Since there are no easily confirmable statistics to cite, it’s hard to say if Augustina’s Winery is truly the only one woman-run commercial winemaking operation in the United States, if not the world.
But as far as Marianne Walter knows, she’s the only “wine chick” doing everything from hauling her own grapes to crushing them in her bare feet to bottling and shipping the results.
“Grape-stomping isn’t as easy as it looks,” the woman who says she’s been known as “Gussie” since babyhood admits. “It gets pretty tiring, and they’re really cold.”
Which is why she limits that activity to about a couple of hundred pounds of grapes a year. Otherwise, she crushes them through mechanical means. This year, she expects to produce between 5,000 and 5,600 bottles of wine, out of a space smaller than many convenience stores in an industrial-business strip off north Broadway.
Wines with labels such as WineChick, Bottoms Up! and Venus de Vino don’t exactly evoke images of sophisticates opining about the character of a vintage’s bouquet. Which is how Gussie prefers it.
“I’m not a wine snob,” she says. “My tastes are pretty low-end, and I find people who just like a nice zinfandel to be more interesting.”
Low-end her prices may be, between $9 and 12 a bottle on average. But even an experienced wine merchant will say there’s nothing cheap about the taste.
“We sell about 500 bottles a year. They’re good, really fun wines,” says Phil Morich, wine department manager for Boulder’s Liquor Mart. “A good deal for the consumer. And they’ve got those fabulous labels.”
When a tiny winery has to compete with the bigname boys, let alone the 20 or so Colorado operations Liquor Mart consistently stocks, cool-looking labels help.
Gussie dropped her original label design in late 1997 or early 1998 after she discovered the retro-label paintings of local artist Brandy LeMae. The bright colors and saucy poses of pinup girls were “just my style” — a style that evolved from a period Gussie says was about learning to differentiate “your identity from your image” and expressing herself in terms of how she actually felt about wine.
“Every winemaker I knew about,” she says, “had these classical, pastel labels that didn’t suggest that wine was fun. I think of wines as dessert, something that follows the real main course.”
For Gussie, “the main course” means enjoyable activities, whether having potluck with friends, backpacking, reading Thomas Hardy, or porch-sitting while listening to Jimmy Buffet. She confesses to having a difficult time coming up with food pairings.
One of her most popular labels, Boulder Backpacking Wine, is an homage to her first husband, Jeff Deen, killed in an accident in 1994 while working as a geologist in Peru.
Gussie, then a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said that at the time, “the only thing I could enjoy was my hobby, making wine. I desperately wanted to go away for awhile.”
With the added inducement of a departmental downsizing, Gussie dusted off her geochemistry degree and obtained an apprenticeship with a small New Mexico winery. After nearly two years she returned, and eventually set up Boulder’s first winery in the industrial-zone strip mall at 4715 North Broadway.
“My first year I produced 1,100 bottles,” she says. Gussie sold and served her wine at local theater performances, art exhibits, concerts and farmers markets. All while holding down part-time jobs with caterers and at breweries. It wasn’t until 2004, she says, that sales pulled ahead enough for her to quit the supplementary work.
She takes pride in using nothing but Coloradogrown grapes, some even from within Boulder County. When it’s harvest time, she’ll even make the trek to haul back the crop herself.
Living simply, without children, enables her and her second husband, another fellow ex-geologist, to be their own bosses and enjoy their mountain dwelling near Rollinsville.
Gussie is still a regular at farmers markets, and she maintains a modest tasting room furnished with quirky art pieces at her winery. (It’s open Saturdays and by appointment between March 31 and Nov. 11. For more information, see www.winechick.biz) But even today if you ask her which of her wines pairs well with what kind of food, she’s stumped.
“I just don’t think like that,” she says. But she may give you a handout with some advice.
For example, Bottoms Up! White Wine goes well with “listening to Richard Thompson tunes and contemplating where to hang your hammock.”
Harvest Gold is recommended for gossiping on porches, while Boulder Backpacking Wine is to enjoy “by the campfire ... while reading John McPhee.”
But if that’s not good enough when contemplating what wine to incorporate with dinner, we’ve provided some complementary recipes provided by a fan of Augustina’s Winery.
