New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff / Edition 1 available in Hardcover
- Pub. Date:
- University of California Press
Wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff, inspired by Robert Benson's Great Winemakers of California (1977), traversed the state of California to record lively and informative conversations with more than two dozen winemakers and grape growers who represent today's leaders and visionaries. While Benson's book captured a wine industry on the brink of exponential growth and recognition, Heimoff surveys a multibillion-dollar business with a global reputation and new issues to face. Heimoff has followed this industry for more than twenty-five years, visiting all parts of the state and monitoring changing styles and trends, and his interviews provide an oral history of contemporary California winemaking. He reveals the personalities, intellects, philosophies, and passions of the individual winemakers, as well as their opinions on recent high-alcohol vintages, globalization, and the "cult" wine phenomenon. Through this intimate and engaging book, wine lovers can sit in on the back and forth as Heimoff and his vintner subjects talk informally about their favorite subject: wine.
THE INTERVIEWEES: John Alban, Mark Aubert, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Andy Beckstoffer, Greg Brewer, Merry Edwards, Elias Fernandez, Gina Gallo, Rolando Herrera, Genevieve Janssens, Kathy Joseph, Greg La Follette, Adam and Dianna Lee, Dan Morgan Lee, Bob Levy, Rick Longoria, Javier Tapia Meza, Gary, Jeff, and Mark Pisoni, Kent Rosenblum, Ted Seghesio, Doug Shafer, Justin Smith, Tony Soter, Brian Talley, Michael Terrien, Randy Ullom, Margo van Staaveren, Bill Wathan
|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Steve Heimoff is the West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River (UC Press, 2005).
Read an Excerpt
NEW CLASSIC WINEMAKERS OF CALIFORNIA CONVERSATIONS WITH STEVE HEIMOFF
By STEVE HEIMOFF
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2008 Steve Heimoff
All right reserved.
Chapter One 1970s
It was a great time to be alive and making wine in California, maybe to be doing anything in California. The scent of the 1960s still hung in the air of a state not yet thronged with newcomers and paved over by subdivisions and freeways. Winemaking no doubt seemed a fairly exotic career for a young man or (far less likely) a young woman. But for those who for whatever reason were attracted to it, the allure was immense. Imagine living on the land, out in the country, in a place of idyllic beauty, doing honest work with one's hands, work that resulted in the creation of such a pure, wonderful product-not to mention following in the footsteps of Mondavi, Ray, Draper, Martini, Heitz, the immortal Tchelistcheff.
Winemakers who began their careers in the '70s were like the young hopefuls who'd always made their way from across America to Hollywood. Driven by their dreams, they didn't know how it would happen, or where they might work, or how to make ends meet. It was one big adventure. Often young, and with families to support, they could not possibly have known how long and arduous the path might be. But they knew what they wanted: to make wine, great wine, in the fabled Golden State.
As well known today as the names in this section of the book are, we ought not to forget the challenges they faced. In the years leading up to the '70s, Prohibition remained a living memory for many older adults, and its effects, so damaging, continued to be felt throughout California wine country, and America at large. Whatever progress had been made in the nineteenth century and past the turn of the twentieth had been largely wiped out.
Sweet wines continued to outsell dry table wines, as they had for a generation; a cola drink or cocktail was more likely to be drunk at the dinner table than wine. In such vineyards as there were, grape varieties were planted willy-nilly, in places ill suited for them-and often as not, the vines were diseased. The typical vineyard might contain Riesling and Gewürztraminer-cool-climate grapes-side by side with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, not to mention inferior types like Carignan and Thompson Seedless. An absence of federally mandated labeling laws meant that almost any grape variety could be (and was) called by almost any name the packager wanted. This was still a time when the biggest-selling wines were "Burgundy," "Moselle," and the similar purloined coinages salvaged from a bygone age.
