Down (and Up) in Kokomo

If I were to say, Kokomo, you might have a Pavlovian reaction. Visions of Tom Cruise flipping a shaker, pouring a blue concoction while the steel drums chime in the background. But the Kokomo I’m referring to takes their beverages much more seriously. Well, kind of.

Erik Miller of Kokomo Wines recently made his way through Texas, sharing his wines with a lucky few. While his wines were seriously delicious, and he is serious about winemaking, he approaches wine as a whole with a bit of levity.

After graduating from Purdue, Miller decided to head west to Santa Rosa. Following a spring break adventure, he followed his dream and began his days in Sonoma county in a suit. It didn’t take him long to realize that wasn’t the path for him.  So he sprang from the pressures of the suit-and-tie world and began in the crush at Belvedere Winery in the Russian River Valley.

What pulled him to Belvedere eventually sent him off on his own. He began in 2004 with Cabernet Sauvignon farmed in the Dry Creek Valley and moved to his own facility in 2006. With the help of Randy Peters, a fourth generation farmer in Dry Creek Valley, Miller has established his winery amidst the vineyards of Timber Crest Farms. They now produce several single varietal wines and blends.

It does not take long to get a sense of Miller’s commitment to the land, the valley, the grapes themselves. His approach balances carefully honed winemaking skills with minimal intervention. He allows the grapes to dictate each step, each punch down, each barrel. Are there green stem tannins? How many? What are the brix? Slow this, stop that. He is hands on through each day, each barrel. The results are evident.

We began with the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine I’d heard was his “best yet” from writer Jeff Kralik. This wine began and ended with consistent notes of lime zest, white flowers. While 80% is fermented in stainless, Miller does 20% in Acacia which adds herbal elegance. A complex and lovely take on the grape.

The Grenache Rosé was another perfectly balanced bottle with watermelon, stone fruit and strawberry, plenty of acid and minerality. Delicious.

The Chardonnay is from 37-year-old vines, grown 8 miles from the coast. Using 30% new French oak, from 5 different coopers, Eric creates a unique and complex take on this common grape. Gravenstein apple and pear, a touch of citrus, salinity. Another balanced wine, start to finish.

When one thinks Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel is the grape that comes to mind. Erik’s comes from 65-year-old vines. The addition of a little Petite Sirah adds depth and richness. Smoky, spicy, rich red fruit that remains medium to full-bodied. It paired perfectly with the smoked fried chicken with spicy honey.

Each wine was impressive, but the final pour had us wide-eyed and solidified Miller’s talent. We’ve all had California Cab. Some very expensive beautiful Cabs. But his was unlike any I have had. Another writer at the table questioned the composition. Could this really be 100% Cab? The fruit was impactful, the tannins elegant, the finish persistent. While the dark cherry, plum, tobacco, herbal notes were not surprising, the total lack of bite was. That level of intensity while maintaining a silky, soft mouthfeel blew me away. It drinks like a bottle three times the price, but better.

He gifted us each with a bottle of his Verjus, an acidifier made from unripened pressed grapes. I’ve used it in my dishes a few times now and love the flavors it brings. A splash in Thai, a pour to finish a shallot buerre blanc, in a dressing. It is a unique and welcome addition in my kitchen.

One of the gifts of writing about wine is the opportunity to sit with the artists and learn about their craft. To hear about the decision-making, the vision, the back story. I listened to Erik Miller tell the tale of how this trip, that choice, this road block, that connection pieced together to bring him to where he is now. I heard his passion for the science and art of winemaking, how he honors tradition but strives to improve. In the same breath, he would speak of the awe and the tangibility of the process. At one point, he said, “We don’t make a lot of money, but no one eats and drinks better than we do.”

Isn’t that why we love it? The juxtaposition of seemingly opposing concepts required to produce great wine. Warm days, cool nights. Elegant and rustic. Science and art. Tradition and trends. Sugar and acid. The production and the pleasure of wine requires a balance of all of these things. Erik Miller stated, when he is sharing wine, he likes to just bring it all down. He begins with, “I’m a guy from Kokomo, Indiana.” And then he finishes with a Cab that stands out among all the California greats.

 

 

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Being a stay- at-home mom can leave one thirsting for a taste of the outside world, a world in which sentences are composed of more than three words. Being an educator means one is always seeking an opportunity to explore and learn. Being a woman with a need to connect can be a challenge when adult conversations are rare. In wine, I find the marriage of art and science, agriculture and storytelling provides limitless areas to explore. But it is the people that keep me engaged. The tenacity needed to keep the family dream alive, the risk to start anew, the trials and principles. I love the history of the vine, the impact of a season, the sentiment in the bottle. That is why I write. I write to tell their stories, to share a piece of mine. I write to learn as I teach others. I write to connect with new friends, to disconnect from the world. I write to celebrate what makes each of us unique, and that which ties us together.

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