This country was built on the spirit of hard work, innovation and a belief that anything is possible if you have the courage and fortitude to do what it takes to follow your dreams through to the end. I have to say that Justin Miller and Karin Warnelius of Terra Sonoma Food Company in Alexander Valley embody this vision to the fullest by expanding the legacy of their family farm into a business that is poised for great success in this new era of wine making and sustainable farming.
The Miller ranch, sixty-five-acres of vineyards, was planted by Justin’s father James Miller in the 1950’s. It lies adjacent to their friend Robert Young’s ranch, whose vineyards were planted around the same time. It was an era when local farmers were taking the bold step of replacing prune trees with grapes in the hope of a better life, and the rest is history. Decades later, son Justin took over the day-to-day operation of the farm when he was just eighteen. Justin had to prove to his father that his own (Jason’s) vision of farming suited the new era of highly competitive farming where maintaining a delicate balance between quality and yield can be a challenge at best.
At first, Justin’s idea of thinning the grapes by hand to allow maximum ripening and flavor to develop on the vine at the cost of reduced tonnage seemed counterproductive, to say the least. James Miller challenged his son to find a use for the thinned-out grapes that would otherwise be left to spoil. That was when the time-honored European Verjus was reborn in Alexander Valley.
French for “green juice,” Verjus is the unfermented juice of thinned wine grapes picked at a low Brix (sugar) level of between eleven to thirteen percent. Although the grapes are high in acid at this point, they share the same tartaric and malic acid components as wine does, making for a much better compliment to the food and wine experience than vinegar which has a much sharper acid base and can clash with wine when used incorrectly. The juice of these grapes can also be reduced to syrup to make Balsmic vinegar which in Italy is aged for up to fifty years in oak barrels. Not to mention Saba or Vin Cotta which is very similar to Balsamic except that it is unacidified and has become wildly popular is its own right for pairing with foods designed to compliment meats and game commonly paired with red wines.Terra Sonoma Verjus, unlike many of its European counterparts, has a wonderful full-bodied taste that derives from an artful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot varieties.
The juice, which is light green in color when complete, is balanced and sweeter than its French counterparts (to my taste, the French versions are often too tart and somewhat flat in flavor profile) consequently, Verjus is a wonderful accompaniment for salads, fish, marinades and sauces, it even (as Justin points out) makes for a great non-alcoholic spritzer. Because Verjus is unfermented and bottled within three to five days of production, it needs to be refrigerated after opening to retain its freshness and to prevent it from fermenting at room temperature.