Morgan’s Halfway House For Wannabe Winemakers, pt. 2

Ξ February 1st, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

The title for this second and concluding part of my interview with Morgan Clendenen, owner and winemaker for Cold Heaven Cellars, comes during her detailed discussion of the very real practicalities of farming grapes. Make no mistake. It is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Not that there is much anyone can do about it. She holds farmers in the highest regard. They are different. They know what is within their abilities. Indeed, having learned her lessons well, Morgan approaches winemaking with a kind of dispassionate Eastern quietism, an attitude she will patiently encourage, well, wannabe winemakers to adopt. It is all about a clear understanding of what is within one’s power, one’s control, and what powers properly belong to the world. Small miracles and potential disaster struggle for ascendance in the brain.
This attitude is equally important to cultivate in the winery. After making wine for more than a decade, three truths have emerged for Morgan Clendenen: Do not hesitate to do what you must to save a vintage; there is always more to learn; and winemaking is not for whiners.
Part 1.
Admin Could you say a little more about your earlier Pinot effort?
Morgan Clendenen I haven’t made one since 2002. In 2003 I was getting all of my Pinot from Au Bon Climat and we lost our entire crop that year. That’s when I started making Syrah. The 2008 and 2009 are the first Pinots since then. I love Syrah when it is from a great vineyard. So many people do Syrah, and Syrah usually is not something I reach for. My 2005, I’m absolutely in love with this wine, but it has a Pinot Noiresque quality to it. That’s probably why I love it so much!
Yes. Syrah has fallen on hard times here in California. I like Northern Rhone expressions in any case…
MC Syrah is a real tough road here. The only thing I’ll say is that my Syrahs tend to stand out, away from the group, not being so ubiquitous, because we do two years barrel, two years bottle before release. I come from…, I was raised raised in the house of Au Bon Climat cuvée; the acidity and restraint are definitely a number of the building blocks of my wine education for winemaking.
Yes. Would you say a bit about ‘green’ practices on the property itself? The vineyards? Do you have certain standards, certain requirements?
MC Not directly, because I don’t own the vineyards. Sanford and Benedict was for a period of time organically farmed. I have issues with some of the organic farming. I find that there is a lot more ‘product’ on the grapes themselves than some of the people who farm non-organically. I see more product! And I just can’t help but wonder how much of that is getting into the wine, and how that makes it ultimately ‘better’.
What do you mean by ‘product’?
MC Well, there are a lot of organic compounds that they use in spraying vineyards. I don’t know. I’m not vineyard manager or viticulturist. I make wine. So I really can’t tell you those kinds of things. I know that Le Bon Climat is farmed organically, and I will tell you that they are the ugliest damn grapes I get. (laughs) They are! We have a motto in the winery: “Ugly grapes make great wine.” (laughs)
And I had some ugly Pinot Noir this year and I had some beautiful Pinot Noir, and I have to tell you, the beautiful Pinot Noir tastes beautiful! The ugly is o.k. (laughs) Now I’m struggling to decide what I want to do, whether I want to blend it all together or keep it separate.
With organic preparations you are often required to use them more frequently. Their effectiveness is limited if contrasted with more industrial strength pesticides. They break down more readily, and so on. What kinds of pest pressures do you have there?
MC We have mealybug, I know that. White fly is a huge problem out at Sanford and Benedict over the years. The white fly basically shuts down photosynthesis, that it causes your grapes not to be physiologically ripe in the end. That’s a bad thing. Mealybug is really horrible because it kills the plant. We’ve really been watching the mealybug problem. We have a big mealybug problem at Le Bon Climat. And I think part of the reason we have a really big problem is because we are organic. What’s being applied over there is not proving effective enough to take care of the problem.
That said, I want to be greener. Hey, I moved my winery into Buellton and moved my house to within a mile of my winery. Before I was driving 45 minutes to get to my winery every day. That doesn’t feel green! Especially when you’re driving a big truck. In those terms, there is always something we’re trying to figure out; how to be a greener business, how to leave a smaller carbon foot print. And I have toyed around with biodynamics. It’s something I’ve read about, studied some… I’ve even gone as far as to procure the horn! (laughs) But I have never buried it in the ground.
Where do you keep the horn?
MC I have the horn at the winery, actually. It’s a buffalo horn; it’s not a cow horn.
Well, buffalo horns won’t work, of course.
MC I don’t know. The place where I was doing it, at the ranch, (actually it’s my ex-husband’s ranch, but we’re pretty friendly on that; basically, I let you keep your stuff. We’re cool.) So over at the ranch, because I was growing organic vegetables over there, I was extremely interested in biodynamics. Yves, my French partner, just laughs his ass off at biodynamicism. He says it’s a fashion, and then takes me to look at vineyards that he knows are biodynamic. And they are pretty sad looking. But I can’t say that they make terrible wine. You know? Biodynamics has some interesting things about it. It is rather archaic in some of its principles.
