Just like the town that they are located in, Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley, California inspires some strong opinions. Jared and Tracey Brandt believe in making natural wine with minimal intervention, resulting in wines that can frankly be stranger than anything you’ve probably ever tasted in California. I’ve heard their wines referred to as being gimmicky and overpriced, just plain weird (that comment comes from my wife after she tasted one of their white wines), and I’ve also heard of them referred to as transcendent. So, what is it about Donkey and Goat that causes these types of reactions?
The Brandts got their start at Crushpad when it was in San Francisco. For them, making natural wine means that their wines have no added yeasts, and they let their wines ferment with whatever yeasts blow in on the surrounding Berkeley winds. The wines are crushed by foot and are left unfined and unfiltered because the Brandts don’t believe in compromising flavor and aroma for smoothness. This is a decidedly different approach than what most wineries in California take, and their white wines especially are often packed with sediment and have a strange unsettled color. The wines are crushed by foot and often include a substantial amount of whole cluster. And at no point do their wines get held in plastic during winemaking. The Brandts are also self-admittedly crazy about adding the least amount of sulfite possible to stabilize the wine. Suffice to say, they are minimalists in the extreme. In fact, on the home page of their website, they proudly state: No plastics, no stabilization, little (to no) sulfur, no new oak, no machines for crushing. They are proudly waving the natural wine flag.
The wine: Now, I’ll admit that even though I eventually loved this wine, on the first sniff this wine gave me a sort of strange yeasty-grapefruit aroma. The aroma took me right back to having tasted Donkey and Goat’s Rousanne that had this same interesting grapefruit aroma. It worked in the white wine but getting this same aroma in their Syrah was off-putting. Luckily it blew off within a little while. After the wine opened up, it began to smell and taste more authentically of pure, unadulterated, true Syrah. The absolute lack of oak or alcohol aromas allows the true Syrah characteristics to shine — natural floral and salty, black olive aromas. There’s also some wonderful ripe plum, black licorice, and strawberry aromas to juxtapose the black olive.
On the palate it’s enjoyably rustic and has real texture to it. Too many California wines can be obsessed with smoothness, which is a descriptor I would definitely not use for this wine. But it’s “not smooth” in a good way — it’s a wine that dances on the tongue, it has more complexity and sort of a density to it that I don’t get in wines that have been filtered.
It’s got some blackberry on the finish and some earthy-gravel notes with just the right amount of acidity. The tannins definitely come through and it could benefit from a few more years of bottling. However, with some air it’s approachable now and those same salty olive flavors come through, making me crave roasted or grilled meat with herbed potatoes.
Even though I haven’t exactly been wowed by the natural wine movement, I love this wine. It’s a wine that shows that the natural process of making wine can be beneficial for letting the true flavors of the vineyard come through in pure, unadulterated, textured deliciousness.