A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
If you’ve ever driven the Highway 1 between San Francisco to Santa Cruz, chances are quite good that you turned off to visit the small farming town of Pescadero. Once there, certainly for every bicyclist, you’ve visited the local landmark Arcangeli Grocery. Remember the freshly baked bread? I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. Also known as Norm’s Market, here’s why. From their website:
“After World War II, Norm’s mother, Louise, and her brother, Alfred Arcangeli (both pictured Below), changed the company name to Arcangeli Grocery. In 1957, Norm Benedetti took over the family business and it became known as “Norm’s Market.” Norm initiated an extensive renovation program in 1979 that filled the store with wonderful specialty goods and a full California wine stock. The 24 varieties of hot French bread later won acclaim in Northern California’s Home and Garden magazine.
Only a fragment quoted here, it is as fine a family story as you will find along the northern coast of California, and the story only keeps getting better. Meet John Benedetti, winemaker, brewer, and web designer, in that order. Though new to winemaking, as you will read, he has to my mind already made a significant mark on the vinous landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains, AVA. Let’s back up a bit.
Last October I was with family and friends searching for the finest Halloween pumpkins grown on farms proximate to my home in Santa Cruz. The family tradition is to stop in at the Arcangeli Grocery for a speciality bread to share for our picnic to follow. On this occasion, I was to leave for Italy days later and had been asked by a European friend to bring an interesting wine from California. I had already chosen an ‘02 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, 10, a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars, and I had been searching for a white of distinction. In the Arcangeli Grocery I found two Arcangeli Chardonnays. I bought them both. Of very small production, good, I’d imagined the wines to be harmless and, with any luck, charming. Well, after tasting them both, I am more than happy to report that I have stumbled onto two of the finest Chardonnays I have had in recent years. Absolutely wonderful wines.
Flash forward to last Sunday, the day before Spring. A tasting of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines was hosted at a downtown Santa Cruz cultural treasure, a wine bar called Vinocruz, proprietor, Steve Principe (right). The winemaker, John Benedetti (left) was to be in attendance. No brainer, I went for an interview of Mr. Benedetti. Enjoy.
Ken Payton, Admin Would you care to introduce yourself?
John Benedetti My name is John Benedetti and I am the winemaker, fermentation facilitator at Santa Arcangeli Family Wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I am responsible for and focus on two vineyards, one is Bald Mountain which is in the Ben Lomond sub-appellation. That is a vineyard that has been farmed by the Beauregard family for many, many years; there is a really unique terroir there – sandstone at about 900 to 1100 feet elevation. It makes beautiful Chardonnay.
And the other, Split Rail, out of Corralitos…
JB Split Rail is an old David Bruce vineyard which was planted in the mid-80s by Greg Stokes. It is up at 1700 feet elevation in Corraltios, straight up off of Eureka Canyon Road. From one point in the vineyard you can actually see both the Boardwalk and Pacific Grove. You can see the whole Monterey Peninsula from there. It’s neat. It’s limestone soils, similar to the Côtes de Nuits in France. It’s planted to a David Bruce clone, Pinot Noir, which was originally brought over by Martin Ray in the ’50s and planted throughout this appellation.
David Bruce propagated it; his vineyard manager, Greg Stokes, spread it around to a whole bunch of his vineyards. It was a really popular clone planted all over the place in the AVA in the ’80s. Since then people have grafted a lot of it over to 667, 777, Pommard, the stuff that really produces a lot. The DB clone up at Split Rail really doesn’t produce a lot – we got 1/2 ton and acre last year – but it is amazing. (laughs) It is really, really French! You can taste it. It is grown in the same soil as DRC. We think it’s probably the same clone that Martin Ray brought over. It is structured, it is elegant, soft; it is not a big, bloated California Pinot, no matter what you do to it! I really enjoy working with it.
The lower half of that vineyard is planted to the old Champagne clone, UCD 32. They also have some 115 at the bottom [of the vineyard].
What is your background in winemaking?
RB It is a hobby gone haywire. (laughs) I’ve been brewing beer for 20-something years, and my family is obviously in the bakery business, in Pescadero, so fermenting things is second nature. I started making home wine about 12 years ago, just tinkering with it alongside my home-brewing. Then in 2008 I met up with an old friend of mine, Brandon Brassfield, who has a winery called Heart of the Mountain here in Santa Cruz. Really neat people. Brandon and I were talking about how much I loved Pinot – I’m kind of a wine geek – I told him I’d love to give it a shot sometime at making a couple of barrels at his place and he said, well, you know, lean into it and do it! So Brandon ushered me through it.
I had been talking to him quite a bit about experimenting with native yeast fermentation. He was approaching it from a much more conservative perspective at the time. But I’m really in to native yeast Pinots; I love the old style. I don’t like to intervene very much. Brandon figured it would be a good way for him to test the waters in his winery with native fermentations by letting me tinker there. So in ‘08 we made just one barrel called ‘The Wild One’ with grapes from their vineyard using entirely native yeasts, and it turned out great, really fantastic. In ‘09 we did it again. At that point I said to myself, “I like this.” And I think I am pretty good at it. I decided at that point to go ahead an get licensed, and now I work a Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon. Ryan Beauregard is a good friend of mine, an old friend, he supports me. i learn from him; we ping things off of one another. It is a really fun environment to work in.
So you’ve had no formal university training?
JB At some point I told my friends, Brandon and Ryan, that I was going to take some courses at UC Davis. They kind of laughed and said ‘You’ve been making wine for a few years now; why would you bother?’ I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I just believe in experimenting and in experience. I am still learning, and I really don’t want to stop learning. I have all the texts from Davis and I read them all. I have the reference books I need in order to study up on any question I may have; but generally what I’ve found is that if you start with the best vineyard, then your job as a winemaker is just to stay out of the way of it.
So, Davis is great, I think, if you need to learn how to fix problems, but if you work with good vineyards, you will not have problems – and if you do, I am not afraid to dump a batch of wine. I am not going to ‘fix’ something. This is not my day job. I am doing this for fun. If something is not working the way I want it to, then I am gong to walk away from it.
Would you consider your work organic?
JB Not organic. Split Rail vineyard is sustainably farmed, as are the Beauregaurd vineyards. In fact, I think they are going CCOF this year; they may have already. Split Rail is not an organic vineyard. While I don’t put much of anything in my wine, including yeast most of the time, I do use SO2, though I’ve not done the homework to see whether that is organic or not.
Pesticides can be ruinous on wild fermentations…
JB Yes, and they don’t spray anything late in the season at either of those vineyards that I know of. I know for certain they don’t at Split Rail. I have had no problems with native fermentations from either vineyard.
The wines all finish dry, never a stuck fermentation?
Where exactly is your winery located?
JB I work out of Beauregard’s facility. I work with the two vineyards mentioned and I am starting to put feelers out to some other places. But I just love those two vineyards, so I don’t see a need for others. Right now I do not have a tasting room. I don’t have a winery facility of my own. I started building one in Capitola but ran into some trouble. I was also putting in a brewery there. The government didn’t quite know what to do with that one. (laughs) They shot us down on a technicality. Something to do with owning both but being different business entities, so after 12 months of telling me it was fine, the ABC said I couldn’t do it. We pulled the plug on both.
What kinds of beers do you experiment with?
JB Belgian style stuff and IPAs. I tend to build beers that will stand up to being thrown into my old wine barrels. (laughs) At the brewery we were experimenting with Belgian triples that we would do primary and secondary fermentations and aging in Chardonnay barrels. My IPAs, I’ll through them into my Pinot Noir barrels and dry hop them in those barrels. That is harkening back to tradition. IPA was a British ale – they are very different now then they were then – which was shipped to India. As a preservative they put hops in the wooden casks they shipped it in. So traditionally, IPAs had wood. I doubt they used fine French oak like I do, but they did have an oaky or woody character to them. I’ve tried to pay homage to that tradition.
Do you worry about cross contamination of one kind of yeast from beer making into your wines?
JB Yes. Some of the Belgian beers my partner was experimenting with have brettanomyces in them, which you don’t want in your wine. He puts brett in the beers. Now, I am not afraid of brett in a wine. In fact, my dad reared me on old Burgundies and Bordeaux, and you get bretty bottles occasionally. To me, in the right balance, it adds a neat character. I think it is probably the enemy of terroir because it has its own individual character, but nevertheless, if it produces an interesting product that tastes good and is different and is a nice wine, then I am not afraid of brett. I try to avoid it, but if some got in there but the wine was balanced and I felt people would appreciate, I would let it go. I would lean into it and I would own it.
When you finished your first wine, were you shocked at what you had done? How did you feel about your first efforts?
JB I was thrilled. The experimental stuff we did at Heart of the Mountain turned out better than I ever imagined it would. Then with the first commercial release, which is today, the Pinots are far better than what I was hoping for. I was thrilled at how they turned out, especially the Split Rail. I’ve put on a designation on special batches, “Selezione Susie”. It is named after an old friend of mine who passed away just before my first vintage came out.
The Split Rail Pinot is a special wine, I think it is a really French wine, in its origins. It smells vibrant. I know that sounds cheesy; but it has a really intense aroma to it that jumps out. You can pick it blind in a line-up with 20 wines, no problem. That’s what I want to do. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it is unique.
I’ve looked over the Santa Arcangeli Family Wines website. How are you doing on inventory?
JB The Chardonnay is pretty much sold out. I have a few cases left for direct to consumer sales. The Pinot Noir, I should have inventory for another 3 months. I’m moving it pretty fast. Remember, it is a super tiny production. I produced 250 cases in 2010. I have about 50 cases left.
Well, you’re clearly a rising star in my estimation. I love your work. As I earlier mentioned, I took a couple bottles to Italy and Southern France for talented friends to try. People love them.
JB It is awesome to hear they were well received back where I would like to see them received.
I will often take special bottles of California wine with me. I recently took a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars. I like my European colleagues to have a sense of the excellent work going on here in California.
JB We’re working at it out here! Santa Cruz Mountains is the best, least known AVA in the world. (laughs) Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not afraid of structure, of acidity. It is not afraid to make age-able wines. Paul Draper is my hero. I love Ridge wines. I always have. I love his philosophy and his approach to winemaking. I don’t think people in the world realize that most of their wines are actually from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Paul Draper put us on the map out here. People still don’t give the AVA its due.
By the way, what is your day job?
JB I have a web design firm called Illuminada Design. I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I’m trying to segue into winemaking full time. Seriously, it is my favorite thing in the world to do. I love it. You’ve got to get your name out there. Once people try your wines, it works. It is hard to get noticed out there.
I’ll do what I can…
JB Thanks, Ken.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few kilometers from Cabrières, south of Clermont l’Hérault in the Languedoc, rises the massive limestone Pic de Vessou, the 480 meter summit of which once served as an ancient Roman outpost. Unsettled December weather brought fast moving clouds, curtains of rain on the horizon, long-lived rainbows, and sudden clearings to a cobalt blue sky through which the late afternoon sun now shone brilliant on the mountain. This ancient sentinel is a short distance from Clos Romain, a 380 hectare property of roughly sculpted hills, battered rocks and rolling valleys dotted with fig trees and an aromatic scrublands of wild thyme and rosemary. My car idled on the ribbon of pavement winding up to the family home as I stood roadside, mesmerized at the extreme, untamed beauty of it all.
Not far from where I stood was a reconstructed capitelle, a mortar-free stone hut where farmers in previous centuries would have stored tools and sought shelter from a storm. As I neared my accommodations further up the road, a starkly contrasting battery of solar panels abruptly brought me back to the present. Almost. For what is a solar panel array but a latter day temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the eternal flame of the hearth fire? This is how it is at Clos Romain: it is a time portal on past ages, of domesticated landscapes carved from an ancient wilderness.
Clos Romain’s is a love affair with history. Its very name says so. But it also is a love affair with the natural world. So it is with the wines they make. Though they use oak barrels and stainless steel tanks for some of their wines, the archaeological wealth of former Roman settlements found throughout the property has so impressed the imagination of co-owner and winemaker Celine Beauquel that she has decided to greatly increase Clos Romain’s production of clay jar wines, a tribute to the ancient Roman amphora.
There are currently 6 hectares dedicated to olive trees and 9 dedicated to the vine. Shale, limestone, and dolomite dominate. At 350 meters high, and with just that specific combination of soils and correspondingly low grape yields, I was sure that both Clos Romain’s olive oil and wines were deeply marked by the terroir. Of the three wines I’ve tasted, the finesse was playful, bright; in each the focus, precise. But such a rewarding result is far from effortless. Not here. This is no pastoral existence. As I wandered outside of Clos Romain’s éco-gîtes (rentable cottages) on the property’s high plateau, I looked out over a grand vista facing the Mediterranean; and I knew that here not only are great variations in temperature frequent, brought by the dry Mistral, but that another wind heavy with moisture off the sea, the Marin must always threaten. Rainfall retention in the soils is limited and wild boar are common vineyard and olive grove intruders.
The agriculture at Clos Romain is therefore very demanding, especially since only organic methods and practices are tolerated; and because only two people, Celine Beauquel and husband Romain Cabanes, daily work the rough land. This is equally true of the work in the winery down the plateau, just off the D15. Now into their 4th vintage, these apprentice winemakers have refined their steep learning experience to a greater use of clay jars. Ms. Beauquel has long wanted to mine clay from Clos Romain’s own soils, but that has proven too expensive. So they buy jars from a potter in Cahors, France who sources the clay from a local quarry in the South West of France. Indeed, there is a winery in Cahors who uses the same potter and the jars he fabricates, Clos d’un Jour.
Why clay jars? Just as Clos Romain celebrates and promotes exclusively organic practices, so in the winery do they pursue a minimalist, non-interventionist approach. Amphorae, after all, are made of the very earth we walk upon, and the vessels do bridge the gulf between the ancient and modern world, wedding both aesthetics and a simpler, green technology. But with creative experimentation, even when with an apparently simpler tech, comes risk and uncertainty. For technological developments answer questions put to the world.
Of clay jars, curing them for their first year of use requires an attentive month-long water soak to close the jar’s pores, but even when wine is subsequently added as much as 4 liters is lost every week to the angels. Of even greater concern are characteristics of clay jars less well known to modern experience: What is the minimal required thickness of a jar wall? How does the rate of oxygen transport change over time? How do jars behave in a humid environment? Over time can they become brittle? Can they be colonized by spoilage microbes as easily as can barrels? How best to clean them and does repeated cleaning effect transpiration? If not lined, how does the clay’s electrical potential react with the chemical soup that is a wine? Maybe a simpler technology is not so simple! Recent events at Clos Romain highlight this issue.
There have been difficult times for many winemakers recently because of abundant rainfall over the past months. For Clos Romain not only has water entered the winery, but as a result the humidity has spiked inside and there has emerged an as yet unidentified fungus now harboring in and on the external surface of some of their clay jars. Out of a fear of the presence of a hostile microbe, wine from some jars had to be placed in stainless steel tanks. Fortunately there has occurred no spoilage in the wine itself, none that can now be tasted, which, Ms. Beauquel suggests, may testify to the robust quality of jar wines themselves. Samples of the fungus have been sent to a lab for analysis, but out of an abundance of caution, and well before results come back, the cellar will be disinfected. Further, it was discovered that there is substantial variation to the wall thickness of the 4 jars colonized and those not. The potter from Cahors has been alerted and has assumed full responsibility and promises to ship replacements.
But of the wines themselves? One in particular jumped out at me. It is called Parenthèse, 70% Syrah and 30% Viognier, and Ms. Beauquel will age it in a jar. From one of the affected jars, Parenthèse had to be moved to stainless steel until the fungus riddle is solved. But what a glorious effort it now is! So lively and bright. The wine positively dances. If this is the promise of jar wines, then put paid to the method! Ms. Beauquel joyously explained that it came from an amazing parcel of Syrah vines but with a tiny yield, only 8 hectoliters per hectare. Parenthetically, very low sulphur levels are used. She’s signed up to a program called Nature et Progrès. Only 9 mg per liter is permitted under their regimen.
The visit and tasting was very satisfying, if a bit brief. In addition to Ms. Beauquel’s winemaking responsibilities, she is also a mother. And on the day I visited her child was running a fever. There seems to be no rest for this very active family. I have a great deal of work ahead of me in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I am very grateful to have encountered right out of the starting gate, with my visit to Clos Romain, so much of what I am seeking to discover in the viticultural world here: a strong dedication to organic principles, creative experimentation, the bold questioning of prevailing fashion, and a willingness to say “we can do better“.
Please follow Clos Romain’s exploits and adventures on Celine Beauquel’s excellent winery blog.
Ken Payton, Admin
If you had the right prescription during Prohibition you could get your bottle of San Antonio Padre’s Elixir, a tonic to be used only as directed, for medicinal purposes. And I am absolutely certain this is just what everyone did. Just how many prescriptions doctors of the era wrote we do not know, but the sum total, and permission to produce altar wines kept the San Antonio Winery in business through America’s dark age of Prohibition.
Both dream factory and fabled social dystopia, perpetually renewed by immigration and the domestic migration of restless souls called by angels West, Los Angeles, city and county, has seen multiple industrial and cultural histories come and go, among them the wine industry. Indeed, the city fathers, specifically the Cultural Heritage Board, Municipal Art Department, issued a proclamation some years ago declaring San Antonio Winery a historical monument, naming it “The Last Remaining Winery In The City Of Los Angeles”. Now, there is no reason to assume that an upstart winery styled after San Francisco’s celebrated Crush Pad (since relocated to Napa) might not already exist. I do not know. But the point of Los Angeles’ recognition bears upon San Antonio Winery’s historical character, as you will read in my interview with Anthony Riboli, winemaker at San Antonio and of the family’s 4th generation here in America. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon. I’m here from Santa Cruz visiting Los Angeles. While looking for a well known piñata store down in the warehouse district, I came upon your grand winery instead. A winery still in Los Angeles?
