Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Head High: Waves and Wine Pair Perfectly

If youve read anything from me, or followed me on social media, you know I am obsessed and in love with two things: wine and waves. 

ve been riding waves since I was three or four, when my Ma put my on her back and rode a bodyboard in the New Jersey shore break. And Ive been tasting and enjoying wine since before I could legally purchase bottles of my own. Over the course of my 20s, and now into my 30s, Ive managed to tie these two loves together quite well. I am drawn to remote coastal areas with diverse wave zones, cold water and great wine. Sonoma Coast, Mendocino, Santa Barbara, South Africas Western Cape, these places call to me to surf their waves and swirl their wines. (Western Oz, Chile, Galicia, you’re all on my list.)

The California coast is one of the most generous and consistent wave zones on the planet. Same goes for its winegrowing regions. (Photo: IJB)

Sam Spencer in his natural habitat. Credit: Head High Wines
Im not the only guy who lives for both of these things. Sam Spencer, partner and winegrowing director at Head High Wines, is a kindred spirit. Born in DC, Sam learned to surf in Rhode Island, whose waters are even colder than my home waves of New Jersey. He studied at UC Davis winemaking program, and worked 20 years as a wine consultant and vineyard developer. Of course, this work kept him relatively close to the coast, which allowed Sam to take frequent surf breaks.

Now Sam has his own venture, Head High Wines, named for the term surfers use when the surf is breaking at about 5-6 feet. He produces three wines, a rosé of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, a Sonoma Coast Pinot and a red blend from various vineyards scattered around California’s North Coast appellation.

Sam explained the connection between waves and wine in a manner that mirrored my appreciation for this unique coastal-oenological relationship. Great wine requires a convergence of several different elements: climate, soil, vineyard site, weather conditions. Great surf happens when swell (created by wind over water) aligns with a certain type of shallow underwater surface, and light (preferably off-shore) wind conditions. It only happens at specific spots, at specific times, under these specific circumstances. If one of the elements is missing (in both wine and surf) you get skunked.

Of course, there is the human element — the dynamic interaction between a driven person and the living power of the natural world. Not many people have this insatiable desire to get off their ass and paddle into big, sketchy surf, or trek out to the vineyard to pick the Pinot when the Brix levels are just right. But surfers and winemakers can’t help themselves. Sure we use new technology to aid us in these pursuits (neoprene for cold waves, stainless steel for cold stabilization), but wine and waves are both examples of Mother Nature’s control over the process. 
We humans just show up at the right time and revel in it.

Sam says he doesn’t make wine for surfers, and you don’t need to be a surfer to “get” these wines — you only need a functioning nose and palate. But, that said, there’s an added textural element to these wines you’re a wave-lover.
I recently met up with Sam at one of my favorite DC restaurants, the Red Hen, and we traded surf stories for a few hours. Sam is no kook. The dude surfs California’s North Coast breaks on the regular and has traveled to more than a few of my bucket list surf spots, Fiji, for example.

Head High has also teamed up with Sustainable Surf, an ocean conservation non-profit. One buck from every bottle goes to this charity or the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Good on ya, Head High.

What I liked most about Head High, despite the surfing connection, was their accessibility in terms of price and style. The wines run between $25-$35, which is about the cost of a cheap pair of wet suit gloves. Head High juice is bright, fruity, pleasant, but by no means simple.

Below, I’ve pasted my notes on Head High’s current releases.
Credit: Head High Wines

2015 Head High Wines Rosé - California, North Coast
Bright watermelon color. Crisp and juicy with bright acid and fresh strawberry and watermelon flavors. A blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo.

2013 Head High Wines Pinot Noir - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast 
Smells smoky and earthy with deep dark fruit. Full and plummy on the palate. Rich but a great juicy texture. Plums and blackberries mixed with cocoa and coffee. Smooth, long finish. Very nice.

2013 Head High Wines Red - California, North Coast


Juicy, fleshy, lovely texture, full with lush berry fruit but shows a nice tart edge along with hints of earth and warm spice. A blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Grenache from Sonoma, Lake and Napa Counties, aged 15 months in 35% new French oak.

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