Daniel foot stamping the grapes
Slamdance Project Label- first vintage 2020
The Wine History Project spent several years developing criteria for the person, place, grape, vineyard or event to be selected as a LEGEND for our archives and website. In general each LEGEND has made an impact that has profoundly influenced the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County. Daniel Callan is the youngest person selected to date. He is the Assistant Winemaker at Thacher Winery. But he also has developed several historical research projects that include identifying the “Lost or Forgotten California Vineyards” where grapevines have flourished over 100 years ago. His love of history has brought new attention to heirloom grape varieties planted in California in the 19th Century and the winemaking techniques used in each era. Daniel is researching, cultivating and making wine from these forgotten grapes.
His career and winemaking style have been influenced by both men and women with whom he has worked on the east and west coast of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
His experience in working with Sherman Thacher has brought new attention to using amphorae and other neutral vessels for making wines with a minimum of human intervention, resulting in fresh new wines expressing the terroir and uniqueness of Paso Robles.
He is an educator as well. He has formed a monthly study group for small producers, and is presenting his research at local conferences and writing articles for publication.
Impact on Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
Recognizing and articulating that every great wine region in the world has a respect for its history which informs the regional identity. He was concerned that the regional identity was disappearing in Paso Robles.
Focus on the early history of vineyards and winemaking in San Luis Obispo County and in 19th Century California.
Researching the grapes and their clones originally planted in San Luis Obispo County to develop an identity in each specific region starting with Paso Robles.
Researching and reviving the history of lesser known or forgotten “heirloom” grape varieties grown successfully in California during the 19th Century.
Sourcing these “heirloom” or forgotten grape varieties for cultivation from the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis for cultivation and from local vineyards in San Luis Obispo County.
Cultivating the “heirloom” grape variety Cinsault, originally planted in California in the 1880s.
Cultivating field blends of “heirloom” red and grape varieties particularly suited to the Paso Robles area and grown there in the past.
Sharing natural fermentation and winemaking techniques used by Independent South African winemakers making natural wines from grape varieties that express the terroir of specific regions.
Experimenting with fermentation and winemaking with multiple grape varieties in a variety of vessels including clay amphorae.
Working as Assistant Winemaker at Thacher Winery and helping Sherman Thacher to implement the philosophy and practices learned in South Africa.
Organizing monthly educational gatherings for sharing technical expertise, farming practices and wine philosophy with young producers in San Luis Obispo County.
Initiating the Slamdance Wine Project. He makes wine that could only exist in California. He is identifying and restoring the regional identity of Paso Robles. As Daniel often says, “You can take lessons from other regions, you can make references to them in your work, but you cannot plagiarize.”
Rediscovering and writing about the “Lost Vineyards” of California.
Accumulating a personal library of articles on farming grapes and winemaking practices in 19th Century California.
Slamdance next to the vintages produced in South Africa
Progress of fermentation
South Africa 2015
Historic drawing showing the four major grape varieties published in mid-1800s
Harvesting the grapes – front left is Sherman Thacher Back left is Daniel Callan
Sherman and Daniel Callahan at Thacher Winery
Logo on Slamdance wine label
Back label on the bottle showing the Vineyards where the grapes were grown
Front and back labels of Slamdance
Bottling Slamdance at Thacher in January 2022
A Love of History – Grape Varieties and Winemaking Techniques
Daniel Callan grew up in Berryville, Virginia. He graduated from George Mason University with an English major in the Academic Honors Program in Fairfax, Virginia. He focused on writing non-fiction. After moving to California Daniel began collecting early wine articles and books published on viticulture and winemaking techniques used in California dating back to the 1860s. One of his favorites is The Wine Press and the Cellar – A Manual for the Wine-Maker and the Cellar-man by Emmet Hawkins Rixford. This manual was published in New York and San Francisco in 1883. It was a resource for early growers and winemakers in San Luis Obispo County. Oral interviews with members of the York and Goldman families, owners of York Winery and vineyards in Templeton from 1872 to 2001, indicate that this manual was used by Andrew York, the founder and winemaker of Ascension Winery, later renamed York Winery. The book was an important resource kept in the wine library founded by the Yorks and passed down to the Goldmans. It is a fascinating read today in the 21st Century. We have a review posted on our website.
