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Donkey & Goat: The Brandts Bring Natural Farming Philosophies Into the Cellar #WinePW

Birthday Bocce at the Donkey & Goat Tasting Room, April 2017

This month the Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers are looking at the harvest or winemaking through the lens of climate change or other environmental factors with Gwendolyn of Wine Predator at the lead. You can read her invitation: here.

If you are reading this early enough, feel free to jump on the live Twitter chat on Saturday, September 12th at 8am Pacific time. Follow the hashtag #WinePW and be sure to add that to anything you tweet so we can see it. In the meantime, all of these posts will be live before Saturday morning's chat.

Donkey & Goat
Discovered after a dinner party. I guess one of my little guests was practicing his handwriting and
there were more than a few bottles to use as a reference, January 2016

I'll be honest, when I first read Gwendolyn's invitation, I wasn't sure that I had the bandwidth to participate. The topic seemed heavily academic and I had struggled through the climatology class I took in college. Really struggled. Admittedly, with a focus on American History and Philosophy, I probably had no business enrolling in a graduate level climatology class to fulfill a science requirement for graduation, but I thought it would be interesting. And it was interesting albeit so out of my usual wheelhouse that at times it was almost like reading another language. Thankfully the professor, teaching assistant, and other students tolerated my presence and ignorance.

On a whim I reached out to one of my favorite wineries and winemakers. "Would you be willing to be my featured winemaker for this month's #WinePW?" I asked. Not only did he agree, but he shipped me a few wine samples. Naturally I added on more than a couple of favorites that I wanted to purchase anyway.

If you follow my blog at all, you've probably heard me mention Donkey & Goat Winery* a time or two or ten. Back in 2014 Martin of ENOFYLZ Wine Blog mentioned Jared and Tracey Brandt during a wine chat and I immediately ordered some wines to try. I've developed a nice rapport with Jared over email and social media throughout the years; it's hard to believe I've never actually meet him in person!

After a couple of years I finally did make it to the tasting room in Berkeley. We were in the Bay Area for the weekend between Jake's birthday and mine and you really can't beat bocce with a glass of wine in-hand. So, whenever we're in the area - which is not as often as I would like, and significantly less as we enter our twenty-sixth week of being sheltered-in-place in Monterey County - we swing by to taste, play some bocce, and pick up some bottles.

In the Spring of 2018 I worked with them on pairings to go with their releases. I paired Petrale Sole, Fennel, and Potato Gratin + Donkey & Goat's Grenache Blanc Skins.

Then I have worked with them on pairings to go with their Fall 2019 releases. I paired Torched Chashu (Japanese Braised Pork Belly) + Donkey & Goat's 2017 The Bear.

I have featured full menus with Donkey & Goat wines at several dinner parties, including birthday celebrations and holiday feasts.

Natural Wines
photos from Donkey and Goat's twitter account

So, it seemed only fitting that I shine a spotlight on the Brandts along with their natural wines. Let's start with this: 'Natural wine' isn't new. It's an ancient process, despite its recent trendiness, because people have been making wine without additives for millennia. Seriously. And, while natural wine is more of a concept than a category or classificiation with well-defined criteria, I'll lay out what I mean by the term and why I think it's important. Other people might call this 'low-intervention' wine, or 'raw' wine. I've even heard 'naked' wine. But it's just fermented grape juice. That's it. Nothing added. 

Most of the time natural wine is made from organically-grown grapes, that is to say grapes not sprayed with pesticides. Almost all natural winemakers also hand-harvest their fruit instead of using machines to pick them. And, finally, natural winemakers rely on native yeasts instead of any commercial yeasts to kick-off fermentation. As I mentioned, there aren't set requirements to call your wine 'natural' and I think that often leads a hotly debated topic.

But just as I decided when researching biodynamic wines: if I like a wine, I'll buy it whether is holds a certification or not. I don't get hung up or too attached to a rubber stamp of approval. Many natural wines are unfiltered and that leads to descriptors as 'cloudy' or 'funky.' I have always loved some funk and Donkey & Goat's wines deliver that in spades.

A little history...and a connection to the topic at hand, climate change. The general consensus is that the natural wine movement was born in rural France where winemakers were working in the vines and in the cellars with little or no additives. Growing grapes without pesticides and other chemicals reduces pollution and other natural winemaking practices protect our natural resources and our planet. Additionally winemakers are turning their eyes towards native grape varietals that can thrive in an area without much intervention.

