The wine world occasionally offers up a few treasures that seem to fly under the radar and offer great wines even though the winery is not well known. Enkidu is just one of those treasures.
Enkidu Wines is the creation of Phil Staehle, a career winemaker with a unique and very interesting view of life. The winery’s name, “Enkidu”, is certainly a reflection of Phil’s unique character. Enkidu (pronounced en-kuh-doo) was a character in the ancient Mesopotamian story The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stop right there. Naming your winery after an ancient Mesopotamian book character? And not even the main character?? That is unique!
We met to taste with Phil one morning at the new Enkidu tasting room, just off of the plaza in the town of Sonoma. Phil does not look or act like an ancient Mesopotamian history geek at all. He has an easy going way about him–relaxed and comfortable in who he is. After chatting a while you pick up on his intelligence and his sense of curiosity. We ask how he decided on the winery name. It turns out that it was through his wife, a psychologist, who read the Epic of Gilgamesh as a part of her studies and introduced the book to Phil. Gilgamesh was an ancient King. He was well bred, as are most royalty, but he lacked heart and compassion. So the Gods created Enkidu from clay and saliva and left him to be raised among the animals, the antithesis of the cultured Gilgamesh. The two meet, have a brutal fight and then become best of friends. Gilgamesh becomes more human and more caring as a result, and Enkidu more refined. Phil tells us “It was a great story but the reason I chose it is because of who we are and what we do and how we approach our work. It is with a lot of passion and heart, and with respect for what comes from the earth.”
Phil got his start in the wine business in the mid 1980s with Carmenet, a member of the Chalone Group. Chalone’s founder, Dick Graff, mentored Phil and Phil credits much of his success as a winemaker to Graff’s tutelage. Phil buys his fruit from a number of Sonoma vineyards that adhere to the sorts of viticultural practices that Phil knows will produce great wine grapes. “Every vineyard I work with is sustainable; for example Alder Springs is an organic farm/vineyard in Sonoma County. I also source for 3 different varietals from Bedrock and what they farm is mostly old vines and ancient vines, it is a 129 year old vineyard. A lot of the Cabernet vineyards [he sources from] are organic and even if they’re not certified that is what their practices are (sustainable)”. Sonoma County, with 17 different AVAs and twice the grape production of Napa, should offer lots of choices but Phil is fussy about who he buys from. “If there’s a vineyard completely devoid of any cover crop it usually means they’re using pesticides and fertilizer to control their production that is not something I’m interested in nor is it something that would fly here in Sonoma County in terms of that kind of production. It’s easier for me to find the right kind of vineyard because I’m smaller. For example, I don’t need to go out and buy 200 tonnes of Grenache Blanc I only need 2 tonnes so I can get it from a grower that is doing it the right way; I’m not forced to compromise.”
The conversation around sustainable vineyard practices leads us to ask him about Biodynamic farming. “I”m not really into that; picking when the moon is in a certain position isn’t as important to me as missing a storm. Definitely the rhythms of the seasons matter as there are definite differences when tasting (not sure if it’s air pressure, or personal composition) but some days and times are better than others. None of the vineyards I work with are biodynamic and I’m fine with that. Sustainability is what I’m looking for.”
In the winery Phil, like other great winemakers, takes a minimalist approach. He does not filter and will only minimally fine. Natural yeasts are used to ferment. Vineyard expression as opposed to the winemakers hand is the goal in what the wines at Enkidu are trying to show. Phil believes that Sonoma has had a string of excellent vintages starting with 2012. Each has had their own character but 2013 he thought was especially strong. The 2016s, still in barrel will be fantastic, and Phil would not be surprised if 2016 produces his best wines yet. We have been drinking Enkidu wines since the 2008 vintage, and with great pleasure, so if 2016 can exceed those wines, that is saying something.
Enkidu makes wines of great character. These are intensely flavoured wines that reflect their vineyard origins. Given their overall high quality, they continue to be offered at fair prices.
2016 Enkidu Shamhat Rosé
A blend of 50% Syrah, 35% Grenache and 15% Mouvedre, this wine was made using Methode Saignee where the wine is bled off after just a few hours contact with the skins. Shamhat in the Epic of Gilgamesh was the temptress that seduced Enkidu to tame his animal spirits and make him more human. Complex and spicy, whole clusters are fermented until completely dry. Very refreshing, a worthy homage to the tavel style.
2014 Enkidu Alder Springs Chardonnay
Alder Springs is actually not located in Sonoma County, but is in California’s most northern wine producing region: Mendicino County. Medium green/gold in colour, it has lovely aromas of apple and lemon. The palate is medium in body, evoking a New World version of the Chablis idiom, with flavours of honeydew melon and green apple. Citrus notes and hints of minerals infuse the long finish. Barrel fermented and no malo-lcatic fermentation. 40% new French oak.
Very Good+ (US$35 at the Tasting Room)
2014 Enkidu Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
Medium red in colour with rhubarb and cherry on the nose. Medium body with mild tannins. Flavours of various red fruits: cherry, strawberry and rhubarb gain added complexity from the notably earthy element. With a bit of swirling we also pick up brown spices and pepper on the finish. 20% whole clusters used, 80% neutral oak.
Excellent (US$30 at the tasting Room – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2015 Enkidu Pinot Noir Tina Marie Vineyard
Bright red in colour. Red cherry and floral notes mix together in an alluring aroma that also takes on hints of baking spices. On the palate there is a powerful expression showing intense dark cherry flavours, hints of cocoa powder and a long finish punctuated with earth notes. 20% whole clusters are used. This wine showed youthful grip and promise for those who can lay it down for a few more years. Serious Pinot!
Excellent (US$44 at the Tasting Room)
2015 Enkidu Humbaba
This is a blend of 50% Petit Syrah, 45% Syrah and 5% Grenache Blanc; bet you haven’t had that blend before! Phil says Petit Syrah is his passion and it shows in this full throttle powerhouse of a wine. Inky purple/black in colour it is a cornucopia of black fruit aromas and flavours. Blackberry and blueberry dominate but allow hints of vanilla and black pepper to poke through. Very broad shouldered and still youthfully tannic, the exuberance of the very ripe fruit balances off against powerful structure. There is a fleshy glycerin texture which is countered by the tannin and minerally expression. The balance keeps this wine from going over the top and just delivers flat out pleasure!
Excellent (US$28 at the Tasting Room -this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2015 Ansar Cabernet Sauvignon
“Ansar” is Enkidu’s top tier label and makes miniscule quantities of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon had only been in bottle for a month when we tasted it. This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the Viluko Vineyard, which is 37 acres of organically farmed vineyards on the side of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Sonoma from Napa. This is diverse terrain sitting at 600 – 1100 feet above sea level. Phil considers himself lucky to be able to purchase such high quality fruit. Viluko Vineyards estate wines are made by none other than Timothy Milos. The wine is a beautiful expression of black currant, blackberry, cedar and earth. Powerful, rich in texture, and beautifully structured, this wine is bound to have a long life in front of it. There is precise balance of the ripe fruit with the polished tannins. Though it is decidedly New World in character, it has a sophistication that reminds us of Bordeaux. Delicious!
Excellent+ (US$80 at the Tasting Room)
520 Broadway, Sonoma, CA 95476 (707.833.6100)