This is another installment of a series called "Livermore Stories," which takes a look at the most exciting wineries in this wine growing region located east of San Francisco. More than 50 wineries now call Livermore Valley home. The wines have never been better, and the wineries have great stories to tell.
He's been called a rising star, a rock star of the Livermore Valley wine scene. He's a young gun for sure -- in his late twenties -- a completely self-taught winemaker. Meet Collin Cranor of Nottingham Cellars. Two years ago, when I first tasted his Viognier and GSM -- Grenache, Syrah Mourvedre blend that is -- I was completely blown away. This guy's a major talent.
While he didn't get the top honor, Best of Show, at the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition [that went to friends and neighboring Livermore winery 3 Steves] Collin's wines took home four medals, including a Double Gold for the Awakening GSM.
Collin is an accidental winemaker. His father Jeff started a winery in Burlingame called Satyrs Pond with a partner. At the time, Collin was working in construction as a journeyman glazer. Then the recession hit, and Collin started helping out at the winery on weekends. Soon his father's partner wanted out of the business, and Collin and Jeff decided to take on the winery themselves. They had already been buying fruit from Livermore and thought the area might be a better home. "There's not much wine tasting traffic in Burlingame," Collin says.
"We think there's a real renaissance in quality wines coming out of Livermore, the valley's reputation keeps continuing to grow. We wanted to be a big part of that," he explains.
Moving to Livermore
"Livermore used to be known as Nottingham," says Collin, a history buff who researched the area in search of inspiration for the winery's name. Thus Nottingham Cellars found its new home in Livermore in 2009.
Nottingham first started trucking wine from Burlingame to McGrail Vineyards and split a bottling truck. After storing wine there for awhile, McGrail needed more space and politely asked Collin to move his wine out. That led to finding space on S. Vasco Road, where you'll also find Occasio Winery.
"We share a parking lot with a sign shop and a stainless steel shop, perfect place for a winery, right?" Collin laughs. In 2009 they crushed grapes at Cedar Mountain Winery because they didn't have permits in place. Now, all Nottingham wines are made out of the current location where there's also a tasting room.
The 2013 Harvest
Collin calls the 2013 vintage "epic."
On this early October day in 2013, Collin is busy with grapes coming in and several bins of fermenting wines. "This is Petite Sirah, that's Grenache, over there Malbec and we've got some Syrah." They're all in open top fermenters, and all are whole berries, as Collin prefers to do whole berry fermentations, with the grape skins gently broken open, leaving the seeds in tact.
Collin's about ready to do some pump overs, to help submerge the cap of grapes that forms during fermentation. The juice gets colors and tannins by being in contact with the skins and seeds. The cap has to be punched down several times a day during fermentation to ensure all those flavors and colors don't get left behind.
During pump over, he uses a vinturi device -- just like the hand held aerator you might use when you pour a glass of red wine, only industrial sized. It helps suck more oxygen into the wine as it ferments. Collin also likes to do filter the seeds out and end up with good clean juice. "It gives more of a rounder mouthfeel," he explains. "Grenache and Petite Sirah have pretty big tannins, they've already got qutie a grip. If I can remove the seed, that bitterness then I get soft lush fruit and soft lush tannins."
They're all techniques he's learned by observing other winemakers, seeing what works and what doesn't. He'll Google what he doesn't know. It's all led to his unique winemaking style. He likes big, bold flavors and works to bring those out.
Nottingham Cellars produces some 22 wines, a mix of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals with some Chardonnay thrown in. "So we have this diversity of wines here and that's great," Collin says, "but I really want to bring back focus. "So Nottingham is going to go to all classic varieties, a Chardonnay for white and then all Bordeaux for red."
What about the Rhones? Collin had a plan.
"I'm launching a new label that's Rhone focused." Here's where Collin's love of history comes in to play again.
He came across the story of Vasco Urbano Loureiro, born in London to Portuguese parents, who became an Austalian citizen, "like an early 1900s hippie who traveled the world from port to port," Collin says. "For whatever reason in 1910 he came to Livermore, they think because this general area of Livermore was known as Vasco el Vasco, a Basque term for the pass. It was the pass people would take from Rancho Los Vaqueros to Rancho Las Positas." As the story goes, Loureiro hung out at a place called the Hub Saloon and would draw caricatures of prominent people in town to make money. "He gave everyone a nickname," says Collin.
"So fast forward 100 years and this book, Vasco's Livermore, 1910: Portraits from the Hub Saloon, was published in 2010." The authors who discovered these sketches published a chapter on each with stories about the character depicted in the artwork.
"They're all pretty cool and they're important people in Livermore history," Collin says. As he spent time learning more about Loureiro at the Livermore Heritage Guild, he became more inspired, and knew he'd found the muse for his new label.
The concept for the Vasco Urbano Wine Company is each Rhone varietal or blend is named after one of Loureiro's characters. Daniel McNally, who managed the now defunct Pioneer Winery is the namesake for the D. McNally Viognier. The Speck Grenache Rosé is named for the ice man who delivered ice to restaurants and homes. That label depicts a block of ice with big tongs. The GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is The Sheriff, named for Sheriff Edward James Sweeny, is the "flagship for the new brand," says Collin.
Collin reached out to book authors Anne Marshall Homan and Richard W. Finn for permission to use the drawings on the label. He has copies for sale in the tasting room and a "floor copy so people can explore the caricatures."
Wine on Tap
As if all this isn't enough, Collin is becoming a keg king -- selling his wines in steel kegs for restaurants and bars to serve on tap. "Kegs are a no brainer if you have wines by the glass," he says. "Otherwise you could be serving bad wine to folks paying up to $20 dollars for a glass. It better not be oxidized." Kegs prevent air getting to the wine, keeping it as fresh as if it were poured from a newly opened bottle.
Collin and I taste through a few of the wines with his father Jeff.
The 2012 Nottingham Cellars Viognier is the last vintage this grape will be under the Nottingham label. Lovely aromatics, with stone fruit, white flowers, honey. It also has a nice minerality to it, so it's not a flabby, overblown Viognier.
The 2013 Vasco Urbano Rosé makes me smile. "I wanted the Rosé with some really lean flavors," Collin says. "It will look like a white wine with a hint of pink most roses. "Most rosés are more extracted than mine will be. I did a whole cluster press instead of saignée," (direct press instead of bleeding the juice off).
The 2012 Chardonnay is made from grapes grown in Arroyo Seco, in Monterey County. It's pure citrus, apple and pear fruit. The wine never sees oak, and there is no malolactic fermentation. Crisp and fruit forward.
"Dad's been waiting for this," Collin says as he opens the 2012 Livermore Valley Grenache (not yet released). The aromatics, plums, black pepper spice and strawberry are gorgeous. "I really wanted to capture the aromatics," he says. "I didn't want to overpower it with wood. You get that Italian blood orange strawberry thing going on." He'll releases it two years after harvest, after spending 10 months in barrel and 14 months in bottle.
Supremecy is Nottingham's flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend using all five classic varieites -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine is aged 30 months is a mix of new and used French oak. The 2010 is powerful, rich, dense with dark fruit, leather, tobacco and great structure. Collin's back labels are a good read, and this one says "Not often does a wine come around that achieves mastery; not often does a wine come around that reigns supreme."
Most weekends you'll find Collin and Jeff manning the tasting room. Collin reflects on his brief yet successful career as a winemaker and Nottingham and now Vasco Urbano. "It's not the most romantic story but it's turned into the best thing iI could have ever imagined," he says. "I'm working seven times more hours than I used to and making about a third of what I used to. It's not a bad thing coming to work making wine. It's pretty cool."
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