There is a saying in the wine business that “it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.”
After a long day during harvest, many winemakers will agree that a refreshing, low-alcohol beer is exactly what is needed. So, what would happen if hops were added to wine? Would you get the best of both worlds? Well, that is what winemaker Karen Steinwachs did and wouldn’t you know it, hop-infused wine is quite tasty.
Steinwachs has been making wine in the Santa Ynez Valley for more than a decade and is the winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard. In addition to making wine, Karen sits on the board of World of Pinot Noir and each year during the technical symposium that takes place prior to the festival, 60-70 winemakers get together to taste the current vintage of wine.
They also bring interesting wines from new vineyard wines to experimental wines, to share and discuss. In 2014, Scar of the Sea winemaker Mikey Giugni, who also makes cider, brought a hopped cider for everyone to try at the symposium and “it was so delicious, it is what all of the winemakers drank at dinner that night,” Karen recalled.
Karen kept thinking, if Mikey can add hops to cider made with apples, why couldn’t she do it with wine? After all, like many winemakers, Karen loves beer and it might just be in her DNA.
“Fermentation is in my blood,” she said as she explained that her great-great-grandfather founded Pabst beer. When it came to adding hops to wine, she was curious if the aromatics of the wine would hold. “I only wanted to give the wine a hoppy perfume. I did not want to ferment the hops with the wine because that would extract the bitterness.” She began experimenting with hop pellets and in 2015 made 28 cases of wine with dried hop pellets.
Karen liked the resulting wine and decided to send it to her wine club members under the header “winemaker selection.” But in order to do this, she needed label approval through the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). This is where the challenges began. On the label, she had written, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine” but the TTB would not approve that.
She went back to the drawing board. Although the hops do not stay in the wine, Karen submitted her recipe for formulary approval. Once the TTB approved the formula, Karen sent them the label for approval. The TTB rejected it —five times to be exact.
Finally, she asked them what they wanted the label to say. The response was that the wine was to be called a “white wine with natural flavors” and there was to be no vintage, no variety and no appellation written on the label. With this final approval, Buttonwood Winery & Vineyard Hop On Hopped White Wine with Natural Flavors was official.
While the label will not tell you this information, Hop On is vintage designated, made from particular varieties and from a specific appellation. The wine is a blend of 93 percent Sauvignon Blanc and seven percent Semillon from the Buttonwood Estate vineyard in Santa Ynez. The grapes are whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel. The Semillon is aged in new and neutral French oak barrels.
Beginning with the 2016 vintage, Karen started working with fresh hops from a local farmer. After harvest, she puts them in a cold room to dry out. The fresh hops are then placed into a mesh bag, like a big tea bag, and added to the finished wine. There is no heat during the infusion, rather the infusion remains in the wine until the degree of aromatics desired is achieved without extracting the bittering agent.
The currently released Buttonwood Winery & Vineyard Hop On Hopped White Wine with Natural Flavors is from the 2017 vintage. As I stuck my nose in the glass, had I not known any better, I would have guessed it was a light-bodied beer. Actually, when sommeliers have blind tasted the wine, some have thought that it was pot wine, as Karen explained that hops and cannabis are genetically related so that resinous character is familiar. These herbal, resinous aromas from the hops were the first to jump out of the glass, followed by classic Sauvignon Blanc aromas of grapefruit, green apple and herbs.
The hops tend to remain on the nose but on the palate, there are notes of lemongrass, citrus and honeycomb and mouthwatering acidity that hits the mid-palate.
Hop On Hopped White Wine with Natural Flavors is one of five Sauvignon Blancs that Buttonwood produces. It has been so well-received that Karen decided to plant her own hops in 2017 and in a few years, they will be ready to be used in future bottling of Hop On.