Jared Brandt’s interest in wine began somewhat opportunistically. As a college student at Emory University in Atlanta, he worked at a small neighborhood restaurant. Quickly he learned that, as a waiter, a good wine recommendation not only made customers happy but also lead to the opportunity to recommend other wines, often with higher price points, all of which led to higher tips and more money in his pocket. At that stage in his life, he said, having another $6 in tips was important because it meant another meal for him. And not only could he get larger tips from customers with good wine recommendations, it also meant he could work one less day a week.
“It started off first for economic reasons. The more wine I sold, the more money I made as a waiter,” he said.
Motivated by those economics, Jared soon became the best wine salesperson at the restaurant. When the night manager began inviting Jared to taste new wines with him when distributors came to the restaurant, Jared’s economic interests evolved into a fascination with the wines he was trying. The differences and complexities that could be embodied by a single wine—or a single vineyard—began to pique his curiosity.
“You could have a single vineyard with two different winemakers and have totally different products,” he said. “It grew from there.”
After college, Jared moved to California and began working in technology, where he helped manage products like the famous After Dark flying toaster screensavers. Over the course of the next five years, he made it a mission to go to the wineries that made every wine he tasted.
“I became a really active consumer,” he said.
Trying various wines led to subscriptions to magazines such as Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Then came Jared’s epiphany moment on a trip to New York when the sommelier at a restaurant he liked to go to served him a Châteaneuf-du-Pape Blanc.
“He showed me the bottle, but he didn’t tell me anything about it. I drank it, and I loved it. Then he told me that Robert Parker—and I would typically buy wines based on Robert Parker’s recommendation—and Robert Parker had labeled this wine as basically undrinkable. And it was delicious! It was kind of one of those moments where you’re like, ‘whoa, I’ve learned a bit about wine, but I actually haven’t really learned anything.’”
Jared realized that what he needed to learn about was his own palate. The year was 2001 and his company had begun to go through a series of layoffs, “I was very unhappy with my career. It’s not fun to lay off people. So I decided to try to lay myself off and do something totally different.”
After orchestrating his lay off, he thought he would go up to Sonoma to start working for a winery, but his girlfriend at the time, now partner, Tracey convinced him he should go to France instead. So they went to France and began working for Éric Texier, the maker of the Châteaneuf-du-Pape Blanc Jared had loved so much.
What Jared thought would be a year sabbatical turned out to be “a 90 percent turning point in my life where I fell in love with the making of wine,” he said.
“I also just liked making a tangible product. In technology, a lot of what you work on is not tangible. The first product I managed was a screensaver called After Dark with flying toasters. I have discs around from software I shipped but I don’t have a computer I can stick them into. I can’t show my daughters—it doesn’t work anymore. It was never real. It was always electrons. Back then you had a box [for the software], now you don’t even have that,” he said. “I really liked wine for that reason.”
After returning to the Bay Area, Jared and Tracey decided to start Donkey & Goat, following the methods that Eric had taught them. The name came from friend in France who kept a donkey on his vineyard to eat the grass around his vines. The farmer got the donkey a goat to hang out with so he wouldn’t be lonely, and these two unlikely friends would hang around the vineyard taking care of that pesky grass so the vines could thrive. Jared jokes that when he first heard about their “relationship,” he thought the goat was supposed to be the donkey’s girlfriend. “I came from San Francisco,” he said, “who am I to judge?” When he and Tracey came back from France, they wanted to be the antithesis of a snooty winery, and decided to use that name.
Starting the winery was a chance for the Brandts to do their own thing. After looking for wine industry jobs and not being able to find the work they wanted, working for themselves and starting their own operation made the most sense to them. Although Jared still does tech consulting, the winery is a full-time endeavor for Tracey.
Jared had also discovered that his palate was changing and that there were a lot of wines he really loved that were difficult to find in America. This seemed to be a stylistic thing more than anything else, he said. Having learned to love French styles from working with French winemakers led to an interest in natural winemaking and trusting the grape to deliver “what it wants to deliver” on its own, without additives and letting the fermentation process take place without enhancements or additional yeast. The Brandts make their wines naturally because those were the methods they had been taught, and it was the type of wine they most enjoyed. At first, Jared says, their natural wines were not very well received in California. Instead, they initially gained more of a following in New York and also in Europe.
“I think California, at the time, was really interested in big, really bold, extracted [wines], lots of flavors, and we were trying to do something different,” he said.
The winery’s mission—and you can read their manifesto on their website—is to make wines that don’t contain ingredients or are made using products that could be harmful to one’s health. All of their wines are fermented in aged or used oak, rather than new oak or bins that may contain plastic, like some wineries use. The inspiration for these methods, Jared says, is their daughters. If Jared and Tracey don’t want their daughters to ingest it, they don’t want their customers to either.
“I’m worried about BPA and BPB, and I don’t want wine made in [plastic.] It’s not what I want for my daughters or for myself,” Jared says.