Vine trellising systems were at best primitive. What today is called, disparagingly, "California sprawl"-in which the vine throws huge, uncontrolled canopies-was the norm, with the effect that grapes were prevented from achieving ripeness or, more correctly, ripened unevenly. Not that quality mattered; there was virtually no market for fine wine anyway. Those few individuals who understood fine wine understood (or thought they did) that it came from Europe, not California. This undermined efforts to perfect California wine, whose quality was controlled to a great extent by growers-farmers more interested in the profits that came from high yields than in the production of premium wine. The nation's wine (and alcoholic beverage) distribution system, such as it was, was a shambles. Even if a vintner could make fine wine, he was likely to encounter huge difficulties selling it.
But good things were happening in quiet ways. By the '60s, the Bay Area's economy had produced a class of men and women, small in number but influential as tastemakers, who could appreciate fine wine. A sort of neighborhood pride sent them looking around for local products, mainly to Napa Valley, and when they found them, they told their friends, who in turn told theirs. It was the emergence of this class, centered in and around Berkeley and San Francisco but with connections to Los Angeles, New York City, and even Europe, that provided not only the inspirational support but also, in some cases, the financial backing for some of Napa's earliest, serious start-ups. The era of the "boutique winery"-the small, family-owned estate that aimed for the very top-culminated in, or was symbolized by, the launch in 1966 of Robert Mondavi's eponymous winery, but was not limited to that event.
Names like Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Mayacamas, Souverain, Hanzell, and Sterling, now having joined the stellar veterans Inglenook, Charles Krug, Beaulieu, and Louis M. Martini, had established themselves as reference points by which the newcomers of the '70s-the Tony Soters, Rick Longorias, Margo van Staaverens, and others in this section-could steer, and steer reliably, secure in the knowledge that great wine could be made, provided one were serious and implacable. Hard work was what it took: hard land-clearing, hard viticulture, hard enology, and hard sales, all of it fueled by hard cash. If these winemakers ever had moments of doubt (and it would be surprising if they didn't), they were cheered by the increasing plaudits given to California wine by connoisseurs who counted. Especially inspiring was the now-famous "Paris tasting" of 1976, in which American wines, both red and white, bested their Bordeaux and Burgundy analogues, in a blind tasting held by French wine critics.
The 1970s marked the eruptive beginnings of the rise of California wine to worldwide fame. With so little actually known or accomplished, either in the vineyard or in the winery, everything was raw, tantalizing possibility. The men and women in this section of the book created templates where previously there had been none, and when rules did exist, which was seldom enough, they had few compunctions about breaking them when they had to. To the extent that California wine today possesses elegance, balance, and harmony, it is because these men and women envisioned those qualities in the wines they made, and insisted they be manifest in the bottle.
FOXEN WINERY & VINEYARD
Foxen is one of those wineries that makes great wine year after year, but is probably better known to sommeliers than to the general public. Located in Santa Barbara County's hilly, picturesque Foxen Canyon region, it has been the province of winemaker Bill Wathen and his partner, Dick Doré, who does the marketing, since 1985. Wathen is a simple, natural kind of guy who's happiest cheering on his kids' ball teams or making wine. We chatted outdoors on a cold day in February 2006, since there was no space inside the ramshackle winery building except the tasting room, which was mobbed with tourists doing the local wine trail.
How long did you stay?
Four vintages. I had met Dick [Doré] when I came out of Cal Poly. So I left, came back here, thinking, "You know what? After learning the ins and outs of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc at Chalone, I thought I could make wine."
Had you made wine at Chalone?
No, but I'd observed, and done the manual work. Nobody made decisions up there, because Dick Graff was the decision maker. He was tough to work for, a taskmaster. So Dick and I started making wine here, in '85.
What was the first Foxen wine?
The '85 Cabernet, from Rancho Sisquoc [fruit], followed by the '86 Cabernet.
At that time, did you see Foxen specializing in Cabernet?
That was the original plan. And we kind of, after '86, said, "You know what? We need to branch out."
Well, you know, it was good, but it was classic Santa Maria Valley Cabernet.
Which is ...?
Herbal. The climate is Region I. So we jumped into Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Where did you get those grapes?
Chardonnay from Nielsen and Pinot from Sierra Madre [vineyards], both in Santa Maria Valley. But over the years, we've done a lot of migration, in and out, playing the field. Because I knew all the growers down here, we'd source fruit from different places. We had a huge learning curve over fifteen years, and finally got locked into what I think are the best vineyards in each appellation in Santa Barbara County.