Anthony Riboli Yes. I am the winemaker here; I am also a 4th generation of the family. We’re in very unique situation here, being based in Los Angeles; but the winery was started in 1917 by my great great uncle, Santo Cambianica. At the time, this area was very much an Italian neighborhood. His idea was very simple: to cater to people going to work on the railroad by providing wine. The Southern Pacific Railroad yard is right down the street. So people would drop off their empty jugs in the morning and pick up the full jug at night. That was really the business plan.
But unfortunately he started the winery just before Prohibition. When that occurred, being a very devout Catholic, he had been granted permission by the Catholic Church to make altar wines. So at least he maintained some income.
Prior to Prohibition, in this area there were probably over 100 small wineries, right here in Los Angeles; but afterwards, less than 10. Then new growth of the industry began. In the early 30’s my grandfather was living in Italy, but World War ll was close to breaking out and his mother didn’t want him to stay in the country. So he came here to work for his uncle. Those two really began growing the company. And my grandmother, also Italian, was here sharecropping with her family in Chino. They met. Then it became those three people who grew the company through the 60’s and into the 70’s. Now my father is the president; he is the first of the third generation. My aunt and my uncle are also involved in the winery. And now, the fourth generation, myself and my brother, we are involved.
Were the founders, your great great uncle, involved in winemaking in Italy?
AR Well, Santo Cambianica, like almost everybody, made wine for their family, just as part of the traditions. No one was formally trained. It was that every family had their chickens, they had their cow, and they had their wine. There was never any formal training. My father learned from his uncle, and that is how it carried on. We had hired winemakers though, throughout the history of the winery. And we still have several winemakers on staff besides myself. But I was the first of the family to go out and get a degree; I attended UC Davis.
There seems to be a considerable volume of wine being made at San Antonio Winery. Where do you source? Were the original wines made from grapes sourced locally?
AR Yes. Historically the grapes sourced were all local at the time. Anaheim had grapes in the foothills of Pasadena; out in Cucamonga and those areas there were vineyards everywhere in this area of Southern California.
Do you know which varieties were grown?
AR Back then it would have been mainly reds. That was the bigger demand. Some field blends, Zinfandel, Carignane, Grenache, I think those had probably the greatest acreage, the biggest components of the wines. Then all anyone wanted was blends, that was all that really mattered; the jug wines then were all blends of those wines.
And then around that time was when those local vineyards began to disappear. Our winery needed to find other sources. So my father spearheaded going further up the coast. Now most of our vineyards are based in Monterey. We own vineyards in Monterey; and in Paso Robles we own vineyards and we also buy from a considerable number of small landowners whose business is growing grapes. Those are our two main areas.
And we now have a tasting room in Paso Robles — it opened just last year — as well as the one here. It was a new venture for us. And we have a tasting room in Ontario. Three tasting rooms in California. And we also have a small vineyard in Napa. We make a small production of Napa Cabernet in Rutherford. That was an investment my grandparents made in the 80’s. When I was at Davis that kind of became a project to replant and to bring that vineyard up to its full potential. Now it has been fully replanted. We make a small production. It is only about 500 to 800 cases of high-end Napa Cabernet; not too high-end, it’s $50, in that range. That’s kind of our flagship wine. But the majority of our varietal wines are from Monterey and Paso Robles, those two areas.
Most whites and the Pinot Noir we offer are from Monterey. The reds come mainly from Paso Robles, with a few whites like Muscat Canelli, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. But mainly the Bordeaux and Rhone reds come from Paso Robles.
There are a number of field blends still in existence in California. Will Bucklin’s place in Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino AVA… Do you source from any?
AR No, no! It would be nice. But even in Paso Robles it is far more common that you buy a little bit of Mourvedre, a little bit of Grenache, a little bit of Petit Sirah, Zin or whatever you want to make in that blend. You can co-ferment them if you wish. But typically they are not ripening at the same time, so we ferment separately and blend after we’ve aged.
One of the great secrets of the old field blends was co-fermentation of varieties at different phases of ripeness. In any case, what do you do about the softness, the acid issues, some of the grapes may have?
AR In Paso it is definitely warmer during the day than Monterey, so that allows you to get really full ripening, especially with varieties like Cabernet. The heat dissolves green characters, pyrazines, naturally, which is a benefit. But we do deal with higher pHs and lower acid levels just naturally occurring even though Paso Robles does drop 50 degrees on normal night. So it might be 100 degrees in August but 50 degrees at night. And this big drop is what separates it from the Central Valley. The warm days are the same, but that nighttime temperature does preserve more acid than the Central Valley. But we do acidify if it is needed. I can’t say we don’t add acid. It is about finding the balance. Think of microbial stability. We don’t want a wine that will potentially have problems. But cooler Monterey, you’re not typically adding acid as much as Paso Robles. It’s like anything. We’re site and year dependent; sometimes we need more acid, some years we don’t.
So who right now is in the tasting room? Tourists? Locals? It is very crowded in there.
AR It is a mix.
I saw some Spanish speakers in there. That can be a difficult demographic. If I remember correctly, the Wine Institute reported that it’s about one teaspoon per capita in Mexico!
AR We are unique in that we cater, especially at lunch here in the restaurant, to a lot of local business people out on lunch, the USC hospital for example. We do have tourists, especially on weekends, more tourists from out of town. We enjoy a very broad demographic here, being Los Angeles. Part of appealing to whether Hispanic or Asian clientele is that we provide a lot of different wines. We’re not just a Napa Cabernet producer. We also offer wines that are not sweet, but sweet wines as well. Having that mix of sweet and dry red wines, same with whites; having rosés and sparkling sweet wines; and the imports we offer from Italy; we have very diverse mix. That is what brings in such a diverse clientele. We hope to offer something different for each of those diverse customers.
How do people hear about your winery?
AR A lot of it has been word of mouth. For many years that is all is was: word of mouth. And it was what we based all of our growth on. Now recently we’ve done more with billboards and such, but we don’t do any extreme advertising. Word of mouth is still probably the number one way we get ourselves out there.
You probably have a mailing list and a website…
AR We do. We have a website and an email blast list that we’ll use. But for new customers, other than the billboards, they come see us because a friend or family member mentioned or recommended the winery. That is the beauty of being in Los Angeles. There is a large population, and having people come in who’ve never heard of you is a good thing. And there is a constant supply of people who have never heard of us. So we keep growing.
How many people pass through the tasting room each year?
AR That is a good question! It’s up there!
It’s a Tuesday and the place is jumping.
AR I don’t know how many people pass through. I would say we’re pushing over one hundred thousand people, probably more.
So business is good…
AR Yes. In retail we’ve been lucky that we’re unique; we have our clientele, whether here or in Ontario or Paso Robles. The other restaurants we sell to have had a hard time in this economy. We have seen sales to other restaurants have problems. But in general I think we have weathered the storm pretty well. Maybe, again, it is because of the diversity of the products we offer. And we just persevere. Hey, we made it through Prohibition! What’s a little blip like today’s economy compared to Prohibition?
Getting back to the history of San Antonio Winery, could you provide a little more detail about your relatives?
AR Sure. My great great uncle, Santo Cambianica came from Northern Italy. He was from a small town north of Milano, and even north of Bergamo, way up in the Alps. He came here with his brother and cousins to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was the big employer at the time. The yards are still here, just down Lamar street. They were just laborers, you know, boilermakers and laborers. Again, Santo had no formal training in winemaking, but he saw all these Italian and French immigrants and he wanted to provide them something they brought with them, which was their demand for wine. Wine was part of their experience, something that was always on the table. So Santo, I think, just saw an opportunity. Hey, luck is always a part of anything; and hard work. That became his business.
As you’ve said, he sold bulk wines, refilled the bottles folks would drop off in the morning. When did individual bottlings begin?
AR We bottled by hand. Back then that is all there was. And the labels as well. Everything by hand at first. Then we slowly became more mechanized over time, of course. Now we have speed bottling line.
Do you still posses examples of early bottles?
AR Yes, we have some examples of a few of the originals. The San Antonio name is the same as then appeared on the original labels. I’d be happy to show you them. During Prohibition there were bottlings called Padres Elixir. That one was a medicinal product that was legal to sell. You’d go to the pharmacy with a prescription for wine. (laughs) There were a lot of ways to survive financially, and that was one of the ways historically.
At one time the whole winery was redwood tanks. The ones we’re standing next to are first growth. I am sure they are over 100 years old, and made from trees who knows how old.
I’ve seen similar ones at Parducci in Mendocino County…
AR Exactly. They are of the same generation. Unfortunately, over time we’ve had to remove them; but our new tasting room — which will be open here in Los Angeles in about a month after remodeling — will incorporate these redwood tanks into the decor. It will be amazing to see, tying in tradition with a modern tasting room, to connect the old and the new.
Do you know who built these tanks?
AR That is a good question. I don’t know. I’m sure my grandfather would know. He’ll be 90 in September. But I’m sure they were made by an Italian gentleman with just that speciality. My grandfather would tell me stories about when a new tank would come in. You see, redwood doesn’t give any good flavors. It is not like oak. So you would actually remove and strip away the flavor of the redwood by using a caustic solution. He would tell me how strong that stuff was to get rid of that taste of redwood! You can imagine. Redwood decks? There is a reason bugs don’t like redwood. So the flavor would have to be removed before you could use it for wine.
Built by craftsmen whose names are lost to us…
AR Probably. We have tried to maintain that connection with our history and tradition. My grandfather is really excited about our remodel. He’s still very active and comes in almost every day.
So these are the historical bottles from San Antonio Winery.
AR Here’s one of San Antonio Cabernet, probably from the 60s. We’ve redone this label. Now we have one called San Antonio Cask 520, a call back to this older bottle. Our new one is a Bordeaux blend whereas this one is a straight Cabernet. Padres Elixir. This one dates from Prohibition. Here’s an old San Antonio Riesling bottle. I would have to guess this dates from the 50s. It’s a different label.
The medicinal Padres Elixir has a screwcap! I love this bottle. Oh, here along the bottom of the label it reads “This tonic is not to be used as a beverage.” (laughs)
AR Exactly. A way around Prohibition. You’ve got the old monk…
Of course. He seems healthy enough.
AR You’ll notice all of these small rooms with barrels and what have you. We use them all. They are small because they were not all built at one time. These were once part of the neighborhood. The rooms were actually houses. As people would move, my grandparents would buy their lot and build another part of the expanding winery. As we expanded, we would buy the next lot. So instead of one giant winery — popular today — we have a lot of small rooms added over the years.
What are we bottling today?
AR This is a sweeter red wine, a semi-sweet red wine that we call Imperial Red. It is our San Antonio label. Again, this is part of our diversity, of appealing to many different tastes. Such a wine is not common in today’s fine wine world, but it is becoming more and more popular. For this wine — you see the cathedral — we did an old retro label. This is the cathedral of Saint Anthony. We try to tie in a lot of our packaging to our past. This image was once on all of our jug wines from 50 years ago, the cathedral of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. That’s where the name San Antonio came from. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of my great great uncle. Everyone thinks there is a Texas connection! No Texas connection!
Are grapes still brought into the winery? I don’t see any crushers or presses.
AR We still ferment juice here, but we don’t bring whole grapes in anymore. We stopped bringing in whole grapes in the 60’s. For reds we ferment in our facility in Paso Robles and several other facilities, all on the Central Coast. Then we bring that red wine here after fermentation for barrel aging. All the barrel aging and bottling is done here. But with whites grapes, we’ll de-juice those elsewhere and then bring the juice here. We still ferment all of our white juice here on-site.
These barrels are cool.
AR You can see the wine inside, and all the yeasts, the lees laying on the bottom. Here we can show people why we are stirring, the whys of the sur lie process. You want to get the yeast back into suspension. That adds body to the wine over time. We do that every week after fermentation is complete. As you know, it is a very traditional method. And these barrels are completely functional. Here we also use them so that people can see inside, because most people have no clue what the interior of a barrel looks like. It’s something different!
Well, Anthony, thank you very much for the tour and history lesson.
AR It was a pleasure, Ken. Thanks for stopping by.
What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!
Family, wine, politics, America, and China, these are but a very few of the topics touched on in this, part 2 of my luncheon interview with Gerhard Kracher of the Austrian wine house Kracher. Located on the banks of the Neusiedlersee in Austria’s Burgenland, the vineyards suffer under the divine abuse of Botrytis cinerea, one of only four such regions currently known. Kracher’s sweet wines are held by many to be the epitome of the style. Perhaps one day I shall taste one. In the interests of economy, I ask that folks interested in further reading about the region, please read this article by Austrian wine expert, Julia Sevenich. For a sense of the impact Kracher wines have made upon the international wine community, please read this marvel of economy (even if slightly out of date). And for an interesting overview, please read this.
A final note: Sharing lunch introduced a certain staccato quality into our conversation. I turned the recorder off more than once so that we might be free to enjoy our meal. I’ll end with the observation that Gerhard is not a showman. He is reflective, thoughtful. Thrust into the spotlight after his father’s, Alois Kracher, untimely death, he is eager to be his equal, and to build upon the legacy begun by his grandfather so many years ago, a legacy begun with the simplest of gestures: planting a vine. Without further ado…
Admin Governments can make it very difficult for winemakers to work. Though often historically based and needed, rules are sometimes quite numerous and seem just as often stifle innovation. Is the Austrian government sympathetic to the winegrower?
Gerhard Kracher Yes. Much more. When my grandfather started, it was people who came for holidays, actually. They were the ones who first started bringing wine into their countries. It was then mostly Swiss and German because he was in a German-speaking area. There was no thinking, no chance of going further away.
How did the visitors then hear about Kracher? Advertisement? Word of mouth?
GK Yes, word of mouth. The first people came by accident! (laughs) They were lost, and ended up sleeping in our house. They were tourists. And these people told other people.
Do you remember an occasion when your family name first appeared in a guidebook about Austria?
GK Actually, this was before my time so I don’t know exactly.
Of course. But how common was wine tourism then? Do you recall family stories of such?
GK At this time no one did it. We just had holiday visitors. We have this big lake near our village, so it was just tourists making their holiday.
Is the lake really only five feet deep?
Why is it only five feet deep? Is it a glacial remnant…?
GK Actually, the lake was five times the size it is now a couple of thousand years ago. And it’s just five feet deep because that’s what happened! (laughs)
That’s as good an explanation as any! So you’re not a Geologist!
GK For our place, where we are, we have the perfect micro-climate from that lake and all the other small lakes around our village and between our various vineyards. Some of them are just 30 to 50 centimeters deep. So we have a large quantity of water all around us which brings a lot of humidity. So that during September and October we have heavy fog in our vineyards every morning. We are totally flat, so during the day there is a little bit of wind which clears out the fog in the vineyards and leaves us with a clear, sunshiny day. And it is this combination that is perfect for botrytis.
Just how large is this Austrian region where the botrytis thrives?
GK It extends all around the lake. But there are places where is is more and less.
So there are other producers of sweet wines in the area? And did they come after your grandfather?
GK Sure, there are other producers. Sweet wine was always on the scene, but people didn’t know how to place it on the market. It is true that on the other side of the lake they were more successful because they were the richer, more educated people. They knew what they had. The other side was nearer the capitol of our region, and there was Esterházy. They had money. They had education. On our side of the lake there was nothing. No one was interested. In our village they always said our area was not good because nothing would grow. But is turns out to be perfect for wine.
Is it fair to say the government of the time would show a preference for Esterházy’s side of the lake? They would get the development monies but not your side?
GK Not exactly. I am speaking of the time when the Esterházys were, how do you say, the bosses. And from that time on they could develop. They knew about botrytis, they knew about how great these wines can be. On our side of the lake we did not know such things. Everyone then had to do anything to survive.
Tell me a little about your grandfather’s post-war experience. What was it like to return to the village?
GK My grandfather was in World War 2 for three or four days. He was a very tiny, very slim man. He was 17 or 18 when he had to go to defend Vienna from the Russians. When the Americans came they saw him, and because he was so small that they thought he was 13 or 14. They said they don’t shoot kids and they sent him home. At this time he took over the family estate.
Where were his parents?
GK His parents were also in Illmitz. There were eight kids. Everyone got his part. My grandfather got his small part. But actually, he got essentially nothing; he was poor, too. So he started to build it up. He rented some land, he bought land when he could, so it was step by step. He knew exactly what he wanted to be: a winemaker. But at this time he did not yet have a chance. You need a lot of money to plant vineyards, you need a cellar and barrels…
Where did he eventually acquire his rootstock? And what grapes did he initially plant?
GK He planted traditional varieties from the region. The most successful grape of the time was Welschriesling. And there was Pinot Gris, Muscat Ottonel, Traminer, Zweigelt, that’s it. And Chardonnay. Chardonnay was brought by the monks 300 years ago. These were known. There was a family in Illmitz at this time who dealt in rootstock, and another in the next village; there he got his plants.
In your climate is it three years until a first harvest?
GK To produce, it’s three years. But real quality, what we say here is real quality, we say seven or eight years, because if the vines are young you can’t leave the grapes that long on the stock, it is too much stress for the young vines.
When did your grandfather start a family? Like your father, he must have been quite young.
