In Germany, the deep, dark dornfelder grape is primarily used to bring more red color to that cold country’s light pinot noirs — there called “Spätburgunders” — or, alternately, sold as cheap plonk at liquor stores.
“You can find it on every corner,” said Traudl Huber, and she’d know: Traudl and her husband, Norman, were born near Munich and lived through the horrors of World War II before coming to the United States in the early 1950s. Settling in Long Beach, Norm became a renowned woodworker, doing office interiors for skyscrapers, and the couple bought a wheat field along Highway 246 near Lompoc in 1986 as a place to retire.
“Well, that’s what this was supposed to be,” explained Norm, his eyes arching into the what-was-I-thinking pose. “That was 25 years ago.” Instead, seeing the Babcock family across the highway plant wine grapes, the Hubers followed suit, putting in some chardonnay and pinot noir by 1988, making them the second vineyard on the highway, and one of the earliest in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
Things got more interesting in 1991, when a box came in the mail from a nursery in Mosel, Germany, sent by friends who had recently visited the Hubers. Traudl thought it might be flowers, but it turned out to be mysterious grapevines. “We had no idea what they were,” said Norm, but he planted them anyway. Meanwhile, Traudl did some detective work to determine that they were, in fact, dornfelder, which was invented by renowned German grape breeder August Herold in 1955 and named in honor of a civil servant who founded the Weinsberg viticulture school. Today, 21 years and 1.5 total acres of dornfelder later, the Hubers are producing perhaps the world’s best expression of this obscure grape (not to mention some very pineappley chardonnay and spicy pinot noir as well, which make up the rest of the 23 total planted acres).
“The first year we had a real problem getting it on the market,” said Norm, who makes about 100 cases of dornfelder annually, including what’s bottled under the Charlotte’s Reserve and the Hafen dessert wine. “But once people started trying it and drinking it, it just began spreading.” Pointing to the bottle of inky wine that offers intriguing hints of menthol, eucalytpus, and leather, “This one,” said Traudl, “it brings people to us.”
You can taste dornfelder (plus pinot noir and chardonnay) every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Huber Cellars’ home tasting room at 4892 Hapgood Road off Highway 246. See hubercellars.com or call 805-736-3854.