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This Winemaker is Inspired by Other Wine Women, Loves Grenache and Appreciates a Vintage Jerk — Meet Molly Lonborg

We're Talking Grapes

BY // 12.14.20

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Molly Lonborg’s laughter is infectious, even experienced over a Zoom virtual tasting, which is how I was introduced to her. She’s the winemaker at Alta Colina, a Paso Robles-based estate “whose singular purpose is to grow superior Rhône-style wines.”

We tasted through several barrel samples on the chat, and a bottle sample of Alta Colina’s 2017 GSM. All were tasting well, and I was drinking quality, something that never fails to please me.

Lonborg came to Alta Colina in February of 2020, by way of Halter Ranch, whose team she joined in 2011 as lab manager and cellar assistant. She graduated from California Polytechnic State University in 2009, with a degree in earth sciences (with a concentration in wine and viticulture), and studied geology in New Zealand at the University of Otago. She was hand-picked by Bob Tillman, the founder and co-owner of the family-run Alta Colina, to succeed him as winemaker. (Tillman is still a hands-on owner, and has the title of director of winemaking at the estate.)

As you’ll see in this Wine Talk, Lonborg loves grenache, and what she’s doing at Alta Colina with Rhône varietals is, based on my (thus far) limited tasting, exemplary. The bottle sample of the 2017 GSM we tasted was delicious, and the barrel samples caused me to write “get your hands on more of this producer’s bottles.”

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I look forward to meeting Lonborg (and Tillman) in person, but until then, let’s see what she has to say in Wine Talk.

James Brock: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

Molly Lonborg: Our current technique at Alta Colina is for our red wines to undergo 22 months of barrel-aging and an additional year in bottle. At the moment, my personal favorites are the 2017 GSM, the 2019 grenache blanc, and our 2019 Rose.

Our 2017 GSM ($56) is a blend of 76 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, and 4 percent mourvèdre. This wine has a beautiful combination of fruit and rusticity. With grenache in the driving seat there are notes of strawberry fruit, leather, and dried cranberry; the Syrah is providing some unctuousness and depth; and the mourvèdre rounds it out with earthy notes and spice characteristics.

I personally love to age grenaches, as I think they are complex, and over time the flavors become more layered. So although this wine is drinking great right now, I think it has the potential to shine around 2028 to 2030.  This is an extremely versatile wine and can pair beautifully with a wide range of foods, from hearty vegetable dishes to wild game.

I am also really enjoying our 2019 grenache blanc ($34). I love grenache blanc from Paso Robles. Over the years it seems that it has received a bit of a bad rep as being a flabby (low acid) white wine. However, I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it is a Rhône white varietal and historically the tank space was favored for red wines, resulting in whites that were often left too long on the vine prior to vinification.

Grenache blanc is actually one of the few white grapes that is able to maintain acidity in our hot climate, while also having some body. Our grenache blanc is true to the varietal with notes of white flowers, honeydew melon, pear and a great minerality. Most of our whites are fermented in barrel and aged for 18 months, but the grenache blanc is tank-fermented and released after after months of aging in the tank, which makes it a fresh, ready-to-drink offering. This wine pairs well with summer salads and anything from the sea.

A sampling of Alta Colina’s production

My third wine is our 2019 rosé ($28).  It is 100 percent grenache, picked early and pressed whole-cluster prior to fermenting cool in the tank. This wine saw a few weeks of neutral oak, which adds some nice creamy notes to the predominant flavors of wild strawberries and guava. I love this wine with brunch, egg-based dishes, salmon, or vegetarian cuisine (Esther Mobley just wrote an article touting this wine’s ability to pair well with asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to pair wine with due to the sulfur qualities in contains).

(Note: Alta Colina’s sales skew about 95 percent direct to consumer, so the best way to find these wines is through its website.)

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why?

ML: This is a tough question for me. . . there are so many really! Honestly, if someone said I could spend $500 to $1,000 on a bottle of wine, I would probably ask to take the money and spend it on a case or two from a bunch of different producers. I love to try out new, fun, unique offerings from the U.S. and around the world. I like to support small wineries that are preserving varietal characteristics in their wines.

However, if I were forced to buy one bottle it would probably be a 2016 Château Rayas. Although I have never been able to taste a Château Rayas I love grenache and I have heard great things about the 2016 vintage in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

ML: Well, I kind of just gave it away, but grenache is by far my favorite varietal.  There are so many reasons why I love grenache. It is such a versatile grape, it makes delicious rosé and red wine. It can be beautiful on its own, but also shines in blends. Because it is a medium-bodied wine it tends to not do well with new oak, as the intricacies of the varietal can easily be overpowered.