Bottoms Up White Wine with Italian Egg Drop Soup
Italian Egg Drop Soup
½ lb small cut pasta
4 cups vegetable broth
3 cloves garlic
5-6 ounces fresh baby spinach
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
extra parmesan for passing
Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente, drain, cool, and set aside. Chop garlic and then heat in broth until boiling. Add pasta and spinach, cook until spinach is wilted, 3-4 minutes. Beat the eggs then drizzle into the boiling soup. Use a fork to break up large strands of egg. Cook another 5 minutes then stir in the cheese, season to taste, and serve hot with extra cheese and lemon wedges on the side.
Harvest Gold with Apricot Crème Roulade
Apricot Crème Roulade
for the apricot paste:
1 cup dried apricots
½ cup apricot brandy
1 cup water
¼ cup sugar
for the sponge cake:
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
for the cream:
1 pint heavy whipping cream, cold
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 Tbs apricot brandy
This dessert is prepared in several parts then assembled – it may look like a lot of work but it is totally worth it.
Start by making the apricot paste. Place the apricots, the brandy, the sugar, and the water in a small saucepot. Cook over very low heat, watching to make sure it doesn’t burn, until the apricots are very soft. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly (about 5-10 minutes) then puree in mixer or blender until you have a thick paste. Meanwhile, make the sponge cake. Beat the egg yolks until they are thick, then beat in the brown sugar and beat again until they are very thick and make a ribbon. Thoroughly wash your beater and then beat the egg whites until they reach the stiff peak stage. Carefully fold the flour into the yolk mixture then carefully fold that mixture into the whites. Gently spread into a foil lined cookie sheet (with sides) and bake in 325 oven for 15-25 minutes. Cake should be golden and spring back when gently touched. Remove from oven, allow to cool thoroughly before the next steps (this shouldn’t take long.) When cake and apricot paste are cool, beat cream until it is half whipped, then add powdered sugar and brandy. Beat until stiff then separate into two equal portions. Fold the apricot paste into one portion. Now for assembly. Spread the apricot crème evenly over the cake, being gentle so as not to break the cake. When it is evenly over the whole thing, it is time to roll. Starting at one short end, gently pick up the foil and peel it off about half an inch of the cake. Fold the cake over onto the crème and then roll the whole thing, peeling the foil off as you go. Do this slowly and carefully but do not be afraid, the cake will hold together and the crème will not squeeze out. Then carefully pick up the whole roulade and place on your serving platter/plate/board. Use the remaining whipped cream to “frost” the roulade on the top, ends, and sides. You can garnish with finely chopped dried apricots or berries or mint or a combination of those. Serve in slices.
Boulder Backpacking Wine with Grilled Lamb Kofte Kebabs
Grilled Lamb Kofte Kebabs
1 lb. ground lamb
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 Tbs ground cumin
2 tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp ground cayenne pepper
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp kosher salt
kebab vegetables (peppers, onion, mushrooms, zucchini, cherry or grape tomatoes, etc)
Crush or finely mince the garlic. Mix the meat with garlic, all the spices, and the salt. Form the lamb into 8 oval balls. Cut the other veggies for kebabs (large chunks) and place veggies and two meat balls on each skewer. Grill until meat is firm to the touch and the veggies are cooked.
WineChick Pinot Noir with Rustic Greek Spinach Pie
Rustic Greek Spinach Pie
for the dough:
6 cups flour
2 cups olive oil
1 ½ cups water, as needed
2 tbs salt
1 ½ tsp black pepper
for the filling:
4 bags cut frozen spinach, defrosted
2 medium yellow onions
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbs olive oil
1 lb feta cheese
4 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup toasted pine nuts or walnuts, optional
red chili flakes, optional
salt and pepper
First, make the dough. Mix flour, oil, salt, pepper and 1 cup of water together. Add enough water to make a kneadable dough. Knead until it holds together. Cut into balls (3-4 for large pies, 12 for individual) then cover. Let sit for at least ½ hour then knead each ball and shape into disc before rolling out. Meanwhile, make the filling. Drain the spinach and squeeze as much water as possible from it. Cut the onions into small dice and mince or crush the garlic. Saute in the oil until soft. Remove from the stove, then add the spinach and mix together. Crumble in the feta along with nuts if you are using them. Season with salt and pepper then mix in the eggs. Take a piece of the dough and roll as circular as possible. Fill middle with spinach mix and fold up sides. The dough won’t completely cover the filling; just make sure the edges are all folded all the way around. Rub with small amount of oil and bake on oiled sheet until browned at 375 degrees.
-- Recipes courtesy of Chef Jessica Hersh, owner of Sweet Pea Cuisine of Boulder