I remember meeting Telmo Rodriguez, a Spanish producer; and he said his vineyard was biodynamic. It was a time when I really didn’t know much about it. I asked him about it. He wouldn’t tell me! Finally I asked, ‘if you’re not willing to share with people what specifically you are doing in the vineyard, then don’t talk about it being biodynamic’. It is a vineyard he owns, after all. I think what’s going on is that Spain is a Catholic country. Biodynamicism is a little bit of witchcraft mixed in with some homeopathy and astrology. In that way it makes it interesting to me. But, I’ve never had the chance to actually see it in action. So… I’m almost dead certain that Beckmen Vineyards is all biodynamic.
I think that anything that puts you in your vineyard more frequently, that makes you more connected with it, is better for your vineyard. Period.
I think that is exactly right. But now, with respect to the mealybug problem at Le Bon Climat, it might be interesting to think about one of the major selling points of the biodynamic approach is that it restores a certain kind of balance. It would be interesting to see whether you could do like a test block.
MC It’s at a point where nothing, not even biodynamics is going to cure it. (laughs) It’s really bad. I’m sure the rains are not helping. Rain just spreads it around. It’s a constant battle. I have a total respect for farmers. How to deal with that kind of uncertainty in a job… you can’t predict what the weather is going to do. And even when you try to predict it, that doesn’t mean you can always do something about it. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be to be a farmer.
It’s funny. During harvest, when it starts raining, everybody around me gets all nervous an upset; and I say, ‘you know. I’m just not gonna’ because there is nothing I can do about it’. The best thing I can do is that when my fruit comes in see what the deal is and go from there. To winemakers I ask ‘Why cry over spilled milk?’ Now, I don’t hear the same bellyaching from farmers out there working their butts off.
Yes. I had a wonderful conversation with Bryan Babcock last year sometime. He is a hard core farmer, I’d say. And he is very outspoken in this regard, about the exigencies of farming. He’s a tough guy.
MC For Le Bon Climate vineyard, Jim (Clendenen) would be in total agreement with Bryan. And I think it is the same thing with wine. If you get wine that doesn’t have any acidity in it you’d be a fool not to put some acid in it, in my personal opinion. I had a guy at Morgan’s Halfway House for Wannabe Winemakers this summer (laughs) who was making some Syrah. I looked at his numbers. He told me how much acid he was going to put in, and I said, ‘you know, I would put in twice as much.’ He said that he was afraid to do that. I told him not to be afraid of the acid. As perfectionists, we want to produce the best wine that we can. That is very trying. In your mind’s eye you’d really love to have fruit and juice that’s perfect; juice you don’t have to add anything to. Everything is natural, and so on. But that is just not reality. Yes, you can take your natural fruit and just let it go, don’t do anything to it. Or you can hold its hand, make sure it gets to the end point, the right place, and still have it be commercially viable. If you don’t do that you’ll end up with wine that the public may not necessarily want to drink.
So, just as in the vineyard you have to address problems as they come up, sometimes you have to be a lot more pro-active than in your heart you want to be, whether it’s chemical or whatever. And in the cellar it is the same thing. You want perfect fruit, but that does not mean you’re going to get it. You have to work with your boundaries to make the best wine you can.
Last year at Le Bon Climat the grapes were absolutely perfect. The numbers, perfect. I didn’t have to do anything. It was a cakewalk. I loved the wine. But that only happens once every two of three vintages, that you get the perfect balance. So, yes, we’re going out there, we’re testing the sugars and such, but sometimes it’s a box of chocolates; you get what you get. This year was very odd for me, the 2009 vintage. The sugars were not very high. I don’t think I picked any Viognier above 23 Brix. Most of it was 21.5; but it was physiologically ripe. Very, very strange vintage. But they will have low alcohols; they will be fresh. It not going to be green, I can tell you that; which is what 21.5 would suggest.
I thought about additions and that sort of thing, but the fruit tasted good. The juice was yellow, with a green tinge. It was a very unusual year for Viognier. A friend of mine, Karen Steinwachs, who is the winemaker for Buttonwood, I met her for lunch right before Christmas, and she said she brought in, I think it was Sauvignon Blanc at 22 Brix, somewhere in there, and she still got 14.5 alcohol! We can’t figure it out. How does that translate? It doesn’t make any sense. There is something going on, but we can’t figure it out. And she is meticulous. She tested it at her lab and she sent it off for testing. Now, we know within 99.9 % that fruit, the Brix level, was at 22. We’re stumped. Perhaps different yeasts are responsible. There are so many different yeasts now, maybe that’s the reason. Some scientist may tell you that’s just rubbish, but in five years maybe some breakout scientist will say something different. There are certain things that I don’t know to be always constant. So I told her that I’ll tell her what my alcohol is in the end. I’m not predicted to have anything above 13.5% alcohol. It’ll be interesting. If it goes higher then she and I will definitely be contacting Davis! Houston, we have a problem. (laughs)
