Working with Nature Comes Naturally to this Couple

By David Katz / Photography By Robb McDonough | December 01, 2013
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Jon Grant and Ashley King of Couloir Wines and Straight Line Wine

I first met Jon Grant and Ashley King at a harvest dinner I cooked at Turley Wine Cellars in 2009. They were, on that September day, known to me only as “that vegan couple on table 3,” one of whom was Turley’s assistant winemaker.

They cheerfully supped on a gratin of Tondini beans, wild mushrooms and seasonal vegetables, while the guests all around them devoured slabs of slow-grilled lamb. I liked them immediately, in part because they appreciated our efforts, but mostly because they were so good-natured about lambapalooza.

Grant, owner and winemaker of Couloir Wines and Straight Line Wine, and King, now general manager of both labels, have done extraordinary things this year. Couloir Wines was selected by Wine & Spirits magazine as one of seven brands from around the world to watch in 2013. Grant’s Straight Line Wine Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, California 2010, at just $28, won the top honors in a blind tasting of Pinot Noir–based wines from around the world by Sommelier Journal’s editorial staff.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all, they have opened a hip in-town tasting room, not in Napa or Sonoma, but on the Tiburon waterfront in Marin. It may seem like a funky locale at first glance, but dig deeper, and it all makes perfect sense. Grant is one of a handful of winemakers (he estimates around 25) making wine using grapes grown in Marin County, among other locales. King has deep roots in Marin viticulture. And the tasting room itself, housed in one of Tiburon’s historic Ark Row buildings, has had a winery tasting room use permit since 1960, when Rodney Strong himself signed the application.

Grant came to winemaking the same way he adopted a plant-based diet, and abolished paper towels in his kitchen. It is the way he does just about everything: with circumspection, deep commitment and boundless energy. Grant’s first foray into the wine world was at Snow Bird ski resort in Utah, where he managed the wine shop, and then a wine program for the resort’s fine-dining outlets, all the while pursuing another of his passions, skiing and ski mountaineering. Moving to the Napa Valley, Jon did stints at Robert Mondavi Winery, Corison Wines, Plumpjack Winery and, ultimately, as the assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, which led to launching his own labels in 2007.

King grew up in and around the wine business and Marin viticulture. Her mother and uncle are each longtime owners of separate vineyard sites in Marin’s historic Nicasio. She has over 20 years of major corporate sales experience in other industries, but her impressive C.V. includes three years in wine distribution with brother Patrick McNeill. Ashley joined Jon as general manager of both brands in July 2013, to help launch and promote the tasting room and to increase corporate, direct-to-consumer and wholesale sales.

Couloir Wines are currently comprised of four vineyard-specific Pinot Noir offerings from Marin and Anderson Valley appellations. They show the stunning versatility of Pinot Noir, from the current release Londer Vineyard Pinot Noir, with a beautiful depth of what Jon describes as “ripe red fruits and earth,” to Marin’s Chileno Valley Vineyard, which despite one of the longest growing seasons in the state, produces a restrained, elegant Pinot Noir of moderate to light body. In Chileno Valley, the cool maritime influence of San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean sweep over undulating pastures to contribute what Grant calls “sweet and sour red fruit,” and elements of complex spice. He rounds out the Couloir label with Pinot Noir from Roma’s Vineyard, and Monument Tree Vineyard, both in the Anderson Valley appellation. Each of these wines exhibits what Grant deems “a true sense of place and time.”

Like Couloir, Straight Line Wine, a collection of four varietals – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah – over-delivers at a smart price. They each exhibit distinctive varietal character, and the unmistakable terroir of some of California’s prized appellations. When one considers that Jon is the whole winemaking team, the absolute necessity for his boundless energy becomes quite clear.

Grant feels the term “vegan” carries with it a generous dollop of preconceived notions. His decision to stop eating meat and other animal products at a young age was, at least in part, a simple preference of palate, but along with Ashley, his adult commitment to a vegan diet is rooted in a broader view of the Earth, its resources, its inhabitants and its future. Eating unprocessed, locally and organically grown, sustainably raised and healthy foods is a part of a guiding principal they term, “treading lightly on the Earth.” That may read a bit heavy in print, but the way the couple puts their convictions into practice is anything but heavy.

Plant-based diet
Tofu in vegan diet

Their main source of food is a farm stand on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena, just a stone’s throw from their home. The two are passionate supporters of a better way of living and caring for the Earth, without the preachy undertones that often leave others with nebulous sense of shame. The desire to live in harmony with nature is equally evident in their pantry, and in their cellar.

Couloir and Straight Line wines are produced at a custom crush facility in Sonoma County, alongside wines of every stylistic stripe. Many of these labels celebrate man’s ability to manipulate wine using the latest whiz-bangs. Grant is characteristically nonjudgmental about how others do what they do, but the inevitable contrasts in winemaking philosophy and methodology between Grant and his barrel-mates seem to fuel his non-interventionist sensibilities. He ferments only with native yeasts, crushes only whole clusters for his Couloir wines, and even gives the newly harvested fruit a cool nap, or “day of rest” at the winery, before pressing, which allows the stem cuts to heal, contributing the beneficial flavors of the stems without unwanted flavor from the stem’s interior. It also affords the winemaker a day to pause and refocus before commencing the delicate work of pressing and fermentation.

Grant prizes the complete product, creating a synergy of appearance, aromatic profile, taste and texture. He loves the earthy, savory quality of his wines, and they play right into the weight, textures and flavors of a winter garden in wine country.

What do “that vegan couple on table 3″ cook for their Pinot Noir? The answer is, at its core, about creating a harmonious sense of place and time with good company. When pressed for a specific guideline or two, Grant offers “acid and salt.” King is a gifted and natural cook, and the curried squash and potato dish she prepared for a bottle of 2011 Chileno Valley Pinot Noir (and shares here) was spot on, bringing earthy potatoes and sweet squash together with tomato, spice, protein in the form of tofu, and fresh green cilantro. The spices in the dish highlighted the spice in the wine, without masking it. The tomatoes and lemon provided a beautiful acid balance from glass to plate, and the restrained red fruit of the wine got a beautiful boost. The cooking method is simple, flexible and allows for intuitive substitutions. It relies on excellent ingredients, carefully selected, and prepared without unnecessary steps, which, come to think of it, sounds an awful lot like Jon Grant’s wines.

More info: Couloir Wines Tasting Room.

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