Not only do Tracey and Jared use wood for fermenting, they also stay away from adding chemicals, enzymes or stabilizers to their wine. According to Jared, most consumers have no idea that many wines are not “just grapes.” Instead wine can contain all sorts of additives that don’t need to be listed on labels, from something as simple as yeast to color enhancers. In fact, Jared says, he’s seen wines that have up to 25 ingredients. Donkey & Goat also uses little to no sulfur in their wines, as opposed to many winemakers, based mostly on the taste and pH level of the wine. Some sulfur may be added for stability, particularly for wines that will be shipped out of the Bay Area. Otherwise it can be hard to have the wine survive the shipping process, Jared says.
According to Jared, making wine naturally is more a matter of “what you don’t do” than what you don’t do with the grapes. Unlike most winemakers, Jared and Tracey allow their grapes to ferment naturally, using only the yeast that is either already present on the grape itself or in the air. (This is not unlike bread makers who develop their own dough starters based on “wild” yeast that is already in the environment rather than using commercial yeast.) They also employ old-fashioned methods like hand-sorting, punchdown by hand (reintegrating the grape solids back into the wine after they’ve floated to the top during fermentation) and foot stomping their grapes (yes, using their feet) rather than using a crusher—they even invite their daughter’s class from school to come stomp each year.
“When you foot stomp your foot is really soft…the pad on your feet means that you rarely break seeds—I think it’s impossible to break a seed with your foot. Even the gentlest mechanical crusher will often break the seeds—they haven’t come up with a crusher that works like the foot,” he said.
In the vineyards, the Brandts work with their farmers to use methods such dry farming (not watering their vines), striving to be sustainable and doing what works for the environment as best they can without being overly dogmatic. There are often trade-offs, Jared says, such as figuring out whether it is better to try to eradicate weeds with a petrochemical that will biodegrade or use a naturally occurring chemical compound, such as arsenic, that won’t ever dissipate and is highly poisonous?
“I think there’s trade-offs are really complex and the best thing to do is to really know whoever you’re working with if you can and make sure they’re someone you’d be comfortable with their decisions,” he said.
When they started Donkey & Goat 10 years ago, Jared says, their wine making methods were definitely unique. However, he said that a lot of other winemakers have also been “doing their own thing,” much like they have, in regard to making for many years as well. Jared notes such winemakers as Abe Schoener of the The Scholium Project, Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa, and Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron, as all employing interesting natural methods.
“The biggest change in the last five years is that there’s a lot more attention paid to those of us that are doing it this way,” he said.
There’s also more risk involved in the methods they use, Jared says, and Donkey & Goat typically dumps 5-15 percent of their wines each year, depending on the year, because “it just tastes funky because there’s too much going on.” In addition, their wines may not be as consistent in flavor from year to year as a result of their processes, he said.
“That’s not that interesting to me,” Jared said. “If wine becomes purely financial, there’s a lot of other businesses that are better to be in…that’s not how the wine business works. It’s more interesting to me to let the grapes express themselves.”
“I look at the winery as being very experimental. Every year we try to do an experiment or two or three. Our accountant tells us we’re nuts. We have 25-ish SKUs—we make 25 different wines and lots of small wineries make two or three or five, not 25. We make what we want to make and that’s worked well for us.”
Donkey & Goat works primarily with Rhone varietals, but they also make a very non-traditional, dry Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and some Merlot. Since they make so many wines, production for some varietals may be very small. Production can run anywhere from 11 to 800 cases per year, depending on the wine, with the winery making an average of approximately 6500 cases total per year. They source their grapes from the Sierra foothills near El Dorado and also from the Anderson Valley area, where they both buy sections and also manage three vineyards that they inherited from a previous owner. Wines are sold locally at their tasting room in Berkeley and various restaurants, throughout the U.S. and internationally.
What drew you to wine?
I guess when I was a kid it was always present on the table, and it was fun to taste and taste the differences. And as I learned more about it, it’s just this huge world of different things, and it’s exciting to try those different things.
Why natural wines?
Philosophically it’s the most interesting to me, and also from a flavor profile, it’s what I like more often. Not exclusively but more often.
And I think my kids. I want to make wine that they can drink [someday]. I want them to eat more on the organic side of foods, and I’d want them to drink more natural wines.
It’s a combination of philosophy, taste and health. I may mean healthy skepticism. I grew up with a friend who’s mom was born in Nazi Germany, and she was blind in one eye and when I got older I asked her about it, and they had x-rayed all the babies in the womb and thought it was fine, and then they figured out ‘oh, we’re causing all these birth defects by doing x-rays.’ So what one given generation thinks is fine, 10 or 15 years later we find out was a big mistake. That’s why I say healthy skepticism. Every chemical manufacturer will tell you that everything you put in wine is fine but I’m sure what we think is safe today, we may find out later is not safe.
Where does your inspiration come from for the wines you’re making?
