Belharra: Made from love and Syrah

Camille and Anne, winemakers of Belharra.

Camille and Anne, winemakers of Belharra.

For the last few years, Syrah has been one of my favorite varietals because it’s a very terroir influenced grape and can show great complexity. So, unsurprisingly, when I first tasted the Belharra Syrah from the Las Madres Vineyard I loved it. When I met co-winemakers and proprietors Anne Fogerty and Camille Gaïo, I loved the wine even more. The pair draw on an eclectic background of skills—Anne’s deep familiarity with their vineyard source, Camille’s sommelier’s palate—and years of experience working alongside and being mentored by respected winemakers, to craft truly noteworthy Syrah. They’re also just awesome, compassionate people.

Enjoy my interview with Anne and Camille below!

 How did wine first come into your life?

Anne: As a kid, my parents allowed me to try wine from time to time when they were drinking it with friends. I hated most of them. The first glass I remember liking was a 1984 Edelkeur from South Africa. It was a dessert wine, sweet and botrytized. I remember feeling like it perfectly fit the moment.

Camille: I’m from France. Wine is everywhere. We grow up with it. It’s as    common as milk. Affordable and on the table; a quality daily product. I even  remember being in my culinary high school and being served wine at lunch.

When did you each decide to make your careers in the wine industry?

A: Las Madres Vineyards owners, John Painter and Jean Gadiot, are longtime friends of my family. During my teen years, I would spend the summers at their vineyard doing all types of grapevine and farm maintenance. I loved it— the flow of the day: up early, working outside, ending the day exhausted but proud of a job well-done.

Then, when I graduated from college it was the bottom of the Great Recession. I needed work and the wine industry was hiring with no experience or specific  degree. Going into wine was a challenge, but fortunately I had the support system I needed to get my foot in the door.

C: I went to a culinary focused high school in France; that led me to a sommelier diploma and working in the restaurant industry in Lyon and Paris. I became more interested in the production side of wine, so I went back to school in Bordeaux and got an Enology degree. This allowed me to travel and work around the world.

Camille, what brought you to California?

C: I originally came over for an internship and didn’t have any expectations to stay. But then I fell in love with the diversity of the land, the outdoor adventures in such close proximity and the lifestyle of Northern California.

Do you ever want to return to France and make wine there?

C: No. Well, maybe. I guess I could, excluding the financially untouchable major regions. There are other interesting regions that offer an opportunity for young people. I’d be most interested in the Languedoc, Basque country, the Southwest.

How did you two meet?

A: Through the “intern grapevine.” The valley sees a large uptick in young people during the fall harvest and there’s a lot of socializing. Small events always turn into larger gatherings and you meet a lot of new people. Then we traveled abroad independently, and serendipitously together, navigating international living and harvests.

Anne, you did several overseas harvests, any favorite experiences?

A: My 2012 vintage in Hawkes Bay. It was such a personal growth moment for me. It was my first vintage outside of the U.S., and my first independent living experience after college. I was assigned to a 3-person night-shift team, meaning I was doing most of my work alone, with little supervision or help, and nocturnal. One of the best and hardest 6-weeks of my life.

How did Belharra get started?

A: My ‘day job’ is in production at Outpost Wines on Howell Mountain and I was given the opportunity to start a wine label as part of my compensation. At Outpost, we make estate wines and do custom crush for a multitude of clients of our winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown. This “incubator” of sorts has given me exposure to legendary Napa vineyard sources and incredible winemaking talent. It’s been an ideal place to start a wine project, but we’ve had support from both of our production mentors.

C: Yes, my ‘day job’ is with Fayard Wine Consulting helping clients with vineyard sourcing and day-to-day winemaking.

What’s the story behind the name “Belharra”?

C: Belharra is the name of a famous pro-surf spot of the coast of Saint-Jean-De-Luz on the Basque coast of Southern France. Once a year, this legendary wave is created by the combination of underwater structures and winter storms, and the big-wave surfers come from all over the world to take advantage of the swell. We liked this imagery of the power of nature and the pursuit of opportunity inherent in the sport of surfing, and what that can teach us about winemaking.

Why focus on Syrah?

A: Camille and I have always liked Syrah.

C: My parents loved Rhone wines. I grew up drinking awesome Saint-Joseph and Croze-Hermitage.