GK He was married when he was 17 or 18, right after he came back from the war. My father was married when he was 22.
Now people frequently get married when they are 30. It takes men longer to grow up these days!
GK That’s true! (laughs) At this time 22 was quite old to be getting married. Most got married when they were 18 or 19.
And how many children did your father have? What is your mother’s role in the family business?
GK Just me. My mother is the boss of the office. She takes care of all the exports, all the administration.
When I spoke with Rudolf he told me of three episodes in recent Austrian history that have had a sever effect on Austrian wine exports. Not only did he mention the wine scandal of 1984-85, but he gave near equal weight to political developments, especially concerning the rise of the far right. He referred to Jörg Haider, for example. He caused an international stir, shall we say. Now, here in Vienna you recently had elections. You came very close to having the Freedom Party’s leader as the city’s mayor. How do understand these political developments in Austria?
GK The vote was 27%. Very close. Well, the first thing is that the Freedom Party has great marketing. They simply have. Their politicians are educated in the ways of marketing very, very well. They know exactly how to deliver a speech in front of the camera. The second thing is that is very easy to get people to feel uncomfortable. Very easy. You just have to tell them “We could be better”. (laughs)
We have a similar problem in America…We have Sarah Palin.
GK Yes. How can it happen you get George W. Bush two times for President? (laughs) It’s crazy. Sarah Palin isn’t even educated. So, yes, people are feeling uncomfortable. And yes, we have some problems. It’s absolutely true. But I think that a lot of people voted for the Freedom Party to give a kick to the Social Democratic Party, to get them to wake up. So, I think it is a matter of time, maybe at the next elections, that the Freedom Party will never again get 27%.
Now, does that 27% give them additional policy-making power? I mean, will people be able to see the consequences of their vote?
GK Yes. They have more seats in the Vienna government. There will be some consequences. But the Social Democratic Party will work with the Green Party so that the results will not be so terrible. The coalition might also include the Conservative Party, which has a different meaning than in the US. They are not on the right wing.
In America we no longer have moderate Republicans. It is shocking to reasonable Americans.
GK And that is very, very bad. To me what was most shocking was when George Bush was elected a second time. I just couldn’t imagine people would vote for him again. There was no reason for it.
Turning to more pleasant topics, tell me more about Kracher as a business.
GK We also have an import business. We import and distribute wines from all over the world; a lot from California. American wines were always selling well. After George W. Bush was President? No chance. He was very, very unpopular.
There you go! Exactly my point about Austria’s vulnerability. That’s funny. Were you stuck with large inventories?
GK It wasn’t really that bad. Our success was that we had wineries where we don’t have to worry about selling them; for example, Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl, he’s Austrian, so he wasn’t treated as an American. There were others, but New World wines became very unpopular during this time. Not on the level of Ridge or Sine Qua Non, but on the middle level.
Is there much of a wine collecting culture in Vienna? Do a lot of people have cellars?
GK Quite a lot, yes. Nearly every house has a cellar. And not just in Vienna. But most of the people don’t really know it, but there are huge, fantastic cellars. It is not that extreme as in Switzerland. The Swiss are crazy for wine. That is a fantastic market for us.
So when the architectural plans are drawn up for a house do they include a cellar?
GK Yes. In our region every house has a cellar. This is normal because in our region nearly every house has some vineyards. Even to this day I don’t believe there are houses built without cellars. Maybe a few but… As a matter of fact, if you go up the street a ways there is the Palais Colburg. They have one of the best wine cellars in Europe, or, actually, in the world. They have a collection of 100 vintages of Lafite. They have everything, actually.
Is it principally a French collection?
GK No, no. It’s international. Everything.
Would you therefore say the Austrian public has a good grasp of the qualities of international wines?
GK Well, this is a hotel and restaurant. The owner loves wine. So he made this his theme. Not everyone collects wine, but a lot of houses have cellars because it was this way. Sometimes there were two cellars, a cellar beneath a cellar. Wine collecting in former times did not really exist; it’s been in the last 20 years that this has occurred, and then to collect Austrian wines.
Does the Austrian government have a formal position on alcohol consumption? I mean, does it draw a distinction between wine and other forms of alcohol? Better, when they speak of wine are they also speaking of alcohol? Do you foresee a time when Austria might impose stricter laws?
GK It is just alcohol to them. But there are no extreme regulations here. You are allowed to drink when you are 16. That’s it. New laws? Not now.
Kracher is also attempting to open new markets in China. How is that coming along? I think I read you were the first.
GK I think so. We were there 7 or 8 years ago, when we entered the market. It was an import company co-owned by Swarovski. The manager for the Swarovski team was responsible for this import company and he brought us into his portfolio. That’s why we’re there, and it’s growing every year. People get more and more interested in wine. It’s perfect for us.
How do you find the Chinese palate? After all, their wine history is very short. What of those stories of mixing wine and cola?
GK There is none. I’ve heard about the mixing but I’ve never seen it. I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and Macao in May for two weeks. But I have never seen this mixture.
Assuming even urban legends often contain a kernel of truth, do you think the Chinese have an enthusiasm for sweeter wines?
GK It is this way, yes. They have a palate for sweeter products. They like sweet wines quite a lot. It is a very good market for us. We have to build up our market there which will take another 10 to 15 years. They are not educated about wine. That takes time. They have no idea where Austria is. They have no idea who Kracher is. They have no idea what botrytis is. It’s all new for them. We only export sweet wines there. That’s what we are famous for. And I have a similar impression that is the way it was when we began importing to the United States. But, the people in the United States were educated in wine. They just didn’t know where Austria was or what we were producing. So in the US it was easier.
Well, I personally apologize for the American educational system. And after the mid-term elections it will probably get worse. We’ll be teaching creationism and American exceptionalism, and have even less to talk about.
GK Well, it is easier to control a country when people are not educated. (laughs)
And our foreign language studies are not what they could be, shall we say. To speak another language is to enter another’s world. We’re not very good at that.
GK When I was 16 I spent 5 weeks in Chicago. I was quite shocked how historically and geographically uneducated people were.
Was your company at all a part of the European Wine Bloggers Conference? There were a lot of wineries there but I don’t recall seeing Kracher. Were you contacted?
GK We had some wines at the Badeschiff, I think. We were not contacted. Actually, maybe we were. I am not often in the office. But I was not informed.
What is your understanding of the effectiveness of the wine blogging community? What of social media generally? Does Kracher have a Facebook page?
GK No. I think in the future it will become more and more important because the internet is the media of the future, definitely. Whenever I meet people under 40, they spend at least a hour everyday on the internet. That is a large number of people. And wine blogging is something for the future. People are more and more interested in the news, what new is happening in the wine world. And such news is easy to find on the internet. Waiting for a month or two for a magazine, the internet is instant.
When doing background research for our conversation I came across very few interviews, and of those they tend to be quite short. So ours will be a kind of the internet equivalent of War and Peace!
GK I’m a little shy. (laughs) No, I’m not!
I don’t believe it is in the Kracher family’s DNA to be shy. Neither is it in the Austrian DNA, now that I think about it. I’ve been invited into homes and had frequent, detailed conversations with complete strangers.
GK Absolutely not! The people here are quite open-minded because Vienna traditionally was always a melting pot, for hundreds of years.
I would imagine organic viticulture is rather difficult in your area. I would imagine the use of Bordeaux mixture might be common.
GK Well, we are working with Nature and not against it. The thing for me is that it doesn’t matter if it is organic, biodynamic, or whatever: the truth is always in the bottle. And if you work against Nature you will destroy your soil. You will never make great wine. The only thing you have to do is treat your vineyards in the right way. A plant is like the human body. If you’re seriously ill you need antibiotics or you will die. It always depends on the vintage.
If you weren’t here, how would you have spent your Sunday, or any Sunday?
GK My Sundays? (laughs) Well, when I wake up I think to myself what I am going to do today. I have a short breakfast with my girlfriend. Then I read the newspaper. I visit the cellar to make sure everything is alright (I do that everyday). When there is beautiful weather I go out for a bike ride through the vineyards. If it’s cold I will go by car. Then it is lunch, something casual in town with my mother or my friend’s mother, together with my girlfriend. The afternoon then is very easy, sitting in the garden in the summer, going to the beach at the lake. I’ve a small boat. That is my Sunday.
Thank you very much, Gerhard. And thank you for the lunch.
GK My pleasure, Ken.
I was to meet Gerhard Kracher of Kracher Winery for lunch at the Plachutta Wozelle. As an earlier post recounted, I had met Dr. Rudolf Kracher, Alois Kracher’s brother, at Parliament in Vienna a previous afternoon. It was Dr. Kracher who put me immediately in touch with Alois’ son, Gerhard. Of course I arrived half an hour before lunch to explore the restaurant’s immediate neighborhood. I had seen two pictures of the gentleman while preparing for our talk, and so sat on a park bench near the restaurant to see whether I could identify him among the Viennese strolling by this brisk Sunday. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he walks. But as the hour drew near I saw no one resembling him pass. I began to worry the interview might not occur. Into the Plachutta I went, and was immediately greeted by the nattily dressed maître’d. “Mr. Kracher is waiting for you.”
Gerhard Kracher has been the winemaker at Kracher since 2007, assuming full responsibilities at the tender age of 26. The passing of his father, known for a year to be approaching, helped with the transition. As did the years of work Gerhard had already put in at the winery where he worked since he was 18. I shall let Gerhard explain the circumstances in the interview below. It is sufficient at this point to say that there remains some sensitivity to the idea Gerhard needs to prove himself the skilled winemaker. For it is true Kracher is no ordinary winery. Its sweet botrytis wines are among the most celebrated and sought after in the world. Can Gerhard sustain its reputation? Yet it is also true that Alois was himself initially eyed with suspicion.
By all accounts, Gerhard’s father Alois (Luis) Kracher remains a beloved figure in the Austrian wine world and beyond. Having taken over the Kracher Winery from his father in 1981, Alois worked diligently for his brief life to promote and establish the international reputation of a winery built by his father out of the ashes of World War 2. From the impoverished village of Illmitz near the Austrian-Hungarian border to the salons of Paris and skyscrapers of New York, it was a long, hard journey. Kracher founder and patriarch, also named Alois, was, at 17, forced into the army to fight against the invading Russians during the closing weeks of the War. A slight, thin man, he was given a uniform far to large for his frame. When finally captured by the American Army, he was singled out and sent home because, as an American soldier put it, “We don’t shoot children”. Soon after arriving back in Illmitz, elder Alois begins his adult life with the planting of a vineyard.
This is one of the stories Gerhard tells during our 2 1/2 hour lunch conversation. And many more details of the early days of the Kracher Winery will emerge with the additional parts to come. Gerhard is a warm man, and quite funny. But also cautious. I am certain Dr. Rudolf Kacher’s introduction, while trusted, was not without its peculiar, fantastic gaps. Just who really is this American wine writer guy? Good question. But after time spent talking, with my recorder frequently turned off for the sake of shared, relaxed moments, I think he came to feel sufficiently comfortable to speak freely.
Let me hasten to add that I shall in later posts provide background information about the winery. For now: Enjoy.
Admin I was at the MAK last night, not too far from here. Most of the conference participants were there.
Gerhard Kracher So you had a long night?
No, I didn’t. I have to work. I arrived last Saturday. My time in Vienna is nearly gone.
GK So you have already been to the Badeschiff, the ship on the Danube?
Yes, that was Thursday, an informal gathering. Quite a charming location.
The maître’d steps up to our table.
GK Would you like the typical Viennese tafelspitz?
Yes. [Of course, I really didn't know what it was.]
GK Something of a starter? I’ll have the beef tartare.
Maître’d Welcome to Plachutta. You are lunching with one of the most famous men in all of Austria! (laughter) We specialize in Viennese cuisine, many dishes of beef, sir. On the menu you can see all of the cuts we use. We prepare the cuts in a very special way; we serve it in a copper pot. We use the bone marrow, too. That means, first of all, that the beef broth is very strong, then you have the meat. And on the side we serve horseradish and other things. And Mr. Kracher always uses the bone marrow because we found out that the bone marrow is very good for the man power! (laughter)
Well…I’ve one night left in Vienna, so maybe I’ll find out tonight!
The maître’d leaves us to choose from the menu.
GK He’s fantastic!
Do you come here often?
GK Quite often, yes. Not so much in the summertime, but in the wintertime it is fantastic.
Of the most amusing experiences of being a wine writer are the odd relationships you make. I walked in off the street into Parliament, and I asked if I could speak to someone about the contemporary state of Austrian wine. They searched through the membership of various bureaus and departments wondering who that could possibly be. And lo and behold, who should appear but Rudolf Kracher, a delightful fellow.
GK He wanted to be here but he has to be in Parliament for a budget discussion. He’s working.
Ah… So we had a very nice discussion about the situation of wine in Austria. He provided me with this article, the text of a talk your father gave some years ago. I was hoping you could talk a bit about this for my American readers who might not be familiar with your story, the sudden, enormous weight of responsibility that has fallen on your shoulders at your father’s passing. The transition was already going on…
GK When this happened I had already been working 8 years in the winery. I was very familiar with everything, every step of production. I was my father’s right hand for production… actually, for everything. It was not new to me. We knew one year before my father died of his likely fate. So, I had quite a long time to prepare everything. I wasn’t really kicked into something. I have to say that was very, very helpful that I’ve been working in the winery since I was 18. Because to be a winemaker cannot be learned in one year. It’s impossible. You have to have the feeling, you have to have the experience. It was quite tough, but I knew what would come.
The eyes of the world were watching you…
GK Yes. Which was helpful for me because if I have someone sitting at my back, then I am working more and harder! (laughs)
Yes. We have examples of such public transitions in the United States. When David Lett, an Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer, passed, his son, Jason took the reigns. Questions swirled about whether Jason, already an accomplished winemaker, could fill his father’s shoes. It is tough following a legend. But Jason has succeeded extremely well after the transition.
And you have managed to be named Sweet Winemaker of the Year in 2009 at the International Wine Challenge in London. What were the number of Austrian wines present at that event? And European sweet wines?
GK I don’t know exactly, but it was over a thousand. I sent twelve wines, and every single one was winning. I think it was four or five Golds, four Silver, and three Bronze.
Could you tell me something of the history of the Kracher estate, the property?
GK The history is not that long. My grandfather [also named Alois] started after World War Two.
What was his training in winemaking?
GK Nothing. He had zero training.
Did he have friends and neighbors who helped?
GK There was always wine in every house, but it was very simple. Very simple. And he had half a hectare of vineyards, and he had five hectares of [lake]land. He was a mixed farmer. He had chickens, horses, cows, food plants, nearly everything. It was a self-sufficient farm. Which was normal in our village. Our village [Illmitz] was very, very poor. It was the end of the road, actually, after World War Two. Beyond us there was Hungary. There was communism, so nobody wanted to go there, no one was interested. And no one knew what was happening there.
My grandfather always said that having the vineyards was always his dream. He loved to be in the vineyards; he loved to work in the cellar. The other land holdings were horrible for him. He didn’t like it. He started, step by step, to rebuild the estate, to make out of the lake land, vineyards. He worked at the butcher, saved all his money to invest in the estate. He always said that the first time he made wine like he envisioned it should be made was in 1959. This was the year my father was born. From that step on, he built some guest rooms because he didn’t know where to sell the wines! So with the guest rooms he could have visitors try them and maybe buy them. It was Germany, Switzerland, Austria, visitors from those countries. Then there were the restaurants that began taking our wines, like the Steirereck, Altwienerhof, the Schwarzen Kameel, Meinl am Graben… these were our first customers that took our wines into their restaurants.
My grandfather built up his vineyards in those days to 7.5 hectares of his own land plus another 5 hectares he rented. This was at that time quite big for our region, actually for our village. My father, Alois, took over winemaking in 1981. He was in the pharmaceutical industry with Baxter. He was in middle-management. He worked there because the estate wasn’t big enough to feed two families. My grandparents weren’t retired, so it was impossible to feed two families.
My father saw, as well as my grandfather, that we could sell botrytis wines. They saw that we could compete with the world immediately, because there are only four regions in the world where you can do that every vintage: Sauternes, the Mosel, Tokaji, and here. And that’s it! So it becomes very easy to compete with the world immediately. My father made the winery an international success. He went to VinExpo in Bordeaux; he went to London, he went to New York… to present the wine. The problem was never that the people didn’t like the wine. The problem always was to get people to taste the wine, because nobody was interested in Austria. Most didn’t know that there was real wine production in Austria.
Were there rules and regulations already in place governing Austrian wine production, considering its modest scale?
GK Yes. There was everything in place, but the wine was actually sold here in Austria. There was no real export.
This story summarizes Alois’ adventures in the United States where he went around the country and essentially hand-sold the wines. That’s quite a demanding way to finally get people to taste your wines.
GK Well, at this time, when you don’t have any money, and you have to get your wine to the customer, that is the only way to do it. And it was successful. (laughs) It wasn’t easy because, as I said, no one knew that Austria was producing wine. And sweet wine is the niche of the niche. So, in the first couple of years, when he went to Paris or VinExpo or VinItaly or the London Wine Fair, you can’t get people to taste wines very easily! Everyone is stressed. Everyone has a program. And then someone comes and says “Please taste my wine. It’s from Austria.” There is immediate skepticism. This was the problem. But when they tasted it, they were happy. It was a big success. But to get people there to taste our wines… this was the problem.
