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interviews

A Renaissance Man’s Perspective on the CA Wine Industry, Circa ‘78-85

“A coke habit is God’s way of saying, ‘you’ve got too much money’ ”. – Gordon Stevens

Gordon Stevens is a jazz musician and Renaissance man. He’s 81, and is way more hip than I am. He speaks about everything with passion, and with a lingo that James Laube might not understand. I can talk to Gordon about anything, because he’s so engaging about it. Like many of my elders, I find myself wanting to sit and absorb his stories and wisdom.

Speaking of stories, the jazz tradition is handed down from musician to musician through tales about the famous icons. The way Gordon speaks is very much in that tradition, except substituting wineries for great musicians, like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

When we sat down to talk, I had no idea Gordon was going to share, stream of consciousness, about the early CA wine business, but I found it fascinating, and hope you enjoy it too.

“The discoveries (of great wine), man, you’re like ‘ahhhhhhhhhhh’ (a moment of unabashed nostalgia, like a paramour you’ve never forgotten).

I broke my teeth on red wines with Charles Krug (the 1978 – 1985 vintages). Even the 1940’s stuff, because Krug had a library. He hooked up with Chesterfield cigarettes. Guys would smoke their Virginia tobacco with Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon).”

“As a pairing?”

“No. Everyone was smoking anyway, so it wasn’t a decision to pair (wine with cigarettes).”

“One informed the other?”

“Yeah. Then it became cigars and port, or cigars and big Cabs. That’s Wine Spectator stuff.”

“I can see the whole coke and wine fad being a thing?”

“I saw it in action with the various people, ‘cause that’s when I got deep into wine, when our violin shop started to take off (Gordon owned a series of music shops, called “Steven’s Music”). I saw a lot of high rollers, the Persian guys that came in and bought all the Saratoga real estate, and the Stradivarius violins on the west coast.

I had a bunch of stock in Chalone (Richard Graff, founder and winemaker of Chalone, is a California wine legend) when they first hit (somewhere between ‘78 and ‘82).  As a stockholder, we got invited up there for an annual business meeting, and celebrities would come to speak. Bill Walsh had a great palate, and he loved classical music. Julia Childs was a keynote speaker. She called to me, out by the porta potties, ‘Young man, young man, can you direct me to the oysters! I just don’t understand these business meetings’. We had the greatest talk. She told me about her husband, their Buick stationwagon, her first trip to France. It was fucking amazing, man. ‘Tell me about you?’, she said. It was the most thrilling celebrity meeting I’ve ever had.

After Chalone came close to being the best of the Chardonnays in the famous Paris tasting, I bought stock. The first bottle of Chalone Chardonnay set me up for those French Burgundy trips into the 80’s. The standard was always Chalone.

I remember watching a ballgame all by myself, and nearly finished a bottle of Chalone, and I set the bottle down. It had a tiny bit left, and I forgot about it. The next day I saw it, and I swished that sucker around and hit it, like you do with a jar of maple syrup! It was like perfume from God.

It was not that buttery shit they were making in Napa. The malolactic craze (changing the appley Malic acid into buttery Lactic acid – which caught fire in the 80’s) came after (the great Chardonnays of the 70’s). Then Kendall Jackson came in and got busted.”

“For chaptalization?” (Which is a controversial process of adding sugar to wine to give it more alcohol and fix stuck fermentations.)

“Yes. Putting sugar in on top of their malolactic excesses. Then you got sugar and butter going, and then every secretary in San Francisco had to have one of them after work on Friday.

I got crazy on the olfactory thing. Then the food pairing came in on the naturals. My mother, and her family, locals (in San Jose), used to own all the property that Ford and Tesla is on right now. They had access to everything. The best vintages of (Ridge) Montebello and Picchetti. She (and Gordon) had access to all the greats.

Wine sales went up after the 50’s. Gallo, Grenache, and Muscats…mostly sweet, people were sucking them down.”

“How about Syrah and Grenache (in CA)?”

“Yeah, the Syrahs and all that. All those came in as a result of Rhone-Villages, and Kermit Lynch (local wine legend with many ties to France). I remember seeing headlines from Robert Parker, talking about how Kermit had discovered all these killer wines and varietals, you know?

A lot of that was here (in California). We used to go to Buena Vista (the oldest winery in California) up there (in Sonoma). The wine sucked, relatively speaking, but it was part of the mystique and history.

California natives jumped right on this thing. It was not a yuppie thing at all. The locals and Italian guys. That’s why Mondavi is so iconic. He was rubbing shoulders with all the fruit farmers in the valley. It was a fruit bowl heaven.

My godfather, an Italian guy, owned all of San Jose city college. I got to go over there every weekend, and I remember him sitting at the end of the table, and he had a big crystal bowl. He’d take a full bottle of his favorite white, put that in there with a quart of apricots, some cinnamon, and mix it up. He’d eat that like soup for breakfast!

