Iruai owners/winemakers Chad and Michelle Westbrook Hinds  ##Photo provided

Surf's Up

Iruai rides Rogue wave

By Michael Alberty

Rogue Valley Cabernet Franc grapes were recently transported across state lines for floral purposes. The resulting Iruai “Tierra Extraña” has me yearning for summer.

When I was eight years old, my dad took me to see “The Endless Summer.” The surfing documentary was a great way to spend a January afternoon in Kansas. After 91 minutes of being mesmerized by big waves and my first bikinis, a newly acquired summertime vibe helped me survive the endless Midwest winter.

I have the 2020 Iruai “Tierra Extraña” Cabernet Franc to thank for bringing those warm memories flooding back.

Iruai wines are made by Chad and Michelle Westbrook Hinds at their winery in Etna, California. This tiny town sits at 3,000 feet above sea level in the shadow of Northern California’s Marble Mountains. A historic gold mining region, the area is rife with tales of Bigfoot and giant salamanders reportedly reaching lengths of seven to nine feet.

"The Endless Summer" movie poster

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to try several Iruai wines made with varieties such as Mondeuse, Savagnin and Trousseau. Those wines were all made with grapes grown in California, so I was surprised to recently find an Iruai bottle stating “Rogue Valley” on its label. I whisked the bottle home with a sense of anticipation usually reserved for new album purchases.

I immediately scrolled to the Moondog FM section of Iruai’s website before opening the bottle — the couple posts playlists here to accompany each Iruai wine. When I saw the 2020 “Tierra Extraña” Cab Franc ($29) playlist included “Theme from ‘The Endless Summer,’” covered by The Donkeys, I needed to know the reason.

“The playlist isn’t based on lyrics or terminology. It’s about the vibe,” Westbrook Hinds says. He explains his “Tierra Extraña” Cab Franc was a summer release, which always gets him thinking about taking time off. “Listening to [the song] is a good way to get your head into vacation mode.”

Westbrook Hinds used a lot of Sonoma Coast fruit when he first started making wine in San Francisco in 2013. He named this wine “Tierra Extraña” — Spanish for “foreign land” — because Cab Franc is a Sonoma Coast outsider compared to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

When the couple relocated their production to Etna in 2020, they decided to buy fruit exclusively from vineyards within a 90-minute drive. The closest California vineyards to their new home are located in Trinity County near Redding. Those vineyards, unfortunately, can’t fill all Iruai’s needs. Westbrook Hinds turned to the nearby Rogue Valley to close the gap.

2020 Iruai “Tierra Extraña” ##Photo by Marcus Larson

The 2020 vintage of “Tierra Extraña” is made with fruit from Quail Run Vineyards in Talent, a mere 72 miles from Etna and across the border. “We kept the ‘Tierra Extraña’ name because now we’re making wine west of Mount Shasta and using Cab Franc from the Rogue Valley. We’re the strangers in a strange land now,” he explains.

Westbrook Hinds describes his Cab Franc to me as “the kind of wine you can drink with your toes in the river or by the fire once it is time to put a jacket on.” I could almost smell the smoke and feel the denim as I tore into the mauve-colored wine. Scents of violets, black pepper, earth and bittersweet dark chocolate fill the gaps between blackberries and raspberries.

Blackberries return on the palate in a major way, like eating a slice of sweet-tart blackberry pie with your hands and then licking off every finger — thumbs included. Rosemary, orange citrus and wet stone flavors lurk in the background.

The first few sips of “Tierra Extraña” made me feel like packing up for a road trip backed by sunshine and The Allman Brothers. After finishing two glasses, I was ready to dip my toes into the nearby Wilson River. Perhaps, I’ll pick blackberries on the way — Eddie Cochran was wrong: “Tierra Extraña” cured my summertime blues.

Westbrook Hinds describes this wine as possessing a “whole clustery” freshness to accompany the rich color, fruit and texture that comes with extended maceration. To his list, I’d add sturdy tannins, brisk acidity and a “just right” 13% alcohol by volume.

After ambient yeasts trigger fermentation, Westbrook Hinds mostly stays out of the way until adding a tiny amount of sulfur before bottling. Yet the phrase “natural winemaking” never came up during our conversation. Westbrook Hinds is more concerned with enjoyment and the proper vibe than he is with pigeon holes.

In his review of “The Endless Summer,” the late Roger Ebert wrote, “Here, at last, is a completely uncomplicated film, fresh and natural, designed only to please. It does.” That’s how I feel about “Tierra Extraña.” I give it a big blackberry-stained thumbs-up.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: The Changeup is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse, 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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