Category Archives: Winemaker Interview

Watching a California AVA Change its Identity

lodi_native_logo_288

There is a small group of pioneering winemakers taking the leap of faith (with some encouragement) to embrace a different approach to Lodi winemaking. They offer limited production premium wines and are fashioning a new identity for the region.

The brilliance of the vision is in the marketing. Wine collectors and enthusiasts follow winemakers and vineyards… it is the dirty secret most wineries would rather not acknowledge. Strong distribution, labels, shelf-talkers, shelf space and displays draw the average consumer. So, when you talk premium wine, what describes successful marketing? …Rock Star winemakers and masterfully managed vineyards. Examples on the vineyard side: I am always looking for single vineyard designate wines from Beckstoffer, Bien Nacido and Stolpman vineyard sites at below market prices. Same applies to winemakers like: Foley, Hobbs, Grahm, Lindquist, Smith, Ramey, Petroski, etc. (too many favorites to list). I am always looking…

The Lodi Native Project

This project was the original brain-child of Randy Caparoso (see bio here: Randy Caparoso), but it’s success depended on the execution of a group of winemakers who embraced the challenge. At its core, the project represents a winemaking philosophy, but the goal is much broader and ambitious. It includes a group of winemakers (Layne Montgomery-M2, Stuart Spencer-St. Amant, Ryan Sherman-Fields Family, Mike McCay-McCay Cellars, Tim Holdener-Macchia and Chad Joseph-Maley Brothers) that individually agreed to release 100-250 cases per vintage of Lodi AVA vineyard designate wines under a set of rules that require non-interventionist winemaking. The parameters include: all natural wild yeast (no inoculation), no additives (i.e. acidification), no filtering, all neutral oak in aging, etc. The heritage vineyard sites (see historic vineyards here: Heritage Vineyard Society) include: Marian’s Vineyard, Schmiedt Ranch Vineyard, Soucie Vineyard, Stampede Vineyard, TruLux Vineyard and Wegat Vineyard. These are all “Old Vine” vineyard sites (see Lodi Native vineyard info here: Lodi Native About).

Why is this Special?

This project represents the re-making of an AVA. There will always be bulk fruit and wine produced out of Lodi AVA, but this effort is showcasing why/how Lodi can be different and have at least a small footprint on the premium wine scene. What does Lodi Native bring to the wine world we do not already have? These are quality, terroir-driven, food friendly Zinfandel based wines at reasonable prices. I have not tasted other Zins quite like these. The previously recognized quality Zin producers, like Seghesio and Ridge are very different. Go Lodi Native! Your team has added diversity to the world of wine…

The Impact

Lodi has a large number of Heritage designate Old Vine Vineyard sites. Many were planted with their own root system (not spliced onto alternative root stock). Lodi is fortunate to have sandy-loam soils at some sites where phyloxera cannot survive. The native root systems on these 90-120 year old vines do seem to have an effect on the character of the wine. Many of these vineyards yield only 2-3 tons of fruit per acre, without intervention. These self-regulating vines seem to have “learned” how to contribute to yield management on their own.

These sites represent a valuable asset to the local wine community, having as much to do with quality winemaking, as the historical significance they hold. The importance of these vineyards was not recognized until roughly ten years ago, but it was Randy’s vision that made them commercially viable, and it was the winemakers’ commitment to showcasing the uniqueness that brought the project together.

Lodi Native has given a voice to the different nature of this AVA. Maybe Randy guessed at what could happen if the winemakers pulled it off, but I don’t think any of them understood what it would mean to building a local wine identity… beyond bulk wine grape production. These wines are very good in a serious classic sense and are terroir driven. They offer structure and balance, something missing from much of the rest of the AVA and they definitely belong in the category of premium wines. They offer a delicate finesse, focusing on soft mouth-feel, floral nose/palate and age-ability.

Value

If you are a wine enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to seek out these wines. They are the beginning of the emergence of the classic Lodi AVA and the value is solid.