When did you start planting your own grapes?
Eighty-nine, up on top of the canyon. It's our estate vineyard, Tinaquaic, a quarter mile from here. Dick and I own it, on leased land. It's ten acres: seven Chardonnay, one and a half Syrah, one and a half Cabernet Franc.
Why no Pinot Noir?
As soon as you turn the corner from the river down here, all those nice things about Pinot Noir start washing away, aromatically and flavorwise. It's a little too warm up there. These other varietals do better in these side canyons.
So all your Pinot is purchased?
Yes. We have a lease at Bien Nacido [vineyard], and we selected the clones and rootstocks, our Block Eight. We also have Julia's [vineyard], which is owned by Jess Jackson, or actually [Jackson's wife] Barbara Banke. That's Santa Maria, too. We get a percentage of Sea Smoke['s vineyard], in Santa Rita Hills. I was instrumental in finding that property for the owner, Bob Davids. We'd spent two years looking for Pinot Noir property. We were sitting just east of the old Sanford & Benedict vineyard, kind of bummed out, and I looked across and said, "You know what, Bob? That's the piece. But it's not for sale." And he said, "Well, we'll see about that." He made it happen, and as a thank-you, he said, "Bill, you're going to be the only outside winery that gets Sea Smoke."
What do you look for in an undeveloped piece of land?
It's just a feeling. You'd look at that, even when it was virgin, and say, "You know what? That's the south slope over there." You could just see. Bruno [D'Alfonso, Sanford Winery's winemaker] and I used to do that all the time; we'd sit up there and go, "God, would I like to have that piece!" And it just happened. There was a really good feeling about the site.
So Sea Smoke, Julia's, Bien Nacido, who else?
Sanford & Benedict. Well, we've been in a-I didn't like the way it was being farmed. But it's changed; Coastal Vineyard Care has taken it over, and we're going back to S&B this year.
Can you contrast the Pinot Noirs from Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills?
Yeah. Santa Rita: dark fruit, heavier, bolder. Santa Maria: spicy, red fruit, little bit lighter texture. Really a lot of hard spice that you don't get in Santa Rita.
To what do you attribute those differences?
There's a little more, believe it or not, heat summation in Santa Rita, because of all the little turns the river and the hills take. And Santa Maria is just this funnel from [Highway] 101, wide open to the sea.
The Santa Rita people say the same thing.
It's not as wide open, especially when you get into the heart of the appellation-Sanford & Benedict, Rinconada, Sea Smoke, Fiddlestix.
Has your Pinot Noir-making technique changed over the years?
It's still changing. We went into this bold, tightwire without a safety net. There was a lot of guessing. We're so tarp-and-bungee here, this old barn, and I've got fermenters outside. We're planning a new facility now, on the property, but it's hard to make wine outside; it really is.
To keep it from getting too hot?
Or too cold. We've been able to add jackets to the fermenters, and that helped.
What Brix do you pick Pinot at?
It depends on the vineyard and the vintage. A lot of times, what happens is you're just on the verge of ripeness, and you get that heat wave that comes in, and it's just, all of a sudden, 27, 28 ...
Can you pick exactly when you want? Do you run into a lack of field hands?
No. No. We're comfortable with my picks. I've never had an issue where they told me they couldn't pick for me. I love all the guys. If I'm not growing, I'm trusting them to grow. They're really good people. As soon as we hit 24, I start visiting the vineyard every day to taste. I look for that almost-over-the-top [stage], and try not to get too much shrivel. I'm not favorable to watering down Pinot Noir; it's something I hate to do. But winemaking, you do what you have to do.
You would water down to lower alcohol?
What [percent alcohol] do Foxen Pinot Noirs tend to run?
High 14s to mid 15s.
When was your first Pinot?
What was the alcohol on that?
So what's different?
Oh, the learning curve. I don't like any of those old Pinot Noirs.
Did you like them back then?
