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Aaron Bryan: San Francisco’s Master Fermenter

Aaron Bryan: San Francisco’s Master Fermenter

Photo Credit: Conduit Wine

Aaron Bryan and Amy Krahe are the husband-and-wife team behind three unique brands dedicated to the fermentable arts–Conduit Wine and Divergent Vine represent all things grapes while Tag + Jug Cider Co. is the self-proclaimed ‘black sheep’ of the cider world. They not only ferment apples, but blend and co-ferment cider with wine and beer.  

Aaron has a non-traditional winemaking background, one rooted in “garagiste” wine making with a dedication to self-study, criticism, and the constant tinkering and refinement of his process. His goal is to make wines with a distinct sense of time and place, which he believes can only be achieved with the use of high-quality fruit, native fermentations, and low-intervention winemaking techniques. 

Since 2013, Aaron and Amy have been building their three brands, Conduit Wine, Divergent Vine, and Tag + Jug Cider Co., with only a brief hiatus to have their son, Cameron, in 2018.  

In this installment of our “Vintner Profile” series, Nelson Gerena sat down with Aaron to learn about his winemaking and cider making philosophies and his hopes for their business’s dynamic future.

Photo Credit: Conduit Wine

You’re a self-taught winemaker and brewer which is quite impressive! Have you had any mentors along the way? And if not, are there winemakers and/or brewers whose work has inspired you? 

Aaron Bryan: Thank you for the compliment. I have always been a “learn-by-doing” person, so when I started brewing beer and making wine or cider in the backyard of our Mission District apartment, my process was to read a lot of books, take notes, and then go experiment. 

When I first started, my goal was simple–not to turn my juice into vinegar (and I certainly dumped my fair share early on). After a while, I got a feel for how to create environments for healthy ferments. Then, I started focusing on production techniques and how those techniques could coax the most expression out of my grapes and apples. I always thought about it as being similar to learning how to surf; at first, you try to read the ocean and learn the timing of waves, and when that gets easier, you can focus on pushing up, getting your footing, and turning, etc. After several years of experimenting and refining all while working with the same fruit and vineyard sources, I felt like my wines started to develop their own sense of style and character. When customers started to tell me that they recognized my wines, I knew I was on the right path.

I certainly could not have gotten to where I am today without several mentors; some of which probably don’t even realize how important they have been to my development. One of the non-production wine books I read early on was Vino Italiano by David Lynch, who coincidentally had just opened his restaurant, St. Vincent, in my neighborhood. I would read a few chapters of his book, go to the restaurant, order wines from those regions, and then talk to him about the wines! That really opened my mind to the wide range of styles–from the bright, crisp wines of Alto Adige to the elegant, energetic wines of Etna Rosso.

I’ve also had the privilege of spending time with some of my favorite producers like Jean and Pierre Gonon in the Northern Rhône and Mac Forbes and Timo Mayer in the Yarra Valley of Australia. These winemakers were generous with their time and knowledge and I have certainly adapted some of their techniques when making my wines.

What’s the significance of the name Conduit Wine & Divergent Vine?

Bryan: The definition of conduit is, “a natural passage through which something is conveyed.” I think about Conduit in the context of what I try to do in the cellar: simply be a good steward of the fruit from our vineyard sources. Everything I do in the cellar is focused around trying to coax out the most beautiful expression of the vineyard, vintage, and variety. For me, I’ve found that the best way to achieve this is to use low-intervention winemaking techniques such harvesting at a fairly low pH, using native fermentations (many times using a percentage of whole cluster fruit), aging in neutral French Oak, and not fining or filtering our wines.

Divergent Vine on the other hand is a little personal. I’ve always felt that I’m a contrarian when it comes to traditional thinking. This has played itself out in my life in many forms: becoming a winemaker in a non-drinking family, leaving the security of a nine to five job to go ferment grapes and apple juice for a living. Similarly, the Divergent Vine brand is focused on showcasing lesser-known varieties like Alicante Bouschet and Vermentino, or more commonly-known varieties (like Zinfandel) but made in a different, non-traditional style.

Photo Credit: Conduit Wine

What has been the most challenging aspect of establishing the Conduit, Divergent Vine and Tag + Jug Cider Co. brands over the past seven years?

