, simply driven, old California Cab. It opened up a world of appreciation for old California.
Pair with a hanger steak, broccoli, broiled potatoes and a Caesar. The classics.
02 I VIGNERI DI SALVO FOTI ETNA ROSSO, ROSÉ
Andrew: Salvo Foti took me to the vineyard that he had found when he was walking his dog. It’s an old gnarly-vined plot way up on the mountain. It just seemed to be one of the most special, unique vineyards. He could have made a big-ass red wine, just a massive thing. Instead, he made this nice, gentle, feminine rosé. I asked him, “Why’d you do that?” He said, “It’s a better expression of the vineyard.” And it was a rosé of pure, total distinction.
Pair with grilled squid with rocket and cherry tomatoes and pecorino.
03 GEORGES LAVAL CHAMPAGNE
Adam: It tastes like no other champagne. This guy Vincent, Georges’ son, is one of those producers that does everything with a focus and thoughtfulness. That’s so refreshing. It is the definition of balanced wine. It has richness, sharpness and focus. The perfect texture.
Oysters. OK, that’s boring but it works. Or nothing. Really. You don’t want to pair anything with that. Just enjoy it.
04 SCHLOSS SCHÖNBORN RIESLING
Adam: It’s so pure. It’s just the definition of Riesling for me. It’s really refreshing to drink a wine like that that is so honest. And it’s only $15. They make a lot of other bottlings that are higher and elegant and more expensive. But none of those strike a chord with me as much as that base bottle.
A green peach gazpacho.