With names like Big House Red, Unchained Naked Chardonnay, The Usual Suspect Cabernet, it may come as a surprise that the winemaker behind this label wears bright red lipstick and approaches winemaking like perfume. That certainly got my attention, especially the perfume part. Meet Georgetta Dane. Her Big House winery is in Soledad, CA, where there is a state correctional facility, aka the big house. “And I am the warden at the winery,” Georgetta says. Her perfume inspired winemaking also makes her a wine fashionista in my book.
You may know Big House White or Big House Red. The label was launched by Randall Grahm, the colorful Bonny Doon winemaker. At the time he had the vineyards in Soledad, although the wine was made in Santa Cruz. In 2006 Bonny Doon sold the Big House and Cardinal Zin labels to The Wine Group, and the winery moved to Soledad. That’s when Georgetta took over. “I’ve never met Randall and I really hope to one day.”
Georgetta is from Romania, and learned the craft of winemaking there. She studied food science in school, and after graduating had two career prospects. “It was I either work in a sausage factory right after graduation or being a winemaker. My parents said yeah go to the meat factory, but I just couldn’t see myself making sausages the rest of my life.” Georgetta worked in a big winery that made generic white and red wines. Eventually she and her husband started their own winemaking business, buying juice and blending it for their own label. “That’s how i learned a lot about blending wines and how wines marry with each other.
She makes it clear she’s not trying to fill Randall’s shoes; she’s making the Big House label her own. For her first crush, she watched as 42 varieties of grapes were delivered to the winery. “The only way I could make sense of all these grapes is to make a wine from every single varietal, then taste and evaluate them. I was so happy and so excited because each varietal has something really predominant. The Italian varieties are so insanely fruity. I fell in love at the first sip with Charbono, Teroldego. I love Tannat and I have a glass every night at dinner.”
A Pefumer’s Approach
How was Georgetta going to make wine with 42 varietals? “I was looking at all those glasses and I said it’s like I have essential oils in every single glass. I could make a perfume, I could put them together just as you make a perfume of essential oils. I started reading about perfume and learned that when you blend essential oils you have to create a base and then you add middle notes and then top notes.”
For the Big House White blend, the base is floral. “I put the flowers first which are Malvasia Bianca, Viognier and Muscat Canelli. These are the varietals that are very, very aromatic and very floral. Then I smelled the wine and it was perfume, but it was a little like a cheap perfume, you know too simple. So I said let’s add the next layer, the middle note, with a fruity twist. I started adding Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc, but the tropical one not the grassy one and Albariño. Those all brought citrus – grapefruit, apples and some tropical notes.”
Georgetta says the perfume top note is supposed to be something that strikes your fancy. “It’s not supposed to last, it just gives you that first impression. I turned back to florals and used Gewürztraminer as a top note, and then it made all sense to me.”
For Big House Red, Georgetta uses more than 20 varietals to make the blend. “The main base of the perfume is Petite Sirah and Syrah, then I start adding the Italian varietals and for the top note I added a little bit of Viognier. There is a lot of Grenache which adds a feminine touch from rose petals and strawberries, but Petite Sirah and Syrah really give it the skeleton of the whole blend.
She uses her perfumer approach even on single varietal wines. The winery gets Chardonnay grapes from Monterey County and Paso Robles, and the flavors are different due to terroir. “The Monterey grapes are very citrusy, with apple notes; the grapes from Paso Robles are very tropical so it’s all about pineapples and mangoes. I layered citrus for the base, tropical for the middle and citrus back on top, with a little bit of Gewürztraminer.”
Escape from Oak
All of the seven wines in the Big House label are oak free, including the Chardonnay and all the reds. “It’s what I call a naked wine. It’s all about the beauty of the grape.” She calls her Chardonnay “Unchained.” Not only is it free of oak, but the wine doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation, a process that adds a buttery flavor. “This is the naked Chardonnay.” The Cabernet sees no oak, and a portion of Zinfandel is aged in old, neutral oak to help soften it, Georgette says.
Each wine has a strong personality and that’s reflected in the names and labels, all a take on the local prison. On the “Unchained Naked” Chardonnay a prisoner breaks free of the chain gang and is escaping naked through a vineyard. Georgetta says on the Cabernet label, which she calls “The Usual Suspect,” you see Tiny, a big brawny inmate with a big fruit bomb in an oak barrel. Georgetta breaks down her tasting notes into a Perp Profile, Surveillance and Rap Sheet.
All Big House wines sell for one price, $9.99 retail (I buy it at Trader Joe’s for $6.99). It’s not easy to find a red wine under $10 that’s any good, but I highly recommend the reds that I’ve tried, the Cab, the Zin, and especially the Big House Red blend.
Big House wines are also sold in boxes, using the bag-in-box technology, that theoretically keeps the opened wine fresh for up to six weeks. Each box is the equivalent of four bottles of wine, for $20. That’s a deal when you consider it would cost $40 to buy four 750 ml bottles.
Will we see Georgetta make an actual perfume one day? “I flirt with the idea of becoming a perfumer.” What she wants to do next is to bottle Teroldego, Tannat and Albariño as single varietals. Should she do that, she’ll have her own supply for her nightly glass of Tannat.