A: And after making SO much Cabernet Sauvignon at our day jobs, it’s really refreshing to make something different. Syrah is an infinitely complex and versatile grape, that is still a challenge for most winemakers. Certainly, the connection with Las Madres Vineyards helped us get started, too. We figured that even if Belharra didn’t make it beyond a vintage or two, we would be  successful in drinking it ourselves!

Tell me about Las Madres Vineyard.

A: It's a 9-acre vineyard farmed by owners John Painter and Jean Gadiot and ranch hand Marco Perez. John and the crews do most of the work by hand and are focused on sustainable methods like supporting beneficial insect and plant populations. Roughly 20% of the vineyard is dry-farmed, and that portion is growing every year. The rest is irrigated with water from the on-property pond, filled every year from woodland hillside run-off. Camille and I check-in on the vineyard regularly during the year, and do our own sampling during the harvest season.

C: We think Las Madres is one of the best Syrah Vineyards in Carneros, and certainly one of the most unique vineyards in Sonoma. We are honored to share the vineyard with so many other unique wine projects, and find camaraderie with fellow winemakers who appreciate the site and want us all to succeed because we have access to this amazing fruit.

How do you two approach winemaking?

C: No b*llshit, non-formulaic. Every year is different and the winemaking needs to be adaptable. You could call it ‘European style’—take care of the vineyard and the grapes will reward you.

A: What’s great about Las Madres is the consistency of the fruit quality. We’ve made wines from Las Madres that are completely different from each other on a chemical level, but are both pleasing, complex and reflect the quality of the vineyard. At the end of the day, we smell/taste the wine and ask ourselves: can we improve it by doing something or is it better left alone?

What do you see in Belharra’s future?

A: We are constantly trying to improve, across all areas. I see us bringing another red (Pinot?) into the fold in the next year or two, and continuing to expand the quantity we produce.

C: We want to find a few more awesome vineyards managed by good people. We want to have a blast producing quality wine to share with our customers for a decent price.

A: Yes, we’re focused on building a community of wine lovers who trust the work we do and want to continue to have great wine in their glasses!

Speaking of community, what was your experience during the 2017 wildfires?

A: Our experience with the fires was no worse than any other person working harvest last year. While the uncertainty, smoke, outages, and general panic were stressful additions to the height of harvest, we were not acutely affected by the fires. Napa/Sonoma are tight-knit communities, so Camille and I worked extra hard to handle what we could for our co-workers and clients while they dealt with more personal hardships. My favorite anecdote was watching production workers that were evacuated from their wineries, leaving many wines untended for days, come and join our teams in both Coombsville and Howell Mountain, just wanting to feel useful and do something in the face of so much adversity.

OK, lightning round time: what is your favorite thing about working in wine?

A: Constant problem-solving. You can’t control weather or natural disasters, but logistic and mechanical problem happen all the time and give you an opportunity to find a solution.

C: The short and stressful period of time [during harvest] when you make almost all your decisions. Wine is essentially made in those two weeks, so you better be on your game.

What is your favorite food and wine pairing?

A: Thai food and Las Madres Syrah

C: Cheese and white Burgundy

What is the most memorable bottle of wine you’ve ever had? 
I have to name two. First, a bottle of 2007 Chateau Rayas Reserve the Dotzler’s (Outpost owners) pulled out of their cellar at an Outpost harvest party. My favorite Outpost wine is our whole-cluster Grenache, modeled on the Rayas style, and I found that much more appreciation in what I tasted that night. The second is a bottle that Camille’s uncle pulled from his awesome wine collection.It was a 1999 Roumier Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses”, in French, “the (female) lovers”. It was an incredibly rare bottle of wine, all the more special to be shared with her family in Grenoble.

Paridoxally (I’m not a big fan of sweet wines), my best memory of wine is a bottle of 1989 Chateau Riussec Sauterne for no special reason. After a long day of skiing in my hometown in the French Alps, my family would snack on brioche and sauterne by the fire. A special but common moment with my family was made more special by this awesome bottle of Semillon/SavBlanc. 

When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?

A: Beer

C: Coffee

If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be?

A: A small-scale farmer

C: A coffee-roasting surfer

Anything else you’d like to add?
A: While we are a 'virtual winery' and don’t have a physical tasting room, there are plenty of opportunities for those in the Napa/Sonoma area to try our wines. We hope that folks visiting the region will reach out and join our mailing list to stay in touch!