Behind the Scenes at Scribe Winery

How two brothers at the helm of one small Sonoma vineyard are working to bottle the essence of California
February 15, 2016Words by Liv Combe

Driving up the long, palm tree-lined path to Scribe Winery, one thing is immediately clear — this isn’t any kind of over-the-top, faux-French chateau wine tasting you’re about to have. This isn’t Italy, this isn’t France, and this isn’t one of the showy, mega-wineries you’ll find dotting the landscape across Napa County. This is Sonoma. Scribe is California, through and through. 

Nine years, five vintages, and one hacienda restoration is not, relatively, a long life for a winery, much less the vines that populate it. But this land goes much farther back than its life with brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani, fourth-generation California farmers and Scribe’s founders. In 1858, a mere eight years after California became a state, the German Dresel brothers came to Sonoma and turned this land into a thriving, well-known winery. Right up until Prohibition shut it down, anyway. 

These days, Andrew and Adam have been written up in the likes of Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, and T Magazine — not bad for a small, 40-acre vineyard an hour north of San Francisco. But the journey to success, of course, is rarely easy. Over an epic snack platter and glasses of wine on their sunny hilltop tasting area, just a few weeks after wrapping up their 2015 harvest (those are the Riesling grapes they're harvesting, by the way), Andrew and Adam take us through Scribe’s history — and offer a few wine pairing suggestions and favorite recipes to boot.

Tell us how Scribe came to be.

Adam: Andrew and I are fourth-generation California farmers. Our whole family has been farming for over 100 years here, but every male in our family has farmed walnuts and almonds, and they all farm together, so the idea of farming was like basically in us from birth. Having a winery doesn’t seem like a crazy thing; it’s just very comfortable and natural for us. And as we started to understand what growing grapes meant and what wine could be, we realized that it could embody all of agrarian California.

As we started to understand what growing grapes meant and what wine could be, we realized that it could embody all of agrarian California.

Growing grapes is the most difficult thing to do, farm-wise. It’s the most finicky; from the top of this slope to the bottom of this slope, you can get a completely different profile of the same varietal. And from one vintage to the next, that changes. The idea that we’re able to kind of capture these four generations of farming, these hundreds of years of farming in California, in a bottle of wine, is really enticing. Wine shows every vintage. It shows the soil, it shows the geographic location, in a way that no other crop can do. And if you do it well and do it right, that translates into a glass of wine and you get to share that with everybody else who comes to sit down at a table with you. So Andrew and I decided that if we were going to farm anything, we should dive in as deep as we could possibly go. 

We had started working at wineries in Europe and a little bit in California while we were still in school. Andrew was making wine on a remote island in Greece and I was in Mexico’s Guadelupe Valley when we first got introduced to this property in 2006, so we were very far from the wine world of Napa and Sonoma. But we heard about this property, but it had this incredibly massive hurdle to access it. And because that hurdle was so big, nobody wanted to do it. 

What was that hurdle?

Adam: This was an old turkey farm. If you look back through the trees, you can see one of the old turkey sheds in the distance; that’s on our neighbor’s property. When we first found this place, there were 13 large turkey sheds on the land and they covered the farm completely. Turkey farming is incredibly chemically-intensive, so there were chemicals everywhere, and on top of that the farm had been quarantined by the county because of all the poison oak. It was a junkyard. It was a total disaster of a place. And nobody wanted to touch it, nobody even wanted to set foot on it, because to do that — since the turkeys were still here — you had to go through a chemically cleansing shower. In other words, it was a massive, massive project to take on.

Andrew: Ah, it wasn’t that hard. You just had to dedicate your entire life to it. 

This place has such a great history — pre-Prohibition history and wine history. It’s a historic part of California for commercial wine making. The Dresel brothers grew grapes here from the 1850s up until Prohibition, but nobody had grown grapes since then. 

So what made you guys pull the trigger on buying the property?