It can be head-trained or trellised. It withstands virus in the vineyard well, and pairs well with a wide variety of foods. It is generally affordable, and has amazing red fruit characteristics like strawberry, cherry, cranberry, even watermelon and guava when used for a Rose.

I am also really excited that in 2020 we are going to continue a project that I started while working at Halter Ranch Vineyard by producing a carbonic grenache at Alta Colina.

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

ML: Red-letter day, I love that! I would suggest two wines, our 2018 Model Citizen roussanne (will be released this fall), as I love the way roussanne ages, and our 2017 Ann’s Block petite sirah. These are both gorgeous wines that should drink well for 10 to 15 years.

Bob Tillman, Alta Colina’s founder and co-owner, sold the first bottle of Alta Colina-labeled wine in 2009.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside your home and workplace)?

ML: Sadly, I don’t get out much these days (and not just because of COVID-19 times), because we have a 16-month-old that keeps us pretty busy. However, on the rare occasions we do get out we will usually head to 15C for a wide range of wines, Lone Madrone for burger Sunday and to enjoy some delicious wines crafted by the father-son duo of Neil and Jordan Collins (all fruit is sourced from dry-farmed vineyards, with minimal oak/additives), or we often frequent the Collins’ other establishment, Bristols Cider House.

Alta Colina’s tasting room is looking forward to a post-COVID-19 world.

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

ML: That if you think the wine is good, then it’s good. I waited tables for years, and people would always ask me if I thought a particular bottle was a good wine. My response was always, “It doesn’t matter what I think, if you like it then it’s a good wine.” I think people get wrapped up in the prestige of wine, what other people think, the price, the label, etc.

At the end of the day, wine is a labor of love, and we do what we do in hopes that wherever you are when you open that bottle of wine that it makes you feel something and provides some happiness.

Lots of great grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre is growing at Alta Colina.

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

ML: That’s a bit hard to say. I didn’t grow up in a wine family, and I don’t think I can trace my interest back to one bottle or tasting. However, I began my interest in university. I studied earth science at Cal Poly and spent a lot of time in soil classes. After my freshman year I spent a year in New Zealand studying geology.

Upon my return to Cal Poly, I discovered the wine and viticulture department. I quickly added a concentration in wine and viticulture to my curriculum. I began working in the industry thinking I would go into sustainable/organic vineyard work, but I ended up on a path that kept me in the winery.

There used to be a wine seminar called A7 that was created for industry members who loved Rhône wines. I remember the first one was at Law Estate, and there were two presentations by amazing women winemakers, Anne-Charlotte MéliaBachas of Font du Loup and Helen Keplinger of Keplinger wines. I had felt a bit of an odd (wo)man out in the wine industry, as it has been pretty male dominated, but after hearing these women talk I knew I was hooked and that I wanted to be a winemaker.

Font du Loup’s Anne-Charlotte Mélia-Bachas is in part responsible for Molly Lonberg’s winemaking career.

JB:What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

ML: So many, how to choose just one. . .One of my favorite wine moments was discovering a gem of a wine that I had completely overlooked. The 2017 harvest was difficult for whites in Paso Robles because we had a lot of rain, which resulted in a lot of crop and canopy, but then, in the beginning of September, we had 10 days over 100 degrees, which caused a lot of the fruit to stall in ripening.

At Halter Ranch, we had some picpoul blanc that just never ripened. We kept letting it hang, thinking it might eventually ripen, but we ended up harvesting it in the beginning of November at 19 brix (typically we would harvest around 23 brix). We vinified it in tank and racked it clean to a topped-up tank, thinking we would sell it on the bulk market.

I was tasting through tanks one day, and when I smelled this tank I was completely blown away. After tasting it I was hooked! We ended up bottling it on its own at 11.2 percent alcohol, and it was such a fun wine and a beautiful expression of the varietal.

However, by far the craziest wine incident in my career involved an intern that accidentally removed the wrong clamp, and the 3-inch bottom valve to a 10-ton fermenter that was filled with actively fermenting syrah blew off and wine and grapes began to deluge everywhere. It took three of us to put all of our weight into covering the hole while someone else set up a sump and a pump and we pumped as much as we could into an empty tank.

It took about 45 minutes for us to get the thing under control, and by the end we had lost quite a bit of wine and fruit and we were covered from head to toe in fermenting syrah. Man oh man, I wish those were the days of iPhones and easily accessible cameras. Sadly, there is no photo of the aftermath.

JB: What is your favorite wine reference in a work of literature or a film?

ML: I wish there were more to choose from. But probably my favorite wine reference is from The Jerk when Steve Martin is asked if he wants another bottle of Château Latour and he responds with, “Yes, but no more 1966. Let’s splurge! Bring us some fresh wine, the freshest you’ve got. This year’s. No more of this old stuff. He doesn’t realize he’s dealing with sophisticated people here!”

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out Mise en Place.

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