“I once asked a friend of mine, who came back from France, to describe a famous winemaker in the Cornas region of Rhone. They said, ‘you know, kinda earthy, a little bit of brettanomyces!’”
– Louisa Sawyer Lindquist
Louisa Sawyer Lindquist has been making wine for her label, Verdad, since 2000. She has been involved in the wine business since the 80’s, and has known her destiny as a winemaker since the age of 18. She is modest, an artist, and knows the business well. She’s self critical, yet proud, and very clear about her vision. Her wines have a beautiful femininity; vibrant acid, flowery nose, earthy / minerally complexity, that pair well with food. Louisa follows in a line of pioneer women in the industry; Heidi Peterson Barrett, Milla Handley, Merry Edwards, Kris Curran, and Carol Shelton, to name a few. I really value the female perspective in the wine business, and find that my palate is moving towards feminine wines.
Louisa, along with her husband, Qupé winemaker, Bob Lindquist, were the first to convert pasture land into biodynamic vineyards, in California, in 2004-5. The wine industry is leading the organic / biodynamic charge in agriculture, and I can really taste the vibrancy and life in these wines. Verdad’s wines are no exception. The focus is on Spanish varietals, Albarino, Garnacha, and Tempranillo, with a some rosé as well. She had me at Albarino!
Her Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley is really special, in part, because it’s farmed biodynamically. Biodynamic farming was originally conceived by Rudolf Steiner in the late 19th century. Think of it as an extension of organic farming, using plants in the vineyard to attract insects that positively influence it, feeding the vineyard nutrient rich manure teas, and composting. When getting certified by organizations, like Demeter, they’re looking for an ecosystem unto itself, on the property. I’ve never been to the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (looking forward to visiting, Louisa!), but I once stood in Michael Topolos’ biodynamic vineyard, and there was an energy about it that was so vibrant.
Let’s get to the interview already!
What got you started in the wine business? What led you to make wine? Who are your influences?
“I was 18, working in Yosemite, hanging with a lot of older friends, sharing wine and camping. I immediately fell in love with it. The taste, the ambiance, the communal aspect; I saw that wine brought people together, and it had a story. Right then I wanted to be a winemaker.
I went to school in Long Island, NY. Coincidently, a Long Island wine industry was beginning to emerge. I was able to intern with Hargrave cellars, the first winery on Long Island, in the 1980’s. I pruned grapevines and worked in the winery, and that was my first job. I also worked in wine shops and restaurants to supplement my income and gain wine knowledge, but never wavered from that initial focus to make wine. Then I met Walter Channing, who was a venture capitalist, and artist in NYC. He started an experimental winery (now known as Channing Daughters), and I made a little wine for him. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I worked with other local winemakers and found my way.”
What brought you to Cali? Tell us about the birth of Verdad?
“I moved to SF to work for an importer, but I always wanted to get back into the production end. When I met my husband, Bob Lindquist, that became a possibility. We had a shared interest in wine and winemaking. I turned my husband on to Albarino and Spanish varietals. Bob had a long term lease with the Ibarra – Young vineyard, so we were able to plant a couple acres of Albarino, slowly from ‘96-’98. Sticks propagated from vines that Brian Babcock brought over from Spanish icon Bodegas Morgadio. A lot of the early Albarino planted in CA were from those cuttings. It was sorta like, ‘oh wow, you have Albarino!? Let’s get some sticks and plant them!’”
Albarino was not a varietal that Americans knew about in the 90’s. It is only in the the last 15 years, that the world has come to know the magic of this varietal.
“In the late 90’s, the economy was soaring, and it never seemed like it would end. Verdad was born with visions of making Albarino, Tempranillo, and rosé. Rosé represents the joy of summer and outdoor living in California. When I wanted to start my own label, I wondered why California wine had no relationship to Spain, when the geography was so similar. With CA history ties to the missionaries and the Mission grape history, I wondered what happened to grapes like Tempranillo (and why was California not interested)? In 2000, I spent six weeks in Spain, researching. I got the name ‘Verdad’ from going there. I was particularly interested in Galicia (where Rias Baixas lays claim to Albarino), cool climate Rioja (Alavesa and Alta), and coastal influence reds.”