But then success happened very quickly…
GK Well, quickly… it took him years. It took him from 1982 until 1989 to be a small part of the wine world. In the first years no one wanted to taste the wine. The first VinExpos and wine fairs were absolutely not successful. Absolutely not. But as he got his foot in the door, as he got some people to taste the wine, then it became easier. He was becoming known; he knew the people, and people began to recommend my father. He was a very, very good connector. He knew how to use his contacts, the few contacts he was able to get.
The maître’d briefly returns to the table.
GK Do you want a glass of wine? I’m driving, so I can’t.
No thank you. I don’t want to drink alone. So what motivated Alois to choose the United States? Was it because of a perceived openness of the mind of the American sweet wine drinker? An opening in the market?
GK During these times we were actually at the point where we didn’t even try to build up Europe. The only export markets we had were Switzerland and Great Britain.
How much did you actually have inventoried to sell for export at that time? How much was available? Your production was not very large.
GK No. It was about 15,000-20,000 bottles a year. My father was in VinItaly. He had a stand, it was an Austrian stand. There were Americans who passed by. And one of them said to his friends, “Why don’t we taste the Austrian sweet wines? I’ve heard somewhere, somehow, about it, about Kracher”. And the boss of the company said, “Ah, come on. No Austrian sweet wine. We have so much to do!” But the other guy, his assistant said, “Let’s just taste it.” They walked up to my father and said they just wanted to have one wine. He gave them one wine, which was the Grand Cuvée, 1990. they tasted it and were blown away! They said, “OK! What else do you have.” They stayed there for a couple of hours talking and tasting. Two or three months later it was our first export to the United States.
Did it go to New York?
GK It went to Chicago. Most of the quantity eventually went to New York in the end. It was then that my father began to travel in the United States. The good thing for him, which he didn’t know exactly before, was that there were a lot of Austrian chefs, sommeliers, food and beverage managers working in the United States, especially in New York. New York is still our single biggest market in the United States.
When I was walking through Vienna I happened to pass by a group of perhaps 50 young people, all dressed in suits and ties. They were all taking a class break from a school specializing in the hospitality industry: restaurants, hotels, and so on. Their English was very good. They were preparing for positions in the international tourism, restaurant, and hotel industry. Austria seems to be quite aggressive in turning out young ambassadors, as it were.
GK They are very good. They have very good schools for that. Very, very good. They have training in food and wine, which ten years ago was non-existent. They treat the people very well. Actually, the treatment of food was always very good, for cooking, for being in the service; that’s why so many Austrians are in Gastronomy outside of Austria. We are in the United States, Asia; we’re on cruise-liners, for example. That’s because the schools here operate on a very high level.
And were the establishment of these schools sanctioned and encouraged by the government? It is an official position of Austrian foreign policy to produce such culinary ambassadors?
GK Well, it depends on the school. The school can decide by themselves how high to establish the level of expertise. There are some schools in Austria where, when you hear someone has passed the school, has graduated, you know exactly what that graduate’s skills are in food and wine.
So Alois learned all of his winemaking from his father? Or did he attend an Enology and Viticultural school?
GK No school. He learned the first steps by my grandfather’s side. And then he always went to Bordeaux. He was always fascinated by Bordeaux, and by Sauternes. When he went to Sauturnes, he didn’t speak any French, and only a tiny bit of English when he started. It was in the beginning of the 80’s. And Mr. Pierre Meslier, who was at this time the manager of Chateau d’Yquem [regisseur 1963-1989] — before he was a winemaker — he was approaching retirement. My father tried to visit him. After his second visit he was able to have the contacts to visit this guy. And Mr. Meslier was so fascinated by the enthusiasm of my father that he then showed him a lot of things. So from this time on, my father visited every holiday. Mr. Meslier was one of his, let’s say, masterminds. So he brought my father into thinking different ways about winemaking.
End of Part 1
Ryan Crane owner and winemaker at Kerloo Cellars and Sean Boyd, owner and winemaker of Rôtie Cellars are the best of friends and demonstrate a cooperation that is one of the finest features of the Walla Walla winemaking and wine growing community. Each producer helps the other in ways both great and small. Though all folks are committed to winning in the market place, those in the wine business there understand that the success of one is not possible without assistance and labor of all. As Ryan Crane put it, “We’re all in this together.”
And so it was that Mr. Boyd provided me an introduction to Mr. Crane, just as the electric Abigail Schwerin of Sapolil Cellars had pointed me to David Stephenson of Stephenson Cellars And had I the time for a longer stay, I am certain the chain of referrals would have gone on uninterrupted. But even so, the Crane/Boyd connection is an unusual one. Each moved from the Seattle area at roughly the same time. Each had been ‘discovered’ when still winemaking assistants. And, most amusingly, each had their wines rates by the same critic. And Ryan Crane received the better score. So what? As you will read, Ryan was quick to point out the success Sean Boyd has recently enjoyed. I must say it has made the work I’ve done in Walla Walla a great pleasure.
Admin Hi, Ryan. Are you watching the World Cup?
Ryan Crane Hey, Ken. No, I’m not. This is kind of wild, I’m actually composing an email to a dude in Bangkok. He wants to buy 20 cases of my wine! This is the first deal I’ve done overseas. He’s got a registration number for a logistics company. They’ll pick up the wine here at the winery and ship it to Bangkok.
I’ll be damned! Congratulations. How did that happen?
RC He had my wine at El Gaucho in downtown Seattle. It seems he’s getting married, and he wants to pour our wines. So, I’m working on the costs of shipping the wine to Bangkok.
I understand you and Sean Boyd are good friends.
RC Sean and I have the same sort of story. He’s originally from Seattle as well. We both wanted to get into the wine industry. I come from a background in distribution and sales. I think Sean was more on the enjoying drinking side; I was too. He moved to Walla Walla about a year before I did. We basically packed up everything, quit our jobs. I went to wine school here and just started diving into the wine business.
Were you one of Billo Naravane’s students?
RC No, I was in the last class of Mr. Stan Clarke. He’s passed. He was awesome, the core of the program when it first started.
When was the program started at College Cellars?
RC Boy… I graduated two years ago. I think it started in 2004? Stan and Myles Anderson from Walla Walla Vintners were the two that kind of started the whole program. Myles then stepped away and they hired another director to handle the program.
Was the program designed to turn out winemakers? Viticulturalists?
RC It’s both. The first year is all in viticulture; the second year is all in winemaking. It’s a two year program. Stan taught all the viticulture classes and Mike Moyer taught all the winemaking classes.
I see. So you could just walk off the street and get what, a BA?
RC It’s basically an Associates degree in Sciences on paper. But its an Oenology and Viticulture certificate out of Walla Walla. A graduate is free to pursue either. I love making the juice.
Yes. I was fortunate enough to be given a bottle of your 2007 Syrah by Nicole Rivinius of Rôtie. But as rare as it is, I find it heartbreaking to open it!
RC We’ll take care of that. I want you to get an idea of what I’m up to, my styles. I’ll ship you a bottle of each of my ’08s, both Syrahs and a Tempranillo. And you’ve got the historic ‘07 wine. You can pick and choose.
Damn! Thank you very much! You and Sean are very generous. Are your wines made exclusively from grapes within the Walla Walla AVA?
RC I source outside the AVA as well. My philosophy with varietals themselves is that I want the best, from where they grow the best. So I make unique varietals across the board. For Syrah I’m a cooler climate guy. For me Syrah is going to be Walla Walla all the time. I get my grapes from Va Piano were I work, and make the my wines. And then I also pull from Stone Tree vineyard, a remarkable vineyard. I love it. I also pull a little Tempranillo from here, Les Collines, block 6. And then I pull some Malbec from a little bit north of Red Mountain. Sean and I share some Grenache from Alder Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills. And I’ve got some Cabernet coming on board this year from Bacchus Vineyard, block 10.
I am fascinated by the Walla Walla winemaker’s philosophy. You understand what the AVA offers, but your creative imaginations and tasting sophistication demands that they source from outside the AVA. You folks don’t seem to be concerned about a general Washington State AVA designation. You just want to make the best wines you are able. I like that approach to Walla Walla.
RC The one thing that’s a little bit different on my side from a stylistic standpoint is that I try to make wines that are true from where they’re grown. I really want to make terroir wines, wines of place. So I don’t blend a lot of wines together. I like to make vineyard designate wines that speak of that site. I ask what style of wine do I want to make. And where in Washington State does that varietal grow best. I then select sites. So, Syrah, I like to make good, concentrated Syrah, but balanced across the board. This is what Walla Walla give me; slow concentration and slow maturity in the vines. At the end of the day, when I make the juice, they tend to be really concentrated and well balanced.
With Tempranillo, I’m trying to pay homage to Rioja-style Temps from within the state. I want to make wines that are palate challenging across the board. Just as there are cooler and warmer Spanish Riojas, I want to source the same here in Washington State and blend both together to make the Rioja style: brighter fruits, good tannins, good acid, low alcohol. With Malbec, which traditionally needs some heat to get ripe, I’m kind of edgy, on the cut. I crop it at 1.67 tons per acre. And it’s just stoopid, I mean concentrated just off the chart. So, I like to make vineyard-driven wines.
Where do you do your fermentations?
RC I make all the wine, I’m bonded, out of Va Piano. Sean is bonded at Waters, I’m bonded at Va Piano.
And your distribution circle?
RC I have no distributors. It’s all done through me, Ryan Crane. I haven’t picked up anything yet. I’m really in no hurry. When I moved here, just like everyone else, my wife and I would go out and taste in Portland and Cali and Washington State, and a lot of times you walk into a winery and you don’t even know who the winemaker is, you have no idea of what is going on. For me, I wanted to create and carry the brand. I sell the wines by appointment only, because at the end of the day, my hope is that every bottle of Kerloo Cellars on the table the people can say they met the winemaker, they shared a glass of wine with me, they tasted a barrel sample with me; I think the story drives the brand. I’m really focussed on that part right now, especially in the early vinages of Kerloo wines. I’m in no hurry. And I don’t have much juice. Thankfully we’ve had some good press; we’re moving relatively quickly. I have it in the books that I will have, in the next four years, three distributors. But for now it is just me.
One of my disappointments at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference was the absence of so many small producers. Many were not even referred to in the official literature. Why is this? Is it all about dollars? After all, some of the most interesting wines are being made by the smaller producers. Why should we hear so much about the big guys?
RC I don’t know. Some of the events were definitely driven by the bigger boys. Yes, it’s capital-driven. But I think there is a small core of us little guys that are staying a little out of the mainstream, that are just trying to grow our brands by word of mouth. As for the reasons, I didn’t really hear anything about tastings with the bloggers coming into town, or of any events. For example, there is an event coming up featuring distributors, big wine buyers from all around the country; we were invited to that only because I know the director running it. The little guys just aren’t known. And when a tasting comes to town we may not even know about it. We aren’t necessarily invited to anything.
The Wine Alliance could do a better job, especially with the small guys. But they ask for $2000 every year just to get your name on a small list. For us it is not worth it to write the check. Because it sometimes happens that Boom! Ken Payton comes to town and we end up talking. And truth be told, I think one of the cool things about the small guys is that everyone wants to talk to the smaller brands.
One of the difficulties is that a certain understanding is established between the major wine press and the big guys should the former spend only time with the latter. I don’t want to name names, but the presence of new oak was obvious in many of the wines I tasted. Who can afford new oak? Well, principally the big guys. But that theirs are the ones that are often tasted, a picture or model or standard emerges of the AVA that is uses lots of new oak. That feature then becomes an element of the dominant taste profile. The risk is that smaller brands can become pressured to convert to a barrel program against their better judgement.
RC For me it’s not really about that. They are going to sell more wine because they have more wine to sell. I really want to get the people who want to meet small brands, who want to be a part of the up and coming generation of winemakers in Washington State and, obviously, Walla Walla. I’m patient. And then there’s Brandon at L’Ecole, he runs the wine club there, he’s a huge fan of my wines, and I get many phone calls from people he points my way. Brandon Kubrock is the Tasting Room Manager; the Wine Club Manager is Jaime Chalk.–Admin] The cool thing about it is that we have this kind of underground movement, and Sean is the same way, so whenever people come to town everybody knows who to send them to. People find us. That’s a cool way to do it.
In what direction do think the AVA is headed?
RC It will continue to expand. I think the growth in the past 5 years has been relatively fast. We’re, I think, 140 bonded wineries now. Within the next three years there will be another 50 new wineries opening. I can say, from a numbers standpoint, that ever since Kerloo opened the door, and Rotie, I haven’t seen that many other wineries put in licenses to open here. It has slowed a little because it is such a capital-driven market. But we will continue to grow, perhaps not as fast as we have the last few years.
And from the vineyard side of things, Walla Walla is tricky. There are some really good sites here, and there are some really poor vineyard grounds as well. That part of the business will grow more slowly. I don’t see a whole lot of vineyards opening or starting to plant right now. It also has to do with land allocation and parcel development. Depending where you are at in Walla Walla, some parcels are only divided into 40 and 80 acres plots. Buying 40 acres at $700,000, plus putting in a vineyard after that, we’re talking some crazy cash.
Who are the people who have opened up and are opening up wineries? Are they from out of state? Are they from within Washington State? Walla Walla itself?
RC I think it is a mixture. I’m originally from Seattle, born in Minneapolis, but have lived in Seattle my whole life, so I’m a Stater. Sean is a Stater. A lot of them are from within the state itself. Sinclair Estate Vineyard is Microsoft owned, but they live in Seattle as well. Corlis is within state. Maybe even most are within state.
There must be just a modest number of viticultural managers and vineyard consultants in Walla Walla. Some use Dr. Kevin Pogue, for example. Are there so few that the 140 wineries all share the same small coterie of consultants?
RC It is pretty much the same group. Of the handful of vineyards that are selling within Walla Walla, yes, everyone talks to the same vineyard manager, absolutely.
But does that mean that canopy management is roughly the same? That the layout of the vineyards is roughly the same?
RC In a general sense, yeah; I mean, it’s all on VSP. There is some Sprawl up at Les Collines. There is really no other trellising that’s getting played with except for at Morrison Lane. They’re playing with some Scott Henry and some double tier quad lateral action. So, most of the vineyards, all of the ones I work with, are on VSP. So, in an overall sense, most of it is getting managed in much the same way. Outside of how much you decide to leave from a fruit standpoint.
What is it that Cayuse does differently? Or are they within the same frame?
RC Well, Christophe is doing the VSP system as well, as far as I know. He hangs the cordons a little lower to the ground to get some more heat from the rocks, obviously. I think he’s hanging one to two clusters per shoot. He’s biodynamic. So, no spray program, no pesticides, that I’m aware of. But he’s very secretive. So this is all guessing. He’s a very cool guy. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. Half the people in Walla Walla hate him, half the people like him. I think he’s a cool dude. I would say that his sites are truly terroir. His is all native yeast fermentations from what I know. They tend to be really high pH, low acid, kind of stinky wines. That’s all I know. I don’t think he is doing anything out of the ordinary, apart from Biodynamics.
My real question was whether you felt there was a sufficient multiplicity of voices giving advice to the emerging AVA. Can those currently available handle all the exigencies and differences of the multiple terroirs available in Walla Walla?
RC Oh, yeah. I think that’s the most exciting part, frankly. If you look at two of my wines, the one that you got, the ‘07, that’s basically a two vineyard blend, 80% Va Piano, 20% Les Collines. That’s a pretty big, powerful wine. I don’t want to say feminine, but Les Collines is definitely more feminine than Va Piano. My point is that I try to make two distinct Syrahs. Some people like Syrahs that are a little bit bigger, more powerful, with a little bit more viscosity. And Les Collines is like that beautiful lady in a red dress walking to the theater. Those sites, Les Collines and Va Piano, are literally four miles apart and the fruit is totally different. That’s the beauty of Walla Walla.
What is it that readers should know about Kerloo Cellars wines?
RC My goal is to make wines that are true to varietal. I’m not going to make wines that have 1% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon… I really want the varietal to speak for itself. It is a harder way to make the juice, but that is my way. So you’ll see a 100% commitment to true varietal wines with Kerloo wines across the board. What that gives me is palate challenging wines from carefully selected sites. I don’t make oak bombs. I use oak minimally, usually about 20% new wood. Right now I’m at 22% new wood with my ’08s. My Malbec and Grenache are at about 25% new wood. Everything is going to be under 30%.
When we started the brand, we meaning my wife and I, we asked how did we want to do this? I already had a style in mind. We wanted to build a brand similar to us: Simple and Sexy. My goal is never to walk away from the project. I’ll always be making the juice. I want everyone to know that. I’m not looking to hire someone to take over the program because I always want to be the face of the brand. And we’re only going to make 1,500 cases max. Between 200 and 400 cases of that is going to go to the wine club. The 1000 cases left are going to be the only things you can get. It’s a chance to be exclusive and really give our customers a chance to get to know us on a personal basis.
While I was in Walla Walla, it was often been pointed out to me that one of Sean’s Rôties received 2 stars and your Kerloo received 3 stars at a particular tasting. Why do you think this happened? Actually, I think it was Sean who first brought it up!
RC (laughs) That’s hilarious. This is kind of a funny story. A wine writer, Sean Sullivan, out of Seattle, a very cool guy, he found me way back in the day. I haven’t been making wine that long, but he was there right when I started; I mean, I had 8 barrels when he came out and tasted with me. I had just put my ’08s to barrel, I think. So he did a focus report on both me and Sean [Boyd of Rôtie) about assistant winemakers starting their own brands in Walla Walla. I'm not totally sure why the ratings were different. Sean goes to bottle a lot earlier than I do. I'm guaranteed 16 to 22 months in barrel and then another 4 to 6 months in bottle before I release. So I'm not sure if it was that the wine tasted more mature. I don't know if my style is more to the liking of Sean Sullivan's palate. I would say my '07s are bigger and have more weight than Sean's just because of our styles. In '07 I tried to make little bit bigger wines. And I think that Sean's are a little more lean and fresh, on the brighter side. Mine are a little bit more on the massive side. But I didn't even ask Sean [Sullivan] about it.
