Chatting with: Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines, California

by blog on January 13, 2017

“At Matthew Rorick Wines, we love the longshots. We love the outsiders, the lost causes, the people/projects/ideas abandoned as not having a chance in the world.

Rare creatures from appellations unknown and varieties uncommon, these wines are our brave advance party, our pride and joy – our Forlorn Hope.”

Reading these excerpts from Napa Valley-based winemaker Matthew Rorick, it’s hardly surprising we jumped at the chance to work with him. Philosophies about life and wine aligned, Matthew has been a core member of Les Caves de Pyrene’s motley crew of American cohorts. He makes serious yet gluggable wines from an array of grape varieties scarcely seen in the natural wine desert that is the Napa Valley. Matthew’s story, unsurprisingly, is as fascinating as his wines.

Matthew will be pouring his Forlorn Hope wines at the Real Wine Fair in London 7-8th May 2017. Be sure to pay him a visit – you won’t forget it.

Matthew Rorick, rockstar winemaker

Matthew Rorick, rockstar winemaker

What made you want to become a winemaker?

My grandfather, David Rorick, fostered in me an intense curiosity about winegrowing and the people who tend vines. My initial interest in wine was along anthropological lines; I was compelled by my grandfather’s stories about vignerons in France he’d visited in the 60s and vineyards in California in the 70s. The world of winemaking sometimes seems glamorous from the outside, but what hooked me irretrievably was being tied to the soil and seasons. So much of what now I love most about making wine is found in the dirty, sweaty, gritty long hours of vineyard work from winter pruning through spring bloom and shoot positioning to monitoring ripeness as harvest approaches. I’d originally thought to be an academic in the world of wine and discovered that the real draw for me was in being a simple farmer.

You served in the U.S. Navy during the first Gulf War. Do you feel you’ve gained skills from the Navy that help you make better wine today, or is this a part of your life you’ve long left behind?

While I don’t have the chance to repair many periscopes these days, the Navy definitely has still had an impact on the way that I work in the cellar. From simple ingrained boot camp habits like “clean as you go” to the foundations of running a clean, efficient workshop translate directly to my daily cellar routine.

You made wine all over the world before starting your own label. Where and from whom have you drawn the greatest inspiration?

Inspiration for me comes from all corners: from the Tyrrell family in Australia, producing some of the best Semillons in the world; from Jean-Michel Morel of Kabaj in Slovenia; from the folks in South Africa behind the Swartland Revolution; from my friends and winemaking colleagues here in California, like Dan Petroski, Tegan Passalacqua, and Ryan & Megan Glaab, among others; from the music of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, and James Murphy; from the writings of Salman Rushdie, Frank Herbert, and Robinson Jeffers; from the unbridled transgressive creativity of street artists.

What made you want to start your own label, and where did the name “Forlorn Hope” come from?

I think the impetus for starting my own wine project stemmed from having too much curiosity about what else we might produce here in California outside of the handful of mainstream varieties. I tried to sell the idea to my then employer, who balked at the prospect of trying to sell something as esoteric as Verdelho or Valdiguie. I began to think that I may just have to do it myself, and in preparation for that ran the idea by some of my colleagues. Almost without fail I was told that a wine project focusing on varieties that nobody in the U.S. was familiar with was a terrible idea… and in that response was the genesis of the name “Forlorn Hope”. The unheralded varieties, or unfashionable AVAs, or unconventional wine styles all became my underdogs that didn’t stand a chance; my lost causes that only needed someone to champion them. Forlorn Hope made perfect sense to me, being originally the Dutch phrase “verloren hoop” (meaning a lost heap or group — perfectly describing the varieties in my cellar) and appropriated into English during the Napoleonic wars where it was used to describe the group of volunteers in Wellington’s army who led charges against enemy fortifications. It really resonated; those first few years most definitely felt like running directly toward a wall of muskets.

Have you had lightbulb moments in your career – those that have stopped in your tracks and forced you to look at things differently?

An early lightbulb moment came for me while working as a cellarhand in Napa. I was busy preparing an addition of tartaric acid to be added to Cabernet which had been picked that morning when some of the winery’s marketing verbiage ran through my head. Phrases such as “Our vineyard is the perfect site for cultivating Cabernet Sauvignon” and “We pick at the peak of ripeness” suddenly made no sense to me if we were making all kinds of adjustments to the must chemistry… if the site is perfect and we’re picking at perfect ripeness, why would we have to add anything? That moment gave my nascent winemaking philosophy a nucleus upon which to crystallize, and continues to shape my decisions in the vineyard and cellar to this day. When the site is good, and you’ve tended the vines conscientiously, and picked the fruit at the right time, nothing needs to be changed, adjusted, or manipulated in the must or wine: the lightbulb that came on so many years ago is still burning.

A little bird tells us that you’re a talented musician, and that you make guitars! How did you acquire this unique skill? And do music and wine intersect for you? If so, in what ways?

I’d have to call myself more enthusiastic than talented when it comes to being a musician! As to building guitars, I just bought some tools and a book or two and got to work. I had great support online from a couple of fellow left-handed builders who offered suggestions and guidance, and thanks to them and some good luck my first solid-body electric was actually playable. Music and wine most definitely intersect for me — at the risk of over-romanticizing it, I’d call wine itself a form of music. If the site and vines can be said to speak through the wine, then why not sing? I greatly enjoy pairing wine with music — in tasting a wine in my cellar I’ll try to pair it with a song, or an album, or artist. And once I’ve landed on what music that wine evokes for me, it’s fascinating to find out what music it evokes for others. Doing this has given me interesting and unexpected perspective on certain of my wines, and turned me on to bands I’d never heard of as well.

Living and working in as notoriously conservative a place as the Napa Valley as a natural winemaker must have its moments. Have you come up against much backlash for your “nonconventional” approach, or do you find the philosophy is becoming more accepted, if not more commonplace?

I’ve found that the biggest backlash comes not from being a “natural” winemaker — whatever that means — but from championing transparency. The “conventional” producers in Napa Valley don’t seem to care what a small producer like myself does in my own cellar, but it might be a bit of a shock for consumers to discover how commonplace it is for many “conventional” producers to add water, acid, enzyme, or commercial yeast to their wines, or to dealcoholize or remove volatile acidity via reverse osmosis in spite of claims to the contrary. A large part of the romantic concept of wine is the idea that it is a pure, simple, and honest agricultural product; much of the wine produced in the Napa Valley is a manufactured product, well removed from that romantic conceptualization. Talking about transparency, then, becomes problematic.

You work with plenty of grape varieties rarely seen in Napa and in the USA in general! Which have been some of the greatest surprises?

Some of my favorite surprises in this regard have been discovering which varieties I’m working with are not new to the state at all. Verdelho, for instance, which I thought was a relative newcomer but has been documented in California since the late 19th century, or Trousseau, which has been planted in the same region as my family’s vineyard in Calaveras in the Sierra Foothills since the gold rush. Rediscovering these links to California’s viticultural history has been at least as exciting, if not more so, than working with varieties that are brand new to the state, such as Ribolla gialla and Pineau d’Aunis.

Finally, what’s next? Any exciting projects in the works?!

The most exciting project I’ve got on my plate at the moment is to sink deeper into the rocks and soils of my vineyard, and to continue to listen to the music they produce in our wine. Turn it up!

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