By Liz Jeter and Mark C. Anderson | Photos by Manny Espinoza
It’s a beautiful summer night in Carmel Valley, and Jökull Júlíusson of Iceland finds himself a long, long way from home — 4,270 miles from home, in fact.
He basks in warm orange stage lights on stage at Folktale Vineyards’ massive barrel room, flanked by soaring racks of wine barrels and the members of Kaleo, one of hottest bands on the Atlantic Records label. The group’s gift for live shows has quickly earned placements in lofty projects as Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger’s HBO drama “Vinyl.”
The vocalist/guitarist eases into a rich soulful folk-rock song called “Way Down We Go,” plucking chords from his silver-inlaid instrument. “Oh father, tell me/ we get what we deserve,” he sings, “Oh we get what we deserve.”
Even though it’s been around a little over a year, Folktale is getting what it deserves — because it’s a long ways from what other wineries are doing. It just claimed California’s Winery of the Year for 2016 from the California Travel Summit.
NorCal wineries double as concert venues with tribute bands regularly, but there are very few who coordinate with independent radio to bring in about-to-bust-out pop stars and bankable artists like Brett Dennan and Anderson East. Fewer still allow for a chance to listen in a close-quarters setting and meet the performers. Fewer still offer said artists a chance to stay and incubate more amazing music in the winery’s own storybook River House.
Jeff White, program director at adored indy rock radio station KRML, has helped conduct the “Live in the Vines” concert series since its start.
“It’s always intimate, always special,” he says, “and artists are encouraged to stick around and cultivate their muse. If you talk to an artist, the worst part is the grind: club, concert, club, concert, club, living in a van. They come here, hang out for a few days, get some rest, maybe do a little writing, record, and it’s more like an artist haven.”
There are other factors that differentiate Folktale. Most every wine tasting room does industry discounts. But none of them throw full-on hospitality night parties every month with free small plates from award-winning restaurants like Carmel hotspot Mundaka, complimentary wine tasting from overachieving ally wineries like Joyce Vineyards (and plenty of good Folktale Chardonnay Pinot Noir), plus games like giant Jenga and beer pong paired with vineyard sunsets.
A number of Monterey County’s 80 or so tasting rooms manage social schedules, but a tiny fraction stuff their schedules like Folktale does, with regular Girls Nights Out, Taco Tuesdays, a new monthly Chef Duel “Iron Chef”-style cook-off. Last month it anchored a Sobranes Fire Relief Benefit that raised $100,000 (see photo, opposite). Penty of vineyards allow dogs, but this one is planning a dog park (though regional laws may prohibit it).
It’s also the rare Monterey County wine house who makes both a sparkling California Brut and a sparkling Rosé. Both are as delicious as they are drinkable.
Folktale warned people the fun was coming. As its youthful team consummated a stunning $12 million deal for the former Chateau Julien winery that took a full year to complete, it professed a penchant for taking chances and breaking the traditional winery mold.
That team was led by owner Greg Ahn, who teamed with silent partner local grape growers, and also runs national brand Alcohol by Volume.
On ABV/VOL’s landing page, a YouTube video features a kid crushing drums and this: “Welcome to ALC/VOL. It it’s too loud, you’re too old.”
On another spot on the website there’s a Kurt Cobain quote reading “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.” Background info reveals ALC/VOL is the outgrowth of its founders’ aim to break corporate restraints to construct a company that allowed for more self-determination.
In that vein, ALC/VOL used smart label design and industry contacts to build relationships with vendors, adding brands as they went. ALC/VOL continues to buy Monterey and Napa grapes to bottle under labels like Aviary and Bread & Butter, Manifesto, State of Art and Des Amis.
A summer ago the group acquired the decorated — and high-market — Le Mistral Rhone-blend brand from based Ventana Vineyards in South Monterey County, which does a Syrah-Grenache red blend and a Viognier-Marsanne white. They also partnered with other area growers and promptly set about reimagining the Folktale grounds.
That include ripping out vines and planting more Pinot Noir and coastal-climate-friendly varietals, but — more immediately — a smart reimagining of the property physically and philosophically by Carissa Duncan, who helped style popular regional places like Restaurant 1833, Cannery Row Brewing Company and Affina. One of her specialties is for character-rich details — think charred vintage doors and old barrel racks repurposed as tables.
To capitalize on the valley sun and comely grounds, the Folktale crew encourages visitors to taste al fresco in the front yard area they call the “wine garden,” at tables or on pillows under courtyard trees, around the fire pits or on the lawn with picnic blankets.
“We integrated the design with the landscape, the branding, the labels and the retail experience,” Duncan says. “We’re trying to reach an effortless continuity.”
Green roof pioneer Fred Ballerini of Pacific Grove, a self-described “biological consultant,” took the lead on native-heavy landscape design.
Ahn was clear about the tone he wanted to set, with things like Friday-Saturday-Sunday “Sip, Sample & Be Social” sessions with live music and lawn games.
“Welcoming, eclectic, and warm,” he says. “It came down to storytelling and being a place where discovery is happening.”
The 15-acre property had long been a landmark on the Carmel Valley Wine Trail for its iconic French architecture, impressive winemaking machinery and the huge barrel room, which plays host to a number of dinners and other events.
Now it’s a multidimensional community hub.
It’s the sort of operation that defies stereotypes and expectations alike.
When asked what’s next, Ahn describes the new vines they’re raising organically, plus cooking classes, a new food menu, restaurant pop-ups, an increased regional and national presence, and then adds something that would sound like hype — if it were coming from most everyone else.
“Anything’s possible” he says. >
More at www.folktalewinery.com.