What are your obstacles?
“The cost of production is really high. The smaller the winery, the more it costs; trucking, labels, and bottles. It’s hard to make a return on your investment. In eight years, I haven’t been able to raise prices, yet everything else has gone up.”
Why is the cost of wine so high?
“Trucking companies are doing great. Warehouses are doing great, yet it’s very difficult for a small winery to succeed. Delivering out of state fees place a bottle of wine beyond the price point of what you originally envisioned. There are so many moving parts, and there’s a correlation between winery and restaurant.”
The restaurant industry is struggling right now.
“Your customer base is price sensitive, but they don’t realize how complex it is to run a business like that, with so many moving parts. Chefs work so hard just to get their food out there, to cook. It is a fleeting moment in time…”
Being a woman in the business. Do you see any challenges to being a woman in a male dominated biz?
“There were very few women in the business in the 80’s and 90’s, in NY and CA. American, the offspring of distributing giant Southern, led the way, and hired a bunch of women in the mid 90’s. The liquor sales reps, in their Seagram’s jackets, or Italian suits (depending on the distributor), dominated the business then. The business has been a “guy” culture, but I think it’s changed a lot.
Doing the physical work as a woman is demanding. I think it’s more about being a small winery in this business that’s very difficult. When you get less of a piece of the pie, and you’re less represented in the industry, people look at you differently… they talk over you. It’s subtle, but you know when you’re feeling it. It’s hard to quantify.”
Do you have any words of advice for women who want to start their own business?
“You might have to work a little harder to get noticed. Pair up with people that know what they’re doing and have experience. You can have a big picture of where you want your business to go, but the devil is in the details. All the little costs and steps along the way – it really pays to analyze it. Over time you realize how important every detail is to having a successful business. It’s a joyous business when things are working. Making it, seeing the grapes come in, and having your wine turn out the way you want, it’s just delightful.”
What’s unique about Edna Valley?
“Edna Valley is a very small AVA (American viticulture area), 6 miles from the ocean, with a direct coastal influence. We have cool summer temperatures, with a really long growing season. It gets warm and sunny in September / October, when the onshore marine layer moves offshore. It’s really ideal, cool grape growing.”
Like most great wine regions, the best soils are in the hills.
“Sawyer Lindquist is hilly, with rocky, clay loam, decomposed sedimentary soils, and a volcanic influence from the Seven Sisters. There’s also a glacial influence, where I find fossils in the soil. It’s very rocky, white San Luis Obispo mudstone, which I call “limestone’s poor cousin”. Because the valley is so small, there’s a common thread in soil types throughout. A much larger valley would have many different soil types.”
Tell me about the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard. Why Biodynamic?
“Over time, using biodynamic farming brings in rich biodiversity within the soil. Since 1998, I started thinking more about organic. Steven Singer (Olive oil and vinegar importer, and husband of Alice Waters) was very influential on me. I would send him wines, and then talk about them with him. When he was married to Alice, they only and wanted to work with only organic wine producers, people who really cared about the soil. 1999 was our first year of going organic. I’m close friends with Steve Beckman, who was doing a lot of experimenting with biodynamic farming, and getting great results. I thought about it for a while, you know, a lot of people think it’s about fairy dust, when they first hear about it. We were a little bit skeptical initially.
Bob (Lindquist) went to London for a semi-annual trade tasting, and it just so happened that there was a biodynamic conference in London at the same time. He saw Andre Ostertag and Dominique Lafon there, and had dinner together. Ostertag was all biodynamic, and Dominique Lafon was doing both organic and biodynamic, and they were both totally singing its praises. That was the game changer. Bob and I decided to do biodynamic farming from the beginning. We started doing a biodynamic prep, on pasture land. It’s one of the first vineyards in CA to go straight biodynamic from raw land. At first it was a lot of work, but as the years went by, we didn’t have to do as much, because the land was really healthy. It’s super labor intensive, but it gets easier as you go along. The vineyard is teeming with life. Philipe Armenier (biodynamic wine consultant) pointed out, that in the afternoon sunlight, the vines that use organic farming are a light green translucency, and the conventionally grown vines are a duller, more darker green color in the leaves (further evidence that organic / biodynamic farming produces healthier vines).”
