The cardboard sign on the front door of St. Helena’s newest wine tasting room, Erosion Wine Co. Tap Room, says it all: “Ugh, stupid coronavirus, we’re closed for the time being til things in the world get a bit more boring.”
The sign continues, “If you’re local, we’ll bring wine to you!” and after giving its website, it ends with a credo for today, especially in the Napa Valley: “Stay safe, friends, drink up.”
Their website, too, is also telling: “Our St. Helena Tap Room will be closed until … who the hell knows!”
When it was still open on March 4, Patrick Rue talked about the vision for Erosion Wine Co., which is at the corner of Main Street and Hunt Avenue. He owns the shop with his wife, Rachel. It’s clear they work seriously at having fun and doing wine differently.
“We are an unusual winery for the Napa Valley,” Patrick Rue said, sitting at a table in the tap room, so named because of the 24 chrome taps on the back wall, behind the bar. “We focus on flavor over almost anything else. We talk about our wines in terms of what you can expect to experience, rather than appellations, varietals, vintages. We are trying to make wine more approachable, fun and interesting.”
Rue is the self-titled “winemaker in training” — a label he said he’ll keep “for the long term, even when I do figure out what I’m doing.”
Rachel’s title: “Chief style officer.”
On that early March day, some three weeks after opening, half of the 24 chrome taps were in use. Of the wines being poured, Rue said a sparkling white wine has been the best received. “It’s called Sparkler Machine, it is very dry but has a tropical, dry pineapple flavor to it,” Rue said. It’s a celebratory wine with a lower level of carbon dioxide, which Rue finds easier to drink than standard sparkling wines. On the tasting sheet, the notes for the wine include, “Tinkerbell dancing on your tongue.”
The wines listed on the tasting sheet is where the fun comes in:
- Three Chardonnay-based wines are called “Unicorn Eyes,” the difference being three letters or numbers in the name, with two using engineered yeast from Berkeley Fermentation Science;
- “Afraid of Clowns” is a red wine, described as “raspberry fruit leather warmed in your back pocket”
- Four “Secret Handshake” red wines, three with either vanilla beans, cacao nibs or both … a description for one is “Like eating a Vanilla Cream Cannoli at Mike’s Pastry in Boston”
- “Large Marge” is a red wine, with nutmeg, vanilla and allspice. At 15.5 percent alcohol by volume, its description is “Assaulted by a Christmas tree, but in a good way.”
- Finally, “The Floor Is Lava,” is described as a “one night stand with a wealthy spice merchant.” It’s 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Coombsville.
Wines and flights
Part of the fun, or the irreverence, are the names — for example, “Don’t cry unicorn,” or “I’m on vacation, don’t make me think” — dreamed up by the Rues’ 9-year-old daughter, Charlotte. The description for the $20 flight, “Learn a secret handshake,” goes like this: “What happens when an elephant mates with a chimpanzee? We don’t know, but if you do, we’d like to hear about it.” The flight of four wines starts with a base red wine, one with a Papua New Guinea vanilla bean, the third with cacao nibs, which is the roasted bean that is the main ingredient in chocolate, and ends with a blend “that we think is 1+1=5.” Seriously, fun with arithmetic. Flights range from $12 to $30.
The Rues started their wine adventure this past fall and bought Napa Valley fruit from 15 different growers and 20 vineyards representing 10 different sub-appellations. They also bought juice from different vintages to blend together. Rue said he makes wines in small batches, 30 to 60 gallons, which are available for a “small amount of time,” he said. Other wines are made in batches of 1,000 to 1,500 gallons and put into aluminum cans with a resealable top, including the “crowler,” which is 750 ml, the same size as a standard bottle of wine.
Beer versus wine
Rue got his start in 2008 as a beer brewer in Orange County, where he opened The Bruery and The Bruery Terreux. “With beer, we tried to bend genres, not produce beer in a certain style or certain tradition, but be more flavor-driven,” he said. Sound familiar? “We’re doing the same approach with wine.”
He said tradition is wonderful, and in the Napa Valley there are many producers making very traditional, delicious wines. But he added, “We want to take a different spin on things. I see that as an opportunity here to do things a little bit differently.”
What’s the difference between brewing beer and making wine? Rue has some opinions: “With brewing beer, every day is harvest. It’s a continual process and it never stops.” With wine, he said he’s enjoying how cyclical it is. “Whatever day is on the calendar, you can pretty much guess what you’re doing at a winery,” he said. He also recognizes the different seasons and he’s enjoying being more “in tune with nature.”
They have a handful of employees and one tasting room in St. Helena. But, construction for a second tasting room at The Tasting Barn, 1021 Atlas Peak Road near Silverado Resort in Napa continues, with a scheduled opening in May. Erosion Wine Co. will join Prime Solum and Expression 38 Degrees.
St. Helena native and renowned interior designer Lucille Shaw designed the St. Helena tasting room. The centerpiece behind the long bar is a mechanical ever-changing display of letters and phrases, like train timetables used in Europe, built by Oat Foundry of Philadelphia.
One more fun fact: When it opens again, the tasting room is family- and dog-friendly and offers children complimentary “Charlotte Temples,” a less sugary “Shirley Temple,” along with coloring materials, toys and slime.