More on Lodi Native Wines to come…

 

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Winemaker Interview – Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards

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Winemaker Interview Series – Billo Naravane

 

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Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards

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http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2015/03/01/winemaker-interview-sally-johnson-blum-of-pride-mountain-vineyards/

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Winemaker Interview – David Ramey of Ramey Cellars

Winemaking Aristocracy

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http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2015/01/05/winemaker-interview-david-ramey-of-ramey-cellars/

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Winemaker Interview

Breaking Down Winemaking Styles

During a recent trip to Napa-Sonoma, California, I had the opportunity to interview several winemakers and talk with tasting room managers in the premium wine segment.  The discussion produced a large amount of material, but a few ideas stood out. One question continued to run over and over in my mind:  does a winery begin with some sort of vision for the final product?  If so, how does it come to be…

Is Wine Style Part of the Business Plan?

 

**INSERT Dilbert cartoon HERE** ©Scott Adams

 

Folks, I am not able to include this Dilbert cartoon, but you simply must click on this Link and check it out.  Funny stuff and right on point for this commentary.  This cartoon was excerpted from: Washington Business Journal, “Is your vision statement for real?”, Mar 17, 2011, Link Here.  Good read!  Unfortunately, even non-profit commentary use must still respect creative property!

 

The Vision

In the over $25/btl retail segment, I would say the wine itself easily contributes 2/3 (or more) to the brand identity.  Can you develop a brand, without developing a vision for the product?  I find this kind of discussion fascinating…

Is it important for employees and customers to understand that vision?

Should a Winery Have a “Wine Style”?

Every winery has a story to tell that differentiates them from the thousands of other producers in the marketplace.  That story is the cornerstone of each label.  So, what does this have to do with winemaking? Everything!  The questions posed in these interviews uncovered a glimpse into that underlying vision and ultimately how they wish their wines to be perceived by both their own organization and the consumer.

Why would an owner choose the difficult premium wine segment of the market in the first place?  There must be a calling, or a passion driving that decision?  Framing that story in a way that can capture a wine enthusiast’s imagination… is a message worth crafting.  So, where could wine style fit into this picture?  In this price category, more than any fancy, gimicky label design, or strategic marketing plan, the wine itself defines the brand.  If this thinking is sound, then the style of wine produced IS the winery’s identity.  Following this logic, finding a way to bring the story behind making the wine directly to the consumer is absolutely critical to building the brand.  If you look at wineries in this way, what stories do they have in common?  After interviewing enough winemakers / owners, you start to see commonalities.  In my opinion, the choice of wine style seems to manifest in one of three different ways:

1.  Begin With the Quality of the Fruit  –  Wine should express the character of the fruit and Terroir

  • This is the winemaker as viticulturist view.  Requires an emphasis on the wine growing.  With a complementary view of nurturing the vines to produce supreme quality fruit.  This is best implemented in an estate winery situation.

Impact on the Wine – Tends to add complexity and layering of flavors.  These wines often have a more defined mid-palate. This style is frequently made to be fruit-forward and emphasizes clarity and freshness.  This approach will usually drive good structure, but may not emphasize balance and often has a varietally correct flavor profile.  This style is typified by the winemaker as farmer – often with formal training in biology, botany, or agriculture and the winemaker leans heavily on learning his trade through internships and experience.

2.  Begin With Analyzing the Fruit  –  Better wine through better chemistry

  • This is the winemaker as technologist view.  Monitor and measure everything.  Wine is a mixture of chemical components and the optimum desired profile can be identified and reproduced.

Impact on the Wine – Brings more consistent quality.  These wines tend to focus on correct ratios.  There is rarely a desired component missing, but the product can often lack finesse.  Tannins, acidity, alcohol, phenolic development all carefully measured to arrive at the optimal formula generally accepted by the industry.  This style is typified by the winemaker with a UC Davis MS in Enology, who has taken the technological training completely to heart.

3.  Begin at the End  –  Start with a clear vision for the final product

  • This is the winemaker as artist view.  Where the winemaker is the star and bringer of quality.  This demands a winemaker as leader, who can leverage a history of experience, knowledge and technique to drive the wine to match his vision.