But Sean [Boyd] got a 94 with his ‘07 Southern in the Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator, I’m not sure which one. Hey, dude, that ain’t too shabby! The only other thing is that I’m better looking than Sean! And I think I have a better sense of humor; I throw things around a little bit more than old Boydie. So maybe the additional star was for my shining personality!
So whose wife is the better cook?
RC (laughing) Well, my wife took off this morning on a business trip to the fine town of Cleveland. So she’s not here. Annie is the better cook, his wife. No doubt about it. But Sean is a better cook than me as well. I barbeque just as good as Sean. But Sean is a little better cook than I am. I just tell him, “Don’t worry, Sean. You cook, I’ll make the wine!”
Well, it was a great pleasure to speak to you, Ryan.
RC You too, Ken. Take care.
I met Yashodhan (Billo) Naravane (right) at the Three Rivers Winery. He was member of one of many panel discussion organized, in part, by the good offices of the Wine Bloggers Conference spread among wineries throughout the Walla Walla Valley. Though meant to be instructional in character, centering on explaining the basics of the Walla Walla AVA, it became very clear to me that this gentleman was no ordinary panelist. It turned out uttering generalities is not where Billo excels. His is a very disciplined mind, a curious mind, exulting in a profound natural intellectual freedom and flexibility rarely encountered outside of a university setting. He and his equally gifted brother, Pinto (left), founded Rasa Vineyards in 2007. And in just a few short years they have demonstrated an understanding of viticulture and winemaking which repeats in yet another field their considerable academic achievements. But inasmuch as this is an interview with Billo, we may read a fragment of his CV below:
“Billo has worked in various technical and managerial positions in the Computer Industry for over a decade and a half. Billo received his BS in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from MIT and his MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Billo finished his MS in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in June 2008 and is currently running the Viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College.”
But as I was to learn, the CV is by no means complete. As you will read below, Billo is launching new projects that will require significant modification of the thumbnail bio above. Please enjoy my encounter with Billo, without a doubt, the smartest man in the room.
Admin So let’s jump into the middle of things. Tell me about your wines.
Billo Naravane We were interested from the beginning in building a luxury brand. This was when the economy was good. So, we initially poured our wines for MWs, and told them that the price points [for QED and Principia] were $65 and $75. We asked for an honest critique of the wines. We got great feedback, they were said to be beautiful wines, worth the money; but the economy was not the greatest. They suggested pricing it a little bit lower, it might be to our advantage. So we had to go back to our investors, and we decided to price the wine, the QED, at $50. Now, $50 is expensive. We’re not delusional. But that wine I think offers an extremely great value for the money.
We’ve had it in blind tastings with some of the very best wines in the world: Guigal’s La Landonne, La Mouline, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, against Grange, you name it, it’s been blind tasted against it. It really holds its own against the best wines in the world. So, that wine is 94% Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 3% Mourvèdre. It is mostly Les Collines; the Syrah is about 85% from Les Collines Vineyard.
I hear Les Collines being referred to constantly.
BN Les Collines is a great vineyard. It’s a huge property, 300 acres, or so, I think are planted up there. There is a wide degree of variation within the different blocks of the vineyard. It is not an homogenous terroir. Some blocks I really like; there are two we sourced from for the ‘07. One block had this really earthy, mineraly, almost truffle-type character underlying the core of fruit. The fruit is this black berry, black cherry on the Syrah, but has this depth to it. The aromatics are fantastic form that property as well. The finish is sometimes not the greatest. The finish is nice; it’s just not as long as we would like it for a high-end Syrah. So we have to address that via blending.
I’m a big fan of blending in that when done correctly you can achieve an aromatic complexity and a palate complexity, and broaden the finish out, rather than using just one specific wine. Now the trick, however, is that we’re also big fans of terroir, so how do you preserve the Walla Walla sense of terroir in a blended wine. That tricky to do. Blending is highly non-linear. You can put in 2% to 3% of something yet change it by 30%. So you have to be very careful not to obliterate a sense of place, of terroir in blending. But what we’re trying to do, being technically minded, we go through every permutation in the blending process. We do all the samples. Me and my brother then go through all of them, we argue back and forth, and then we decide on the final blend, whatever tastes the best and still preserves that terroir of Walla Walla or of any other region.
In that year, 2007, it was 94% Syrah, 3% of Grenache, Mourvèdre. In 2008 the blend has been different. Our QED will always be a Grenache/Mourvèdre blend, but the percentages will be different based on what the year gave us. 2007 was a very warm year, so we got riper fruit versus 2008, which was a pretty cool year. So, stylistically, our Rasa wines are more along the lines of French wines rather than California. We are huge, huge Francophiles. We love the great Rhone wines, Bordeaux, and Burgundy as well. But we don’t make a Pinot Noir… yet! We amy do so in the future.
Best of luck with a Pinot!
BN We were introduced to a gentleman who owns a small block of Pinot Noir, so we may try it out, not this year but next. Pinot is not something I’ve worked with yet. I’m really kind of anxious to try it.
That reminds me. Rasa is the rough Indian equivalent of the word terroir. Could you explain the distinctions between the two concepts, if any?
BN So the actual root of the word Rasa, it’s from Sanscrit, technically, though it can be used in a couple of different contexts, in one context it means essence. For us that is essence of soil and variety. And almost in a slang parlance, it can mean juice. So we have this essence and juice concept that is the closest word we’ve found that is also relatively easy to remember. Some of the related Indian words can get quite long and complex, hard to remember. We were looking for a word that tied together wine and our heritage. My uncle is the one who thought of it. He speaks Sanskrit. He’s not a wine aficionado, but after explaining what we were doing, about terroir and why it was so important to us, he thought up the word. We fell in love with it. It’s a great name! (laughs)
We’re originally from India; me and my brother were born in India. Our parents moved to New Jersey when I was turning 6, my brother was 8. We just wanted to have a tie-back to our heritage and still have something that was easy to remember, and with a wine connotation.
You mentioned that you initially tasted widely throughout the Walla Walla AVA. And we know the AVA is still in the process of being defined, the proper terroir for which grape, and so on. So, what are the relative merits and demerits of having a Washington State designation as opposed to having a Walla Walla AVA designation? In a conversation with Sean Boyd of Rôtie he said that the AVA designation, though not irrelevant, will not necessarily result in the best wines. He is willing to sacrifice, especially for so young an AVA, a specific designation in favor of an overall quality.
BN I tend to agree with Sean. In our 2007 QED we did source the Grenache and Mourvèdre from Minick Vineyard over in Prosser. We also had a little Lewis Vineyard Syrah in there, which is also from Prosser, over in Yakima. Now, Grenache and Mourvèdre are not best for our area. Let me put it this way: I haven’t tasted great Grenache and Mourvèdre grown here in Walla Walla. Now, this is all price point dependent. I’m talking about a $50 and up price point wine. You can definitely grow good enough quality Grenache and Mourvèdre here for a $20 bottle. I’m not questioning that. But for a quality that you want to deliver at that higher price point, we’ve just not found that yet in Walla Walla. So we have to look elsewhere. And we found this great cooler climate site. We would much rather get this cooler climate fruit. We like the acidity to be preserved naturally, and to get that balanced flavor development, rather difficult at a super warm site. The cooler sites tend to give wines that are much more elegant and refined.
We don’t want to be making wines that are 16% alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with those types of wines; they’re just not stylistically what were going after. I still do enjoy the occasional Australian Shiraz, but I tend to prefer Rhone style for Syrah.
We are after making the best wine possible. While we want to remain as true as possible to terroir, we want to make the best wine possible. For the QED, since we could not get the Grenache and Mourvèdre of a sufficiently high quality, we needed to go outside the AVA. We don’t see that as being contradictory. And if you taste the QED, that is a Walla Walla wine; 91% of the fruit is from here. It is in the blending process that you have to be very judicious to maintain the sense of terroir. One of our blends during the trial phase, when we were going through all the possible blends for the QED, it was roughly 5% Grenache, 7% Mourvèdre, and the balance Syrah. That did not taste like a Walla Walla AVA wine. We did not go with that blend even though it was pretty tasty because it did not taste like it came from the AVA.
You seem to have been blessed with an extraordinary palate. I was reading one of your blog entries about a tasting party you attended some time ago. Could you say something about your tasting history?
BN I’ve been extremely fortunate. When I lived in Austin I had a bunch of very eclectic wine collector friends that I had met throughout the years. It was a wine group we started called the S.O.B.s, the Sons of Bacchus. That name was quite fitting for the group in many respects! They were from many different backgrounds. And some had been collecting for many, many years, 30-40 years. They had these amazing wine cellars. We got to be such good friends that when invited over they would pull these unbelievable bottles of wine: an ‘82 Mouton, ‘61 Lafite, these crazy wines I had the privilege to taste. My brother had a similar experience in New Jersey. We really have tasted, just through really good friends, some of the best wines that have ever been made. One time I got to taste a 1900 Chateau Margaux, and the ‘47 Cheval Blanc, all these wines that are considered to be the best wines ever made. That is one the the biggest strengths that Pinto and I bring to the winemaking process. We are able to recognize, or at least have a perspective, of the best wines ever made. We bring that to our blending and winemaking processes.
It is kind of startling to me how many wine people I’ve met here in Washington, many of them winemakers, who have never tasted a first growth! They probably couldn’t tell you who the first growths are. It’s kind of shocking to me. I would wonder that if you don’t have it in your head what great wine is, then how do you know when you’ve made one?
That’s a very interesting question, and it bears upon the question of wine education, certainly of the average drinker, to the degree there is such a thing. There is a problem within marketing, I would argue, that through a series of commercial feedback loops, they work to maintain a certain level of knowledge, or, alternatively, of ignorance, amongst the wine-drinking public. It is very difficult to know how to challenge that, how to convince people there are depths to wine that can essentially change your life. How would you go about educating people to continue looking and searching for wines of revelation rather than listen to marketers, who have an interest, after all, in limiting that same revelation?
BN Boy, that’s a really good question. I don’t have a good answer. At some point everyone needs to have a friend, or somebody who is into wine, to expose you to an Aha! moment where you taste a great wine that is compelling and kind of leaves you speechless. It is that experience that everybody needs to have. That’s when they realize that there is something to this wine thing. My moment was when I was just starting out in wine. When I lived in California I used to go up to Napa a lot back in 1990 and ‘91. Back then you could go tasting all day in Napa for free. It was great for people just out of college, who had no money and could drink for free. But after doing this, me and my brother started to recognizing the differences between Pinot Noir and Cabernet. Wow, there must be something to this wine thing! It may not be all bullshit!
And then I had an experience in ‘91. I was at a store called Beltramos. I lived only 3 miles from there at the time. I believe it was the ‘86 d’Yquem that was just being released. And they were pouring it in their wine bar. At that time I did not know d’Yquem from anything. There were 3 other Sauternes they were pouring. They cost $3 for a taste of them. The d’Yquem was an additional $10 to taste. At that time I thought, Wow!, I couldn’t afford that. But there was an obviously wealthy woman there. She tried the wines, took a sip out of each one, and left. I asked the guy behind the counter if the d’Yquem was really worth $10 for just a taste? He said it was one of the best wines made in the world, “You should try it.” He let me take over the wines the lady left. The d’Yquem was my Aha! wine. It floored me. I had never ever smelled or tasted such an amazing array of things. It was indescribable. I could not find the words… My perspective on wine changed immediately. I began reading books on wine, going to Napa, not to just get loaded, but to actually meet with winemakers and learn about wine. The passion just went crazy after that. Then we became serious collectors. That was our downfall! (laughs)
To get people jazzed about wine they need to taste something that blows them away, and that they can’t quite put into words. For a friend of mine, it was the ‘90 Lafite. For another it was a Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet. It’s fun to hear people tell you what wine did it for them!
Now, you are also a teacher at the local community college. How did you assume the teaching position, and in the local colleges, how long have viticulture and enology programs been offered?
BN That’s a good question. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. When I was at MIT and Stanford, and U.T. Austin, I had the opportunity to teach mathematics classes here and there. I’ve taught Calculus and Differential Equations, Probability Theory, even a Pascal Programming class, and it was always a lot of fun. And when I moved here to Walla Walla in 2008, I was tasting wine at an event over at Dunam Cellars, and I started talking to a gentleman who, after a half an hour, began asking where I went to school and what was my background. He suddenly asked, “Can you teach viticulture?” “Sure!” When I was at Davis I took all the classes in both viticulture and winemaking. So it happened that the previous instructor had unexpectedly passed recently. So again I began teaching in January of 2009. I took over the viticulture position.
That having been said, I just resigned a couple of weeks ago. I did enjoy the teaching aspect of it quite a bit. Community College is an interesting place. You have students from very wide backgrounds. Teaching in places like Stanford, everybody has a similar background. They have a similar intellectual capacity. At a community college you have students that are super bright to those who I could not quite figure out why they were there. It was a little bit frustrating at times. But I had more frustration with the management there, rather than the students.
I took the tack that I would teach roughly 50% of the viticulture material that we did at Davis. I figured that was a reasonable target. But on no less than 5 separate occasions, the director of the program came in said that I had to dumb down the material. The last time I was approached was in April. I then knew this was not the right place for me to teach. I had tried to make some adjustments. But when eventually I was teaching only 25% of the material they should be learning, I really considered it less than a viticulture class then a viticulture-like class. I didn’t feel good about teaching it. I think the management there is a bit misguided. With the rising competition from other programs at other schools, it makes no sense to take ours out of contention.
At Washington State University (WSU) they recently hired a great, great director, Dr. Henick-Kling. He’s very well known in viticultural and enology circles. He’s going to raise that program up to probably compete with UC Davis at some point. I talked with him, and I was thinking of doing my PhD there. He gave me a run down of his vision where WSU is going to go. If he executes, it’s going to be a great program. It will produce 40 to 50 undergraduates a year, and 10 or so Master students a year. And you’ve got other programs cropping up in Yakima and South Seattle; and then we have Walla Walla Community College that wants to diminish the quality of their program. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a bit short-sighted.
That is unfortunate. They may well be in the process of becoming an irrelevant institution just when the region needs qualified people the most. I hope the transition is not too jarring, but about pesticides, I’ve noticed that a number of vineyards in the valley, even some near Cayuse, a biodynamic property, are fringed or surrounded by apple orchards and other crops that require a substantial use of pesticides. I was told that Japan, for example, demands perfect apples. Many tons come from the Walla Walla Valley. Now, for someone who aspires to something like an organic status for their vineyard, what are the tensions, if any, between fruit farmers and grape growers? I asked this question of the winemaker at Buty. He said that although the fruit trees bordering his property are heavily spray, he just doesn’t pay attention to its impact on his vineyard! So, what is going on?
BN I can’t imagine how there couldn’t be conflict because of the proximity of these orchard sites to vineyards. They really are often on top of one another. As best as could have been done, they have put restrictions on the application and the timing of the sprays. They are not allowed to spray if the winds are more than 3 or 4 miles an hour to contain the drift, for example. Now, on the local basis you can’t tell a specific orchard owner that they can’t spray something that is legal for them to apply. There is this whole question of legality versus sustainability, organic and biodynamic. So just because you can spray something, doesn’t mean you should. And if you are going to spray something, then you’ll probably want to do it in the least invasive manner as possible. So overall there is a great deal of friendship and trust between the growers that they are not going to do something that is going to damage their neighbor’s crop. People here are very cognizant and willing to work together, which is great.
That being said, if you have a biodynamic site and your neighbor does not, how do prevent somethings from coming over? Some drift is inevitable. In fact, the biggest case is probably 2,4-D. This is something a lot of the wheat farmers like to use to contain weeds. However, 2,4-D is extremely toxic to vines. I mean, just a small amount of 2,4-D drift coming onto your vines causes serious damage; you will essentially see the arrest of the photosynthetic capability of the vine once just a little bit of 2,4-D gets drifted onto it. With this we have been seeing a little bit of contention between people using 2,4-D versus people who don’t want it used because it is affecting their grapevines. Some of these things need to be sorted out. But the spirit is generally one of cooperation.
And could you discuss the difficult issue of the local migrant labor force? What is the local mentality?
BN Hmm. Ask 10 people you’ll get 10 different opinions. In general, while I would prefer people to be properly documented – when we came over, we’re immigrants, we had to go through the whole process, the Green Card, the Passport – I would appreciate everybody to do that and respect the laws of the country. But we realize that there are some kinds of labor Americans don’t want to do. The laborers here during harvest are great people. They want to work. They are very industrious. They work hard and get the job done effectively. It needs to be addressed at the Federal level. I’m kind of for giving amnesty for the people who are already here, and getting them appropriately documented. This might curtail future people from coming in. But all the workers I’ve met here have all been tremendously great people.
I must congratulate you and your brother on your extraordinary success. You’ve gone from 0 to 60 in nothing flat. You’re one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever met. Maybe you should become the president of the community college! What are your plans for the future? What are you academic plans, if any?