Is she using wild yeasts?
MC She’s using commercial yeasts. I use commercial yeasts. The Saints and Sinners is a wild yeast, however. I am not a big fan or wild fermentation because most of the time some of the wine gets stuck, it doesn’t finish. If you’ve ever restarted a fermentation I don’t think there’s anything more unnatural that you can do to wine. It made me sick to my stomach and I never want to do it again. When you have to take wine and heat it up, and then add 25 pounds of sugar… that does not feel good. It does not feel natural. It feels intrusive.
Strictly speaking, with the wild yeasts on the grape skins, and even though you may use a commercial yeast, you really don’t know which yeast finished the fermentation. There is no way of knowing. There are thousands of yeasts in there.
Yes. Indeed, a number of commercial yeast companies now include combinations of wild and commercial yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae principally. The idea is that the wild yeasts get a toehold before the commercial populations overwhelm them. Some qualities are imparted before others.
MC That’s what we’ve been doing in my cellar. We’ll monitor the juice, and when it is starting we’ll let it go for a couple of days. And then we inoculate. I do like natural yeasts; I just don’t want to have to deal with restarting the fermentation. You’d then have to use commercial yeasts in any case. I think that is the dirty little secret of natural fermentations. People always talk about using nothing but wild yeasts, well, ya know, bullshit! I don’t believe you! Especially for California with the high sugar levels, if you then go with wild fermentations it is a recipe for a stuck fermentation, in my mind. You don’t really know what goes on behind closed cellar doors! (laughs)
And just because it’s ‘commercial’, that does not make the yeast unnatural. It’s yeast, for god’s sake. It’s not plastic. In the past I played around with making sourdough starters from red grapes. One year I did one from Sanford and Benedict and two other vineyards. And it was interesting! The sourdough starters themselves were so very different in the breads. I had one from Gold Coast vineyard that, I swear to god, tasted like cinnamon in the bread! And that was because of the yeast starter. I took some red grapes; I put some flour in at a certain temperature, and created a starter. Once I had it started it was like having a newborn. You had to feed it… I mean, ok, I can’t deal with this anymore! (laughs) So I really like my yeast that comes in a packet! I am very comfortable with it.
I actually use a Champagne yeast for most of my Viogniers because I like the clean expression; it is a clear expression of the grape without adding this fruit factor or floral factor, all these things that the different yeasts are supposed to do. If it ain’t broke I’m not going to fix it.
Well, wonderful. I have a lot of material to work with here. I want to thank you…. wait, one more question. What do you think of the usefulness of new Social Media for a winery’s promotion? Does it help? Can you see the benefits?
MC You know, I use Facebook for work all the time. I get accosted by my friends all the time. ‘Ah, you’re on Facebook all the time, blah, blah, blah.’ Well, it allows me to get in touch with people in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, France… boom, all from one place. I think if you’re smart and learn how to use it, it offers great benefits. And it’s free. How many things out there are free that you can also benefit from, certainly on a business level? It can be intrusive. At times I wonder what the heck am I doing. I do get stalkers! But for the most part it has really helped my business.
I’ve always been a little behind the scenes, a little bit underground. I am not, as my Facebook persona may suggest, as out front as you might think. I always been more of a ‘behind the scenes’ person.
Thank you very much, Morgan, for the opportunity to speak with you. Oh, one last question, did you really ride an elephant in a vineyard?
MC Yes, I did. That is totally true. A socialite that used to live here in the valley held very elaborate parties. She chose her guests based on their entertainment value and willingness to go along with her party ideas. For her 50th birthday she had an Indian themed party. All the guests, all women, were required to wear a sari. The party was held by their pond located in the middle of their vineyard. I actually ordered a sari from India and learned how to fold the layers of cloth; there were many! Nothing like being swadled in a colorful sheet when it’s 100 degrees out! But the surprise of the party were the three elephants… I must say it was a majestic feeling, lumbering slowly through the vineyard, slightly higher than an elephant’s eye. I will never forget that view, for a time an Indian princess riding in a California vineyard.
Very cool. Take care, Morgan.
MC Bye, Ken.


