It is impossible to observe the arc of Nat Wong’s winemaking career so far and not be impressed by his quick ascendancy. Entranced by the taste of a cabernet franc on a trip to the Loire Valley in 2018, perhaps his third glass of wine ever, by 2020, he was releasing wine under his own label, Blade & Talon, and today is the general manager of the prestigious Siletto Family Vineyards in Tres Pinos.
“What happened with that glass of wine was very profound and surprising,” he said. “When I drank it, instead of adopting tasting notes or experiencing textural changes on my palette, it felt more like a recollection of stories, like memories that I hadn’t really recalled, with no specific reason to recall them.”
Leaving his job as an ornithologist at the Monterey Aquarium, he jumped at the chance to take an internship at Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley for the 2018 harvest and, by 2019, was working in their cellar and ready to make his own wine.
“Like everyone else, if you find that you like something, you want to learn more about it,” he said. “So after the harvest, I ended up doing the UC Davis extension program, then I picked up a variable capacity tank from Brian Harrington and started looking for my own grapes.”
Harrington, the owner of San Francisco’s Harrington Wines, suggested he try Siletto Vineyards, leading to his first meeting with owner Ron Siletto.
“I was only looking for a ton of grapes,” he said. “But you would have thought I was buying 60 tons because Ron spent hours with me that afternoon.”
His first release under the Blade and Talon label was a Rosé of Barbera in 2020, which was awarded 90 points by Wine Enthusiast—not a bad start from someone with less than two years of experience with making wine.
“I came into this field with no experience,” he said. “And so I think it really freed me up to make decisions that I might not have if I had followed a more stringent path.”
Sharing a love of the eclectic varietals with Siletto and immersing himself in the history of wine in this region, Wong was a natural match to take over management of the vineyards when he was offered the job this past January.
Walking through the four Siletto properties with Wong, there is a sense that he has immersed himself in the history of not just the vineyards and the more unusual varietals but in the earliest iterations of winemaking in San Benito County.
According to Wong, the approach taken by the county’s pioneering winemakers like Theophile Vache or Carl Palmtag would have been much more simplistic and straightforward that winemakers today would employ.
“Given the acreage they planted,” he said. “There is a certain canopy management they could not have accomplished. So ripening might have been a little bit behind, there would have been younger vines, and a different type of winemaking in terms of what they were growing. The wines would have been lighter, not like the super dark and intense wines from Napa.”
But the strength of that tradition in the region holds a great appeal to Wong in his own winemaking.
“I want to focus on eclectic varietals,” he said, “the ones that are an aspect of our history in this county, the things that really identify us as unique. I think that’s very important, and what’s going to identify us. You have the pinots and chardonnays and cabernets, but I think California is so much more than that.”
With Eden Rift and De Rose maintaining the vineyards in California and other vineyards like Siletto, Enz, and Wirz also preserving the earliest varietals, Wong said that sharing that history through wines can be a source of regional pride.
“People won’t know what is here to protect and love unless there’s readily available information,” he said. “and if we can generate interest outside the region, I think that will only lift the pride, the energy, and the support of our community behind the wine industry as well.”
Now that he has joined that winemaking community, Wong can reflect on the remarkable journey that has brought him in less than five years to the founding of Blade & Talon and to his stewardship of Siletto Vineyards.
“It is like a hike,” he said. “You start off in a field and think, ‘Where is this going to end?’ And this has turned out to be my destination and where I want to be. When you get to the top of a crest like this, with the entire sky above you and a sense of how high you are, you can’t really feel anything but humility.”
Crave Wine Bar & Shop will be presenting Blade & Talon wines at a ticketed tasting event on May 25 at 6:30 p.m. “Nat will walk us through his wines,” said Crave co-owner Maura Cooper, “and give us a better understanding of Siletto Family Vineyards: where they started, where they are, and where they’re headed.” Earlier this month, I was invited to try some of those wines, which Wong described at the time as “works in progress,” on a trip to Siletto Family Vineyards.
The Wines of Blade & Talon
2022 Blade and Talon Crackling Orange Muscat Pet-Nat (12.7%) – “I’m doing a single fermentation in the bottle,” he said. “I do probably about three, maybe four days of skin contact, which gives it a slight hue, but it also adds a little weight and tones down some of the sweetness. One of the ideas is to create a breakfast wine —if you buy this bottle, the mimosas are already made for you.” For me, Pet Nats are “take it or leave it” wines—I will try them if they are being poured, but the husky, unpolished notes are, for me, an obstacle that limits their versatility. This one is different: the distinct orange muscat aroma and orange juice taste carry it to the point of mimicking a mimosa, with that same champagne tingle but without the cloying sweetness or heightened acidity. I loved this wine—it is a lot of fun and, for me, it is a must-try. It might be the first wine I have had that I could see serving equally well for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert.
2022 Blade and Talon Ruche, Siletto Vineyard (13.0%) – Typical of the more unique varietals that Wong favors, the aromatics of this wine have notes of citrus that are usually associated with white wine. “This is a grape from Northern Italy that had been forgotten and is now being rediscovered,” he said. “It makes a compelling wine that does something very different. To me, that aromatic confusion adds a level of excitement.” It has a very light taste that dances around your palette, starting with the brightness of a rose and then going into a spicy downturn courtesy of a small percentage of whole-cluster cabernet pfeffer which has been added to give it a little more depth. It is a remarkable wine and is my favorite from the tasting.
2022 Blade and Talon Lucky Tiger (11.5%) – A blend of 53% mourvedre and 47% cabernet pfeffer, Wong sees this wine in part as an homage to his Chinese heritage. “A lot of the mourvedre vines that are up in the Sonoma area were planted by Chinese,” he said. “So using that was important to me, paying homage to this ancient variety and utilizing something that maybe has a slightly different identity now than when California wine growing was at its infancy, when it was so nascent that anything was possible.” The aroma is delicate, with the slightest hint of cinnamon, rounded notes of black tea and dark fruit, a light acidity, some warmth to the back of the throat, and a very long finish with fading bitterness.
2022 Blade and Talon Vin Rouge – A blend of 44% negrete, 34% malbec, and 22% cabernet franc. Wong says, for him, this wine evokes thoughts of a vacation evening spent relaxing on the beach. “The idea is to create a little Loire-style blend,” Wong said. “I wanted to go a little bit more rustic, a little more bucolic, and maybe a little thicker and a little heavier. When I think of energetic wines, I think of upward momentum. With this one, I want you to exhale and come down just a little bit and get more grounded.” It is a masterful blend with the lush, rich mouthfeel that becomes more compelling with every sip. The lightness of the negrette is grounded by the earthiness of the cab franc, and a playful cherry-blueberry layer of malbec ripples through as it crosses the palate. Versatile and welcoming, this one is delightful.
The following Blade & Talon wines will be featured at the Crave event:
- 2022 Crackling Orange Muscat (Pet Nat) *
- 2021 Falanghina, Calleri Vineyard
- 2021 Rose Madder, Circle S Vineyard
- 2021 Negrette, Calleri Vineyard
- 2022 Ruche, Siletto Vineyard *
* reviewed above
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