Balance is a buzzword in wine, a sacred virtue all aspire to. But few know the meaning of balance like Alecia Moore.
A performing artist, songwriter, mother and winemaker: all of these require delicate and constant balance.
The contemplative yin to the fan-crazed yang of stadium rock is a 25-acre vineyard in Santa Barbara County, California.
In a sense, with Alecia’s Two Wolves wines – which make their Australian debut this month- a circle is complete, too. It was on these shores 20-odd years ago that she had the first wine she loved, that she first joined the dots from vine to glass, that she first got to grill a notable winemaker on the nitty gritty of growing.
The short-term escape of wine in the McLaren Vale sunshine has reverberated through the decades. “When we’re on tour we see the inside of a venue and a hotel gym, basically,” says Alecia. “And when it’s our day off we want to be outside, we want to be in nature. And we were all young; we were babies, we were in our 20s, you know. We’d just started drinking legally so none of us really knew a tonne about wine. We really liked the people that would receive us and host us. We liked hearing those stories because that’s what we do: we’re storytellers. It all kind of just clicked.”
So, here was a field that ticked a lot of boxes for her: Nature, story, integrity, mystery, unpredictability. “And then deliciousness. That’s when I realised the more questions you asked, the more questions there are. And there’s no right answer either. You slowly piece together this journey.”
Anyone who’s witnessed the full-blooded commitment of a Pink performance knows what Alecia’s Two Wolves partner-in-crime, Alison Thomson, was to find out and somewhat understate: “She’s super-passionate and clearly is not a person that does anything half-assed.” Hence, she threw herself into studying with incendiary fervour. “I am a student,” says Alecia. “I’m a high-school dropout but I am a student. I am a learner. I learn by doing. I learn by screwing up. And I learn by working my ass off.”
In the late 2000s Alecia enrolled in online courses through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and UCLA. “I just did any and everything I could do. I would literally be like ‘THANK YOU, SYDNEY!’ and run backstage and get my computer set up and set up my glasses and get my wines. And then I would take my tests, and it was just so much fun. I was enjoying it. I love learning.”
In those intervening years, there were more tours, more side-trips to vineyards in South Africa, Italy, France, anywhere a bud might burst into a new revelation. And then, while on tour in where-else-but Australia, an organic vineyard came up for sale in the Santa Ynez Valley. She packed husband Carey Hart onto a plane home to check it out and – perhaps pressing for the ‘yes’ she wanted to hear – bought the place, sight unseen, in 2013.
DIRT BENEATH FINGERNAILS
“I started coming up here to Santa Ynez 20 years ago, at least, with Carey to go wine tasting just for fun, just to have something to do, you know, basically get hammered,” says Alecia, sipping a beer over Zoom in the afternoon light. “And then we fell in love with the area.”
The Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, is traditionally seen as the playground of the rich and famous and thus a more obvious place for a celebrity’s vinous venture. But its investors, corporations and status-symbol seekers didn’t chime with Alecia. The gritty, mom-and-pop operations and community of farmers she found in Santa Barbara were her people.
The bigger question, though, was how she would be received. “When I moved here, I was very nervous and afraid that people would think, ‘Oh Pink’s here, she has a vineyard, here comes the circus’, or that I was going to hire [multi-tentacled globetrotting consultant] Michel Rolland and have somebody make my wine. That would have been really easy.”
Needless to say, that’s not how it went down. Come January 2014 she was on her hands and knees pruning and was shamelessly cold-calling neighbours asking to hang out and taste barrels. The likes of Star Lane, Foxen, Grassini, Melville and many more welcomed her and spilled secrets. “Everyone threw their doors open for me; that’s what I love about this valley so much. No one treated me like anything other than what I was, which was a student who was earnest and wanted to prove that I had dirt beneath my fingernails.”
