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Embracing Eternity at Armali Vineyards

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Embracing Eternity at Armali Vineyards

By Emily Wong

Wine columnist

Golden State Chronicle, 5/20/2019

Whenever people ask me "What wine do I have to know about if I want to be considered a true connoisseur?" the answer I always give is "an Armali Vineyards Cabernet." Asking any restaurant's sommelier to produce a bottle of this rare brand will immediately establish you as a person with finely cultivated tastes. There is literally nothing else quite like it on this planet.

Armali Vineyards was established in a high and extremely remote region of the Santa Cruz mountains in 1851 and has been in continuous operation ever since. This winemaker is distinguished by three things in particular: the quality of the artisan reds it produces, which have an exotic, almost otherworldly flavor; the fact that the vineyards have been exclusively female-staffed and run throughout the company's entire 170-year existence; and that the management and staff are all blue.

Yes, blue. Not blue as in sad, mind you. In fact, the vineyards' rare visitors have always described it as quite a cheerful little Shangri-La. Rather, blue as in they have blue skin. This is because one of the artisan methods Armali Vineyards employs is grape treading, or "stomping" as it is more commonly known. This labor-intensive production method suffered the same fate as the horse & buggy once the industrial revolution happened and the modern wine press was created. Armali Vineyards is the only winery in the world known to continue to use treading for all production. This not only limits the amount of the wine it can produce, it also means its staff regularly spend hours at a time in vats stomping away. They get stained blue - and not just their legs. The vineyards' staff do the treading while "au naturale," you see, and the grape juice gets, well, everywhere.

There is a lively debate among some oenophiles over whether Armali's wines are truly that exquisite or merely good wines whose cachet comes from the mystique of being produced by naked blue women living high in the mountains at a vineyard that few outsiders ever visit. Having "embrace eternity" as the vineyards' motto and featuring it prominently on the label strikes some people as blatant overselling of that image. "It's just another hippie-type commune. California is full of them," Jacques de Beauregard, wine consultant to Breitling Distributors, told me.

For the record, I fall into the category of those who believe that a bottle of Armali Cabernet is indeed a rare treasure best saved for special occasions, particularly intimate ones. If anything, the vineyard's mystique tends to overshadow discussion of the wine's unusual qualities. The Cabernet somehow manages to be as sweet-tasting as the gaudiest bargain-bin fruit wine, yet have the tannins to rein it back and put it alongside its driest competitors. It's a balancing act that shouldn't be possible, especially for a vineyard using pre-industrial methods, but somehow Armali manages it.

The wine is best as a shared experience with just one other person. I've repeatedly heard from people who said that splitting a bottle of Armali with a close friend, a spouse or a lover can produce a level of intimacy so intense it feels like your minds are being melded together.

My personal bucket list has long included visiting the Armali Vineyards to see how such a tiny label produces such unique wines. So imagine my reaction last month when I received a handwritten letter from the vineyard's owner and manager, Matriarch Liganore, granting my request for an interview and a tour. I would finally be able to unlock the mystery behind this reclusive vintner.

And, oh, the things I will do in pursuit of this cause, dear readers! Things like driving up seemingly endless miles of what must be the narrowest, most treacherous mountain roads in the state of California. I felt like I was starring in a version of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 Film Noir classic, The Wages of Fear. Whatever they pay the truckers who haul the vineyards' wines to the outside world, it isn't enough.

And then there it was, Armali Vineyards, and I honestly thought I might have traveled back in time. It was the type of rustic, old-world vineyard I had only seen before in faded, sepia-toned pictures. Yet this one was very much alive and buzzing with activity - all of it being undertaken by attractive, blue-skinned ladies wearing wide-brimmed hats despite the day not being that sunny.

Matriarch Liganore greeted me as soon as I pulled up. She was an ageless beauty and blue-skinned like the rest. She wore a fetching handmade yellow sundress and matching broad-brimmed hat and proved to be a charming hostess. We started with a lengthy tour of the vineyards.

"We could produce more wine with more modern methods, but Armali Vineyards has never been about achieving the largest market share," Liganore explained as we walked through row after row of glistening, nearly-ripe grapes. "We prefer to remain a small, discreet company. It's just who we are."