BN I still do have aspirations to complete my PhD. I have worked in Theoretical Mathematics, kind of at the cusp of Electrical Engineering, so I toy with the idea of going back to mathematics or possibly doing something in Plant Physiology or Viticulture. Right now my focus is to get Rasa to be successful. I think we are headed on the right trajectory. Our wines are improving. We’re just beginning to get positive praise from the critics. We’re having the major critics coming through right now. Jay Miller was here just a couple of weeks ago. Tanzer is coming soon. I can see success on the horizon. Once that is done, I think I’ll pursue my PhD.
An extraordinary pleasure, Billo. Thank you.
BN Thank you, Ken.
Anonymity. It is one of the great difficulties facing the young winemaker. How to break through the wall of advertorial noise, the clamor, protectively surrounding established labels? The quality is there. The dedication, the labor. But absent good fortune or dumb luck, the new kid on the block faces a long slog toward much deserved recognition. And this is as it should be within the marketing ecosystem. Indeed, during my recent participation in the Wine Bloggers Conference there was not an ‘official’ word spoken of a number of very good small producers, Sapolil Cellars, Stephenson Cellars, Kerloo and, of course, Rôtie. To be mentioned in the ‘official’ literature costs money the little guy does not always have. So it falls to independently-minded bloggers, caring only for wines of quality and of story, to pound the pavement to find them.
And Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars has very good karma, if I may put it that way. For so great is the reservoir of good will and reputation for quality he has built up within the Walla Walla wine community that his efforts are on the minds of the locals. It is for this reason tha when researching an entirely different story, I stumbled into Vintage Cellars and met the exquisite Megan Bosworth working there. She told me there was someone I should meet, a certain winemaker I should know about. Come back at 5 o’clock. I did, and met Rôtie’s lovely marketing whiz Nicole Rivinius, also an employee of Vintage Cellars, and Sean Boyd himself. The results may be read here.
Ms. Rivinius worked the next day to diligently arrange a tasting at Rôtie’s freshly minted tasting room. I dragged several important wine writers along, including Hoke Harden, Remy Charest and Joe Roberts. Hoke Harden over at Elixir Vitae has written a very entertaining and informative piece on our experience there.
What follows is an account of the balance of my time with Mr. Boyd. I should mention that I was asked not to reveal certain vineyards from which Mr. Boyd sources some of his fruit. I have honored that request.
In The Tasting Room
Admin I like this. It’s a nice space. Simple.
Sean Boyd This is Nicole’s sanctuary. She sells the stuff; I just make it. Let’s get you some bottles. You have to promise me that you go to Saffron, the best restaurant here in town. Well, that’s the line-up. The VDP, the vin de pays, which means country wine, has some of my most expensive fruit. But it just wouldn’t blend into the Northern. I make about 70 barrels a year, and I sell off about 30. I pick the best barrels that I possible can for the wine club. So nobody really gets this. Let me find you a box…
These are for me? Are you shittin’ me?
SB Yes. You got to taste the wines to see if you like them. You’ve got to open these f*ckers up, shake them up, because they’re ’08s. Open them up in the morning. They’ll hang very well. They’re very tight.
Our white is a Roussanne and Viognier, a 50/50 blend. The ’09s will be 50% Viognier, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Marsanne. Marsanne is my new favorite grape. The ‘08 was a little heavy handed with the Roussanne, I think. I was really trying to dial in the first year by playing with Roussanne. I learned a lot. It’s a very heavy, viscous grape. I stopped it from going through secondary fermentation, so it’s as crisp as they come. It’s definitely elegant, but its got a weighty back-end. You only really realize how much acid it has when you have it with food because it really clears the palate. But you still think of it as having gone through secondary. So adding Marsanne really helped in ‘09. Sommeliers love it, but they’re definitely in the minority. We definitely have a good following with the white, but not everybody is there. Some say, “Ooh! That’s a little different. But there is no oak and no butter!?”
The Southern is 70% Grenache, 15% Mourvédre, 15% Syrah, all from Horse Heaven Hills. That is the one that does well with awards. The Northern, co-fermented Syrah and Viognier, comes from 4 different vineyards. Definitely give these babies some air. Please. Please, please.
These will be much appreciated. I have a bit of a European palate. Living in California can be difficult… And I’m not crazy about grotesque amounts of oak. You know the story…
SB Hopefully you don’t mind grotesque amounts of fruit! Are you going to drink wine tonight?
I’ve got some writing to do. Yes.
SB Here’s one from the last four cases of ‘07 [55% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 10% Mourvédre]. These cases came back from California battered and bruised from the transit. I have no clue what happened to them. So try that tonight.
Thank you, Sean. It’s extraordinarily generous of you.
SB Hey, you’ve got to buy off the Press, even if you get shitty stories off of it. That’s just the way the world works. (laughs)
Well, in my case, what I typically do is just turn on the mic. I then will transcribe verbatim, along with my questions and narrative ornaments, of course. This is an extreme case, but I recently interviewed Tim Thornhill of Parducci. I had to get completely the hell out of the way for that one. But I like minimal intervention, a more documentary approach.
SB That’s how we sell wine. I had a guy selling wine for me in Seattle. I asked him, “Jesus! How are you selling all this wine?” He used to say, “Well, what I do is ask for a wine list and a menu when I first sit down. I open up the wines. I act like I’m looking at both menu and wine list. I let them all talk; they all like talking. And all I do is nod once and a while; and they buy.” I thought that was ingenious! Everybody likes to hear themselves talk, especially in this industry. There are so many egos and heads out there.
In The Winery
Sean Boyd This is my playground. Here in this winery we’ve got Wines of Substance, which it Waters’ second label. They split some with Gramercy. I think Gramercy has 10% ownership in Substance; Waters has 90%. Waters does about 3,000 cases; Substance is probably about 10,000 or 12,000 cases. And Gramercy makes their wine independently here. They are probably pushing 5-6,000 cases.
It’s kind of a crush pad facility?
SB Well, it’s definitely Waters’ facility. It’s so capital intensive to build a winery. So us little gutter dogs like to come in, and for a reduced salary I make Rôtie Cellars here. It works well. I wasn’t born with $1,000,000 in the bank, or $5,000,000, which is probably be what it would take to get a nice facility.
So basically, the fruit comes in half-ton bins. Then you go into either 3/4 or 1/2 ton fermenters. We love stainless steel. These are the best ones, these round, hot tub tanks. We had these designed so that we could control the fermentation temperature. If it gets too hot the yeast eats itself up. That death phase just kicks right in. Then you struggle through your fermentation. But if you can keep it at 75-78 degrees, then it is a nice, cool fermentation. It finishes a lot smoother. I really like having control. As the fruit is nearing dry, it’s nice to be able to also plug them in and heat them up. The worst thing you can do to wine is leave a little sugar in there for microbial growth. If I could have a winery loaded with these, it would be a no-brainer.
By how much does the temperature vary in the Fall, I mean after harvest?
SB September is still pretty warm; but in October it is down to, well, here we get this diurnal shift, so it’s down to 45 degrees in the night, which is fine for barrels. Anything under 58 degrees is pretty good. We do almost all the fermentation indoors. We like to try and keep our VAs low. The coolness helps that. We do a lot of whole cluster fermentations, so those require some pump-overs, though we prefer to punch down. It’s fun to be able to have lots of small fermentations because you can really play around with what yeasts you’re using; you can try different lots, some with stem, some without.
The blending program here is based on the idea that you don’t just go off of the vineyard and how prestigious it is, or how much you loved the last year, or how fantastic it was when you picked it. It’s more along the lines of tasting everything every month. So if I have 7 different vineyards of Syrah, I’ll blind taste them with people whose palates I really respect. I don’t want to know what they are. I want to know what I like the most, not what vineyard I want to have in a bottle. Then it’s fun. You can figure out what you like. Some vineyards really surprise you. Doing it blind helps.
Some of the wines we’ll try today will include Grenache. I’ve just blended 2 blocks in their 13th and 14th leaf off of Horse Heaven Hills, from nice south-facing slopes, one is 28 brix, one is 24 brix. I’ve blended those because they had interesting phenols going on. Then there are 8 barrels of another Grenache, the vineyards of which is even further down the river. It’s turned out to be some of my best Grenache; 24 and 1/2 brix. It was picked in early November, really rare, because usually we have a freeze that come into Washington State by then; but this site is so hot, and as we talked about yesterday, it’s the kick-ass area for Rhones, for Grenaches and Mourvédres. It enjoys a super-long cycle, very temperate. It’s magical for those varietals (sic). You just have to find all the crazy people that started growing them 15 years ago! They are the fun ones. Shall we taste?
Yes, of course. One quick technical question. How many punchdowns a day?
SB Three. It depends. Your fermentation tells you what’s going on. If you’re smelling H2S you have to make Nitrogen additions. A punchdown can tell you a lot. If it was Pinot Noir, we’d go much lighter on it. We’d probably cover it. We’d let that heat and moisture just kind of work itself out. But with Grenache and Syrah you’re given a lot of leeway. It’s hard to beat them up too much. It’s just keeping the cap wet. Let’s taste through.
You have distributors locally. What about back East, or California, for that matter?
SB In California the market is just dead. We sold out of our ’07s. And California still had 21 cases. But everybody seemed to want deals and deals and deals because the market is so saturated down there. So we pulled it. We’ll sell it here. I don’t want to make deals that will cheapen my brand. Seattle is my major market. There are not too many in Portland yet. Of the distribution, about 20% of production goes straight to Seattle. Most of the rest goes out of the tasting room. It’s a double-edged sword. You want to sell it as close to retail as possible, but it is really important to service the accounts in Seattle so that you are seen. So that costs a certain percentage of the portfolio.
As we taste through the barrels, Sean explains his love of Grenache, especially when dominant in Châteauneuf-du-Papes. He rhapsodizes over Cornas, another passion we share. Some of the barrels are full of violets and roses, odors of an English garden spilling out. The Grenache in other barrels is lighter, leaner, almost Pinot in character. Still other barrels, whether of Syrah or Grenache, are bowls of fat blueberries, and marked by the occasional reductive character, mushroom and forest floor. Selection after barrel selection is of a very distinctive character. I begin to understand what Sean means by the winery being his playground. The blending opportunities are extraordinary. It is almost like the range of admixtures one might find in a perfumery. Sean’s talent is clearly in finding diverse vineyards from both within and without the AVA, and from varied elevations, that conform to his disciplined understanding of Rhone varietal correctness. And vineyard site variety is key. After all, for a Syrah pH that pushes 4 on the Walla Walla Valley floor, but that possesses a mid-palate he wants to preserve, Sean’s trick is not to add water or to acidulate (as one might with an estate designation), but to blend the softer expressions with, say, 24 degree brix juice with very high acidity from another locale. We were not able to taste the Mourvédre or Cinsault. It was being held at another facility.
SB The first year I didn’t have enough contracts. But now I am able to pick and choose which vineyards and barrels I use. People ask why didn’t I try to extract more. That’s ridiculous. Grenache is mean to be a lighter color, leaner. Of some lots, I don’t tell too many people where I get it. I just say ‘down the river from Horse Heaven.” Can you leave the specific vineyard out?
I take one last picture of Mr. Boyd, one among his favorite barrels. I then take my leave, smarter, pleased to have played a roll, however small, in the celebration of this guy. He has good friends in Ms. Bosworth and Ms. Nivinius. He owes them a beer, or two.
One of the great advantages of arriving in Walla Walla earlier than the commencement of the Wine Bloggers Conference is the people you meet outside the official program. Always one to stray, I have been very fortunate to happen upon an excellent young winemaker, Sean Boyd, owner of Rôtie Cellars. He makes some of the finest Rhone expressions in Washington State that I have had the pleasure to taste. EVER. He sells out quickly. His wines are sought after by sommeliers in Seattle, and they are very popular here. But he’s a small producer. And should he grow it will only be if he is certain that his fundamental winemaking philosophy remains firm. A glimpse of his approach, his ethos:
“The whole point of Rotie Cellars is to make traditional Rhone Blends with Washington State fruit. So what do traditional Rhone blends mean to me? To start with, they mean lower alcohol, less ripe, less wood, balanced, finesse driven, mouth coating wines.”
But as I can personally attest, this is no mere marketing b.s. He believes what he says. And spend a few minutes with the man and it becomes crystal clear that he’s having the time of his life life making wine. The funny thing is is that he would be the first to shy away from the hype, to just laugh off the praise. As he says, “I’m just the janitor.” He believes all the quality his wines will ever have is achieved in the vineyard. Site location is of paramount importance, especially in the wide open spaces of the Walla Walla AVA and beyond.
The assembled bloggers for this weekend’s conference are fortunate that Côtie Cellars has just opened a tasting room that will be open tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday. Sparsely decorated, with only lonely orchids blooming, you simply must make time to drop in while there are still wines of his to taste. It is located a couple of blocks from the Marcus Whitman, at 31 E. Main Street, Suite 216.
Though it is not my custom or style, I will make an exception and provide tasting notes on another occasion. For now enjoy a little time with the gentleman.
Admin So you like Rhone varieties?
Sean Boyd Yeah. Naming my winery Rôtie Cellars is a little cheeky, but I just wanted to focus on making what I love to drink. I thought it was a fad ten years ago, but it was always one of those constants. You know, when you start drinking wine, for me, it was Zins. I started with Zins out of Paso Robles. I started there. Then you realize your love for other wines. You’ve filled up your cellar and one day realize you can’t drink anything out of your cellar because you think they’re all disgusting. You’ve moved onto Pinots. Then you move on as your wine education develops. Then you move back to what you’ve always loved; for me, Rhones.
Now, Cote Rôtie’s have higher acids, firm tannins, need aging…
SB For me it’s lower alcohol, less manipulation, finding sites that grow the vines very well. Walla Walla is a horrible place to grow Grenache. It’s a horrible place to grow Mourvèdre. Super long cycles, even longer than Cab. When you think about where Grenache and Mourvèdre come from, you think hot sites. Walla Walla is a much cooler site than a lot of the places around Washington. Now, I don’t want to put wines out that just say ‘Walla Walla’ on them to sell bottles. It’s more about finding the best spots to grow the grapes. With Grenache and Mourvèdre, the best spots are along the Columbia River. Super high winds, south-facing slopes, so I found Horse Heaven Hills and north of the Hood River where you have the gorge… you have these constant winds. You don’t get hit by winter frosts.
Grenache is a very temperamental grape. It comes from hot climates. It does not like cold weather. So during the winters around Walla Walla the vine starts deteriorating at around 7 degrees F. Syrah, Cab, Merlot, they start deteriorating between -3 and -12 F. And so if you have a 24 to 36 hour period of sub-zero, which we do every three or four years here in the valley, people are having to cut it all back. And they’re wondering why it’s not waking up in the spring. The reason is that it just doesn’t like cold weather. But if you have that constant flow from the wind, when the temperature stays in the teens at sites nearer this gigantic river, the Columbia rolling through, it helps keep the ambient temperature down, plus you’ve got this wind flow. So for me, that whole area is going to be fantastic for Grenache.
That for me is the highlight of Washington State, those Rhone varietals. I’m picking stuff that’s 24-25 brix, letting it hang until early November; it comes off with fantastic acidity. Because of the long cycle, you get those fantastic ripe-picked characteristics, where it’s phenolically ripe yet it is lower alcohol. So, finding spots that grow grapes well is the battle. If you’re more focussed on estate vineyards, where you’re predicated on Riesling to Cab in the same 40 acre parcel, on the same plot of land, that makes no sense to me. You’re going to have different ripening times all throughout it. Right now we have this incredible reservoir, especially with the crash of the economy, people are dropping out of vineyards left and right. So you’re able to find these incredible contracts, five acres for five years with an option for another five years. I’ll pay the going rate, no problem, with a 5% escalation clause, of course. Let’s see if we can manage it a little bit better. I want to chop it back to 2 1/2 tons per acre. Let’s just see where it goes from there. This after they’ve been producing 4 1/2 to 5 tons an acre because people are just looking for ordinary table wine. My idea is to concentrate the fruit, make some really fresh, high acidity wine by selective green cropping inside and outside of the canopy. Then it starts getting exciting.
So you source along the Columbia Gorge?
SB Yes. All throughout the Gorge. That’s Grenache and Mouvèdre. Now, the advantage of Walla Walla is the Syrah. Walla Walla is Syrah. It’s too cool, the cycle’s just not long enough; some years it’s fantastic, but for me it’s not long enough for Cab. It’s fantastic for Merlot; it’s a little earlier cycle than Syrah. But for Syrah it is just perfect here. It grows really well in the valley. Just beautiful, silky smooth tannins, plenty of color, just the way I like it. You can get reductive down on the rocks to super bright up on the loess… it’s a great spot for Syrah.
And I like to bring in a little bit of edge with lots of stem fermentation.
So you include stems? I love that. It’s considered heresy in certain parts of California.
SB Absolutely I use stems. A lot of it has to do with the sorting machines. The just chop away at the stems. You’re getting all these fractures, the little cuts, when chopped up by the de-stemmer. And if you don’t have a secondary sorting table, vibrating or what not, and you have guys picking out absolutely every little bit of green out of there, you’re not necessarily going to want that. You’re going to have greenness coming into your wine. At least if you do it with whole cluster, you’re getting away from all those little cuts that are happening when you’re sending it through a de-stemmer. It’s $150,000, $200,000 to get proper de-stemming equipment and sorters. It would be nice to have that kind of equipment to decide. If your stems are super, super green then maybe we need not to use them. It will bring in too much pyrazine.
Cab, you can’t really get away with putting lots of stems in. But with Syrah you don’t get those pyrazine issues, as you do with Bordeaux varietals. They would be super green: asparagus, green bean, pickles… but with Syrah using the stems really gives you that spice, that edge, it gives you that stinky funk that makes things interesting; so that it’s not just a bowl of fresh fruit.
