Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight — Carlos Caruncho, Arquils Winery
I have had occasions over the years to be in big rooms filled with lots of wine people. In my experience, winemakers, while seldom the flashiest, are usually the most interesting, often the most talented people in those rooms.
Highly educated, often in different and sometimes multiple fields, they come to winemaking by choice, not because they can’t do anything else. It’s daunting when you add up the academic skills of any four accomplished winemakers sitting at a card table. Yet they choose winemaking.
Whatever it is, winemaking attracts interesting people.
I just met Carlos Caruncho, a winemaker operating out of the old, Snow Mountain Vineyard on Cement Hill Road just outside Nevada City. First planted in 1978 by Richard Cobden, the vineyard has a long but checkered past.
Caruncho started resurrecting the four-acre vineyard in 2018 and opened Arquils Winery (arquils.com) in 2019. He farms organically, intending to morph into farming biodynamically and refers to himself as a non-interventionist winemaker.
Caruncho was born in Cuba, speaking Spanish. After high school he enrolled in a Russian student exchange program.
He relocated to Oryol, located six hours south of Moscow. He studied Russian Literature and Language graduating with both Bachelor and Master degrees. As part of the exchange, he returned to Cuba to instruct officers in a secret, government-run military school.
Finishing that, he worked as the main translator for the Chernobyl Project outside of Havana. That job earned him an invitation back to Russia to work on the Chernobyl Project there.
Heading for Russia, he took off from Havana with a stopover in Gander, Newfoundland. It was there that he asked the Canadian officer on duty for asylum. No small thing, he knew he was facing 25 years at least if he got caught.
Fleeing for his life, he ducked behind a column in the airport candy store hiding from the KGB officer in charge who was frantically looking for him.
It was only for the final boarding call that the KGB officer reluctantly gave up his search. And there was Carlos, speaking Spanish, Russian, if you prefer, with twelve dollars and no suitcase, asking for asylum. He hadn’t even told his mother he was going to do it.
He lived, freezing in Newfoundland for a year, delivering newspapers, waiting for his asylum case to be adjudicated. In 1991 he crossed into America, receiving refugee status in 1992.
While living in Atlanta with a cousin, working as a busboy, he visited another Cuban connection in San Francisco. There he journeyed to the Sierra Foothills for the first time.
Less than a year after arriving in America he moved to Oregon House in Yuba County.
For a wine story, so far there is not much wine talk. That changed when Caruncho met Gideon Beinstock, the owner/winemaker at Clos Saron Winery in Oregon House. Caruncho worked with Beinstock for five years as his apprentice.
He took wine classes at U.C. Davis, planted a small vineyard, and produced his very first wine in 2007.
In 2008 Caruncho and Eliza, his Oxford-born wife, returned to England to raise their children. There he completed the Level III WSET Wine Education Program, a significant achievement. Plus he traveled extensively, tasting wines all over Europe. It didn’t hurt that by now he was fluent in five languages.
They returned to California in 2015, moving to Nevada City as the perfect place to continue to raise their kids. Oh, and then he opened a winery, as a natural winemaker.
You tell me, which part of that story would you want to hear more about?
This is a wine story so let’s stick to that. First, a word on natural winemaking. It is a non-interventionist thing. Do nothing. Add nothing. Take nothing away. Let the wine be the wine.
I’m not a big fan. I have had too many ‘natural’ wines that are stinky, cloudy and fizzy. No rule says you can’t make clean, fresh, fruity natural wines but apparently you don’t have to. Sometimes the odder the better it seems.
We ventured out to Cement Hill where I met Carlos. After walking through the vineyard we turned into his closet-size winery dug into the hillside below the barn. It wasn’t the first time I had been there. I helped plant the original vineyard more than forty years earlier.
We crowded into the tiny space as he dipped into an even smaller barrel room, just one barrel wide, returning with samples of wine.
In a word, the wines were delicious. Really. I especially liked the Gypsy Grenache/Syrah blend. The 2019 Tempranillo from David Blitstein’s Chicago Park vineyard is outstanding.
I couldn’t help but wonder. “Do you add yeast, adjust acidity, test the pH? Anything?” Sitting on a wine barrel (no chairs), he shrugged impishly. “No.”
Caruncho believes that with the proper care in the vineyard the grapes arrive in the winery with everything they need: add nothing; take nothing away.
Make no mistake, he explained. Attention to detail and cleanliness in the cellar are still paramount.
Remarkably in his short career he has been able to get his wines reviewed, all very positively, by some pretty impressive wine people including Master of Wine Jancis Robinson and biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly.
Find out for yourself. Caruncho is planning an open house at the vineyard on May 8. He may be the most interesting guy you will meet all day.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172.
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