During college, Daniel started working at the Sunset Hills Vineyard in Purcellville, Virginia in the tasting room. He was hired as a cellar hand to work in the vineyard and on the 2012 vintage. His introduction to and subsequent education included fruit sampling, basic laboratory work, picking grapes, fruit processing, additions and inoculations, fermentation and cap management, pressing, barrel work and general cellar hygiene. Daniel had an important mentor early in his career. The winemaker at the time, Nate Walsh, provided Daniel with stories, articles and books to stimulate his curiosity and expand his knowledge of both current and historic winemaking techniques.
Daniel expresses his appreciation of this first mentor: “Nate was one of the great educators in my life, and without his early influence, I may have gone down a very different winemaking path. His wife was a wine distributor, and we would often sit down after work, and taste through all of her leftover wine samples from her sales trips. Nate shared my love of literature (he had studied Southern Gothic literature at university), and so he would give me weekly reading assignments to develop my informal education. Some of his recommended reads included: Randall Grahm’s Been Doon So Long, Jaimie Goode’s Authentic Wine, and Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Wines.”
Nate also recommended that Daniel spend at least some time in wine sales, in order to understand the backside of the business. So, not only did he encourage Daniel to go abroad to work harvest, but also to diversify his wine experience by working at the Ashburn Wine Shop.
Nate stressed that hands-on learning from actually participating in all aspects of growing, harvesting and making wine was equally important. Nate encouraged Daniel to consider applying for internships around the world to expand his experience and knowledge about winemaking. As Daniel describes it, “there’s a community of people who travel abroad and harvest. It is like being a ski bum. They follow the harvests around the world, rather than the snow pack.” He decided to follow Nate’s advice and search for opportunities abroad for the following year’s harvest season.
After working the harvest in Virginia, Daniel moved on to become the Assistant Manager at the Ashburn Wine Shop in October 2012. He was hired by owner Sergio Mendes. Daniel learned the sales and distribution side of the wine industry including wine purchasing, inventory management and distributor relations. This is where the magic enters Daniel’s story. The Wine Shop carried some California wines including those of Thacher Winery in Paso Robles. The proprietor, Sherman Thacher, visited the wine shop to introduce his wines and soon became friendly with the owner, Sergio Mendes. This friendship would change the course of the lives of both Daniel Callan and winemaker Sherman Thacher in the near future, even though they never met in Virginia.
Daniel realized that he preferred working directly in the vineyards and wine making rather than selling wine to customers. The Ashburn Wine Shop had provided Daniel with another chapter of valuable education. He decided it was time to travel and work in a variety of wine regions to learn as much as possible about the world of wine.
The New World of Winemaking – South Australia and New Zealand
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of wine. Approximately two thirds of the annual production is exported to overseas markets. There are more than 60 designated wine regions, each with its own climate, soil types and terroir. The winemaking styles and varietals vary from region to region. Most regions are located in the cooler parts of the country including South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. There are over 160,000 hectares planted to vines.
In 2013 Daniel applied for an internship at the Bird In Hand Winery located in the wine region known as Adelaide Hills in South Australia. The winery was established by Andrew Nugent who studied viticulture and winemaking at Roseworthy College. Andrew bought land that originally was used for dairy farming. He renovated the dairy barn extensively to house a state-of-the art winery and hospitality center. He planted 40 hectares with Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The name for the estate, Bird in Hand, recalls the historic gold mine which operated near the site in the 19th Century. Kym Milne has been leading the winemaking team since 2004. He is the second Australian to pass the exam (in 1991) to become a Master of Wine (MW).
This was the first time that Daniel had ever traveled outside of the United States. He arrived in Australia with $150, a one-way ticket, and his passport in his pocket. He knew he had the job as a “Vintage Cellar Hand” with responsibilities for fermentation monitoring, cap management, additions and inoculations, pressing, barrel work and general winery hygiene. This was a small high quality operation.
Daniel’s next work experience in New Zealand was dramatically different. He worked in a “state-of-the-art” 16,000 ton winery. Sauvignon Blanc was the primary varietal produced. This job provided Daniel with his first exposure to industrial “New World” winemaking. He was hired once again as a “Vintage Cellar Hand” at Yealands Estate Winery in Marlborough. The winery was a much larger operation, processing around 1000 tons of grapes daily over a three to four week period.