The dirt in question lies between the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Los Olivos District and Happy Canyon, some 190km up the Pacific coast from Venice Beach, which Alecia called home from age 19. Even in the context of California’s varied and dramatic topography, this valley is a rarity, sitting as it does between a pair of transverse ranges, as opposed to the norm that roughly mimics the coastline. The ocean is about 32km west of the estate as the crow flies, and about 21km south over the east-west-running Santa Ynez mountains.
This makes for a particularly pronounced diurnal shift. “I wake up in a cloud every day,” as Alecia poetically puts it, evoking the heavy fog that swirls above the convergence of Pacific currents from the cooler north and warmer south and then gets sucked inland through the gap. In summer the fog keeps the full sun at bay till midday, when light and heat are unleashed on the vines, tempered by ocean breezes that act like an air conditioner before fully asserting themselves when the sun goes down.
That isn’t to say this isn’t a warm place to grow grapes. Nearby Santa Rita Hills are high-acid country, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rule. But with every mile you go east the temperature rises and by the time you reach Two Wolves, Rhône and Bordeaux varieties are the go.
It’s dry here, too; 14 inches of annual rainfall is about all they hope for and struggle to get. It doesn’t fluctuate much, which at least means the vines are conditioned to be resilient. But a break from drought in 2018 and ’19 was but fleeting relief. Irrigation is a must at the certified-organic and resolutely minimal-input affair that is Two Wolves, where the wines are ripe, fresh and unforced.
The original, 18-acre vineyard was planted in 2005, 2010 and 2015 and features predominantly soils of fine sandy loam and clay. Across the way is the 7.25-acre Right Left vineyard, planted in 2015 after Alecia dug soil pits and nosed around for the best options. It has a more diverse spice rack of soils from iron-rich sandy loam to shale, gravel and beyond. The two sites are home to Grenache, Syrah, Bordeaux white and red varieties and, somewhat randomly, Graciano (more on that later).
With the Two Wolves vineyard knocked into shape and Right Left vines in the ground, the priorities had crystallised by the end of 2015. “My goal here is to learn everything I can learn in one lifetime, and to put everything I have into this vineyard, and allow these grapes to realise their best potential,” Alecia recalls. “And then my other idea is to find a female winemaker who’ll teach me everything they know, and to raise my kids here.”
“I’m always going to give women a chance,” Alecia says. The complement to her own energy and personality is what’s important. “I think when you have children and the many, many hats that you wear, you need sometimes a woman who’s also doing that, to understand. To understand why you’re tired when you show up or why you need to go into the corner and have a cry because your kid is sick.”
One name that came up was Alison Thomson. She had her own gig going on under her Calabrian-immigrant great-grandfather’s name, L.A. Lepiane, and had been handling side-projects for Chad Melville, one of the benevolent souls who’d welcomed Alecia into the Santa Ynez fold.
Alison had grown up in the Bay Area near the epicentre of the farm-to-table movement, spending childhood holidays on the lake north of Napa eating and drinking the good stuff grown in the valley. She went on to study biology at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). She’d hang out with friends working in Santa Ynez tasting rooms, and took advantage of UCSB’s study-abroad program to go to Tuscany. That ritual of wine at the table – the culture of conversation, grazing and sharing – made a strong impression. She returned and wound up working at UCSB in restoration ecology while hatching plans to return for a meaningful visit to Italy.
It was at this time that viticulture took root in her imagination. “In the back of my mind I’m like: ‘I love gardening, growing things. I love fruit; I grew up with apricot trees and we would pick and process the apricots, make jam, all that stuff and I love that,” Alison recalls. “And I love science. And so it seemed in my mind like, ‘Oh, this could be a cool melding of all the things I like’.” Alison applied to UC Davis in 2004 and was accepted. As she went about unwittingly building the perfect resume for Two Wolves – not yet a twinkle in Alecia’s eye – Alison went to work vintage in Barolo. “I loved it. There was a moment where we were washing the presses, it was like 1 o’clock in the morning and the moon was rising over a castle and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for sure’.”