Adam: Because of all the work that needed to be done, nobody wanted to do it. Maybe they were smarter than we were! But this place had the history Andrew was talking about, and just by looking at it you could tell it was an amazing place to grow grapes and to make wine. And because nobody else wanted to do it, it gave us the opportunity to do it. 

Andrew: There were a lot of question marks about the property. Since there was this huge industrial turkey farm here, nobody knew what that meant for the soil. Starting a winery is already such a huge project, so starting it on questionable property deterred a lot of people. The first time I came here — I had to take a chemical shower to come onto the farm because we didn’t want to get the turkeys sick — there were definitely some questionable things about it. 

The Dresel brothers came here in the 1850s and took this raw piece of land and sculpted it into what became a very respected, well-known, and very beautiful vineyard and winery. To be able to do that again in California, in a similar pioneering spirit, was really enticing.

We did a lot of soil analysis to make sure everything was in place, and that process of trying to figure out if the site was okay took probably six months. And we fell in love with it during that time, and so we were willing to take it on. 

I mean, I was 24 years old at that time and totally naive to the whole wine industry or what it really took to run a vineyard, so I was like, oh, I can do that. And I would also say that we had a lot of time. Just the idea of taking this whole piece of property and turning it into something that was ours was such a fascinating thing — especially a piece of property that had a strangely similar thing happened to it 150 years earlier. The Dresel brothers came here in the 1850s and took this raw piece of land and sculpted it into what became a very respected, well-known, and I’m sure very beautiful vineyard and winery. To be able to do that again in California, in a similar pioneering spirit, was really enticing. 

When you bought the property, did you know for sure that the soil and your grapes wouldn’t be negatively affected by the land’s past life?

Andrew: We had done enough analysis so that we felt pretty confident, but that said, you don’t really know for sure until you do it. 

Adam: The vines all reacted pretty differently, depending on where they were on the farm and in relation to where they were in the farm’s past life. So even though we got all this soil analysis done, two areas on the farm could come back with identical readings — not having any deficiencies of this or that, or too much of this chemical or that chemical — and they still behaved very differently. It was kind of unexplainable why those things were happening. But through the years, you could see the vines work through what those things were as the roots got deeper down to where nothing had ever penetrated the soil before, except for the previous vines. 

Andrew: When you think about when the Dresels came here, California had been a state for about a decade. There weren’t a lot of people here. They were some of the first guys trying to analyze where they should grow grapes in Sonoma. They probably could have chosen a lot of places, but they chose this zone — this little mountainside, with this breeze, this slope, this soil. And they had a lot of experience, coming from Germany where their families were from. So that was a pretty good sign — that this was where they chose to plant. And once we had kind of convinced ourselves that what had happened here since then didn’t have too much of a negative impact, or one that we couldn’t overcome, we were just like, let’s go for it. 

Do you feel like things have settled down and evened out across the property? Have the vines grown deep enough?

Andrew: Yeah, but they’re still evolving and changing every year. This will be our fifth vintage for some of the wines on the estate, which is great. I think the wines have gotten better, richer, and more concentrated as they’ve matured and as we’ve learned about the vineyard and about the property. But the wine still feels really young. When you think about it, those pre-Prohibition guys had 80 years. They had 80 vintages on this farm. And all that information is just gone — we know what they did, what they planted, and how they planted, but the little nuances that you learn with every vintage, those things aren’t always documented. So we have five years of experience with these vines. We’re really proud of the wines, but it’s going to be really exciting in five more years — and in 75 more years — to have all that information. 

All those little things add up and you come up with something that’s a result of your relationship with the land and with the vines. 

I think one of the most rewarding things about being a wine grower is that we’re living here, working here, thinking about this property all the time, and the knowledge that you intuitively absorb every year just accumulates, and every year it affects little decisions that you make. It's just little stuff. But I think all those little things add up and you come up with something that’s really distinct and is really a result of your relationship with the land and with the vines. 