Daniel gained experience working with a wide spectrum of winery equipment and technology as one of almost 50 cellar workers and assistant winemakers hired on for the vintage. The harvest crew was very international, with German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Canadian, Australian, Chinese, Argentine, Chilean and Kiwi cellar hands all living and working together. Daniel was the only American.
Although Yealands produced mostly Sauvignon Blanc, there was also a small amount of Pinot Noir made, primarily sourced from Central Otago. Daniel was part of a small crew dedicated to red wine production.
The winemaking style was defined by machine harvested fruit, inoculation, and the amelioration of the musts with acid. This style was not to Daniel’s taste, a defining learning experience. However, working at this large commercial winery was invaluable for developing his cellar skills.
From Cambodia to Paso Robles
After harvest, Daniel decided to travel in South East Asia, particularly to Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand. Daniel was relaxing in a quiet town in Cambodia, when the owner of the hostel, an American expat, developed a hernia. He had to travel to Thailand for surgery, and was told his recuperation involved a few months of bed rest. Daniel had been at the hostel for about a week at that time, longer than any of the other guests. In desperation the hostel owner looked to his fellow American for help. Daniel got the job managing the youth hostel.
It was during a party of drunken backpackers at the hostel that the next winemaking opportunity presented itself. Daniel received a call from winemaker Sherman Thacher. He was looking for a harvest intern to work the 2013 fall harvest in Paso Robles, California. Daniel’s former employer at the Ashburn Wine Shop, Sergio Mendes, recommended Daniel to Sherman and provided the contact information. Since they had never met, Sherman arranged a FACETIME interview at 3:00 AM Cambodia time. During the call, Daniel was offered a temporary gig as harvest intern which he gratefully accepted. In August 2013 Daniel moved to Paso Robles, California. Daniel liked the small winery setting of Thacher and the hands-on approach. Both men found they shared a curiosity and love of experimentation with various grape varieties and winemaking techniques. When harvest was completed, Daniel returned to Virginia briefly before booking his next flight abroad to South Africa. Sherman invited Daniel back for the 2014 harvest and he said he would consider the offer. Daniel felt he had much more to learn working in other countries. His next travels would profoundly influence his ultimate winemaking style.
The Old and New Worlds of Winemaking – South Africa
Early Wine History
Dutchman Johan (Jan) van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Town, produced the first documented wine in 1659. Many Afrikaners view him as the founding father of South Africa. He was a 33 year-old surgeon who became a navigator and colonial administrator when assigned in 1851 to take command of the Dutch East India Trading Company. He set up a supply station for the sailors traveling the spice route from Europe to India. This company founded the first permanent Dutch settlement in the future colony of South Africa in 1652. Jan was Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662. Jan was also in charge of building a fort and planting market gardens of cereals, vegetables and fruits, including grapes, that would thrive in a Mediterranean climate. He was no vineyardist but using cuttings from somewhere in western France, he established a successful vineyard. Part of his assignment was to provide food and beverages to prevent the disease known as scurvy which plagued many sailors during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Johan’s first harvest took place on February 2, 1659, followed by the production of the first vintage of wine. This was an important historical achievement. Wine was a valuable commodity. Red wine improved the health of the drinkers by combating scurvy among sailors who traveled on long voyages following the spice route to India and the Far East.
Vineyards and winemaking have been major influences on the economy and the natural environment of South Africa since the 1650s. Today there are approximately 60 appellations within the Wine of Origin System (WO). Production is still centered in Cape Town. There are also major vineyard and production centers in Constantia, Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Worcester. Daniel worked his first harvest in Stellenbosch with Jeaninie Faure in 2014.
Stellenbosch and Swartland
Stellenbosch is the second oldest wine region, established in 1679. It is located to the east of Capetown in the heart of the Cape winelands and according to wine historian Jancis Robinson, Stellenbosch is traditionally the home of the country’s finest reds. It is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pino-tage. However the area is home to the country’s leading estates and produces many varieties including Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Daniel was hired as the Assistant Winemaker for the 2014 Vintage produced at Dornier Wines in Stellenbosch. He served as assistant winemaker for the duration of the harvest. He was responsible for laboratory work and record keeping, crew management, fruit processing, fermentation management, pressing, barrel work, bulk wine movement and the oversight of bottling procedures. The winemaker at Dornier was Jeanine Faure (now known as Jeanine Craven). She was an important mentor to Daniel.