Impact on the Wine – These wines tend to be either elegant and composed, or knock your socks off with a focused over-the-top approach.  Focusing on the elegant approach…  Whether, or not the fruit is up to muster, these winemakers find a way to make the wine balanced and have great mouth-feel.  These most often are classically styled wines, with good structure, acidity, tannins and texture.  Flavors and aromas are less of an emphasis.  This style is typified by the winemaker as the leader and star – having a decade, or two of experience, always knowing the right decision to make, regardless of vintage variation.

Most wineries mix some combination of these ideas, but one of these philosophies typically shines through.

Does One Style Produce Better Wine?

The answer is most definitely no, but the wines within each style category do tend to have similar characteristics.  I enjoy wines in my cellar from producers that fall into all three categories, depending on my mood.

As a consumer, does identifying the story behind your favorite winery matter?

This time the answer is most definitely yes.  If you are like myself and many of the wine enthusiasts I know, we enjoy quality wines, but like to vary flavors and styles.  You may recognize these different styles in your favorite wines.

I have always found this to be sound advice:  “The key to finding new wines you are likely to enjoy, is to track the winemakers and vineyards.”  Pay attention to this information for your favorite wines and it will help you find other labels worth trying.  Connecting to the story behind your favorite winemakers and favorite vineyards can make your wine appreciation much richer.

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2014 Napa–Sonoma Winemaking Trends

'I'm not putting it out. There's enough oak in this Chardonnay to keep this fire going all night.'

Source Material

I have interviewed 12 winemakers from the area by phone and in-person over the past few months.  Many have been from very well-known, high-profile producers. The material has provided a few new perspectives.  Some of these observations may only apply to estate wineries where there is more control over wine growing strategies, while others are specific to the winemaking.  I will not compare individual winemakers, or wineries.  It would be an injustice to each of them.  Although, I will be making an effort to tell each of their stories in separate pieces later.

Recent Winemaking Trends in Premium Wines

More Block Harvesting and Corresponding Small Lot Fermentation

I am running into this strategy at more estate wineries and if they are not already doing it, they are thinking about it.  Separately fermenting smaller, individually harvested, vineyard lots is happening more in this region than ever before.  Wineries are making a major investment in large numbers of smaller fermentation tanks, moving away from the full harvest approach and much larger tanks.  This trend is allowing winemakers to more effectively capture the individual character of fruit grown within differing micro-terroirs in individually fermented batch lots used for later blending.

Impact on the Wine –  Improved complexity and structure. Isolating individual characteristics from the fruit to bring a greater sense of unique “place” to the wine.

Winemakers Exerting Greater Influence on Viticulture

Estate Winemakers are insisting on more input into the decisions in the vineyard.  They are investigating different micro-climates and soil types on a much smaller scale than ever before.  This trend is increasing their influence with viticultural decisions that affect the final product such as:  separate farming and harvesting of individual vineyard blocks, row orientation, irrigation and pruning strategies (or lack of), etc.

Impact on the Wine – Better planning to accommodate vintage variation.  Ability to experiment with vineyard practices that can compliment the style of wine being made.

Varying the Harvest Timing with Small Block Harvesting

This is a bit controversial, but I am hearing it being discussed more.  Harvest timing is one of the major decisions affecting the wine.  It can effect tannins, acidity and phenolics… blending individual lots harvested at different times can change many characteristics of the final product, for example:

  • Tannins – Earlier harvest can make tannins more rustic.  Also, the ripeness of the pips can have a huge impact on the texture of the tannins (dusty, grainy, rounder, etc.).
  • Acidity – Earlier harvest can often provide increased acidity.
  • Phenolics – This is the touchy-feely area of this practice.  Identifying the preferred level of phenolic development is as much art, as science, but there is no doubt ripeness affects this category too.
  • Sugar – Harvest timing will effect the amount of sugars in the juice.

Impact on the Wine – Virtually all aspects of the wine’s character are potentially affected by this.