I imagine you use a bladder press.
SB Yes, it’s a bladder press. We take all the free run out and mark them. Then with pressing we go up to about a bar, and we stay there after six or seven cycles. Some of the press juice is the best out of Syrah. We don’t do extended macerations. Most of the fermentations are done in 15 to 16 days. I’m not worried about color or extraction, and so some of the press stuff really gets nice tannin in there. I don’t like to rack. You leave the lees in there. Of course, you don’t want 4 inches of lees! But a good 1 or 2 is fine. Keep it sustained at the bottom of the barrel, keep it really topped, and as long as you’re not adding oxygen and that it goes through secondary, you’re fine. Then you become a janitor! This is really what winemakers are, glorified janitors. How you can get an ego about being a glorified janitor I’ll never know. Everything important is about getting it off the vine. You know what? I ike to be a janitor!
How did you get your wine into the right hands? I mean, there are dozens and dozens of new wineries yet there is a lot of buzz about Côtie Cellars. How did you break through?
SB I think it’s that I really enjoy what I am doing. On the marketing end, I hire the right people. Actually, it’s cool. I have two people. They came to me. What more perfect situation can you have than people coming to you? But it’s simply that good wine will sell. People say Syrah is a bad word right now. Syrah doesn’t sell. Blah, blah, blah. If you chase fads you’re going to get burned. You got to do what you love.
I started with Grenache. I got a contract suddenly. Somebody had just backed out of half a block and I had three hours to decide. There were a lot of people lined up to buy the fruit. But I had to take all of it. So I said I’d call my wife. I hung up the phone and literally hit redial. I knew my wife wasn’t going to like this! She was going to think it was a really bad idea. So I bought every last drop of it! Sign me up for the three acres. That’s what started it off. I knew it was a great site. When you know you’re getting this fantastic 14th leaf fruit of Grenache that people would fight over if they knew it was for sale, you can’t say no.
I just don’t want to mess it up, the wine. And there’s a lot of messing up here: like too much oak, like tartaric acid, like water… And then you get into the big boys and it just goes exponential from there. You start talking about RO, taking alcohol out, all those things that fool you. Super ripe and tons of acid, yet low alcohol… what the fuck is going on? Again, it’s about finding the right sites. Right now I have about 24 tons of Grenache under contract. I only use maybe twelve. I sell the fruit off for the same price I pay for it because I don’t want to piss off the growers. But I know that as were moving forward and things change, I want to have access to all the older vine Grenache so I can really work with it. Syrah is now very plentiful. So I don’t really worry about it. It’s easy and it’s fun to work with.
How important is the appellation designation, Walla Walla?
SB The winery is in Walla Walla. But for me it’s Washington State. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla. There are some incredible wines and vines being grown in Washington State, and Oregon. I could care less if it’s Walla Walla AVA. I think that’s doing a wine a disservice. I think it’s cool to do single vineyard Syrahs out of here, but to predicated yourself in Walla Walla just for the label, just because we’re getting in the magazines, is just ridiculous. If you’re fruit is a Cab you’ve gotta be in Horse Heaven Hills, you gotta’ be in Red Mountain, you know, super hot, really fun, floral, beautiful sites; it’s definitely not Walla Walla, for me. If you move into Merlot and Syrah, and some fantastic whites coming out of here, then it’s Walla Walla. For me the AVA does not matter. It’s the vineyard.
So Walla Walla is still working out its identity.
SB Absolutely. If you look at the vines I would say that half are between 7 and 14 years of age in the valley. There are some that are 35, like Windrow and Seven Hills East. The majority is young, with tons and tons of new plantings on the way. In France 35 years is still considered juvenile. We’re definitely trying to get our bearings, dial it in. It didn’t help that we had a huge frost in ‘04. But you can’t worry about it. You have to think of doing what’s best for the vines; not what’s going to burn into my profits. Right now we’re looking long-term. The only way you can be long-term in the wine industry is by putting out a quality product. If you don’t, then you might as well go do something else.
Tell me something of the water rights issues here. I’ve heard a lot about the ‘use it or lose it’ model.
SB Yes. If you don’t use it then you lose it after five years.
So it has to average out to whatever inches you’re initially allocated, or, if you’ve gone from fruit trees to grapes, for example, whatever has been grandfathered in.
SB Correct. A lot of people donate it back. If you put in a drip irrigation system you’re never going to need that type of water you need for growing trees, like the old apple and cherry farmers who would do overhead irrigation. I bought a small piece, ripped out all the trees, and we were going to irrigation. The government was going to give us money because of the water savings. That meant we had to donate water back to the river, but yet we got money back for that. They were very excited about it. They paid for all the main lines, the pipe, there were discounts on the pump, all these fantastic things where you’re getting, even as a first time farmer, 75% of the cost of your drip system, materials and installation. That’s fantastic. You’re helping the water table by using less. You have to use drip irrigation. Hopefully you find spots that can grow grapes without using it. But you can’t really do that in the juvenile stage of a vine’s life. You have to be very careful.
If I had endless amounts of money I would say that for the first 6 years not to take a crop off of a vine. Just get it up, grow some wood, give it what it wants but not take anything from it. And then roll into it. But economics being what they are, the 4th year you can start to make rosé out of it. Hopefully you’re in a spot where you’ve thought far enough ahead that you’re, down the line, not necessarily needing to water. Hopefully they’re big enough, the vines are strong enough. If they’re tree trunks after a few years, then you know damn well that it’s a fantastic place to grow that varietal. The can withstand a hell of a lot more if their 5 and 6 inches in diameter than they can when they’re one inch in diameter.
On a personal note, how does your wife feel about your new calling?
SB She’s from New Jersey. So, every time we come onto the other side of the mountain she says to me, “What the hell are we doing over here?” But then we get to Walla Walla and it’s ok. She’s also a school psyche. We’ve got the prison, and one step beneath that we’ve got the wineries and the service industries. It’s a small community and there are issues in it you don’t find in Seattle where they sweep in under the rug and move to south Tacoma. But here it’s a small community. You get all walks of life.
So a lot of the fruit here is hand-picked.
SB Absolutely. Talk about work. They guys who pick the fruit are unbelievable. It’s amazing when you walk out there and try and do a bin or two yourself. It’s really impressive. I won’t even pretend that I could do that work. We’re janitors. Those guys are laborers. They get paid pretty well, which is good; but it’s only seasonal. We’ve definitely seen the crunch with all the immigration bull shit. People want to work. And they’re willing to do it. You need to give them a shot. It’s how America was founded. The tough move up. Hard work is supposed to count for something.
Great guy, great wines. He left for France today, I believe. A pity the blogging folks could not meet him. But his wines may be found around town, especially in the tasting room. Again, I strongly recommend his work.
A curious thing happened on the way to Milton-Freewater, Oregon, a small agricultural town a few miles south of Walla Walla, and home to the vineyard of winemaker David Stephenson, just across the road from Cayeuse. What was to have been a vineyard tour first passed through Mr. Stephenson’s remarkable introduction to Walla Walla’s wine growing past, present, and ambitions. I shall be doing a second post on the vineyard portion of my visit as well as the stop at Stephenson Cellars itself. But, for now I felt it would be particularly helpful for fellow wine writers and bloggers here for the Wine Bloggers Conference to be brought up to speed via his spirited account of the AVA.
Mr. Stephenson produces round 1,000 cases a year. He is also a consultant, helping with site location, variety selection, bonding paperwork, fruit contracts, the whole deal. As he has said, “In two years I can take anyone from zero to winery”. His knowledge of the local scene makes him an invaluable source of information for visiting bloggers. Indeed, though he is not, sadly, currently on the list of wineries the bloggers are scheduled to visit, I strongly recommend they make their way down to his tasting room at 15 South Spokane St. here in Walla Walla, just minutes from the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
Admin I’ve heard repeatedly about cooperation among winemakers here in Walla Walla. You’re view?
David Stephenson There is a unique level of cooperation here in Walla Walla. It’s a small town. We all know each other. We have to eat at the same restaurants and stare at each other. We tend to get along. But it’s really about trying to lift everybody up at the same time, because if we have people who’ve driven six hours, or who come here from New York or Chicago, and they have a bad experience at any of the wineries, then that carries through for the rest of their visit. It kind of shadows the valley. So we all made a decision early on, the people who founded this place, the wine community, that it made a whole lot more sense to make sure everybody was successful. We’ll let the marketplace sort out your competitors. We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves.
What percentage of the local production goes outside of the Walla Walla AVA?
DS As far as the fruit… that’s a tough question. I would say, this is a guess, about half. There are some relatively large wineries that have locks on some of the old, established vineyards here. Long-standing contracts. They understand that it probably helps to lift the quality of their wines buying our fruit. Basically, I would say that the percentage is high for wineries here in Walla Walla that source fruit outside of the AVA as well. One of the things we’ve learned in Washington, at least Eastern Washington, is that it’s a pretty unpredictable place weather-wise. So you need to hedge your bets, I believe. So if I’m exclusively one AVA, there is a chance that about every six years you’re going to freeze. And when you do, you don’t get any fruit. So you either raise your prices 20% to cover the loss, or you try and source fruit from outside the valley. A lot of folks just don’t want the headache of that. There is great fruit all over, so it makes sense to borrow from each other, if we can.
So how does Walla Walla understand the distinctions between its terroirs and the terroirs of the Yakima Valley, or other locales?
DS Oh, you know, that’s still an on-going discussion! Over the years I kind of go back and forth on the whole concept, wondering if it exists [terroir], because I have in my own vineyard sometimes as much difference from one end of the vineyard to the other as there is from one end of this valley to the other end. There’s just a lot of different micro-climates. It’s a pretty large, expansive area. And I think that anybody who comes to Eastern Washington is blown away by just how huge the wine growing areas are. I mean, they stretch to Idaho; they stretch up to the Canadian border; they stretch all the down to Bend, Oregon. So it’s just an enormous amount of real estate. That said, Walla Walla does seem to have a real lushness and warmth to the fruit that I think shows through. It’s not like any other place. That doesn’t mean it’s worse or better. It’s just different. And I really enjoy working with the fruit from here.
I’ve settled here. I’ve bought vineyard ground.
And when was your first vintage?
DS It was 2001, my first commercial release. I had worked for a lot of the bigger wineries for 3 or 4 years prior to that. I apprenticed with some really great guy that showed me a lot; showed me what not to do as well. I was real appreciative of that. I’ve been around for awhile compared to most of the valley, I guess.
Yes. I noticed that there are two major wine books about Washington, including Walla Walla, of course. And even though they were published in 2008 they already seem to be seriously out of date.
DS They are completely out of date. Our growth has been exponential. A lot of what is happening is, and there is a lot of romanticism that goes with this, but there are just a lot of people who’ve worked hard their whole lives, and they get to be about 50 or 55 and they wonder what do they want to do in their retirement years. They are productive people, professionals, successful in their fields, so they want something that’s challenging but at the same time enjoyable. So they come here. For as many baby boomers as there are, we talk about an aging population, that’s the demographic that really wants to start these wineries. They maybe spent their college years in Europe and haven’t been back, or they visited and want to have a piece of that enjoyment. I sometimes think there are more people who want to start wineries than there are people who want to buy wine.
Is there any conflict between established wheat growers and the pursuit of new vineyard acreage? I’m thinking with respect to land prices.
DS Initially there was. But it has really balanced out. What you see now is wheat farmers who often own vineyards. They are not foolish. They understand that if the land prices go up exponentially, and they’re sitting on 3,000 acres, if it goes up ten times that’s not exactly bad for them. It’s tough to farm. If you wanted to get into wheat farming, if that was your life’s goal, to do that without an existing farm would be pretty difficult. That’s just the way things are.
But as far as taxes on land… that must be burdensome.
DS Well, you know, farmers, we take care of ourselves. There are tax exemptions. You don’t pay the same as if you had an apartment building on your property. Oregon, especially, is very, very protective of their farming ground, their agricultural land. In fact, the vineyard we’re heading to now are in what is called an ‘exclusive farm use area’. I couldn’t build a home. If there is not already an existing home you’re not allowed to occupy any square foot of that land except for agriculture. You have to go with your hat in your hand and beg the planning department if you want to put up any sort of structure that would take any acreage out of production. In exchange for that you have dramatically reduced taxes. It really does work to keep it in agriculture.
What about the erosion of your agricultural base? In California a farmer pulling down $50,000 a year might be approached by some real estate speculator who wants to build McMansions. He’s offered millions of dollars for his 100 acres. He’s 70. What’s he going to say? Of course he’ll take the money.
DS We’ve seen some of that here, south of town, toward the slopes of the Blue Mountains. There was a lot of 10 acre zoning that were wheat farms; but that seems to have slowed down. People have realized that it’s much better to live in town if you want a to have a second of third home. You’ve got services. You’re not dealing with well failures, mowing, and agriculture all the way around you. It’s really no fun living in a dirt zone, unless you’re farming it. It’s not that romantic.
So what about water rights? What percentage would you guess, of course, it has to do with locale, but what is the percentage of vineyards dry-farmed? And what are the irrigation protocols for many of the wineries?
DS That’s a good question. Very few wineries or vineyards here are dry-farmed. This road we’re sitting on here is the road down into Oregon. Basically, the rule of thumb is that every mile that you go to the East you pick up an inch of rain. We’re at about 17, 18 inches. It’s almost like clockwork. As you go up the slopes you pick up more water. Basically, as you get this rising elevation, you tend to scrub a little bit more moisture out of the thunderstorms. The difficulty with this area is that we have an enormous amount of water. Walla Walla means ‘many waters’. We’ve got creeks and springs bubbling everywhere. The aquifers are good. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going down–but that’s not due to grape farming. Grape farming uses minimal amounts. The biggest issue that we have is that if you turn your apple orchard, or your cherry orchard, your irrigated fields over to grapes, you’re going to use a tiny percentage of the water that you used to. There is a kind of ‘use it, or lose it’ rule. If you don’t use your 36 inches per year, you may well forfeit it. You can lose it forever.
You lose it forever? So they determine your allocation by how much has been historically used? So your incentive is to use as much of your allocation as possible even though you’ve switched over to grapes?
DS It’s a terrible system. My right is for 36 inches per year. So you’ll see out here cow pasture where people have a pump going year-round. They just flood-irrigate the field. They just have it running because if they don’t use it up, they’re going to lose it. We all know that in the future that water will be gold. None of this happen without water. Land doesn’t have any value here if you don’t have an irrigation source for it.
We don’t get any rain from basically this point until the end of September, sometimes into October, we’re not going to get an inch of rain. So, unlike France, or other places that dry farm, we get our 18, 20, 22 inches, but it’s all in the Wintertime. We’re in a little bit different situation. We desperately need to irrigate.
Speaking of France, when a winemaker first starts out here who do they turn to? To what nation’s winemaking traditions do they model their winemaking? I’ve noticed a certain use of oak, shall we say.
DS I would say Rhone is closer. We have a very hot climate. You wouldn’t know it now because it’s temperate, but we’re usually scorching in the 90s right now; that’ll go to a 100, sometimes 110 in the Summertime. Tempranillo is here as well. But it was Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, that’s sort of made in more of a California style. Some want to go to the oak. You want bigger, bigger, bigger, because that is, quite frankly, what your customers want. If you want big scores, you go with lots of oak and heavily extracted fruit. But at some point, you kind of settle down. You make the wines that you love to make. You gain confidence over time. I think you can then throttle back and start paying attention to subtleties. But initially, if you look around, you’ll see that this stuff has not been planted to grapes for very long; I think 40 years is about the oldest vineyard here. Most of them are 10 years, 8 years. And so, with that you get this explosion of new, raw, big, bold, beautiful fruit. They’ve got an excess of carbohydrates. It’s fun while it lasts, but at some point we’re going to settle down here.
Where do folks turn for their rootstock?
DS There are a couple of nurseries. Washington is a little different because we grow on our own rootstocks, predominately. We’re not using any rootstock here. We don’t have phylloxera at this point. We are too bloody cold; too bloody hot. That we can plant vines ungrafted is another thing that I think gives Washington really unique wines. We’re not having to control for the effects of rootstocks. What you’re getting is kind of a pure blast of Cabernet, or whatever varietal you’ve cuttings of.
Do you pay attention to clones?
DS There is some attention. I would say that that research is a long ways away. We’re still trying to figure out what site grows fruit. We’re in our absolute infancy. We just haven’t been doing this for very long. and, again, if you look at how much space we have left in the Walla Walla Valley, it’s an enormous area.
We have about 1800 acres under grape cultivation in the entire AVA. I will tell you that there is a new expansion we’re going to be right below [Seven Hills]. It will be about 2000 acres in size. That will double the acreage in the Walla Walla Valley AVA with that one planting alone. So, we’re kind of on the radar now. We’re starting to see a lot more outside money coming in.
So, a new winemaker would essentially turn to a limited number of viticulturalists and siting experts in the area and be told what most are told. There is a model or a pattern.
DS There is a pattern that gets you in the door. Then, after that, you begin sourcing from small, little independent farmers. And this the community of Milton-Freewater, very different from Walla Walla. This is the old time agriculture: cherries and apples and prunes. And now grapes as well. There are lots of little pocket vineyards in here that are fun to play with.
Interesting. So there might be an apple grower here, for example, who might plant an acre of vines. Winemakers would then spot buy, as it were.