That fact that you guys live on the property seems pretty unique. How would you say it changes your relationship with this land and with the vines, versus someone who works on the vineyard and lives elsewhere?

The way we host people at Scribe, and the way that we decided to accept visitors, is the same way we have a friend come over to our house.

Adam: It changes those little micro-elements that you become attuned to, those things that the Dresels knew after 80 vintages. You just get all those things from living in the same environment, in the same climate, from vintage to vintage because it’s changing all the time. It’s knowing what the humidity is every day, and what exactly the rainfall was last night. 

Andrew: I think it affects you in the sense that when you’re living here, what’s happening to the vines is also happening to your body. I think we’re conscious of what goes into the vineyard because if it’s going into the vineyard, it’s going into us as well. Literally. If we decided to spray something, we’re sleeping 50 yards from the vines, and that’s coming into our bodies just as it’s going into the roots. So we’re conscious of that.

Our front lawn isn’t far from this lawn [that’s the tasting area] right here, so it feels like the same place. The way we host people at Scribe, and the way that we decided to accept visitors, is the same way we have a friend come over to our house. So I think being of this place has affected every little thing that we do, really. 

How would you describe Scribe’s ethos? 

Andrew: We’re trying to make wines that are distinct, vibrant, and unique to this little patch of land that we live and work on. We want these wines to represent California agriculture and terroir in a way that really celebrates it. We want to do something that’s distinctly Californian and distinctly of this piece of land. And all that comes from this place, you know. That doesn’t come from trying to emulate something from somewhere else.

Adam: Everything that happens, every decision that gets made here, is a direct result of this physical place. There are a lot of things that sound fun to do, or wines to make, or anything that conceptually sound great, but that don’t fit right in this place. So we don’t do those things. Basically every driving force of the ethos here showcases this place or what it provides. Everything from the way we just sit out here and interact and share the wine with people to the tomatoes we use on the snack plates. 

Andrew: California is changing now, but in the last 20 years or so in wine there’s been a barrier between consumers and wine. It was put on a pedestal, as if vineyards were trying to emulate a French chateau experience. Coming from a long line of California farmers and being really proud of that, we try to connect more with people. Maybe it’s selfish, but we want people to understand what we do and know what we’re excited about and we want them to be excited about the same stuff. We’re trying to break down that barrier a little bit and just open up and share our wine.

Adam: And people react to that. It really resonates with them. They feel like they’re getting to the core of what we’re doing, which they are. When people come to experience a place or a wine, that’s exactly what they want — to get a real honest expression of those things. 

Andrew: I think that’s typical of our generation. No BS. Just tell us what’s going on here, we want to understand it.  

How have you seen Scribe evolve and how do you see it continuing to evolve?

Andrew: We’re still getting going. It’s still the beginning. In the early years, we kind of came up with a big dream for the property and we’re still moving toward that goal, which is to have a fully functioning, holistic vineyard and winery. Right now, we’re working on the hacienda. We’re planting new vines next year up on the hillside, and in the fallow field. We have plans for a new winery facility. We’re just keeping going. I guess the goal is to do things that help us support what we just talked about — to showcase California terroir — and to continue to connect with people in our community that inspire us and we want to hang with.

Adam: It’s interesting to see the vines that we’ve planted mature. We kind of get to see that arc over the past five years, and to see how as they get older and older they start to take care of themselves more and more. They become more balanced and even, they crop themselves appropriately, their flavors are getting more concentrated, and they’re evolving in this really beautiful way. We’re always striving to figure out how to give them a balanced platform to do that and to capture that without interfering or minimizing their potential. We’re always working on how to interact with the vineyard as best as possible, which is constantly changing from year to year. It’s not a set formula; it’s figuring out a malleable relationship with the vines. 

Sounds like parenting a teenager. 

Adam: These vines are probably way better to parent. Plus they give you wine. 