In Stellenbosch Daniel also had his first experience managing the cellar for a custom crush client, Cavalli Estate. Cavalli Estate is well-known for their wines, their vertical gardens, eco-friendly architecture and subterranean tasting room.
While Dornier was quite conventional with its winemaking, Jeanine was part of a “new wave” of South African wine producers. She had met her future husband years before in California where both were working in Sonoma County. From Northern California they traveled the world together and ultimately decided to settle in Stellenbosch “within a heartbeat of the vines.” Today they source grapes from specific vineyards in the Stellenbosch region only, producing wines with ripe flavors, low alcohol and acidity.
Jeanine started making radical wine (a hands-on winemaking style that avoids using cultured yeasts, enzymes, enzymes or fining agents) with her Aussie husband, Mick, under the Craven label. They experimented with skin contact on Pinot Gris and Clairette, whole cluster Syrah and Pinot Noir. Today they work full time at Craven Wines. The white wines are focused on seeking the ideal texture for the site, vintage and variety with the lees and aging vessels important in production. They also produce reds which are all about the stems as well as the fruit, including Cinsault which highlights the granitic site and fruit purity.
Jeanine was a mentor to Daniel and gave him a special gift during his last week on the job as a harvest intern. Jeanine sent Daniel and his Canadian friend, Tyler Knight, to the Swartland region of Western Cape Province to visit her young winemaking friends – Adi Badenhorst, Johan “Stompie” Meyers, Craig Hawkins – all working “on the fringe” of the South African wine industry. Although Swartland is the bread basket of Cape Town, it has vineyards too. Many of the old vines are dry farmed sustainably with minimal irrigation, producing wonderful fruit. The area has become famous and attracts serious independent winemakers focused on natural wines. Before long, the independent winemakers formed a group to establish standards for producing wines that are truly reflective of Swartland and bear the independent logo of the region. All wines must be naturally produced. The grape varieties are restricted: Syrah/Shiraz, Mourvedre, Grenache Noir, Carignan, Cinsault, Tinta Barocca and Pinotage for red wines and Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette Blanche, Palomino, Semillon, Muscat Alexandrie, Muscat de Frontignan, Colombard and Verdelho for white wines.
Daniel comments on the impact of this experience, “This trip blew my mind. I had tasted natural wines before but had never before seen natural winemaking in action. I never fully understood them until that trip.” It was another life changing experience, and a major influence on his winemaking style.
Daniel returned to Thacher Winery for the 2014 harvest and to his surprise was offered a full time as Cellar Master. At the time, he felt undereducated and unqualified for the job; he had much more to learn. So he decided to apply for a new job with a top white wine producer in South Africa in 2015. His new focus was on natural wines. Daniel continued this pattern, three months in South Africa and nine months at Thacher for the next three years, 2015 through 2017.
Discovering the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – Old dry-farmed vineyards and clay vessels
Daniel returned to South Africa in 2015 to work as “Harvest Intern Number One” at Alheit Vineyards with owner Chris Alheit in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa. Although the winery was in the Hemel-en-Aarde district, most of the fruit was sourced from Swartland.
Chris Alheit became a very important mentor and good friend. The vineyards were extraordinary. These quotes from the owners Chris (aka Butch) and Suzaan Alheit describe their work: “we’re hoping to find the voice of the land, not the mark of the winemaker. We want to show that the Cape’s vinous heritage is worth celebrating and protecting. We love the old vineyards. We love dry farming. We love bush vines. We believe that quality and beauty in wine come from the vineyard. For the most part, our vineyards are old-dry farmed bush vines which represent a bygone era of low-tech high fidelity viticulture. They capture a sense of place, of identity and of heritage.”
While the soil types and geography were new, the landscape and the climate actually reminded Daniel very much of the Central Coast. It wasn’t a perfect match, but he recognized that Paso Robles had more in common with Swartland than it did with Burgundy, or Bordeaux. Viticulture and winemaking in the Swartland is more applicable to Paso Robles, even when compared to places like the Rhone or Languedoc.