The vibrancy in the vineyard is palpable for biodynamic vines, and that translates into wine that smells, tastes, and feels so alive.
I feel like, when I try your wines, that there’s a real femininity that comes out in them. The grace, vibrant acidity, floweriness, and earthy / minerally complexity. Do you sense that in your wines, and when you try other wines, do you see wines as masculine or feminine?
“I agree. Wines reflect the winemaker. Often times, there’s a thread that you can carry through to the winemaker. Cool climate has the elegance that’s lending to the wine as well. I put my Tempranillo against many domestic Tempranillos, and it’s completely different. It takes years of winemaking to see that thread. I started making my Biodynamic Tempranillo in 2008, and now I’m on the ’14 and ’15 vintages. My first Tempranillo was in 2001, from the Ibarra – Young Vineyard, perhaps the first Tempranillo produced in Santa Barbara county. It takes so long to change anything in the wines. Even if you want to tweak anything stylistically, it takes years out to see it. You need to be true to your vision. It’s easy to be discouraged, if you have anything go wrong. Going entirely biodynamic and using native, wild yeast, I’ve had stuck fermentations, where I’ve had to sell the wine out bulk (not bottling it under the Verdad label). In 2013, I experimented with whole cluster fermentation, and some of the barrels ended up being a little weird, but then it ended up coming around and being really good. Then I got really nervous, and didn’t do it again until the 2016 vintage. Time moves really fast, but sometimes it doesn’t move fast enough to make changes for the consumer market.”
That’s something that consumers have no idea about.
“As a winemaker, if you’re not absolutely crazy about a wine you’ve made, sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut. I tend to be hypercritical of myself, and my winemaking. But, overall I’m really excited about what I’m making these days, and proud of my wines. It’s joyful. I love how wine brings people together, and how I get to facilitate that.
Do you see the business changing from the high scoring, fruit forward, extracted wines of the 90’s to wines that are more food friendly?
“I noticed that on the east coast (NY and Boston), they’ve been on that for quite a while, with the influence of European wines.
I was on a panel a few years back, tasting Tempranillo, and I noticed that my palate was obliterated after tasting a couple flights. The really big, extracted wines are what you remember.
The Wine Spectator, because 1998 was a difficult vintage in Napa, declared it a horrible vintage. They didn’t bother to look at other wine growing regions, such as the central coast and Santa Maria Valley, where it was an excellent vintage. They misrepresented the vintage as a statewide issue, which is always a mistake given the many growing regions and microclimates we have in CA. Many of us stopped sending our wines to the publication after that.”
The Wine Spectator declaration ruined the vintage, as many consumers avoided the ’98 vintage, and wineries lost thousands. In my opinion, the ’98 vintage was one of the more interesting California vintages in recent memory, with really complex, feminine, earthy, well balanced wines. Contrast that with the 1997 vintage, touted as the “vintage of the century”, and fell apart after less than 10 years of bottle age.
Millions of Americans still pay attention to what these publications are saying. That’s got to be a challenge for you?
“I’m grateful if someone’s interested in learning about the wines, and tasting them. I used to submit my wines to contests, but realized that a wine needs to be over 95 points to mean something. Blogs are becoming more meaningful, rather than a point system. Wine changes so much. It evolves. Something that tastes beautiful, or conversely is closed (goes through a shy phase where the fruit doesn’t show), and you give it to the reviewer, and the wine changes, how can you predict that?”
My favorites of her wines (you can purchase them HERE):
- Verdad Albarino 2014, Sawyer Linquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
- Verdad Garnacha / Mourvedre Rosé 2015, Central Coast
- Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
- Verdad Tempranillo 2013, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
We can never know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.