What plans do you have for the hacienda? 

The hacienda became the heartbeat and the center of the farm. We completely fell in love with it. There’s no way we could ever tear this down or not restore it.

Adam: The hacienda was the Dresel’s homestead. It was the heartbeat of their vineyard and their farm. So the main priority at this point is to salvage it, to restore it, and to give it what it needs to live on. It’s coming along really well right now, but it’s been an eight-year process. Originally, we were just trying to figure out how salvageable the building was. A lot of architects and contractors were saying that the hacienda was too far gone, just tear it down, which didn’t sit well with us — it seemed like a bizarre solution for this 150-year-old, beautifully decrepit landmark of the North Bay. So we put off making that decision and decided to let it sit there as it was. And like any vacant, decrepit building, people want to party in it. So we just started using it. We’d cook dinner in it. We put this spider web of electrical cords from my and Andrew’s house to underneath the floorboards so we had electricity, we ran garden hoses into the plumbing and got the whole building up and going. And we used it for years, and it became the heartbeat and the center of the farm. We completely fell in love with it. There’s no way we could ever tear this down or not restore it. So then we started the whole permitting process to do it, which took almost three years to do it, since it’s a historic building, and the county is making it almost impossible to restore it.

But there was a silver lining to the earthquake in 2014. The earthquake rating that a historic building has to be able to withstand is the exact size of that earthquake. Up until then, the county wouldn’t give us our permit to restore the hacienda, but the earthquake happened, they came out the next morning, saw that it weathered the storm, and that week they gave us our permit. All of a sudden, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. 

Hopefully we’ll do a good job in these next few months and the hacienda will stand by itself without it. From there, we’ll use it as the heartbeat of the same farm that it was built on and use it as a means to celebrate all these things we’ve talked about today, to showcase what this farm can do —  as a vineyard and in a wine, but also as the people who are a part of it. So when the hacienda is done, we’ll just do what anybody would do in it — eat, drink, and hang out.

Do you guys collect anything?

Andrew: Like baseball cards? I collect wine. I collect relics. I collect arrowheads.

Adam: I collect wine and obsidian we find on the farm. 

What are the most important 15 minutes of your days? 

Andrew: Coffee. When I get into the office, first thing, I make coffee. The coffee machine is right on the back side of Adam’s office. We’ll stand there and we’ll make coffee and we’ll talk about what we’re going to do that day. It’s how we decide most of what we do. [H]

When the right wines are paired with the right foods, your entire meal is elevated to the next level. Here, Andrew and Adam share some of their favorite Scribe bottles and what to pair them with at home, including recipes from some of Scribe's favorite local chefs. 

Riesling '14 with David Tanis's ceviche verde with tostadas and avocado
Tasting notes of Keffir lime, lychee, salt, peach skin, cactus flower mingle with this fresh ceviche recipe, a Scribe go-to for warmer weather.

Estate Chardonnay '14 with Alice Waters' crab, Meyer lemon, and endive salad
Dungeness crab, Meyer lemons, and endives are all in season in the Bay Area in the winter, which makes this Chez Panisse classic a no-brainer.

Skin-Fermented Chardonnay '14 with Gabriela Cámara's fish al pastor tacos
Haven't seen fish cooked in the al pastor style before? Neither had we. This isn't a traditional Mexican recipe by any means, but it's damn delicious.

Nouveau '15 with Colu Henry's spaghetti with chili oil, capers & lemon
For those weeknights when you get home late from work and are already starving, there's nothing better than Colu Henry's #backpocketpasta — simple meals that you can make with what you already have on hand. This spaghetti has a kick that makes it a winner.

Carneros Pinot Noir '14 with Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe roasted chicken
Pinot noir goes with everything — especially if everything were as delicious as the roasted chicken at Zuni, a San Francisco favorite. 

Images ©: 1, 3-14; Alanna Hale. 2; Allan Zepeda.

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