The philosophy of Chris and Suzaan focused on the strong influence of the land, from vines to fermentation to aging the wine. The flagship grape – Chenin Blanc was planted in the light, thin soil at the top of the hill in the vineyard. The soil at the bottom of the hill included formations of clay. Their vision included the use of this clay to sculpt the vessels to hold the wine as it fermented and aged to complete the cycle of earth to earth in the vineyard.
Chris and Suzaan felt that aging the Chenin Blanc in new French oak barrels did not do justice to the incredible grapes grown in their vineyard. They were searching for new vessels in which to age their wine – something neutral and reductive. They began to experiment with rudimentary clay vessels and found the result they were looking for. They often refer to their clay vessels when fired as “stoneware.” This indicates that the temperature during the firing in the kiln is higher and therefore the vessel is less porous than an amphora crafted and fired at a lower temperature as is the tradition in Italy. The result of using clay vessels? The wines are fresh, bright, clean and mineral driven.
The economics in South Africa were such that it was not feasible to import terracotta vessels from Italy. So the owners decided to harvest the clay at the bottom of the hill and make their own clay vessels. When South African wine producers first started to use clay vessels, the results were dubious. The construction techniques and lower firing temperatures produced vessels that allowed too much oxygen into the wine; many of the prototype pots leaked badly. But, pioneers like Duncan Savage (Savage Wines) and Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Wines) continued to push the envelope. Eventually, they began working with Master Potter Yogi de Beer, who had a studio in Hout Bay. Yogi was able to perfect the building technique, creating vessels as large as 600 liters. Yogi built his own kiln, which fires at 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, close to 500 degrees hotter than traditional terracotta vessels. The South African amphorae are more like “stoneware” than terracotta; they breathe extremely slowly. South African Winemakers have been very happy with the results, and Yogi de Beer is now the favored producer of these pots.
Old Bush Vines and Ancient Winemaking Techniques
Daniel became the Cellar Hand for South Africa’s preeminent white wine producer, Alheit Vineyards, working exclusively with the old bush vines. The winemaking style is one of meticulous low intervention. In the cellar they use whole cluster pressing with no additions to the raw juice. Wild fermentation takes place in a variety of vessels including clay pots (amphorae), concrete eggs, foudres or old barrels. The wine is kept on the lees for a year and then rests in a tank, without fining, for another four months before bottling. Daniel’s responsibilities included fruit picking and transport, over-seeing manual press cycles, and management of native fermentations. He developed expertise in white wine making through managing the fermentation and aging in a variety of vessels including foudre, amphorae, concrete eggs and cubes, puncheon and barrique.
Daniel worked with the Alheits for three vintages (2015 through 2017) during which they were experimenting with amphora-making and sharing their results with other winemakers.
The amphorae that Daniel worked with ranged in size from 150 to 600 liters. They were fragile vessels and required manual cleaning. Each vessel was designed with a large enough opening in the top in which a person could be dropped into the vessel with a brush and warm water to gently scrub the interior when it needed cleaning. The water was drained at the bottom from a hole that contained a bung to seal the vessel. It was a clever design.
The clay materials used to construct the vessel as well as the shape of the vessel allow for the movement of the wine within the vessel as carbon dioxide is produced during fermentation. The bubbling gas of carbon dioxide moves the lees and wine within the vessel. Daniel loved looking into the top opening to watch the action. He describes the vessel, “I always knew that the South Africans were looking for more neutral vessels to age their wine in, and that one of the features they sought in their clay vessels was the reductive characteristic, meaning the impermeability and slow-breathing characteristic.” The transfer of oxygen through the walls helped the wine age slowly and prevented major fluctuations in the wine’s temperature. Very little intervention by human hands was needed. The temperature in the kiln during firing is related to the porous quality of the walls of the vessels. The lower the temperature, the more porous the clay. Italian amphorae are fired at around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Stoneware vessels are fired at a higher temperature, closer to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit and are less porous. Daniel confirms this, “On my most recent trip to South Africa, I heard winemakers refer to their clay pots as stoneware, which to me implies slightly different characteristics than terracotta.”
