It’s late on a school night. The wife and boys have been down a while. Our coonhound mix paces about, stops at the gaping barn door and casts a blank stare my way that pleads, Let’s call it a night, mkay? He takes the task of keeping tabs seriously and won’t shut it down until the whole pack is tucked in. My scrawled tasting notes are barely legible, so he might have a point. Tonight I’m pushing him and myself because of some sudden determination to get my head around the essence of a locally produced, aromatized wine called War & Rust.
At first glance, the label jolts me in a dark way that I enjoy. I'm gripped emotionally, but intellectually it bothers me. Being out here in the dark woods with a neighbor up the road whose land resembles Carcosa, the label’s deer-headed figure and photobombing dog in the background make me shiver and wonder: What are we in for?
You said it, Rust. Heavy shit.
Before the deep dive I should nod to the red flag potential of a guy drinking alone in his barn. Fair enough. Then again, I don’t hear much about drinking problems arising due to obscure aperitifs. And if Rust Cohle was right about time being a flat circle, what does it matter since it all sets up to happen again?
In any case, I’m not just drinking aperitif tonight - I’m reading a story.
Labeled aperitif, yet more of a digestif, War & Rust is a historical document narrated by local winemaker Ben Jordan that dates back to 2007. When we moved to Charlottesville a year ago, I quickly fell into its cult following, developing a two-bottle-per-month habit.
Last week I paid a visit to Ben at Early Mountain Vineyards for a history lesson. His conference room is a picnic table on a knoll outside the production facility. We meet at what he calls the golden hour - that stuck-in-time moment when the landscape is framed in crooked sun beams bringing last errant traces of Indian summer warmth, background shadows just starting to crawl and dirty clouds lording over mountains on the far horizon. It’s a perfect slice of imperfection. Ben is just back from scouting land for a new satellite vineyard - a field trip that pulls him away from the grinding labor of fall harvest, a day off the crush pad. His hands are blistered and his fingernails dirty. A pink hue highlights his cheeks. He’s drinking some indie label kombucha from a jar - packaging affected to resemble moonshine. Cute. We talk some about the EMV business then cut into it.
War & Rust’s first iteration dropped in Sonoma, CA and was influenced by the lush complexities of Barolo Chinato. I burn for Cocchi Barolo Chinato - a sinfully rich vermouth in the Cocchi family best enjoyed after dinner on its own or as a spike to a naughty late night Manhattan. Since this inspiration resonates with me, I gotta know how it all started. As Ben tells it:
“I just happened to be drinking and enjoying chinatos back in 2005-2006, so they were on my mind. I was also working on vermouth recipes with a friend of mine, and they never saw the light of day.”
Ben scavenged bastard raisins, lots of stems and a laundry list of herbal ingredients including cinchona bark, which remains a constant to this day, to produce his first half-barrel batch. He bottled 70% and shared it with friends. The remaining 30% would be set aside and used as a starter for next year’s production, establishing what he calls a faux solera - the booze analog to a sourdough mother. Subsequent releases followed the same pattern and typically consisted of whatever he could scrounge up. In 2009, as his winemaking game sharpened, Ben decided to dedicate more ‘purposeful’ craft into War & Rust, thoughtfully sourcing ingredients to influence the taste. He and his mysterious potion would eventually relocate to Virginia in 2012 where he began sourcing fruit from his family’s vineyard for the next batch. At this point, what started as a hobby on the lark was becoming something of a surrogate child, a passion project that would mark the trail he blazed deeper into the craft of winemaking.
“It started with Pinot Noir and has followed me around in my day jobs, so these days there is a lot of Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Petit Verdot, and there's even Petit Manseng.”
So there’s this nomadic nuance to War & Rust that lends more intrigue. What started in California and still carries plenty of character from that region, thanks to the solera, now resides in Virginia wine country. Still, you don’t see any location specified on the label.
“It now has enough Virginia fruit that I could legally call it Virginian, but since there are over 20 herbs and botanicals, I don't bother with a place name.”
In 2014, War & Rust was ready for prime time and made its retail debut, landing on shelves around Charlottesville at shops like Feast, Greenwood Grocery, Market Street Wine Shop and on bar menus at C&O, Lampo, Alley Light, Fleurie and Whiskey Jar.
Pro tip: On this side of the bar, ordering a War & Rust is certain to gain you cred with the cat on the stick. It’s that cult cool.
Finally, I have to know if he makes any connection today to his playwright career of yesteryear since, to me, he and all of his cohorts are storytellers, and that’s what pulls me into a bottle.
“I think it's less about the storytelling part and more about the day dreaming, sensual, gut-driven side of artistic pursuits that translate well to experimenting at the fringes of a certain craft. There's already an artistic side to winemaking, but since this project is mine and mine only, I don't have the constraints of bigger ventures, and I can follow pure, creative impulse. For better or worse.”
Oh, it’s for better, and for me the perfect bookend to a night paired with some Jug Band Blues and a blanket of Virginia stars.
Back here at the barn, I pour one last finger, sit back and let it breathe a few, then I get punched with a rich surge of ripe fruit that pivots hard to a pleasant herbal bitter with a measured peppery undertone (Syrah?) that you ride out to to a smooth finish. Two acts to this one, no need for a third to round out the extremes.