Jared and Tracey have posted a manifesto, and an explanation of 'natural wines', on their website. I'll give you some highlights and use their words because they are succinct and the passion for what they do is evident.

"We make 'natural wines' which is a term that covers both the vineyard and the cellar. That is what distinguishes natural wine– the extension of natural farming philosophies that drive the practices for sustainable, natural & biodynamic farming into the cellar."

The Brandts have not changed their winemaking philosophies since they started making wine in the early 2000s. Their vineyards are locared in Sierra Nevada mountains, along the coast in Mendocino, and at the heart of Napa. "We have vineyards that are organic and even have a new one that was effectively abandoned – closer to the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka. Biodynamic is very interesting to us but we are hesitant to adopt a management system that is dependent on copper sulfate due to health concerns." I am completely unfamiliar with the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka, so I look forward to reading more about that.

You can read 'Unfined' and 'Unfiltered' on the label.

As, as they move from the vineyard to the cellar, "nothing is removed and nothing is added save minimal effective sulphur." Jared continues and explains about added sulphur: "Sulphur is a contentious issue in the natural wine world. We have made wines with zero sulphur added but in general we do use minimum effective sulphur. Or we use as little as possible and our levels going into bottle fall within the predominant guideline for natural wines in Europe. Our wines are bottled without stabilization, fining or filtration. While not required, we include our ingredient list on our label which is remarkably short: grapes and minimal sulphur."

Another way in which they have their eyes on sustainability is that they eschew plastic. "We ferment all wines (red and white) in wood vats. ...We abandoned plastic in our personal lives when we had our (first) daughter and discovered the extensive research around chemicals like BPA leaching into liquids."

Harkening back to traditional methods, the Brandts do everything by hand. Everything is manual. "Picking. Sorting. Foot stomping. Punch down. Our hands are in the wine each day and we taste each day...." They are focused on encouraging by not manipulating the grapes. And their wine is an expression of origin, not just terroir but varietal.

While digging deeper into Jared and Tracey's philosophies and methods, I came across something that resonated with me...and is probably one of the reasons that I adore their wines. "We also make decisions to ensure our wines belong on the table with food and not in cocktail glass in advance of anything edible. That means we pick based on flavor and acid. We ignore brix... [opting instead to examine] acid structure and flavors."

As a foodie who drinks wine - not a wino that happens to eat - I appreciate that they are concerned with pairing potential. So, in addition to bringing natural farming philosophies into the cellar, they are focused on making wines that are truly food-friendly. The fact that their philosophies and methods are natural is the icing on top.

Pairings and Culinary Explorations to Come

My timing was off in getting wines. But this beautiful bounty of Donkey & Goat wines showed up yesterday. So, stay tuned for more about these Fall releases, pairings, tasting notes, and more about the Brandts. I am in awe of their passion for what they are doing and why they are doing it.

You may find Donkey & Goat...
on the web, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram


  1. I've read your previous posts and posts from others about Donkey & Goat and I'm so curious about them! I really wish I could get my hands on some of their wines. Hopefully one of these days I'll manage to be state-side long enough to check out some of these gems!

    1. Yes! And when you're stateside long enough to visit them, let us Central Californians know...we'll all come for a tasting party. I am pretty sure that Martin, Payal, Nicole, and I are down!

  2. such an incredible lineup. I have heard nothing but good things about donkey and goat! I love the idea of a roadtrip!

  3. Oooh I just had their Pet Nat as part of one of my birthday celebrations a couple of week ago. Very fun. I actually have several friends that have worked harvest with them. Cheers!

  4. First, I am with you on funk! Do I always want it? No, but I find funky wines so interesting, that I do search them out.
    I have heard of Donkey and Goat before, but was not familiar with their philosophy and I am onboard! The reference to Masanobu Fukuoka in our discussion fascinated me. As I dig just a tiny bit of digging, I remember the name being mentioned when I spoke with a biodynamic winemaker in Australia. We also visited Hiyu vineyard in Oregon and now I want to go see if this was part of their philosophy. (You would love their wines by the way).
    I am looking forward to hearing about your pairings as you open these bottles! (Especially of course, that Pet Nat!)

  5. Thank you for the extensive article about a favorite winery, Donkey and Goat! Been a fan of their wines since I first tasted them back in 2008. They really are food friendly, aren't they? I look forward to reading more about these wines from the bounty in the box!


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