The Importance of History, Heritage and Culture In Winemaking
Chris Alheit was obsessed with rediscovering the history of winemaking in South Africa that had been cast aside. He began researching historic grape varieties used in the past. Many hours were spent with Daniel discussing wine history, heritage and culture. Daniel’s conversations with Chris, during the African vintages, drifted between South African and American wine, the histories and implications, the cultures.
Chris was interested in grape varieties that had been planted during the 19th Century. While working harvest in Napa, back before he started Alheit Vineyards, Chris had met and worked with Dave Wilson, whose family owned the last old Napa Gamay vineyard in the Napa valley. This historic vineyard left a deep impression on Chris which he shared with Daniel. Chris had been much-inspired by the book, New California Wine Movement, which he read about in Jon Bonne’s book of the same name.
And to quote Daniel, “Of course, we talked about Valdiguie, and it’s place in California wine history.” As a mentor, Chris inspired Daniel to explore the history of winemaking and grape varieties in California. Chris also introduced Daniel to a winemaking style that profoundly influences his work in Paso Robles today.
Daniel’s Contributions as Assistant Winemaker at Thacher
Daniel was promoted to Assistant Winemaker At Thacher in 2018. He is responsible for cellar maintenance, sanitation, organization, record keeping and quality control for a family winery producing around 5,000 cases annually. He has significant vineyard and ranch management responsibilities including logistics and operations during harvest, fruit processing, and management of native fermentations in a variety of vessels, press operations, and barrel work. He works in the lab and his post- harvest duties include blending, filtering, label design, bottling and inventory.
He is also Level 1 Sommelier, Court of Masters.
In his own words Daniel says, “While we were already working with natural fermentations at Thacher in 2013, there were a lot of lessons that I learned in South Africa that made sense to use in America. There were more similarities between Paso Robles and South Africa than there were between Paso Robles and places like Bordeaux and Burgundy, even the Rhone.”
Daniel’s contributions to the winemaking at Thacher Winery are rooted in his experience in South Africa. Sherman and Daniel have implemented the following at Thacher based on the sharing and experimentation from Daniel’s work in South Africa.
- Philosophy: The new wave of South African winemakers was obsessed with the idea of making African wine, rather than making wine that copied the style of other, more famous regions. One great quote from Eben Sadie expresses their philosophy: “I love drinking Burgundy, but I’m not making Burgundy. I live in Africa, and I must make African wine.” Daniel states, “It was an idea we started implementing at Thacher Winery – sourcing grapes grown in our local terroir and making wine that expresses the unique characteristics of Paso Robles.” Daniel carried the philosophy even further when he created his own label, Slamdance Wines. He makes wine that could only exist in California. He is identifying and restoring the regional identity of Paso Robles. As Daniel often says, “You can take lessons from other regions, you can make references to them in your work, but you cannot plagiarize.”
- Varieties: Daniel stresses the importance of historical plant material, identifying the grape varieties that are suited to our soils and climate. He says that If you’re going to plant new varieties, make sure they come from a region where they’ve evolved to survive in Paso Robles.
- Less “new” oak in winemaking: Paso Robles (like South Africa) has so much sunshine and warmth, it’s very easy to get fruit and “sweetness” in the wine. Adding the “sweetness” of new oak to an already fruity wine makes the wine heavy.
- Larger, neutral cooperage, and vessels that breathe slowly are best in Paso Robles: Traditionally, small new oak barrels were used in cool regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reason for this is that in places without much sunshine, you needed the breathability of small barrels, and the sweetness of the new oak to compensate for lack of ripeness in the grapes. In California winemaking much larger vessels were used, starting in the 1870s, to store and age wine in the warm climates. In addition, vessels were made from a wide variety of materials that breathe slowly such as redwood tanks, foudres, cement tanks, and amphorae. All are now used in the warmer wine regions. So, Thacher began returning to more traditional vessels including neutral oak, and larger vessels including clay amphorae.