Great wines I’ve drunk in the past. Tracey makes the Pinot, Tracey and Zack [Gomber, who works for them]—that’s their project. I love Burgundy, I love Rhone wines in general, and we drink a lot of Italian wines.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
The very best piece of advice was from Éric Texier, who I worked for, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ He was saying it in context of the fermentation. A fermentation was seemingly going wrong, and I was worrying and he was saying, don’t be afraid, give it time. And that was the best piece of advice. With any food or wine product, many people have told me, just taste a lot and always be open while you’re tasting.
This is my cynical advice—I’ve heard it in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish—the saying that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large fortune. I guess my advice that would come out of that saying is, if you are interested in artisanal whatever—doesn’t matter if it’s beer or food or wine—do it because you love it, don’t necessarily try to do it just for the money.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced thus far?
The economic downturn—2010 in particular was just a challenging year, and the reason was that our 2008 Syrahs from Anderson Valley were all impacted by these big forest fires, they just tasted like nasty barbeque sauce, so we didn’t sell them. And the economic downturn was challenging. I think we’ve been really lucky, though, overall. We’ve never—because I stayed in technology, we didn’t need to live exclusively off of wine so we could make the choices we wanted to make and stay true to ourselves. But I think we’re also kind of lucky because technology allowed us to do it.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I love being in the vineyards and I love to taste wine, and I get to meet lots of great people.
What’s your favorite wine that you make?
I don’t know. I always say, it’s like I have two daughters—I can’t tell you which one is my favorite. We make a wine called Stone Crusher, which is a skin-fermented Roussanne, and I love making it, it’s really fun to taste. And right now, I’m really loving playing with sparkling wine. The sparklers are made in a style called ‘pet nat.’ So you ferment the grapes in whatever container ‘til they’re nearly dry and bottle while it’s still fermenting and then it ferments naturally. A traditional champagne, you dosage—you add sugar or sometimes you add grape juice, but you do it in a controlled way. This is not controlled, and the reason I think it’s fun is that every bottle is different. It’s the upside for me, but I think other people view it as the downside. It’s labor intensive—every year I say I’m not going to make it again, and Zach swears he won’t help me make it again—but it’s also really fun and the results are really fun. It’s probably the most ‘alive’ of any of the wine, too.
What other vintner—local or otherwise—do you admire?
Mike Dashe of Dashe Cellars is often overlooked and I think they’re a great winery. Maybe they’re not overlooked, but they’ve been around for a while. Mike and Anne Dashe are a great example—he does things differently than we do, but pretty naturally and people don’t think of him as a natural winemaker. I think he’s really interesting. I think Chris Brockway, right around the corner, of Broc Cellars. That would be in the direct area. I think in the foothills, Hank Beckmeyer—he makes La Clarine Farms—he makes really interesting wines. I’m always happy to open one.
I think there’s lots and lots of great winemakers out there and lots of really fun wines to try. It’s a cool consumer product because it’s not—maybe cereal would be a good example, probably 80-95 percent of the market is dominated by three companies. And even on the craft side of cereal, Café Fanny has a great granola but there’s just not that much. Yogurt would be another example where the vast majority is just dominated by a few companies. But wine’s different. I mean Gallo’s the biggest wine company in the world, but if you go to a wine shop, they have 10 percent of the shelf space. It’s not like Kellogg’s that has 50 percent of the shelf space. I like to taste wines that are made by winemakers that are making it for themselves. I think that always makes a difference. A great winemaker that’s working for someone else, could be great winemaker, but you don’t necessarily get their own expression.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, what would it be?
I don’t think that’s hard. I would like to try a pre-phylloxera Burgundy from the Clos St. Jacques vineyard, I don’t really care the producer. It’s my favorite vineyard in Burgundy and think Rousseau makes a great wine there now. Rousseau’s grandfather—it probably should be a Grand Cru Burgundy, but Rousseau’s grandfather was a Communist and he thought the classification of vineyards was a capitalistic endeavor—something along those lines—so he refused to submit any samples and it became a Premier Cru, which is a level down from the Grand Cru, but it’s my favorite vineyard in the world. There’s five producers that get grapes from there now and they’re fascinating wines. I don’t know when it was replanted—it was probably replanted in the 30s or the 20s—I would love to try the ungrafted vines. And I’ve never seen that in the bottle like that. I’ve seen a lot of really expensive bottles in my life, a lot of rare bottles, but I’ve never. That specific vineyard, I’d like to try before phylloxera hit it.
Favorite Bay Area resto/food/chef?
It’s hard when you say favorite restaurants. Another place I really like—I actually haven’t been there for a while—is One Market. I think the chef’s an awesome chef, and I think it’s overlooked because it’s got a corporate feeling. Hard Water’s another one—they carry Lily’s Cuvée, which is our sparking white—and it goes really well with some of their dishes.
Donkey & Goat Winery
Photos courtesy of Jared and Tracey Brandt, Donkey & Goat Winery.