A burgeoning climate for viticulture: Moraga's Parkmon one of Lamorinda's thriving wineries
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Dave Parker, owner/operator of Parkmon Vineyards, is a lot like his award-winning 2009 Cuvée Que Sera, taker of a gold medal in the 2013 Alameda County Fair's "Best of the Bay" competition.
If he were a color, he'd be the same deep indigo -- and the flavor of his speech, peppered with Czech, French, scientific terminology and "whatever will be, will be" casualness, is complex. When he relaxes, it's as if he's decanting, releasing the characteristics of a family man and vintner in expressive language.
"What I loved about winemaking is how it combined chemistry with artistic, perceptional aspects," he says, while juggling phone calls about a case of wine's delivery from point A to point B.
Parker's is a family-run operation. The father (and his wife and business partner, Shari Simon, a school board member and active community volunteer) of two children under the age of 13 and a college-bound niece they have cared for since she entered high school, everything about Parkmon is double duty.
A garage doubles as storage. Squeezing between the cement-to-ceiling French, American and Hungarian oak barrels and avoiding shin-banging encounters with variable-volume stainless steel tanks, there's just enough head space to lean back and read the duct-tape-Sharpie-marked "1/2 Estate Grenache, barrel A" label.
"Everything we use is simple, like a high-end home winery operation," Parker says. "It adds challenges to the process, but it gives our wines hands-on flavor."
And like the aromatic grapefruit and scent of fresh-cut grass escaping from a bottle of Parkmon's very first Lamorinda-grown sauvignon blanc (Contra Costa County Winegrower's 2013 "Best of Show" winner), he hints at various key "flavors" in the winery's increasing success.
There is Lamorinda's diurnal microclimate, swinging from cool, foggy mornings to sweltering heat during an extended growing season. There's the area's wind-sheltering, irrigating ridgelines and heavy clay soil demanding vigorous, moisture-seeking roots. There's Parker's locally sourced, custom-selected fruit. This year, Parkmon's grapes were 95-percent Lamorinda, 100-percent Contra Costa County sourced. And there's his probing, indefatigable palate, plus what he good-naturedly calls, "hard manual labor."
"I can go to a vineyard in late July, and just look at the vines and tell how much fruit we'll get, the quality, the concerns we'll have. Near harvest time, I'm tasting the fruit and I can tell what process we'll be shooting for. If you could predict it perfectly, winemakers wouldn't be rare and wine wouldn't be expensive, but all the decisions are made plain in the vineyard."
Parker says some winemakers buy grapes on contract, not by tasting the fruit. He and assistant winemaker Scott Clifton work directly with growers; thinning the canopy, directing irrigation, timing the harvest. He believes cultivated yeast strains, blended from specific varietals, are his specialty; he prefers them to risking the outstanding-to-flawed possibilities of natural fermentation.
"We employ artistry. We produce about 1,000 cases a year ... which is a lot for someone who produces wine in their garage," he says, laughing.
Parker is proud of the Lamorinda Winegrowers Association and how its collaborative nature proves the industry self-selects people who enjoy sharing ideas.
"We went from 23 families in 2005 to over 115 vineyards in the area. It's less intimate, but with good organization, we maintain a unity."
In May, the winegrowers association submitted an application to be granted status as an American Winegrowers Association The designation establishes an area's winegrowing chutzpah and allows "Lamorinda" to be put on every label. Parker uses the term now, but has to file for an exemption for every label and every state where he sells the wine.
"AVA status is a stamp of credibility, especially outside of the immediate area. We sell mostly within a 20 mile radius and having it recognized as a wine worth seeking out will be incredibly valuable to us," he says.
But don't think Parker's dreams stop at "viticultural area." He's had a vision of a large, 15,000-case facility, with high-end equipment and the opportunity for local grape growers to bring their fruit to the winery. "The ideal place would be the Moraga Ranch property on School Street," he says, describing a utopian residential area, with wandering vines interspersed between bike paths and bakeries, B & B's and an artisan brewery.
"I like that Moraga is a sleepy, end-of-cul-de-sac town, but more conveniences would mean we didn't have to leave town for a really good meal."
Or a fine, award-winning, local wine.