Early California History
Historical research has been a key element in developing Daniel’s winemaking style. He did not grow up in California with the exposure to the Missions, padres and the early winemaking traditions brought from Spain. The first books he read were written by Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, Volumes One and Two. They cover the history from Jamestown, Virginia founded in 1607 through the 20th Century. Daniel grew up in Virginia so he resonated with the early history. The book tracked well with his early history which led him to explore the bibliography of early sources used by Pinney to document American history. (Pinney has also written extensively about the early wine history of Los Angeles and Southern California.)
One of the original sources is a book, The Wine Press and the Cellar – A Manual for the Wine-maker and the Cellar-man has been both influential and educational for Daniel.
Grape Varieties Planted in California in the 19th Century
When he joined Thacher Winery Daniel was impressed with the large variety of grapes grown in San Luis Obispo County. He had worked producing varietals with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in wineries in other countries but now he was exposed to multiple grape varieties growing in Paso Robles including the Rhone grapes, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.
Today as a winemaker Daniel spends much of his time researching the lesser known grape varieties planted in California during the 19th Century – Cinsault, Black Malvasia and Valdiguie to mention a few. (accent on e). Daniel and Sherman have developed relationships with growers and source these older varieties from small plantings in their vineyards.
Sherman and Daniel are also planting these unsung heroes of California in Thacher’s vineyards. In 2020 they harvested their first field blend of heirloom California varieties. The varieties they plant come from ancestral material sourced from the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis.
Slamdance – Daniel’s First Vintage 2020
Sherman and Daniel were still doing good work at Thacher, but Daniel knew he couldn’t be an assistant winemaker forever. Daniel states, “All young people come to the point where they need to strike out on their own and in 2020, with 15 harvests under my belt, it was time to make my own wine. I had an idea that I’d been working on for some time, and I finally felt like I’d fleshed that idea out and I’d developed my cellar skills enough to be able to articulate that idea faithfully.”
Daniel describes his motive, “I had become frustrated with what I saw as a lack of regional identity in Paso Robles. Every great wine region in the world has a respect for its history which informs the regional identity. And I felt like Paso was moving so fast, and producers were so fixated on the future, that we were in danger of losing that history, and therefore our identity.”
He continues, “So, I wanted to create a wine with the humble mission to provide consumers with a wine that conveyed the definition of the territory in not only a geographical context, but also a historical or temporal context. I wanted to make a wine that people could use as a benchmark, to come to understand what the wines of the region might have tasted like, more than 100 years ago.”
To achieve his mission Daniel established two criteria:
- The first criteria is that the grape material that is used in the wine has to be historically relevant. It isn’t necessary for the vineyard to be old, but the genetic material must be old. The wine will only be historically relevant if the grape varieties included are those growing in California before Prohibition. Daniel eliminated all imported clones and suitcase cuttings. Instead, the project relies on “oldfangled” varieties including Black Malvoisie, Napa Gamay, Pinot St George, Crabb’s Black Burgundy, and Cabernet Pfeffer. And as Daniel’s research continues, there will be others added to the list. These varieties are the closest thing to indigenous vine material that we have in California. They are worth preserving, and they are worth celebrating.
- The second criteria is that the wine must be made according to the techniques used in the historic period in which they were grown. He does not use modern winemaking techniques. So, while the winemaking is rustic, it is historically accurate and very well-informed.
The sources that Daniel has found most helpful are these manuals: W.V. Cruess’ The Principles and Practice of Winemaking, George Husmann’s American Grape Growing and Wine Making and, most important, E.H. Rixford’s The Wine Press and the Cellar, were all instrumental in understanding how technically sound wine was made more than 100 years ago.
Daniel’s Study Group – Small Producers with Vision
Daniel has organized a small group of producers, who meet on a monthly basis. The group is composed of winemakers and assistant winemakers who, although they have day jobs with other companies, have nonetheless started their own small wine businesses. The meetings are mostly technical in nature, focusing on winemaking. But, they also discuss wine philosophy, and the practical aspects of marketing and farming.
Presentation For The Rhone Rangers - February 20, 2022
In Conclusion – The Lost Vineyards of California – Daniel’s new column for the Wine History Project 2022.
Daniel Callan has been researching the “Lost Vineyards” in California. He will be writing a new series of articles for the Wine History Project website in 2022 on these “Lost Vineyards” and the lesser known grape varieties planted in those vineyards, some of which date back to the 1870s.