This 2-woman winery produces varietals you may not have heard of

Partners Corrine Rich and Katie Rouse were inspired to create their own brand after a trip to South Africa, where winemakers are revitalizing unusual varieties.|

When Corrine Rich earned a scholarship from University of California, Davis to study wine in South Africa, her girlfriend, Katie Rouse, proposed joining her. The two had met a year earlier in the UC Davis Master’s of Wine program and already had started thinking about launching their own wine brand.

The trip turned out to be “the adventure of a lifetime,” Rich said. It ultimately became the inspiration for Birdhorse, their Sonoma-based wine brand.

“There is a lot of momentum in South Africa right now for revitalization and re-exploration of grape varieties that can grow successfully there and new regions that can produce beautiful wines — beyond what people traditionally think of,” Rich said. “That really inspired us to think about the wines we could make at home.”

Back in the U.S., Rich said they saw a similar scenario happening in California: Less-common varietals grown in less-popular wine regions were being overlooked.

“In areas like Amador County, Contra Costa and even part of Mendocino, there is such a rich winemaking history,” Rich said. “That’s when we decided to try and triumph the terroir of these areas and the varieties we think can shine there.”

The spirit of exploration

Launched in 2018, Birdhorse produces about 1,000 cases of wine per year. Staying true to their initial inspiration, Rich and Rouse continue to focus on lesser-known wine regions and uncommon varietals, like valdiguié, verdelho and cinsault.

Initially, sourcing fruit was a challenge, especially given their quest for uncommon varietals. But Rouse said it became “an amazing journey to discover unknown places.

“In the beginning, it was really a matter of who would answer our emails and whether they were within driving distance,” Rouse said, laughing. “It’s become easier now that we have more caché and industry connections.”

One of her favorite varietals to work with is valdiguié, a red grape grown primarily in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Birdhorse sources their fruit from Back Road Vineyard in Suisun Valley, southeast of Napa Valley, where the 40-year-old organic vines produce exceptionally complex fruit.

“I was so thrilled to seek out valdiguié for Birdhorse,” Rouse said. “I love its fruit character and color. Also, it has a really interesting history in California, so the story and vineyard location really fit our brand profile.”

Rich was eager to work with verdelho, a varietal she had sampled in South Africa and which she compares to a white Burgundy.

“It has the ability to take on certain qualities of chardonnay, like structure, complexity and texture,” she said. “It thrives in the heat and sunshine, so it seems very well-suited to grow here.”

But working with uncommon varietals isn’t just a selfish passion for Rich and Rouse. They’re also excited to introduce their wines to new audiences, especially younger consumers who often are more eager to try something unfamiliar.

“It’s such an exciting time for wine drinkers,” Rouse said. “They’re really willing to explore, and it’s a fun journey to share our wines with them. That educational piece is really exciting.”

For consumers new to wine, Rich said uncommon varietals are an effective introduction. With fewer preconceived notions, they often find the wines more approachable.

Looking forward

As their brand continues to grow, Rich and Rouse are happy to continue their day jobs while keeping Birdhorse’s volume at a manageable level. Rich is an assistant winemaker at Scribe Winery in Sonoma, and Rouse is assistant winemaker at Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, which also serves as the production facility for Birdhorse. A third business partner, Tyler Ernst, provides the brand’s business sense.

“Katie and I really believe in the power and benefit of learning from other people, and you can lose that when you strike out on your own,” Rich said. “We gain so much knowledge from the people around us every day, so we really want to soak that up while we can.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

Sarah Doyle

Wine & Lifestyle Reporter

Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.

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