Unlike more traditional winemakers, the team behind Lodi, California’s Cooper & Thief prove particularly fond of breaking conventions, all while employing centuries-old techniques. The wines they produce can still file under well-known categorical styles—Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Red Blend—but the spirit with which they produce wines could not be more different than conventional wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Though one of their three wines on offer right now employs grapes grown in the former, each of Cooper & Thief’s wines are crafted to withstand, and benefit from, a stint in spirit barrels.
Barrel aging isn’t a new technique. The method of storage and seasoning (charred, new American, and French oak each impart their own distinct flavors) has been employed in dozens of product categories. From maple syrup and beer to sauces and coffee, the flavors imparted by time inside a barrel are widely sought after. But few brands have chosen to pour their wines in there with the intention of amplifying the flavors.
Cooper & Thief’s Red Blend—a dense and delectable, almost dessert-like wine—is aged for three months in unattributed bourbon barrels. The wine that goes in (a combination of 38% Merlot, 37% Syrah, 11% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% other) has a high alcohol content and a bit of a bitter, butterscotch finish. When it emerges, fragrant vanilla gives way to smooth leather and soft stone.
This is why the team has to be careful regarding how much of the barrel’s natural flavors are put into the wine. Cooper & Thief Cellarmaster Chris Leamy explains, “In six or three months or whatever, that flavor is going to build and build and build. And a barrel that maybe sticks out a little is actually a good thing. That’s bonus flavor. It’s bonus interest. It’s bonus complexity. Now, if the entire lot sticks out funny I’m having a bad day at the office.”
The final product feels consistent—a stream of flavor, where each note lies at a different depth—rather than uneven. It’s also far higher in alcohol content than most red wines at 17%. But the boozy finish provided by the barrels matches the natural potency of the blend. The particular blend was specifically formulated to be higher in alcohol to match the bourbon mouthfeel the barrels impart. As such (and possibly the dismay of traditionalists), Leamy doesn’t discourage pouring your share into a rocks glass with ice; into a cocktail shaker as component to a drink; or into a pitcher for a batched cocktail or sangria.
“We’ve been in the business for a long time and, yes, other people have done it and will continue to do it,” Leamy says of aging wine in spirits barrels. “But we were on the front of it. And I think the more important thing is that we were doing it differently than they are, too. We’re taking the entire wine paradigm and turning it upside down. Our bottle isn’t a wine bottle, and our label isn’t really a wine label. It’s a completely different thought process and idea. That’s the fun. It’s making something different. We can take the idea of traditional wine and expand it.”
For Cooper & Thief’s Sauvignon Blanc, Leamy sought Casa Noble Añejo Tequila barrels for the citrus and spice notes. After three months inside, the white wine adopts those flavors and contrasts them with toasted bread and vanilla notes of its own. As a base for a remixed Margarita, Cooper & Thief’s wine surprises without disturbing the long-held profile of the popular drink. As the base for a mid-afternoon sangria on ice, the wine lends complexity and depth.
In a cocktail class with Cooper & Thief ambassador and acclaimed bartender Elliott Clark, the Red Blend plays a vital role in an Old Fashioned comprised of one ounce of High West Bourbon, one ounce of Remy Martin cognac, two dashes of orange and Angostura bitters, and a quarter-ounce of the wine.
“What’s great about this is that it’s good wine,” Leamy says. “Wine drinkers will dig it if they’re willing to relax their preconception. On the cocktail side, it’s a complete ingredient that pushes your beverage in directions that are easy. You can take this, the Red Blend, and instead of having six other ingredients you can toss an ounce of this into a cocktail and cover a bunch of bases.”
“The thing I really enjoy about this is that on the finish, in my perspective, it’s a little drier and it’s different than using vermouth, which is a little lighter and a little sweeter. I think this has an underlying sweetness that reveals itself in the end,” Clark adds.
With meals, Cooper & Thief’s wines offer a pleasant fusion of the benefits of drinking a spirit and a glass of wine. Because of their density and complexity, they don’t wither over time; they open up as they sit (just like most wines do) but they do not diminish. Unexpected but exciting, these wines deserve to sit alongside famed makers and heritage houses because they’re delicious, and made with a concentrated consideration for their final profile and the notes that will surface both over time and when paired.
“This is something that’s made by people who want to make things that make people happy,” Leamy finishes. “It’s what we do. We want all of you, however you drink our wine, to be happy with it.”
Images by Evan Malachosky