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Hamdog: Not What You Expect

Winemaker Justin Robideaux and his Hamdog Pinot Noir

June 18, 2021 – Hamdog is exactly the kind of name you’d expect on a craft beer bottle, right? Not so much on a bottle of wine. Which is exactly why winemaker Jason Robideaux opted for something fresh, innovative and fun. “I wanted to go as far in the opposite direction from classic wine labels as you can get!” says Robideaux.  “More in the line of ready to drink cocktails and craft beer. Something with a younger feel, bright colors, catchy design. A new age look.” 

He turned to Hive Design in Santa Cruz to execute a truly fun and edgy label. “I gave them dozens of random craft beer labels that caught my eye and we worked really closely to get a catchier, youthful feel. I was looking for differentiation. I wanted people to look at it and say, ‘That’s not wine!’” Ah, but it is. And an approach to Pinot Noir that is far far different from the one he has taken for many years during his tenure as winemaker at Clos La Chance in Gilroy.

“Their style is jammy, ripe, big. I wanted the opposite with my Hamdog Pinot Noir.” He succeeded. His 2018 is evocative of the wild, weedy and bright red-fruit dominant style that comes from the coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Aromas of rosehips, wild strawberries, fern, redwood duff and mountain broom hint at the complexity to come. One sip and it sets you back in your chair: it dares you to take another. This is some feisty, attitudinal pinot, with plenty of cranberry, pomegranate balsamic and raspberry tea. It’s no lap dog. 

“I’ve always loved making Pinot Noir, and it’s one of my favorite wines to make. When I started my own label, I knew it would have a Pinot Noir focus.”

When Clos La Chance stopped making pinot, he knew the time was right. 

“I’ve always loved Santa Cruz Mountains pinot noir: it’s so unique,” he says.

But, Hamdog? What’s up with that? Jason explains it stems from the nicknames he and a fellow Cal Poly graduate, Steve Driscoll, shared. Says Robideaux, “We worked in different wine regions but we always took vacations together. My nickname was Hambone and his was Yarddog, so we joked that when we were together, we were HamDog. We’ve been joking about this name for 15 years!” Driscoll has been assistant winemaker at Clos La Chance for 7 years, but is not a partner in the Hamdog project. 

“When I finally decided to start my own label, I didn’t want a fancy title. I wanted something simple,” he says. Hamdog fit. 

Finding a local Santa Cruz Mountains source for his Pinot Noir wasn’t as easy as you might think. But, he found the perfect spot near Skyline, on Pescadero Creek Road. Called Pescadero Creek Vineyards, the family that owns it had made their own wine for years, but as of 2018, decided to retire from winemaking. That was the opportunity he was waiting for. 

“I picked around 23 brix, and did 10% whole cluster for that signature Santa Cruz Mountains style, which is a bit green. It’s like olive juice. The label says 13.5%, but it’s closer to 13%. I like that it’s rugged and a bit dirty,” he says. The wine was aged in 35% new French oak Radoux and Ramon barrels, medium plus toast, for 22 months. He followed pretty much the same protocol for 2019, although he picked a little later and the grapes were closer to 24 brix. In 2020, he got no fruit at all, as the CZU Lightning Complex fire put an end to that plan.

To make matters worse, the family is selling the property, so he no longer has access to that vineyard. He hopes to find another source in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and is also looking for white wine grapes, in particular Viognier and Marsanne. 

Hamdog wine is in limited supply, as only 125 cases were made of the 2018 Pinot Noir. There will be 250 cases of the 2019 when that is bottled later this year. You can find Hamdog at VinoCruz, Zanotto’s markets, Shopper’s Corner and very soon, all the New Leaf locations, as well as various wine bars and local restaurants. You can also hit him up on IG and social media. 

Having no tasting room and no real online sales platform yet, Robideaux admits that launching an on-premise brand during the pandemic was a pretty crazy idea, but he’s slowly making headway. Having a wicked cool package that stands out on the shelf doesn’t hurt. 

Dog may be man’s best friend, but there’s nothing like a good Pinot Noir. 

A Father’s Day Half Dozen for Dear Dad

Although I personally love socks, maybe Dad has enough of those. What he might not have enough of is wine. Here are a half-dozen gift-worthy wines that will make tastefully endowed Dads, and everyone who loves wine, quite blissfully content:

2018 Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir – The value wine in this lineup, it’s no slouch when it comes to Calera character. This is brooding and dark, like Rodin’s “Thinker” waking up with a bad hangover. Aromas tend towards the sanguine, with earth, iron filings and baked licorice predominating. Layers upon layers of savory flavors ooze together yielding leather, plum sauce, soy, beef jerky, and tri-tip marinated in A1 sauce. It’s grippy and unapologetically sauvage. Feed it beef. 

2018 Testarossa Fogstone Vineyard Pinot Noir – Winemaker Bill Brosseau nails the savory and red fruit of this vineyard in this easy to drink wine that doesn’t punish with oak. I love the raspberry and cinnamon stick aromas, and the palate is all red licorice, soft leather, pomegranate tea, cranberry–raspberry compote, and a savory sidebar of basil, capers and green olives that makes this intriguing and food friendly to the last drop.

2019 Cattlyea “The Initiation” Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands – Made by winemaker Bibianna Gonzalez-Rave, who started Cattleya Wines in 2011 with a single barrel of Syrah from the Soberanes Vineyard, managed by her brother-in-law, Mark Pisoni, this wine, part of the Inspiration Series, is called The Initiation. Cold soaked and slowly fermented, with aging in 70% new oak, this Côte-Rôtie style Syrah starts out with a hit of smoky bacon cooked on a campfire. There’s blueberry and raspberry, plus rosemary and cured meat lurking in the nose as well. After being open a while, the palate reveals blueberry fruit leather, peppery bacon, cracked white pepper and fresh-baked blueberry pie. The tannins are close to epic.  

2018 Eden Rift Lansdale Block Pinot Noir – I coravined this for a seminar a couple of months ago and worried that the ullage was too low for long-term aging. Faced with the dilemma of potential spoilage and drinking a wine of such great horsepower too early, I finally popped the cork. After a couple hours of being open, it blossomed, becoming an intense, but generous wine, ample of structure yet modest of fruit, brimming with dark energy and sultry herbs. Lovers of big, intense pinots will love this. It’s a kissing cousin to the Calera wines, made just on the other side of the limestone quarry from Eden Rift. 

2018 Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands – This wine is almost always immediately drinkable, well constructed and perfectly sculpted, with a built-in complexity from all the clonal components. Solid from stem to stern, it floods the palate with every sip. In the nose, forest, sage and underbrush meld with forest floor, wild thyme, rosemary, blackberries, wild cherries and menthol. An array of pleasing flavors trend towards blackberry pie, chocolate ganache covered cherries and red velvet cake, and yet a pleasing footnote of tarragon and rosemary cured meat keeps it lively and complete.  

2017 Siduri Rosella’s Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands – A fantastically structured wine, this is a sure crowd pleaser, from its nose of raspberry, pomegranate, fern, cedar, cinnamon and nutmeg, to its crescendo of diverse flavors on the palate. Here, dried cherry and pomegranate dance around pure chocolate cake, brownie bites, rye crisps, licorice, basil and cola. The acid is juicy and there’s a lovely smack of cocoa on the finish. Oh, and it’s a screwcap!

About the author

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Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.