The rustic road to Happy Canyon winds through rolling green hills, stately oak trees, and vineyards that will soon hang heavy with fruit. If you happen to take all the right turns, you’ll discover the Grassini Family Vineyards, 100 acres of densely planted vines, contently nestled within the new appellation (which was created in the fall of 2009 and is technically known as the Happy Canyon American Viticultural Area, or AVA). Once through the gates, a rocky ride delivers a visitor to a brand-new winery and appointment-only tasting room, where winemaker Matthias Pippig shows off bottles from both Grassini Family Vineyards and his own Sanguis label.
Made of recycled timber from old mines, the solar-powered, three-story structure turns grapes to wine via gravity and underground caves. A mix between medieval chateau and Californian cabin with a modern minimalist spin, the winery alone is an epicurean experience. Thankfully, the wines do not falter under the high expectations kindled by such a façade, but instead gracefully transcend the surroundings with each sip. “The wines have strength in them, they have longevity, and they’re gripping,” explained assistant winemaker Jessica Gasca. “The wines grip me—all of them. … They command attention.” Pippig’s wife, Jamie Kinser, agreed with a laugh, “They’re quite distracting.”
That’s music to the ears of Grassini Family Vineyards owner Larry Grassini, who, after decades of owning this ideal property, decided to plant a vineyard there in 2002. He worked for a few years with other winemakers, but then found satisfaction with Pippig, who directs the Grassini Family Vineyards’ Bordeaux-based wines into offering a straight-forward taste of Happy Canyon, where the hot days allow great cabernet sauvignon and its sisters to thrive. Meanwhile, Pippig’s own Sanguis label uses fruit from across the county to unleash thought-provoking blends of Rhone varietals and other grapes, as well. Both labels pose different challenges for Pippig, as the more traditional Grassini lies at the mercy of one vineyard while Sanguis requires constant creativity, pliancy, and a willingness to change things up.
“The approach is just more playful” for Sanguis, said Pippig. “It’s like putting a big jigsaw puzzle together.” Indeed, with ever-changing blends, creative names, and labels decorated with Pippig’s own artwork, he explained, “The only constant is change.” He also thanks a riddle, in part, for contributing to his winemaking philosophy: “One of my kids asked me once, ‘How do you make a boulder look like an elephant?’” To which he answered, “You chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” Using this bit of wisdom in the vineyard, Pippig regularly clips off and tosses out any imperfect morsel of fruit.
Snobbery would undoubtedly seem quite at home within such a gallant winery and meticulous practices, but Pippig frowns at such a notion. He repeatedly reminds everyone that wine is “just fermented grape juice” and unabashedly calls the infamous Two-Buck-Chuck “one of the greatest products” because of its approachability for beginners. He, Kinser, and Gasca also love the manual labor involved, from picking off pincher bugs to getting their arms slathered in grape juice. “From dirt to this is a huge spectrum,” said Gasca, gesturing toward some bottles. “Good wine is made from perseverance and patience—and only the strong survive.”
So while it might be a romantic ideal that pulls people into winemaking, these three are evidence that hard work and passion are what pull you through. “Above everything, you can’t do it without great people, from the guys who manage several of the ranches down to the day-laborers who show up at daybreak and don’t go home until the sun goes down,” said Pippig. “Everybody has to pull together and get it done.”
True to these values, Pippig integrates all employees into the operation, inviting vineyard workers into the cellars and allowing them the reward of seeing the grapes they have picked become wine. With everyone personally involved in making wine together, Pippig creates a more enjoyable experience for all. And although he owes a lot to the blossoming vines of Happy Canyon and an impressive new winery, it takes passion like Pippig’s to make an elephant out of a boulder.