A decade later Chad invited Alison and husband George to dinner. Alecia would be there. “I knew they were friends and that she was into wine, so I didn’t really think too much of it,” says Alison. “She didn’t know it was an interview,” says Alecia. “She just thought I was the most inquisitive, curious person she’d met.” Not surprisingly, they hit it off. A few weeks later Alison got a call inviting her for a follow-up beer. “I asked her if she would want to maybe make wine with me in the garage,” says Alecia. “We had one air-conditioned bay and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”
Only briefly, Alison got to entertain the notion that Alecia was just playing. “I had all these other little projects that I was working on at the time and I thought, ‘Oh, she’s going to make a couple of barrels, it’s no big deal; I’ll just kind of pop in and out’.”
Again, though, no. They walked the vineyard together, tasted the fruit, discussed picking decisions and the host of steps that might come next. “All of it! She wanted to be involved in making those decisions and understanding all the options and forging her own path with the wines, and so it wasn’t me coming in and saying, ‘OK, here’s the program, this is what we should do’. It was more like, ‘Here are all the options for what we could do. What feels right?’”
It would be utterly misleading to paint Alison in a technocratic light; she exudes laid-back West Coast warmth mingled with the nurturing aura of a born botanist. But in the dynamic of artist and scientist, you don’t need to see on-stage pyrotechnics to work out which is which. ““One of the most hilarious things about us is, I know enough to be dangerous and I don’t believe in rules, and she’d been only taught rules,” says Alecia.
Spontaneous fermentation -as opposed to seeding the must with cultured yeast – proved one of the early points of contention, given Alison’s technical background at UC Davis and track record with high-acid grape varieties, which present a different chemical equation. Alecia – an idealist rather than an ideologue – was adamant. “I had this thing where I said, ‘I don’t care what happens, we’re not inoculating ever’,” she says. “‘I don’t want to introduce anything into this winery – or this garage, I should say – that didn’t grow here, that didn’t already live here. And if it doesn’t ferment, my bad – I’ll take responsibility for that’. And on day 13 Alison would be sweating and nauseous and nothing’s happening and I’m like ‘Walk away. Just walk away’. And she’s, ‘(Sigh). This is so hard for me’. And I’m, ‘I know, I know.’”
Much as Alecia is a tireless inquisitor, she’s also a good listener. They both lead the way. ““She has a great palate and had been drinking wines and tasting wines all over the world and had a real sense of where she wanted to go with it and what kind of philosophical ideals she’d like to lead with,” says Alison. “And I think that was super-exciting to me. She had this great vision.”
The push and pull of these personalities, and ups and downs of life and the ins and outs of harvest have turned this into a remarkable friendship and sensitive, potent partnership. “When I met Alison, I fell in love with the human being she is. And her work ethic and her curiosity and also her knowledge. She’s never above reproach or above anyone else,” says Alecia. “It’s so fun because she’s a genius and more people should know it. And also, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, and more people should be brave enough to do that, too.”
TWO WOLVES WITHIN
The moon and native American wisdom inform this story. The Two Wolves parable starts with a grandfather teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight, and it’s between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continues, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thinks about it for a minute and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replies, “The one you feed.”
There are myriad ways of reading the parable. The one I ascribe from what Alecia and Alison say, is that instincts are instincts – but we have a choice over which to nurture and promote. Overwhelmingly Two Wolves is a triumph of love.
For Alecia, Two Wolves is in part an example of overcoming what appear to be contradictory – or at least incompatible – desires. “I had no examples of what it looks like to be a touring artist and to want to have a family, or to even have ambition and be full-body committed to being an artist and still have a relationship.” Rather than give up on that fight, she fed the dream.
And she also fed the dream for Alison. “There was a while when I thought I was going to have to leave the wine industry because I didn’t see that compatibility in any role models,” Alison recalls. “There wasn’t anyone I knew that had young children and was working harvest, and I just couldn’t see how that was going to be a possibility. But Alecia, she was in the same position. She has two jobs that she loves – winemaking and singing – and young kids. And so, she’s able to make it work around family and I think provides that role model that I need to show me that, yeah, this is all possible and I can still do all these things, and she allows that space for family as well.”