Bryan: By far, the most challenging aspect of establishing these brands (or probably any brand really) is creating consumer awareness for our products. Consumers look to sommeliers and local retail stores for advice about what to purchase and unfortunately, a lot of wine buyers like to buy what other people are buying. Getting buyers to be open-minded about our wines and ciders was very challenging at first. Like, who am I, right? Fortunately, over time we were able to find a handful of accounts that believed in what we were doing and gave us a voice on their tremendous lists and we were able to build our business from there.

On the quote “Cider is Wine” is front-and-center on every page. Can you briefly elaborate on this statement? 

Bryan: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about the techniques I use in “brewing” my cider. Many consumers mentally package cider as an alternative product to craft beer. They see cider in bottles and cans that have similar and sometimes kitschy branding next to the beer section in the cold box. However, the truth is that cider making is essentially the same process as making wine; you’re just using pressed juice from apples as opposed to grapes. I think of Tag + Jug Cider as promoting a winemaker’s perspective to cider. We employ the same techniques as we do many of our wines; we ferment to complete dryness and use old French Oak barrels for extended aging. We don’t fine or filter, and we blend or co-ferment our cider juice with the juice from our grapes. Our trademarked “Cider is Wine” tagline is an attempt to convey our cider making philosophy, while at the same time changing the consumer’s perspective on what cider actually is and can be.

What do you enjoy most about being an urban winery/cidery? What do you enjoy the least?

Bryan: I think the best thing about being in an urban winery space is the access to our customers. It’s great to be able to have tastings, special events, and it’s a very easy day (or half-day) trip to visit us. Our space is literally located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, so we are just as close to Oakland and the greater East Bay area as we are to San Francisco. But also, being close to our customers means that we are away from our vineyard sources which creates a number of challenges (especially during harvest) when we need to monitor our fruit or truck fruit from our vineyards to our production facility before we can even begin to process.

Photo Credit: Conduit Wine

In addition to apples and grapes, you’ve also worked with Asian pears (Sonoma County Brut Perry) and produced a cider, wine, and beer blend (Flanders Noir)! It’s hard to believe the innovation stops there. What else do you have up your sleeve? What can we expect to see in the future? 

Bryan: Champagne is an expensive habit, so I’ve been experimenting with various methods to create a sparkling wine and I plan on releasing a pet-nat (maybe two) in the coming year.  One of my personal tenets is to never stop questioning and never stop tinkering, so I always have side experiments going on in the cellar. It’s impossible to innovate unless you do these things, so we’ll see where else it might lead.

What are your hopes for the future of your business?

Bryan: I think that just about every winemaker wants to have complete control over their process, which means having their own vineyards. One day, I hope to own a vineyard and have a place where I can really get to know the soils, the vines, and the fruit that I’m growing and see that process from beginning to end.

There are a lot of extra stresses associated with owning and operating a small business, but I am very lucky to be able to wake up everyday, work on my craft, and create something fun along the way. Regardless of what the future holds, I hope we can continue to grow this business over the years so that my wife and I can give it to our son, if he wants this life for himself.

Wine Recommendations

2017 Conduit, Dry Creek Valley, Syrah

A gorgeous mix of fruit and savory notes on the palate that include black cherry, blackberry, plum, lavender, black olives, and spice. All elements are well-integrated and the finish is generous. An impressive New-World Syrah and a match for smoke ribs or roasted lamb. Enjoy now or hold. 

2018 Contra Costa Co Zinfandel

Not your average California Zin! This lighter-style Zinfandel has loads of fresh flavors ranging from blackberry and black cherry to cranberry and raspberry. The fruit is complemented with a nice hint of spice.Fire up the grill and pair this with a juicy hamburger or barbeque chicken. Enjoy now. 

NV Tag + Jug ” Flora”

Flora is a blend of barrel-fermented and aged El Dorado County Viognier (11 percent) with Brut Cider (89 percent). Flora has inviting aromatics of lemon, pineapple, and fresh flowers. The cider is dry with a great mouthfeel and a generous finish. A unique cider worth seeking out! Enjoy now.