Winemaker Profile: Birk O’Halloran

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-07-2013

Birk O'Halloran pouring for Alex Zalbenhe of Comic Book Club Live.

Delicate, cerebral, skin-fermented Trousseau Gris, sourced from 32-year-old vines in the Russian River Valley farmed by maverick grape grower Peter Fanucchi. The wine comes in two bottlings — one, called “Secret Identity,” ages for six months in stainless steel. The other, “Secret Ingredient,” ages for six months in neutral French oak.

Electric, refreshing Chardonnay with a strong dose of minerality, sourced from the Sonoma Coast’s Michael Mara Vineyard and Napa Valley’s Linda Vista Vineyard, both farmed by celebrated viticulturist Steve Matthiasson. The Chardonnay, too, comes in two bottlings. One, the “Heroine Chardonnay,” is a blend of the two vineyards. The other, the “Heroine ‘MM’ Chardonnay,” comes exclusively from the Michael Mara Vineyard.

All are produced with the assistance of Dan Petroski, the brilliant winemaker behind Massican.

A vinous dream? Yes. But also the real life project of Birk O’Halloran, the New York City wine geek behind Iconic Wine.

East Coast wine enthusiasts may recognize Birk’s name. By day, he works as the east coast sales manager and head of marketing for A.I. Selections, a New York based wine importer. Known as “Acid Inc.,” the company is hugely popular among New York City’s sommeliers because its portfolio includes a killer list of producers.

But by night — thanks to an endless number of overnight deliveries from Dan Petroski — Birk runs Iconic Wine, a label that’s quickly earning acclaim. 

A native of Colorado, Birk headed to upstate New York in 2002 to study hotel administration at Cornell. While there, he realized that drinking was the best part of the hospitality industry. So after graduating, he moved back to Colorado to pursue an advanced sommelier certification from the International Wine Guild and help open KaCee’s Wine and Spirits, a retailer in Westminster.

Birk soon moved back east to help open CoolVines, a New Jersey based retailer that focuses on wine education. In 2009,Birk joined Acid Inc. in New York City and started getting super plugged in to the area food and wine scene.

Through it all, Birk was making regular pilgrimages to Napa Valley — often accompanied by Karl Antle, one of his closest friends from Cornell. In college, according to Birk, the two became friends thanks to their “mutual love for whiskey, witty banter, and all things nerdy.” While Birk and Karl tasted plenty of wine while visiting in Napa, they also developed friendships with some of the winemakers and vineyard managers for whom they had the most respect.

One of those vineyard managers was Steve Matthiasson. And in 2010, after Birk casually mentioned that he’d long dreamed of making wine, Steve offered to secure Birk some Chardonnay from the Michael Mara Vineyard.

So Birk and Karl ponied up their savings, purchased the fruit, and became accidental winemakers. Fortunately, another friend — Dan Petroski — offered to help the men figure it out. Together, they set out to make the “kind of wine we like to drink. Wines of balance, focus, and complexity with a strong connection to and pride for the place they come from.”

The 2010 Chardonnay was a success. Only four barrels were made, and Birk found that he had a thirsty group of friends in New York City who were eager to purchase his wine.

So the next year, Birk expanded his operation, formally hired Petroski as a consultant, and bumped his Chardonnay production up to ten barrels. He also began crafting a Trousseau Gris inspired by Romato, a traditional wine from Friuli, Italy, that’s made from skin-fermented Pinot Grigio.

While the wines are delicious (tasting notes below), the labels are extraordinarily unique.

Birk happily calls himself a “wine geek and a comic book nerd.” So when it came time to figure out a wine label, Birk decided to combine his two passions by hiring an artist to adorn his wine with a superhero.

As Birk explains it in his marketing materials, “The action adventure comic and the super hero are solely an American invention. While we love the wines of Europe… we are making American wine, so it only seemed natural to put a great piece of American heritage and culture on the label.”

“Besides,” he continues, “growing up, who didn’t fantasize about putting on a pair of tights and a cape and fighting alongside our favorite heroes? These days our heroes are winemakers.”

Right now, the wines are available for direct purchase at IconicWine.com and at a handful of restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and California. But Birk hopes to expand in the months ahead. This fall, Birk also has a book coming out — Eat Ink — about chefs and the stories behind their tattoos. 

Reviews below. Wines were tasted sighted. All wines were purchased, but Birk extended a generous trade discount.

2011 Iconic Wines Chardonnay Heroine
USA, California
SRP: $35. The nose explodes with bright citrus fruits, tart lemons, lush lemon curd, lees, chalk, and the slightest hint of butter. On the palate, it’s well-balanced and just plain delicious. (92 points)

2011 Iconic Wines Chardonnay Heroine “MM”
USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $45. A lusher nose that’s marked by a beautiful combination of candied, meyer lemons and fresh, tart lemons. Behind the citrus notes, one finds complex notes of orange blossom, pears and green apples, some herbs, and hint of butter. Like the nose, the palate, too, is richer than the regular “Heroine.” (92 points)

2011 Iconic Wines Trousseau Gris Secret Identity
USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $29. Aged for six months in stainless steel. The color is a beautiful combination of orange and salmon. The nose is marked by apricot jam, fresh strawberries, cantaloupe, dried herbs, and some developed notes that impart some oxidative notes along with a sweaty muskiness. It’s a fascinating wine that would be a fun alternative to traditional rosé. (89 points)

2011 Iconic Wines Trousseau Gris Secret Ingredient
USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $29. Aged for six months in neutral French oak. Like the Secret Identity, the wine is a beautiful orange-salmon color. On the nose, the wine displays a hint more oxidation but the fruit somehow seems fresher — bright strawberries leap out of the glass, followed by apricots, melon, and herbs. On the palate, the wine is richer, offering a fuller mouth-feel and thicker, more mouth-watering acid. (89 points)


A final note. For my palate, I slightly preferred the regular “Heroine” Chardonnay to its single-vineyard (“MM”) counterpart and would likely reach for the “Secret Identity” Trousseau Gris before the “Secret Ingredient.” But all the wines were delicious, and tasting them side-by-side was a blast!

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