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Kokomo Winery – There’s A Place Called…

May 27, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 6 Comments

A city sign that reads: “Kokomo First into the Twenty-First Century – Hometown of Erik Miller” sits high and proud on the tasting room wall of Kokomo Winery.

Erik Miller is the energetic thirty-three year old behind Kokomo Winery, based in the Dry Creek Valley AVA of Sonoma County outside of Healdsburg. The sign was a gift from the Mayor of his birth town in Indiana, the town that was the inspiration for his brand name, Kokomo. Eric wears a goatee that contrasts with his buzzed hair. His intense and dramatic eyes match his absolute zeal for sharing his wines and the land they are made from. He wears a Kokomo T-shirt and jeans and speaks quickly.

Kokomo sits on the Dry Creek Canyon “bench” that runs a long the east side of the valley. Once the site of an orchard and dried fruit processing center (Timber Crest Farms), the series of old farm buildings now house a half dozen independent wine brands. Behind the facilities, a junkyard of the rotting decrepit remains of old Sterling trucks lead up to the base of the vineyard. The farmer who owns the land has an intense passion for these forgotten relics and expends huge efforts to bring them back to their former glory. Erik too speaks of them with enough focus and exuberance that suggests he finds inspiration in their transformation and in the possibility of what can be, with some time, and a lot of hard work.

It was Kokomo who contacted me after Tablas Creek kindly wrote about ALP after my interview with them. Everyone loves Tablas Creek, they are the Elmo of California wine, and more than a few wineries follow their vineyard blog. It was the first time a winery asked me to profile them and initially, the idea raised some questions. What do I say if I don’t want to work with them? What if I hate what they do? How much free stuff can I demand since they came to me? Will I be obliged to make bad Beach Boy jokes that they’ve probably heard over and over? While I actually never demand or even ask for anything from wineries (way too many bloggers do), and another person made a Beach Boy joke while I was there, I still worried about the former: Would I like what they do? It turns out there was no reason for worry. They are in Sonoma, an area I had not done much with; Plus, they produced Pinot; Plus, they work with sustainable farmers…double plus!

Within a few minutes of our arrival, we were charging through the vineyards with our glasses of Grenache Rose and looking at vines as old or older than myself. It’s late May, but the El Niño patterns are still bringing cool weather and rain to the area. The air is fresh, the clouds brilliantly white and inviting. Four hours earlier, I awoke in a Motel 6, now the beauty of Sonoma County and the Dry Creek region surrounded me.

After the trip through the vineyards and a closer look at the rotting trucks, we sat with Eric to ask him some questions on who he is and what he does.

How did you come to be involved with wine?

“I had a girlfriend at the time I went to college…she kind of got me into wine. She worked at a wine shop then we moved here to Sonoma County together. She got a job managing a tasting room, Belvidere, which is no longer around. With my business degree from Purdue I decided to [take] the normal step, I want[ed] to be a financial planner. I did that for about six months wearing a suite and tie out here in Sonoma County… It was a crucial point in my life where I needed to do that just to realize I ‘I’m not happy with this, I need to do something else’…Well I got an opportunity to work a harvest at the winery she worked at. I worked that first harvest and fell in love with the industry more from the wine-making aspect…I thought ‘this is so cool, using your hands.’ I’m a lefty, I like to create, I like the manual labor aspect of it, I like the creativity part of it, the agricultural part of it. I like using your noggin with the little bit of chemistry behind it. I remember looking at the winemaker I worked for, it was like, if I could do this it would be totally phenomenal…Right after that harvest I enrolled in UC Davis…I knew at that point that this is what I wanted to do…So I developed the wine palate along the way, but the passion came from the doing of the wine-making more than it did because I took a trip to Burgundy and had an epiphany, because that’s not the way for me.”

