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Arkansas natives Jay Kell and Emily Collins enjoy living on the edge — at least when it comes to wine. Last year, this husband and wife team launched their own boutique wine label, Verge Wine Cellars, in Sonoma County, Calif. In a recent call to their home in Healdsburgh, we asked Kell to define the “fringe vineyards” from which their wine is made.
“We look for vineyards that are situated along the edges of ‘American Viticultural Areas,' ” he explained, “where mountain and hillside vines coexist [and thrive] with the wild, natural ecosystems. We enjoy the challenges and resulting quality we get from the edge.”
We wondered, just how did these two Hendrix grads land in wine country? It started with pasta.
Pine Bluff native Kell, after graduating in 1999, turned down a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Austria in favor of starting a pasta company with three friends.
Really? We asked. But it was good pasta. We still miss visiting Grassroots Pasta Co. in the River Market and those fresh, delicate little nests of angel hair and the perfect ravioli, shaped like oversized-postage stamps. There was nothing like it in Little Rock.
Kell, as it turned out, made the right move to choose food over Fulbright. As fate would have it, a huge avalanche devastated the small Austrian town of Saalfelden the very year he was to live there.
Later, Kell and Collins (a Fayetteville native) moved to Denver, Colo., where he continued to work in the food and wine industry and she got involved in advertising. They would both draw on these experiences in years to come when launching their label.
As their interest in wine grew, the couple headed west and eventually alighted just north of San Francisco. Healdsburg is the idyllic kind of town where, during cool summer evenings, you can find people gathered at the town square to enjoy good music and local wine. Kids dance by the bandstand while their parents share a picnic dinner with friends on the grass. It was from here that they would eventually venture into the wild, in search of the perfect Syrah.
But not before Kell and Collins crossed paths with winemaker Mike Brunson, who, in yet another stroke of serendipity, they met when Kell got a position at Michel Schlumberger Wine Estates. Kell and Brunson discovered that they shared a vision. Brunson, still the winemaker and vineyard manager for Michel Schlumberger, had 20 years of experience farming block-based vineyards throughout Northern California, and a reputation for producing high quality, artisan wines.
After Kell amassed 10 years of experience in the wine industry, working in various roles at Michel Schlumberger and in brand management at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, he and Brunson saw that the time was ripe.
In 2006, they produced 350 cases for their inaugural vintage of Verge Syrah, harvested on the mountainous edge of Dry Creek Valley, from a two-acre block almost 1,000 feet above the valley floor.
Kell said fringe vineyards are good for growing Syrah, a naturally vigorous varietal, because growing conditions “restrict vigor and give us berries that are smaller and more intensely flavored. Smaller berries are ideal because they have a greater ratio of skin to pulp. Skins are where all of the goodness and love is stored, and it's what we extract in the cellar.”
Kell does not use herbicides or pesticides in his vineyards, which would affect what he calls the “true expression” of a site. “Because our fruit sources are the first cultivated land adjacent to forests and wooded areas, each block has its own unique stamp that we extract using natural yeast fermentations.”
Collins and Kell are down-to-earth, easy-going, funny, and articulate — the kind of couple with whom you'd love to share a bottle or two of wine. But they're serious when it comes to their back-to-the land philosophy and the business of mindful winemaking. “Beyond the manufactured hype of wine country glamour, real people live here who strive to produce exceptional hand-crafted wines,” Kell said. “Love of the land, respect for the locavore culture of food and wine, and the seasonal process of farming are all reasons why we are in this industry,” Kell said.
After many months (and at the urging of friends and family back home), Kell and Collins have been able to get the wine placed in Arkansas. Verge is now available in select wine shops and restaurants in Fayetteville and at Colonial Wine and Spirits in Little Rock (check vergewine.com for updated retail locations).