DS Yes. Absolutely. And there are a lot of winemakers here who work with a farmer. They’ll go up to an orchardist with a 100 acres and ask for five acres to plant under a long-term contract. Then they’ll split the development costs. The farmer gets the ’sure thing’. The winery owner has clear ideas of what he wants to see, what varieties… there’s a lot less risk for both of them.
—As mentioned above, a second post on Mr. Stephenson’s vineyard itself will be forthcoming.—
Clos Troteligotte is an interesting property. Stylistically, it straddles the line between old and new Cahors, but is not part of a generational movement as such. It understands its future as one driven by an independence of spirit and a work ethic, the true patrimony of the South West. Clos Troteligotte builds upon this cultural continuity with refreshing innovation, a new perspective. I’ll explain.
Traditional Cahors AOC winemaking is difficult to grasp. Its long history has been punctuated by environmental disasters, changing international fortunes, the rise of powerful, politically astute regional rivals, the emergence of America as a winemaking power, its rechristening, if not rebirth, in the 1970s, and, most recently, Argentina’s successful marketing of the Malbec grape under Cahors’ very nose. Indeed, Cahors AOC identity today is an unsettled confluence of multiple histories and restarts. We can catch glimpses of the magnificence of the wines produced, more numerous examples in recent years, but I don’t believe the Cahors AOC has experienced sufficient continuity as a wine growing region for the rest of the world to clearly understand what it is she has done, certainly not what she now does. It was not until the 1990s, after all, that a thorough analysis of what Andrew Jefford has called the forgotten terroirs was even undertaken.
Now the Cahors AOC project becomes to expand and to deepen this new local knowledge of itself, of its terroirs and the best viticulture, for the sake of its growers, producers, and the thirsty public. For it remains true, as I was often reminded by locals themselves, that a substantial number of Cahors AOC vignerons still do not know the strengths and weaknesses of their own lands, whether their vineyards are in the right place, or where to look within the AOC at large for terroirs of great potential. This last point is important in that I strongly sense that others from outside the region are now shopping for AOC acreage. (I, myself, have more than once in the past few weeks wondered whether I might make a go of it here!) Of spectacular potential, this small AOC in the South West of France has only begun to shower the world with the soulful, expressive gifts of its terroirs. Like much of Portugal, I am convinced that the Cahors AOC is on the verge of far wider international recognition than now enjoyed. There is no downside to its fortunes.
Of Clos Troteligotte. Founded in 1987 by patriarch Christian Rybinski, it is a 10 hectare (1 of white grapes just coming in) family operation spearheaded by young son Emmanuel. They combine excellent red plateau soils, an appreciation of contemporary viticultural thinking, a relentless work ethic, internet savoir-faire, experimentation, and an abiding love of their patrimony into a range of bright wines, including a white and rosé. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with Emmanuel. What follows is a blended narrative of the interview.
Troteligotte, Emmanuel explains, is the name of his grandfather’s house. It means a place where there are a lot of partridge (my effort to find an exact translation was unsuccessful). As we approached the property and drove a private dirt road through wooded land just east of the Villesèque commune, itself ten minutes west of Cahors off D653, sure enough partridge bolted in front of us. They did not fly, but ran. Emmanuel described his vineyard as atop the plateau, an iron-rich clay and limestone mix. Unobstructed sunshine is on the vines, the surrounding forest having been cleared for cereal grains and animal forage as well. Emmanuel’s father, Christian, though an agronomist, was an ingenue. He didn’t know a lot about wine when he initially planted the Clos Troteligotte’s vines in ‘87. His own father had been a farmer, had not known the vine. But Christian learned with each vintage and soon left the negociants behind with a focus on quality, a resolution made in 1998, the year of his first great effort.
In 2004 Emmanuel had returned from Australia. He had worked in Victorian Alps Winery, near the Victorian Alps in the state of Victoria. He had also put put in time in Napa as an assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle in 2002. So, back in Villesèque in 2004, he began to make his multiple signature cuvées. Shortly was to come, with the help of his father, their first Charte de Qualité wine in 2004, the CQfd [see pic].
Diversity of wines is the key to the Clos’ success. Emmanuel has complete control over block, vine, and grape selection to do as he pleases. So why not explore the variety their current 40,000 bottle capacity allows? Eight thousand of Rosé, 4,000 of the white blend, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and the balance of classic Cahors blends, Malbec, Merlot, and Tannat. The white blend is quite interesting, the result of an experiment with the three varieties none of which were planted in sufficient quantities to warrant a separate bottling. But next year he will plant more vines for two new whites, a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend and a stand-alone Viognier.
Father and son do everything; they work the vineyards, the cellar, the barnyard, they do all the marketing, including hand-selling at markets, the labels. Control rests entirely in their hands. Their new website, too, was Emmanuel’s doing, though with the help of a friend who runs eure-k!, a new innovative web design collective, in this instance charged with creating a site which reflected Emmanuel’s electric personality. It took six months, but the results are certainly more energizing and visually arresting than any other Cahors AOC producer sites I’ve visited on the net. They also do tee-shirts, fliers offering discounts, all that modern marketing stuff (like talking to me). Though not yet on Facebook or Twitter (it takes time he does not have!), he does have a blog administered by his lovely wife, Emily. (Though not always a part of Emmanuel’s narrative, Emily is undeniably central to their success.) All of this raises his profile and that of the winery. From his work in Australia and California he learned the importance of wine tourism, something he hopes to increase to his property in the near future. Future plans call for the building of a new cellar for tastings and sales, educational talks; a showplace for local art, theater, music, and books; a comfortable place for cultural gatherings and conversation, what Emmanuel calls a Country or Rural Cultural Center. Under construction now, he hopes to open the doors in the Spring/Summer of 2012.
These kinds of initiatives, incidentally, are going on all over the Cahors AOC. Indeed, the local wine and tourism authorities have launched a five-year plan to completely revitalize the region. It is an exciting time to be a winemaker here! Yet Emmanuel’s advice may not be sought, at least in the beginning. Along with other young winemakers 30 and under, they have not yet earned the confidence of the older generation. For that distinction, a greater region recognition of one’s work is required.
Emmanuel is not particularly concerned with such matters. He really has no time to speak formally about the development of the appellation in any case. He has more than enough work to do, what with his winemaking, viticultural practice, marketing, house and out-building construction and family responsibilities. He is the father of three beautiful young children. Malbec Days, in fact, offered him an excellent opportunity to combine a number of tasks, including meeting local officials, exporters, wine writers, etc. all while pouring his wines.
We arrive at the vineyards, the house and future cellar under construction just beyond. His current cellar is simply too small for his ambitious plans. The vineyard is 9 hectares of Malbec and 1 of Merlot. The Merlot was put in his first cuvée, La Fourmi and in his bag-in-a-box wine. But no Merlot is used for his middle and high cuvées. Those wines are 100% Malbec. I should add that the white grapes are not grown on the same soil as the red. In the main vineyard heavy iron-rich stones, some appearing 100% pure, lie scattered about the ground and lurk just beneath the surface. Years ago such stones were smelted to make iron farm and martial instruments. Were it to rain the soil would turn red before my eyes.
Green harvest is the order of the day at the more progressive vineyards, as here. Emmanuel explains the maximum number of canes allowed, 4 to 5, along each cordon. Grape bunches are severely reduced to one per cane. Yields for the higher quality cuvées are around 30 hectoliters per hectare, the lowest yield is used for the CQfd. Contrast this to the easier drinking, less expensive La Fourmi, for which 45 to 50 hectoliters per hectare are harvested. As may be seen, grass and flowers are everywhere between the rows, but Clos Troteligotte is not yet biologique. La Lutte Raisonnée is practiced, essentially what we would call ’sustainable’. In two to three years they will complete the transition to biologique, or ‘organic’. Under the raisonnée regime a very small amount of ‘product’ is used, sulphur and copper, usually once a year. No insecticide is applied. But even this quantity, Emmanuel explains, has been reduced by half since 2000. As a result the vines have become more and more capable of resisting what diseases there are in this dry climate. During a typical growing season it is only the leaves, and not the grape bunches, which are occasionally attacked. Clean grapes help, of course, with the vinifications, all done with ‘wild’ yeast.
Because it is just Emmanuel and his father, the grapes are mechanically harvested. Small select parcels are harvested first, when it is coldest, between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. in the morning. The disease-free grape clusters, a feature of both climate and viticulture, do not really need hand harvesting. No post-harvest de-selecting is required. Besides, a hectare may be harvested in under two hours at an optimal temperature and have the grapes in the winery before the morning chill has fled. The whites, however, are hand harvested because of oxidative matters. Curiously, their vineyards are consistently ready for harvest a full week earlier than their closest neighbor, a vineyard property only one kilometer away. Perhaps it is the forest circling their lands that provide an extra bit of protection, perhaps a subtle microclimate subtends the difference.
We leave the red soils of the Malbec/Merlot vineyard (with a small amount of Tannat, 2 to 3 percent) to view the white clay, chalkier soils for Clos Troteligotte’s whites. The vineyard bordered the forest, but in the past few years the trees have been cleared to make room for more vines to come, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier, as mentioned above. The empty field is now planted with cereal grains while they prepare for the new vineyard.
I was next introduced to a small plantation of very young oaks, what they hope will become truffle trees in no fewer than 7 years. Asked about a vegetable garden, Emmanuel very proudly said they grew for the family. “We do everything!” They don’t use conventional paper diapers for their children. Instead, they use a hemp fabric, and for their tee-shirts, not to mention for the insulation of their home. His uncle has 40 hectares of cereals under cultivation. Complete with a windmill and grinding stone, grains for the family and their chickens and pigs are produced there. The pig manure is, bien sûr, returned to the fields. Like Emmanuel says, “We do everything!”
Heating of the family home, Emmanuel and Emily’s, is provided by a large stove. After firing it up for a couple of hours it provides heat all throughout the night, important when the temperature last winter plunged from an average of zero to minus 10. With the stove they bake their own bread. They harvest meats from their own livestock. Their family life and that of their farm supports and maintains long-standing Cahors country traditions. They remind me of rural folks living in Mendocino County or in western Montana. I couldn’t help thinking I had met these people before. I’m sure I have. And like their American counterparts, they are not making much money. Emmanuel laughs, “Not yet. Not yet. We work 7 days a week. We have one short holiday a year. Me and my wife. But I am on a good path. Next year I hope to take more time off… maybe pay someone to come with me into the vineyards. That would allow me to do something else.”
I was welcomed at their family house. Emily brought out a bowl of strawberries. Their apple-cheeked children eyed me with amusement, dressed as I was in unseasonable, unreasonable black and sporting multiple electronic devices. A friendly old dog, perhaps a Bernese, went back to the shade. Emmanuel introduced me and soon had his eldest son practicing his English numbers aloud. Their youngest offered me a bottle of liquid soap and a bubble wand. The ice water infused with citron tasted good.
Though I was to spend another 45 minutes with Emmanuel touring the winery proper and other sites, and listening to his extraordinary visions that I am certain will be realized, I feel it is best to end my post here. I had seen, tasted and heard much in my week in the Cahors region. But no experience was quite so perfect, so personally fulfilling for this weary stranger than my few precious minutes here with the Rybinski family.
For further reading, a supplemental link.
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It sometimes happens in life that you meet a person of such spiritual dedication that you think things differently, your world-view nudged in a new direction. Such was my encounter with Laurent Rigal, son of Franck Rigal, family winemakers for Château de Grezels and Prieuré de Cenac in Parnac, AOC Cahors. On the first night of Malbec Days here in Cahors, what was called the Pré-ouverture, a kind of sneak preview, I tasted only a small number of wines, a few of which immediately caught my attention, this despite the tremendous heat inside the venue (I was told air conditioning was too expensive to install, coming in at around €10,000). Of those wines, one stuck in my imagination, ‘La Vierge’, from the Prieuré de Cenac vineyard. By virtue of a personal meander appropriate to this region dominated, as it is, by the Lot River, and the generous assistance of Jean-Marie Sigaud, I was to meet father and son the following day. A winemaker discussing their work often presents two faces, one public, a visage of commercial, more formal utterances, and the other, private, far rarer. I was fortunate to listen to the latter.
The vineyard for La Vierge is situated within 39 hectares of gently sloping hills high above the Lot River. At the top of the very highest hill is a special terroir in that it contains a 50% concentration of the most desirable soil admixture in AOC Cahors, clays, principally red, and 50% limestone. Iron, a red clay element, gives minerality and adds balance and complex aromas in the wine. The vineyard was planted on Laurent’s birthday 30 years ago, in 1979, from which the first harvest was taken in 1983. That was a very good year owing to the modest yield. The vineyard for La Vierge sees no chemicals and is all hand-picked. It is, most importantly for Laurent, biodynamic, his passion.
He began working this vineyard 7 years ago after finishing school in Bordeaux. There he learned the principles of terroir, biodynamics, the influence of the ocean on weather, and especially a respect for the land and its biodiversity. For it is biodiversity that informs the success of the grape harvest. And it is the responsibility of the winemaker to give back to the land what he takes away. All of these principles represented the broader change taking place in the entirety of the AOC.
When purchased this vineyard was already planted to the vine, but owing to its great age it was replanted with new vines, so low had the yields become. (Currently around 8,000-10,000 bottles come from the site.) It was formerly owned by a monk. The monk grew a large variety of cereals and vegetables during and after the Second World War, as well as maintaining a vineyard. Many monks sustained the local appetites and economies during this difficult time all throughout France.
Of the vintages from Prieuré de Cenac, Laurent has been responsible for 6, from 2003 forward. Of the difference between his first vintage and most recent he explains:
Laurent Rigal For the first vintage I was very excited. And very stressed! My father and grandfather set very high quality standards I had to meet. My first vintage was very hard work. I tried to make it perfect. But I felt I worked for nothing because it was a passion that drove me. Then I worked every day from early morning to mid-night, as late as two in the morning. Now I work more efficiently because working too hard on the vine and wine brings a negativity to the wine. I give the whole process more liberty and approach the harvest and vinification with greater respect, letting it develop on its own. Before I was pumping-over [remontage] 6 times a day; now I keep it at 2. It is better.
On the property there stands the monastery that, as Franck Rigal explains, the family hopes to renovate into a rooms for visitors, perhaps room enough for six. This he tells me as he drives our small car onto the steep slope to the vineyard hilltop. There is no road, but it is wide enough(!) Under brilliant sun, expansive sight lines in all directions above the broad and gentle slopes, we stop and I take in what they call mamelom, the ‘tit’ of La Vierge. But there is more to this name than a mere description. For Le Vierge means ‘virgin’, and the monk had cleared a place of quiet contemplation in the trees just a stone’s throw away. A spiritual topography begins to come into focus.
Laurent Rigal I will show you his place of quiet repose in a moment. But I want to say that here there is energy, a strong cosmic force and a telluric force. There is a concentration at La Vierge, and all around the statue is a reseau [network] that helps keep the vines in good health. There is another concentration of energy in the prieuré which serves the entire vineyard. This is very important for biodynamic viticulture because we use this energy to develop good health, to infuse the earth and the vine with life. The winemaker must learn to develop this force in the plant, the vine, and to so help reduce the quantity of chemicals.
We have three products in biodynamics: We use cow manure, and we prepare it according to Maria Thun – she is the person who developed biodynamie in France and Germany – we also produce mineral sprays for application on the vines. Two products are for developing the telluric force and one is to develop the cosmic force, to attract the light onto the vine. It is very important that you develop and focus the energy of the universe, the light. But this is rare. It is not easy to do.
So it is that the mamelom, the name of the hill, La Vierge, that of the vineyard, are descriptive elements of a kind of immaculate nursing (if I may put it that way) with the cosmos.
We then, midst a riot of bird-song, walked down the mamelom to Laurent’s place of contemplation and one of the vineyard’s power points. It was here that I took the picture of Laurent and his father, Franck. The picture of Laurent above shows him sitting at the precise power site initially discovered by the monk.
Laurent Rigal I was up this morning at 3 o’clock preparing and spraying, according to the calendar, the constellations, preparations for this vineyard! So I am a little tired today. In biodynamics there are four days: A fruit day, a leaf day, a root day, and a seed day. Today was a fruit day.
Here, at this quiet place, there is a concentration of telluric and cosmic force. Some people who visit this place feel this energy coursing through their fingers. And when you sit down, not to pray but to think, and if you are energy-friendly, then you may receive the energy.
And of the wine made here, the aromas and the taste of La Vierge, you can say the moon and the sun are in harmony. The wine is the expression of this union. We will be bringing a horse and cow to the vineyard soon; they bring good astral properties. This is a very special terroir for biodynamie. You have iron and orange clay.
Next I will show you the cave of the prieuré, but just for you. It was built by the monk. I do not often talk about these things, but you have an ambience. I can see it in the eyes when people do not want to listen.
In moments we are in the cave, the property’s second power point located beneath the main structure, the house to be renovated for guests in the fullness of time. Though I am a bit uncomfortable in doing so, I must stress that Laurent did give me permission to post the accompanying photo.
Laurent Rigal This was built by the monk, and it is in the form of the cross of Christ. I put my biodynamic preparations down here to bring into them the energy of the cave and the cross. Here I make the two products, preparations, described by Maria Thun. This one I put on the earth for an energy of concentration and recuperation…. This is a special place for me.
We head back to Cahors, the bridge where Laurent still faced the balance of the day pouring his wines. I was again to see him in the evening when, now nearly sleep-walking, he poured wines into the night, still cheerful, composed, radiating a great inner peace. I shall treasure my time with the gentleman and his father, among the finest moments of my time in the Cahors region.