I met Gabrielle Shaffer and Adam McClary on the bocce courts of St. Helena this summer. I recognized some non-playing members of their team who were gathered around a picnic table laden with the usual summer evening’s bounty of cheeses, dips, salads, flatbreads, and, of course, an array of wines. They invited me to join them.
Gabrielle is winemaker and Adam is chief bottle-washer and everything else of Gamling and McDuck Winery in St. Helena. They and their team played bocce and shared food that night with an infectious combination of enthusiasm and whimsey. Even before we discovered that we were all native Minnesotans, we knew there was some magical connection going on here.
We sat down outside on a balmy evening a few weeks ago to have a serious talk about wine at Tra Vigne Pizza in St. Helena, CA [near Napa Valley]. They brought a bottle of their Chenin Blanc and their Cabernet Franc. I brought a bottle Cab Franc from Paso Robles with a faux Aubrey Beardsley label that I thought we might enjoy. We opened the Chenin first, gave a glass to our waiter, clinked glasses all around and dived into the conversation and pizza.
We started with the life story basics. Gabrielle grew up mostly in northern Minnesota, in the town of Mora (pop 3,000), born of a Guatemalan father and Swedish-heritaged mother that gives her a raven-haired, oval-faced, rather un-Minnesotan look. Adam grew up in Austin, sort of a city (pop 24,000) in southern Minnesota. Both like to dress in blacks and browns and could easily pass on an album cover as rock musicians. Adam might pass as a bouncer at a club, if he could seriously keep his scowl on.
Me? I spent the first seven years of life in Golden Valley, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, before moving to Park Ridge, Illinois where I did what little growing up I was capable of before having to act like an adult.
They met where Minnesotans tend to meet, in Minneapolis, in 2006. She was working for a wine importer/wholesaler. He was managing a restaurant that she called on. “I ended up selling him a lot of wine,” she said.
Wink, nod, giggle.
That Chenin was tasting pretty good at this point. We decided to open their Cab Franc. Gave the waiter a taste.
After dating for a while, they started talking about a change of scenery and decided to uproot their easy, comfortable lives and attempt something different. So they spent a half year in Troncones Beach, Mexico, flew back to Minnesota in the spring of 2008, put their things in a truck and arrived in Napa in May of 2008.
“I’ve been in the wine industry since I was 21,” she continued. “I learned my way while managing a small shop in Duluth during college. Later I was the purchasing agent for a large, high-end store in the metro area. I then earned my advanced level sommelier certification through the International Sommelier Guild in 2002.”
“We came out here,” added Adam, “because we wanted to make magic happen. That’s what wine-making, and wine-enjoying are all about. And we know that that magic begins with getting your hands dirty.”
“Why do you make Cab Franc and Chenin Blanc?” I asked. “They are rather unusual out here.”
“We went to the Loire Valley in 2005, where they specialize in those wines and just fell in love with the place,” they both chimed in, one beginning and the other finishing the sentence.
“I like the clean , focussed citrus in the Chenin Blanc. Our Cab Franc is a lighter, sexier, more feminine experience than you usually get from that grape,” continued the winemaker.
I asked them their favorite autumn activities are. Gabi fielded that question: “In Minnesota, italways walking around in the leaves and wind, crunching leaves, savoring the dry, smoky aromas. Here it has to be all the anticipation of harvest. When the first signs of fruit coming in show up I get giddy.”
Time for that other Cab Franc. Gave the waiter a taste. Everyone was very merry at this point. Indeed, the two Cabs could not have been more different. While Gabi’s was light in color and taste with a flowery bouquet, this one from the southland was the sort of dark and inky cab franc that I have had a number of times. One was the best Virginia wine I’ve ever had.
I managed to articulate a few more questions while we tasted all three at once, savored, swirled, slurped, hmmmed, umhmmmed, sighed, finished off the pizza.
“Is there any other grape you would like to experiment with?”
“No,” Gabi responded. “My experiments will be with these two grape varietals. Chenin blanc is a very versatile, chameleon of a grape. In addition to this dry original offering, I plan to someday make an off-dry version, a fully sweet, botrytised version, and even a dry, sparkling expression. With the Cab franc I will be making a rose this year as well as a very small batch of bolder, mountain fruit.”
“What is the next wine region you would love to visit?”
“Hoping to head to South Africa for this upcoming harvest to experience firsthand the way they are handling Chenin blanc.”
“Do you guys actually have a winery, tasting room, all that?”
“We have no bricks and mortar tasting room or winery though we are open to meeting folks or having them over to try the wines.”
“Where can I buy this stuff?”
“Well, we just began and it is small production, so… We are available at a number of places in Minnesota, both restaurant and retail. We are on a small handful of wine lists in L.A. Locally we are at the restaurant ‘Cook’ in St. Helena and ‘Sunshine Foods’. We are available direct. We continue to post places via our facebook page as they come on board.”
I believe I asked about the unusual name of the wine-making enterprise, Gamling and McDuck. The reply was something about a beach barbecue, reading comic books, perfect pairings, Indonesia, a neighborhood in Minneapolis . . . . Lost in translation. Next time.
The webpage for Gamling and McDuck is coming soon.
Until then, find more about their winery on Facebook.