For a year or two. But they just kind of fall off. They're green, and we were using stems. All of us making Pinot Noir in the '80s went through this big experimental period of stems. But it's hard to get the clusters ripe in Santa Barbara County. They add too much stemminess. You see that more as the wine ages than initially. Santa Maria-wise, I've been completely whole-berry fermentation for the last ten years. Some of the Sea Smoke stuff, I will use partial whole clusters.
Do you feel you're making Pinots to age?
They seem to do best the first five or six years. I like drinking them young. They're beautiful in their youth.
Do you use natural yeast?
I'm a little afraid of fermentations breaking down using wild, uninoculated [yeast]. I've got certain favorite yeasts, and they've been consistent for me, so I stick with it. But these superyeasts now that'll ferment bone-dry, 30 Brix-I don't know if it's a good tool or not.
What do you think of the high alcohol level of so many California wines?
I think there's just the beginning of a movement going back. I'm kind of in the middle of the road. I've liked some of these wines with real high alcohol, but then I also am a real foodie, and I don't like those wines on the table.
Sometimes they pall after a sip.
Right. There are two different wines: your social wines and your dinner wines.
You said you're a big foodie. What do you mean?
I've been cooking since I left home, at eighteen. Early in life, Dick Graff was great, into food; and Julia Child, I got to hang out with her a bit, and that was a big part of my life.
So moving into that Chalone milieu, Dick was very cultured. He was gay, and led a refined life-played the harpsichord, into philosophy. Did that rub off on you?
Just kitchen work rubbed off. We'd cook dinner and sit down and eat good food and drink good wine. I think it was the beginning, for me, of dinner with wine matchups. My parents did not drink wine; my mom was the cook, and made big pots of stuff.
So what do you cook?
Just about anything. I can do-with preparation-French, Thai, Indonesian, Mexican.
Do you design dinners around specific bottles of wine? Is it always a Foxen wine?
I do a lot of trade. I've got [this] great bunch of winemaker friends down here. Sea Smoke, Au Bon Climat, Qupé, Longoria ...
Tell me a dinner you might design around a bottle.
Oh, we could do what I call California food. We make a really nice dry Chenin Blanc here, a wine that ages. This was a vineyard that was planted by Dick's cousin in '66. So maybe oysters in the broiler, on the half shell, with the Chenin. And then one of Jim [Clendenen]'s Chardonnays, Au Bon Climat, a real nice one, with a scallop and lobster tamale and vanilla butter. And then I'll do a chorizo corn bread and set it down on the plate and just put a chipotle quail on top, with Syrah.
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Table of ContentsContents FOREWORD: H. WILLIAM HARLAN....................xi
1970s Bill Wathen, Foxen Winery & Vineyard....................11
Dan Morgan Lee, Morgan Winery....................19
Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery....................29
Rick Longoria, Richard Longoria Wines....................39
Merry Edwards, Merry Edwards Wines....................47
Tony Soter, Etude Wines....................57
Andy Beckstoffer, Beckstoffer Vineyards....................67
Ted Seghesio, Seghesio Family Vineyards....................75
Kent Rosenblum, Rosenblum Cellars....................83
Margo van Staaveren, Chateau St. Jean....................91
1980s Bob Levy, Harlan Estate....................105
Brian Talley, Talley Vineyards....................115
Heidi Peterson Barrett, La Sirena, Showket, Paradigm, Other Wineries....................125
Greg La Follette, De Loach Vineyards, Tandem Winery....................135
Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson....................145
Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez, Shafer Vineyards....................153
Kathy Joseph, Fiddlehead Cellars....................163
Mark Aubert, Colgin Cellars, Aubert Wines, Other Wineries....................171
1990s Adam and Dianna Lee, Siduri Winery....................185
Greg Brewer, Brewer-Clifton, Melville Vineyards and Winery....................193
Justin Smith, Saxum Vineyards....................203
Michael Terrien, Hanzell Vineyards....................213
Gary, Mark, and Jeff Pisoni, Pisoni Vineyards & Winery....................223
Rolando Herrera, Mi Sueño Winery,Baldacci Family Vineyards, Other Wineries....................233
John Alban, Alban Vineyards....................241
Javier Tapia Meza, Ceàgo Vinegarden....................249
Gina Gallo, Gallo Family Vineyards....................257