Melaney Schmidt of Landmass Wines in Portland. ##Photo by Michael Alberty

Interstate Love Song

The Spirit of the Beehive a mighty fine sparkling wine

By Michael Alberty

How could anyone resist a sparkling wine named for a film that uses a child’s imagination, beehives and Frankenstein’s monster to critique fascism? 

The wine takes its name from Victor Erice’s 1973 film about Spanish life under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who is still dead. It’s also the only sparkling wine in America made with grapes from three different states: California, Oregon and Washington.

The Spirit of the Beehive is an effervescent love letter to diverse valleys, long road trips and cooperation. The wine exists only because of kismet involving Joshua Hammerling of Blue Ox Wine Co. in Berkeley, California, and Melaney Schmidt of Landmass Wines in Portland.

The Spirit of the Beehive ##Photo by Marcus Larson

Schmidt was surfing the web for other small sparkling wine producers when she stumbled upon Blue Ox. Intrigued, she made a mental note to track down Hammerling. Schmidt didn’t have to wait long. The next day she discovered Hammerling was about to pour his wines at a tasting hosted by Bar Norman in Portland.

Their hour-long conversation at Bar Norman went exceedingly well. “We were like instant friends,” Schmidt recalled. After bonding over bubbles, Hammerling suggested a cooperative venture.

Hammerling drives back-and-forth from Berkeley to Washington each year to purchase grapes. “Josh told me he wanted to make a wine that would showcase vineyards in Washington, California and the ones he drives by in Oregon,” Schmidt said. Hammerling invited Schmidt to supply the Oregon component.

Schmidt provided Oregon Chardonnay for the base wine. The organically farmed grapes hail from a dry, windy vineyard planted 35-years ago in Boardman. “Its name is Sand Hollow, and I’ve never seen a vineyard like it. Every time you take a step, you raise a giant cloud of dust,” Schmidt explained.

Schmidt picked the site instead of a Willamette Valley vineyard because she felt Sand Hollow’s warmer, drier micro-climate gives Chardonnay the “oomph” needed to hold its own with the California and Washington components. She drove her wine down to Berkeley to join Hammerling for blending trials.

The Spirit of the Beehive comprises 56% Chardonnay, 41% Pinot Noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. Schmidt added her wine to the co-fermented Chardonnay-Pinot Noir Hammerling made with fruit from the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The wine also includes Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier from the Carmel and Russian River valleys.

Each lot was fermented in stainless steel and aged in barrels six months before bottling. In keeping with the wine’s theme, honey from an Oregon vineyard hive was used for the secondary fermentation. The honey means more to this wine than triggering the sparkle.

The late Roger Ebert called “The Spirit of the Beehive” one of the most beautiful films he’d ever seen. Hammerling wanted to capture that beauty in a bottle. “Many shots from the film are bathed in an amber glow as if inside a honeycomb. We wanted those who enjoy this wine to feel something similar. Using honey for the secondary fermentation of this wine wasn’t meant to define the profile, but to give a subtle, textured glow on the back of the palate,” Hammerling states on his website.

The wine’s washed-out yellow-gold hue coats the glass in a way Erice’s cinematographer would approve. It also seemed to change from gold to copper and straw when I took my glass to the back patio to enjoy a rare sunny January day in Oregon. 

Swirling the glass conjures citrus scents, buttery brioche and a mild saline note reminiscent of a brisk Yaquina Bay breeze. Smelling The Spirit of the Beehive is like drooling in anticipation over a lemony slice of beach pie with its saltine cracker crust.

The dry wine fizzing in my mouth provided wave after wave of the most interesting flavors. Fuji apples arrived first, followed by wet rocks and lemon drops. Yes, there’s even the slightest taste of honeycomb.

There was also some ancient flavor floating in the background. It reminded me of the powder on the hard candies my grandfather used to give us kids. They’re called horehounds, which never failed to make us giggle. 

 The wine is 12.1% alcohol by volume, with enough acidity to revive even the most fatigued palate. The bubbles are also filled with nerve and verve.

Some of you are probably still wondering what Frankenstein’s monster is doing in an allegorical film about post-Civil War life in Spain. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I highly recommend you plunk down $32 for a bottle of “Spirit of the Beehive” to drink while watching the movie on the Criterion Channel.

Don’t wait too long. Blue Ox and Landmass have only 220 cases of bee wine to share with the world.

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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