"That can sometimes result in strange rumors about us floating around though," she added, an oblique reference to a recent episode of the ridiculous cable series Coverups & Conspiracies. "So, every few years, we invite a journalist like yourself to come here, see the vineyards for themselves and set the record straight."

And yes, readers, I asked why they only produced wine from grapes stomped on by naked women. "We believe that the treading is an essential part of the process," the matriarch replied. "An industrial press produces wine that tastes like it was made by a cold, unfeeling machine. We produce wine that has a vital essence that only hand-crafting can provide. As for why we do it naked, well, we handcraft our own clothes here as well, so why get them messy if we don't have to? We're so high up that it's not like anybody outside the vineyards is watching. So, it stains our skin a little. Big deal."

Some topics remained off-limits though. Liganore steadfastly declined to discuss how they produced grapes with such an exotic taste or any of the methods used in their ageing process. Trade secrets, she argued. "Let's just say that treading the grapes imbues them with a unique energy and leave it at that, shall we?" she told me with a wink.

Charming as she was, Liganore and her staff did have their eccentricities. After I off-handedly described the vineyard's workers as "azure ladies," the matriarch first burst out laughing, then made me promise not to use that particular synonym for blue. She claimed it would result in "a lot of awkwardness."

Liganore waved off the suggestion that the vineyards bring in a dermatologist to determine why the stains are so persistent. "This may come as a surprise, but we don't see anything unnatural about having blue skin. Besides, the treading is fun. You get to stand outside and feel the sun and the mountain breeze against your skin as you squish the grapes. Everyone here does it, including me. You could too, if you wanted, Emily."

She was serious.

I was hesitant until Liganore assured me that you had to do the stomping for years on end before any stains became lasting. After that, well, your wine columnist decided she would scratch one more thing off her bucket list… Was it fun? Oh, yes! So much so that I began to understand why these winemakers refused to let go of this method.

Two hours and one shower later, Liganore invited me to a patio to try the vineyard's new blend called "Krogan." It proved to be another innovative creation: a full-bodied, unsubtle wine that I found almost savage in the way it dominates your palate.

The matriarch and I chatted long into the night about the fascinating history of the vineyard. It was founded by her ancestor and namesake Matriarch Liganore back during the gold rush days, when California was still a wild frontier. "Liganore was an explorer and a rather brash one. Just had to charge in and be the first to chart the unmapped regions. She ventured out too far and her ship crashed... umm, near the coast. She & her crew were left stranded. It was a difficult adjustment for them at first, but ... they made the best of it, eventually even came to like their new home. They started making wine after they learned the methods, pretty much overnight, from some other settlers. And we - that is, my family - have been making wine ever since."

I felt a strong sense of kinship as she talked about how her ancestors had handed over management of the vineyards from one generation to the next. The first journalist in the Wong family was my grandmother and I followed in her footsteps. I told Liganore that I hoped that my children and grandchildren will keep that tradition alive. My hostess smiled and said she'd like to see that too.

Tradition will certainly continue to reign at Armali Vineyards. "Oh, I don't see us changing our methods at all, though I am keen to see how human technology evolves," Liganore opined. "I firmly believe the human race is just a few decades away from some truly miraculous advances. Once those happen, then we'll re-evaluate things here at the vineyards, maybe even open up our production methods. But not until then."

It was late by this time and we had emptied a few bottles of Krogan and, to be honest, dear readers, my memories and notes got quite fuzzy. I do remember a sudden breeze blowing my hostess' hat off, me falling out of my chair in reaction to her unusually thick, wavy hair, and then Liganore laughing and saying, "Embrace eternity, Emily!" I woke up the next morning under a quilt on a couch in the manager's office. A little unprofessional of me to black out like that, but everyone at the vineyard remained quite gracious as I bid goodbye. Liagnore even gave me a few bottles of Krogan as a gift.

So, there you have it, dear readers. The truth is that Armali Vineyards is "just another hippie-type commune," albeit maybe a little more eccentric than the rest. But it's a hippie commune that does indeed make "embracing eternity" possible.