It's not often that I get to send out emails about my own friends' wines, but it's always something I love doing, whether it's Jess Miller's Little Crow Wines or Erik Longabardi's Floral Terranes project. Today, though, is the first time I've written about my own colleague's label: Erde from Kirk Sutherland.
The Erde wines are already attracting a ton of attention from other shops and restaurants in Brooklyn will likely sell out quickly because of Kirk's reputation. But lucky for you, since we have Kirk on the VWM team, we are not only the first to offer these wines but can offer a special price on these if you purchase them in the next 48 hours. Two of the bottlings are in stock now, but one is very limited so we are asking for a two-bottle limit per person. The third wine will arrive in July, but order it today (5/20/21) and get as much as you'd like at a discounted rate.
Some of you may know Kirk for his many years at the helm of New York's top wine programs: Roberta's, Blanca, Marlow & Sons, and Diner to name a few. Some of you may know that he joined the staff of Vanderbilt Ave in April, much to our collective excitement. And, yet there's more: not only was Kirk flying coast-to-coast to run Roberta's in NY and LA, he was also taking time to go to Oregon and make his own wines. After working many harvests for Brianne Day and Division over the years, in 2019 he made a wine called "Wallace" (named after his beloved pitbull that passed that year) as an exclusive for Roberta's. A co-fermentation of Grenache and Albarino ala the Anders Frederick Steen approach, I liked it even more than the Steen wines themselves. In 2020, despite a pandemic and devastating fires, Kirk managed to make three bottlings under his new personal label Erde meaning 'earth' in German. Instead of me talking about how great they are, I'll just ask Kirk about the wines himself.
Jonathan Kemp: Kirk, tell me about the origins of Erde.
Kirk Sutherland: It kind of all happened by accident. I've had a long connection to Oregon — I went to college out there, lived there for most of twenties and have been working harvest for my friends at Day Wines and Division Winemaking Company for the last 5 years. I made a wine for Roberta's with Kate & Tom at Division in 2019, and we planned to do it again in 2020, but then the pandemic hit. The grapes were still available, so I decided to empty my savings and buy them myself. I made about 200 cases of wine and cider in 2020 and plan to almost quadruple production this year. I named the project Erde, the German word for Earth/ground.
JK: You made a cider fermented on grape skins and a dark rose for your first release, not the most typical choices. What that due to the fires or was that your intent all along?
KS: A little of both. The Grenache was initially going to be fermented with Albariño like the "red" wine I made in 2019, but due to the fires, grapes came in at different times and I was unable to do what I originally planned. I wanted the wine to have a similar feel to the 2019 bottling of Wallace, so I went for a minimally extracted red, that wound up somewhere between red and rose. The cider came about by happy coincidence and helped me make an additional barrel of juice in a difficult year. Apples don't seem to absorb guaiacol, the chemical compound that creates smoke taint, the way that grapes do.
JK: What are some of the challenges of making wine in Portland, Oregon while living and working full-time in Brooklyn?
KS: Time has been my biggest challenge, which is part of the reason I decided to move on from restaurants. I've been lucky over these last few years to take somewhere between 2 weeks to a month off each vintage, which barely gives me enough time to get the grapes fermented and moved to barrel. It's been hard to get away for a few days here and there to check in with growers, top-off my barrels or blend when working an 80 hour-a-week restaurant gig. I'm very lucky to have the Division team looking after the wines when I'm not around.
JK: On paper, these two bottlings seem like they wouldn't necessarily relate to each other, but I feel like tasting them together I get a very vivid sense of your style. Can you describe what your ultimate goal is in terms of how they present themselves stylistically?
KS: I'm honestly still figuring out what my style really is, but I'm trying to make things that are unexpected and fun, that remain approachable without being too heady. There is definitely a good amount of experimentation that goes on in the winery, and I try to think about flavor combinations that make sense together. I like a good balance between fruit and earth, I'm not afraid of a little Brettanomyces, and I try to work reductively, i.e. keeping the wines from oxygen exposure. All the bottlings this year are named after some of my favorite songs, all of which have references to water, something we all wished for this last harvest.
JK: You're not using much, if any, sulfur, correct? I don't taste the typical flaws associated with that, which seems rare for someone on their second vintage. How did you pull that off?
KS: Iceblink Luck was the only wine that got sulfur this vintage, and less than 10 parts per million. I think sulfur can mute the liveliness of a wine, but it has a place when needed. I learned how to make wine from people (Division and Day) that make wine naturally, but are meticulous about working cleanly in the cellar. The wines all got racked a few times. I also was very lucky to work with fruit that had great chemistry this year.
JK: What do you want to accomplish with this project? Do you just want to make the most thirst-quenching things you can, or do you think there are issues of community and ecology that are can be addressed through making wine?
KS: I'm pretty active in social justice issues, I have been my entire life, growing up as a queer punk kid in Boston. It was the radical side of farming and winemaking, from people like Stefano Bellotti of Cascina Degli Ulivi, that first made me gravitate to natural wine when I was working under Lee Campbell at Reynard. Yes, I want to make fun wines, but I also want to make sure that I'm sourcing fruit from growers that are true stewards of their land, working as regeneratively as possible and treat their workers with respect. I'm proud to have worked with organic practicing vineyards and orchards in 2020, but I'm trying to take it a step further in 2021. I'm also very excited to feature BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists on my labels, and to continue donating a portion of my proceeds to GLITS here in Brooklyn.
JK: Are there more things coming soon? What's in store for 2021?
KS: I have lots planned for 2021, some things I can't really announce yet because I don't want to jinx myself. I'm planning to make the Grenache a bit differently this year, I'm putting out a couple of pet-nats, a much more serious red wine, and more apple/grape goodies. Division just moved into a new winery in industrial Southeast Portland, so we have so much more room to grow.
JK: It would be super-awkward to work together if your wines came in and I thought they weren't very good — so thanks for making truly delicious wines! I'm really impressed at how they manage to have such personality, character, and soul while not straying far from the sensation that you are drinking some beautiful, healthy, fruit. It's a combination that I think everyone will really gravitate towards, and I can't wait to see what's next.
Jonathan and Kirk