Happy Hour with Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery
Hardy Wallace (aka Dirty) and Matt Richardson (aka Rowdy) make rare California wine with Atlanta roots
Hardy Wallace (aka Dirty) and Matt Richardson (aka Rowdy) met in Atlanta nearly a decade ago and bonded over a shared love of funky wine and spicy fried chicken. Long story short, Wallace got laid off from a corporate job in 2009, leveraged his Dirty South wine blog to land a dream gig managing social media for a California winery, then fully immersed himself in the winemaking world — most notably with a small, renegade winery known as the Natural Process Alliance. In 2010, Wallace partnered with his Atlanta compadre Richardson to form Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery, and they released their first wines in 2012. Today they run one of the great upstarts in American winemaking, focusing on small production (often less than 100 cases per bottling) vineyard-designated Mourvèdre and Semillon, two grapes not often thought of in the great pantheon of California wine.
Wallace and his wife, Kate, live in the Napa Valley. Richardson, a physician, and his family live in Atlanta and make trips out to California to pitch in on the hard work of turning grapes into bottles of wine. If your timing is right, you might be lucky enough to find their limited-production wines on the shelves of local wine shops such as Le Caveau Fine Wines, or on the menu at restaurants and bars including Cakes & Ale, Paper Plane, and Vine and Tap (where some Dirty and Rowdy wines have beeen available by the glass). But since the Dirty and Rowdy doesn't last long, if you're really interested in trying more of their wines, you may want to join their mailing list. Creative Loafing caught up with Dirty and Rowdy after their recent harvest, just as their fall release of 2013 wines was starting to ship out.
Cheers on wrapping up your fifth harvest now in California. I read that you basically drove back and forth across the state many times over to stay on top of a dozen different vineyards that you buy from, in preparation for 17 different wines. That seems, well, a bit crazy for such a small and young producer. So why?
Matt Richardson: Hardy is crazy. We're always searching for vineyards with unique terroir that are cared for by the best growers. I sometimes ask Hardy if he really thinks it is wise to add another small vineyard, which is often completely out of the way geographically. His response is usually along the lines of ... "Absolutely, the vineyard will blow your mind!" Sure, I get concerned about Hardy driving all over California and working crazy hours, but he is passionate and loves what he is doing.
Hardy Wallace: I was going to say, "Matt is crazy!" Our main focus is on producing single-vineyard Mourvèdre wines, and we're obsessed with finding radically different terroir and seeing how Mourvèdre expresses itself in disparate places. It is about 500 miles from our southernmost to northernmost vineyards. This journey is not about convenience; it's about feeding a raging nerd fire. There is probably a reason no one else in the wine world is taking this route, but for us, it is the only way. Along the way other vineyards pop up, and we are blown away by the combination of soil, climate, and farming. Mourvèdre or not, we know when something is special, and we get excited. That's how we found our Semillon and the other wines we make.
Your recent email out to folks on your list mentioned all kinds of harvest madness. What are some of the strangest (or scariest) things you came across this year?
HW: This year we had some run-ins with what seemed to be a python-length rattlesnake, a black bear, and plenty of poison oak, but the scariest thing was almost dying while trying to achieve zero-gravity in the winery truck (AKA the Prius). It was something right out of the Darwin Awards — putting the pedal to the metal, blasting Lionel Richie, and saying to our intern "Watch this!" There will be no more of that.
MR: The scariest part for me (and us) is wondering if the wine is going to reach its greatest potential. There are so many variables, but picking the fruit at the perfect time is the most important decision in terms of how we make our wine. That’s what makes harvest the scariest time, knowing that if we pick a day too early or too late there are significant effects on the final product. Hardy is like a mad scientist running around the vineyards, pulling samples, and gathering every piece of data so that he makes the most informed decision.
You've been blessed with some impressive press coverage and industry accolades. What are some of the most shake-your-head-in-disbelief moments you've experienced?
MR: A picture of a Dirty and Rowdy magnum in the New York Times still does not seem real to me. I also shake-my-head thinking of all the corners of the world where we sell our wine — Singapore, U.K., Denmark, Tasmania ... crazy. We appreciate all those who support this project. I shake-my-head that this whole thing is for real.
HW: I run so hard that it is sometimes tough to take a good look around. When I do, I am in disbelief. There have been some awesome moments, like seeing pictures online of our winemaking heroes drinking Dirty and Rowdy, or having our wine served in places that truly inspire us, but the most shake-your-head thing is that I get to make wine with Rowdy and our wives, and we get to share it with people that are crazy enough to find it.
Being a California-based winemaker, how do you keep the Atlanta vibe going (or do you?) and how would you say Atlanta and the South still factor in to Dirty and Rowdy?
MR: I've lived here for the past 15 years, and it makes me proud that Dirty and Rowdy was started in Atlanta. I hope people in Atlanta feel like it has a local soul. There's a great community of people here who love food and wine. Those friendships inspired us to start Dirty and Rowdy. We hung out in Atlanta for years opening bottles and talking about our dream. And it actually happened. Yee haw!
HW: I still have a 404 phone number! And I only gave up my Georgia tags after getting pulled over and given a citation. Really, when I got laid off from a tech sales career in 2009, so many people in the Atlanta food and wine world rallied - they encouraged me, supported me and in many ways I feel like Atlanta made this wine.
Let’s say you just finished a hard day in the winery during harvest. What’s your drink and meal of choice?
MR: Hot fried chicken made in a cast iron skillet! Served with sparkling wine or Pét-Nat (short for Pétillant Naturel, a very old-school style of producing sparkling wine), preferably from Cruse Wine Co.
HW: After a long day, I just want comfort and to be home. If it could be anything, it would not just be fried chicken, but Rowdy’s fried chicken (cold) and a Sweetwater 420.