Which brings us back to balance. ““I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky to be part of it and it’s like being in a relationship, it just feels like it is right,” says Alison about the push-pull of Two Wolves and the horizons it’s opened up. “And just being on this journey where we understand where we’re going together, it’s been a really fun trip so far.”
On the winemaker spectrum, Alecia sits at the hardcore end; take that as read. She claims she doesn’t have a patient bone in her body, but farming has taught her to slow down. “The first lesson was I guess you can only learn so much every year. It takes time, every single thing takes time. I think 2020 was my favourite year as a farmer because we lost our crew for a while. And so I really got to learn what’s necessary, and what’s just busy hands. And this place never looked so wild and beautiful in its neglect.”
It’s not just grapes that teach a valuable lesson; the fermented juice – if you allow it to – also has a lot to teach us. “I think that’s what wine, more than any other beverage, makes you do. It makes you take a minute, and it makes you pay attention. We’re always saying we should be more present. That’s a beautiful way to do it,” she says. “I also have lived a life that has been very scarily out of balance at times, a long time ago, and I also look at wine that way. You need balance, it’s what we should be striving for: balance of knowledge and curiosity; of fear and love; anger and exultation; and health and play – I have to separate those two! But also, in wine the most important thing to me is balance. I think that’s what we do here.”
PUTTING IT OUT THERE
Alecia and Alison released their first suite of wines from the 2015 harvest. There have been various chats about production levels but these are limited by a range of factors, not least the modest size of the winery and the desire of a global megastar to have a hand in all the work – vineyard, cellar and even restaurant calls. The first few vintages hovered around 2,000 cases, all of which to date have been sold exclusively in the U.S. where unsurprisingly the Two Wolves tribe is pretty tight. Alecia’s blog posts always appeal for people to send news of which wines they’ve enjoyed, where and with whom. The feedback is joyous, and joyfully received.
The first wines to come into Australia are mostly from 2018: Syrah with cool-climate echoes and a dash of co-fermented Malvasia; Cabernet Franc (Alecia calls Clos Rougeard her north star and spent one of the best days of her life with late legend Charly Foucault not long before his death in 2015); Petit Verdot; Cabernet Sauvignon; and a Syrah-dosed Bordeaux blend called Group Song. There’s also a zesty, chillable carbonic-maceration Graciano from 2020. (“What the fuck is Graciano,” Alecia and Alison had asked each other when their two acres of Mourvèdre were unmasked as an imposter; they’ve since grown to love it.)
For Alison, the Australian twist is another leg of a delightfully unexpected journey. “At the time, who woulda thunk – I don’t know – did I think I’d be working with, you know, Pink on a wine project ever? No!” she says. “I had hoped that at some point I could find a place where I could do a little bit of everything. I love the connection with the vineyard here. We can walk out of the winery and step into the vines and I think it gives you such a greater sense of the vintage and what wines you’re going to be making that year. And I love thinking about viticulture and the way decisions you make in the vineyard affect the resulting wines.” It’s a thrill to share that with people on the other side of the world.
The significance is even greater for Alecia, whose love-affair with the country spans more than 20 years and whose fanbase is enormous here. “This feels like a second birth. It’s exciting. It’s nerve-wracking,” she says. “It’s especially sentimental for me because that’s where I fell in love with wine. But also Australians, to me, you have no boundaries between work and play, and also a really authentic strive at connection. And you’re also really, really no bullshit, and looking for experience.”
Little wonder that Alecia identifies with the no-bullshit mentality. She is famed for her strength of character and the way her values lead her actions. Her intent, her sincerity and her work ethic are unquestionable.
“We have to preserve the art of wine because there are no real rules; it is intention and it is what mother nature decides to do that year, and it is how you either fuck it up or get out of the way and allow it to happen,” says Alecia. “You’re guiding this year into a vessel to be given to someone else as a bridge to their feelings and to their curiosity about ‘I wonder what happened, when all of this happened…’”