Erik’s enthusiasm for the land and terroir of the vineyards he works with is readily evident. “No matter how good my craft is,” he tells us “it’s only as good as the fruit that I get”. Like so many winemakers have told me before, truly great wine starts with the land, it is born in the vines. He is proud to work with several farmers native to the region, some fourth generation. “My vision of terroir is certainly farmer…what’s the farmer’s attitude? What’s the farmers love and how does the farmer tend it? With the vineyard we are making five, six passes a year and it’s how they’re made and when they’re made and what love they are made with…There is something very personable on the terroir level beside the soil and the micro-climate of the person farming it that is dramatically different.”

Stylistically, show do you approach making wine?

“My goal at Kokomo is to make wines that you can drink by themselves but they also go well with food. That you can cellar, but they also drink while young. There is a balance, and I am trying to strike a good balance to where the wine is versatile but not to be everything to everybody.…I want a balance between the two, where it has enough acidity to pair with the food….but it also has enough varietal character and juiciness to be able to drink alone and still enjoy it. I want it to be cellarable…but not a freak’n tannin bomb and not some thing that needs to lay down for five years to be approachable.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of wine making?

“The diversity. It’s that I am talking to you guys now and I’ve got people that are in to it…So there is that social aspect. There is me doing winemaker dinners…there’s a very social aspect to it and I actually like that…I love the lab work, I love to be able to run some alchohols, and the PH and see physiologically in my mind where my wines at because it doest something to me to know how the wine is and how secure it is…I love the agricultural part. I love to be able to go out and sample these vineyards and taste the fruit, spit the seed in my hand and see if it’s ripe, do I want to pick it later? That whole side of being at one with the vineyard and what the final product is…I love the manual labor part. I really enjoy getting down, getting sweaty, doing punch-downs and feeling like I put a hard day of work…so that diversity it brings to me is the most enjoyable part of it.”

I told Erik that if I got lazy transcribing this interview I would just write “diversity.” Don’t think I didn’t consider that Erik!

Who has inspired you in California wine?

“I watch a lot of people. As far as A person, I don’t’ want to say A person as much as it was the industry and the craft of making wine…obviously I have my eye on Sine Qua Non…Definitely Helen Turley’s stuff is really interesting to me. Also some of the younger wineries out here….Robert Mondavi and or Alban, because they [were] pioneers in the industry. And Paul Draper man…I think Paul Draper is just a visionary in the industry.”

After the interview and a few pictures, Erik was off to meet with an antique salvager who was helping him with a project for the tasting room. Jordan and I wondered down to the tasting room and spent a nice half hour with Kokomo’s delightful tasting room staff, Becky and Christmas. They had excellent senses of humor and we enjoyed both the wines and they company. Erik, they deserve a raise. If you visit Kokomo and Christmas is working, you should know she has A) heard the jokes about her name and B) does not think they are funny.

Kokomo works with a lot of varietals, from Pinot to Carignan (which is excellent). If you are in Dry Creek, stop by, have a glass, and go look at some rusted trucks, it will make you a better person.

Visit Kokomo, they want you to.

4791 Dry Creek Road
at Timber Crest Farms
Healdsburg, CA 95448

707.433.0200

Open Daily 11am – 4:30pm

Facebook: Kokomo Winery

Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. Kristi Davis says:

    I’m still confused at what exactly was the inspiration behind the name but it rocks. What great mind visualization!

  2. Wayne says:

    Kokomo is the name of the town in Indiana Erik is from.

  3. Christmas Collins says:

    Actually some of then are kinda funny. Some. Not very many.

  4. Wayne says:

    By some, you must mean mine specifically. Did my friends come by today?

  5. WONDERFUL to see Erik and the whole Kokomo gang getting the credit they richly deserve! We have been grape growers for them for a long time (Pinot noir & Malbec) and want folks to know about their lovely wines. If you head up Dry Creek Road you must stop by and enjoy the good vibe and great wine. Cheers!

  6. Christmas Collins says:

    Yes, Wayne, yours. All of them. HiLARious. And I think your friends did come in! They drank 4 bottles each, danced on the bar, and peed in a potted palm. They were like family.

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