2 Responses to ' Morgan’s Halfway House For Wannabe Winemakers, pt. 2 '

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  1. Amaronese said,

    on February 1st, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Though interesting and clearly somebody very passionate about wine making, it struck me Morgan seems to be a little bit on the sloppy thinking track when it comes to interventionism and biodynamics. Take the Maconellicoccus-infection in her vineyard: of course ‘biodynamics’ as a principle is not going to solve it, but biodynamics as a frame of thought can be helpful to find the right thing to do. It’s clear – to me, that is – that there is a severe problem with the micro-ecological equilibrium in the vineyard with such a large mealy bug infection. Just to spray – biodynammically/organically, whatever – is not going to take this out, because it’s only fighting the symptoms, fighting the outcome and not taking out the germ, looking for the reason.
    Same with her comments on acidification and fermentation problems with wild yeasts … .
    Most organic, biodynamic, natural winegrowers I know don’t like to talk about organic, biodynamic, natural winegrowing/making as a principle, a set of directives (or even worse: this astrological gibberish, which is just a huge cliché btw). They just make wine in the best possible way, with hard work and supreme vigilance in the vineyard as well as in the cellar and, of course, a lot of careful thinking. Even then sometimes things go wrong, but not always for the worst. I have some of J-M Brignot’s Savagnin 2004 in the cellar, which is just the best wine vinegar I ever had … .
    This is an extreme example of course. I don’t want to preach non-interventionism and all that jazz here, it’s just that considering the theory of biodynamics or organic winegrowing bottom-up, starting from what you have in the vineyard, instead of top-down could maybe help.
    Pity her wines are so difficult to get here in the EU. I will definitely try to lay hands on some bottles when I am in MN.

  2. 1WineDude said,

    on February 1st, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Hmmm… wasn’t aware of horn substitutions being allowed in BD winemaking… I think someone needs to ‘Scrabble challenge’ that one! :)

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