Less Interaction with the Wine During Production

This philosophy is leading to experimentation. Here are a few techniques that are being used, or discussed more frequently:

  • More wineries are moving to automated pump-over closed tank fermentation, versus open container punch-down.  Some industry folk say punch-down “shocks” the wine.  I have been paying closer attention to this in the past year, after seeing its widespread use during a trip to Italian wine country last year.
  • Lots of discussion going on regarding the need for extended cold-soak prior to ferment to extract color.
  • More natural yeast fermentation, instead of inoculation.
  • Lighter pressing of the fruit. One winemaker talked of just using gravity to press the first-run juice.
  • Skipping removal of the lees after ferment and waiting until a later date to separate the wine.
  • Controlling temperature to slow down the duration of the ferment.
  • Less fining and filtering, which reduces the amount of pumping and moving of the wine.

Impact on the Wine – The intangibles seem to be most affected by this approach.  These techniques may soften the attack of the wine, add elegance and affect mouth-feel.

Extended Maceration for Red Wine

This relates to extending the contact of the wine with the skins and sometimes the lees and/or stems. I actually spoke to one winemaker that talked of 60 days for ferment and maceration.  The more traditional thinking is 10-15 days…  This is expensive for wineries.  It requires either investment in more fermentation tanks, or reducing capacity for production.  Several winemakers spoke of wanting to experiment with this for whites too.

Impact on the Wine – Differing opinions on this, but for my palate, it changes the character of the tannins substantially and at the same time adds complexity.  I am not sure there is more extraction, but it definitely affects the texture.

Whole Cluster Fermentation for Red Wine

This technique requires using the whole grape cluster (stems and all) for the ferment, rather than the usual de-stemmed berries.  Almost all winemakers I talked to were including a percentage of their blend with wine fermented this way.  Several winemakers claimed that a whole cluster ferment by definition will add natural carbonic maceration to the mix.  Some of these wines do appear to be more aromatic…

Impact on the Wine – It may add more of a mid-palate to some wines.  Often, these wines seem to have a fresher, fruitier character (carbonic maceration?).  Bottom line, these wines ARE more complex, but better complex?  Some winemakers claim it has much to do with the terroir.  Apparently, some terroirs do not produce fruit that works well with this process.

Focus on Balance

Ah, the holy grail of wine!  For so many years Napa producers have been known for their big, extracted, high alcohol cabs.  I think the pendulum is finally starting to swing back a bit.  While these producers will never move back to the true French Bordeaux style, more winemakers are talking of balance and I am starting to taste it in more Napa wines.  A beautiful trend!

Conclusion

It is so good to see sophisticated wine palates (winemakers) changing the decisions being made in the vineyard.  While vineyard management is certainly farming, having a trained palate influencing the approach for each individual block and making adjustments for each vintage… is a very, very good thing for the industry.

Many of these techniques and ideas have been around the industry a very long time, but tend to be newly adopted in areas of California.  To be fair, not all winemakers are fans of this direction and produce fantastic wines anyway.  A clear indication of how much there is still to learn, about growing and making wine.

Why are following these trends important?

  • For Wine Enthusiasts – It may help you:
    • Identify techniques that produce wines you prefer
    • Build a dialogue with your favorite wineries
    • Understanding a winery’s approach, may help you to understand which labels match your palate
  • For Industry Professionals – Understanding how influential wine producing regions are changing their thinking is important to:
    • Wine pairing decisions
    • Building context for a strategy to develop a commercial wine list representative of a broad range of styles
    • A glimpse into the future of where the industry is headed

 

P.S. – I hope folks are enjoying these kind of pieces.  I don’t see much written that tries to make the technical more accessible and relevant to the public audience.    HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND BEST WISHES TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILIES!

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Winemaker Interview – Todd Anderson of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards (ACVV)

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http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2014/10/15/winemaker-interview-todd-anderson-of-andersons-conn-valley-vineyards-acvv/

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Winemaker Interview – Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines

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http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2014/08/20/winemaker-interview-kathleen-inman-of-inman-family-wines/

 

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Winemaker Interview – Kale Anderson of Pahlmeyer Winery and Kale Wines

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http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2014/08/12/winemaker-interview-kale-anderson-of-pahlmeyer-winery-and-kale-wines/

 

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