I used to talk to Burt Williams from Williams Selyem. We met on the Russian River steelhead fishing. I remember a stash of Williams Selyem I got, ‘83-’86. He had total control of the Rochioli vineyard. That was the heyday. When…a tasting guy, whether it be Robert Parker, or whoever, they always described it as ‘exotic’. Like patchouli oil is exotic. It was like Omar Khayyam. The poetic palate. Like something you’d read in Middle Eastern poetry.”

“Like Kahlil Gibran?”

“Yeah, then later Neruda for the Chilean / Argentinian thing. It didn’t taste like anything else. You assumed it was the mother ship of all the Pinot (noir) grapes.”

“Were they fruit forward or dry?”

“I don’t think the word ‘dry’ ever entered my mind when drinking his wines. They weren’t fruit forward, they were Williams Selyem!

I also got into 80’s Rafanelli, a wonderful winery up the valley on the west side in Dry Creek. Ohhhh! I got into the core of that.

The high point in all of this for me, though, was the Williams Selyem / Rafanelli hookup.”

“I find those wines to be quite fruit forward. It’s almost like Williams Selyem is blending Syrah to give their wines real chewy depth?”

“It depends on which Selyem vineyard. This is the perfect storm, that creates four great vintages (’83-’86). You have one vineyard replacing the one that went over the hill.  They didn’t have to blend or anything. They could do it purely. That’s the same thing that Navarro did with white wines. They managed to have enough high quality from middle to old-aged vineyards. That chronological thing is paramount. This whole Russian River and Dry Creek region was really a sleigh ride on a slope, right down through the goodies.”

“How about Napa Valley?”

Caymus started in about ’78 for me. Just killers! Then they started the ‘special select’ thing, which became really chichi. It’s as though they tried too hard. The price for the ‘special select’ was insane. You could get a bottle of Diamond Creek for $40 and the ‘special select’ for $60. But the ’78-82 regular Caymus! (He sighs with nostalgia) My God, man!

There was a 60’s thing, called “Rota Red”. The owner was an old Spanish guy that had some vineyards down by Atascadero, near Hearst castle, in West Paso. The San Francisco hippie / Beat establishment, the poets and painters, and people like Bill Graham bought this Rota wine. You’d bring your own bottle. Those old gallon Gallo bottles were going around. There was a rumor that the Rota wine owner put a psychedelic substance, or had cloned some ergot in it. It gave you the weirdest high. If you’re smokin’ hash, you got some sugar here, some psychedelic there, and you got some wine. This was folklore. There was a myth created around this guy. It was an event. It was like scoring Mexican weed and Culiacan. Just normal hippie procedure.”

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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Verdad Winemaker Louisa Sawyer Lindquist Grabs Back

“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.

Patrick

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An Interview with Paul Mathew Winemaker – Mat Gustafson

mat-gustafson

“Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?”  – Carole Meredith (from the documentary, “Somm”)

In a twist from my usual blog posts, I thought I’d try something new. So, I called up my friend Mat Gustafson of Paul Mathew to help give us a little window into a winemaker’s world.  First of all, you should know that I really dig the wines of Paul Mathew.  Mat and his wife, Barb, run a mom and pop label of outstanding quality, and have a tasting room in Graton, within the Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area).  They’d love some new visitors, so plan a trip over to one of California’s most important Pinot Noir AVA’s, and tell them I sent you.  

If you haven’t signed up for the “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – an Italian Immersion” workshop on December 11 in Oakland, you might want to hop on that.  Tickets are going fast.  Go HERE to reserve tickets, and find out more info.

Mat Gustafson is a winemaker; equal parts scientist, artist, philosopher, and steward of the land.  He’s been involved in the wine business for decades, and making wine for twenty years.  He has a pedigree as sommelier, worked for Joseph Phelps on the business side, owned his own vineyard development company, worked in the cellar for Oakville Ranch, made wine with Merry Edwards at Dutton Estate, then decided to create his own label in 1999.  He sought out the Green Valley AVA, within the Russian River Valley, after discovering that these wines have great ageability, structure, and finesse.  Amidst the political banter (I talked to him November 7), his passion for the wine business was unleashed.

Can you speak about the positive effects of using native yeast vs. commercial yeast?

“Like turning tables (in a restaurant), using commercial yeast helps big corporate wineries move through the fermentation process as quickly as possible, so they can get to the next batch.  UC Davis (school of viticulture and enology) is not a proponent of native yeast, because (they think) by the end, it gets taken over by commercial yeast that’s been present in the winery.”  

Mat doesn’t think so.  He sees a real difference with using native yeast (the yeast that occurs naturally in the vineyard).  

“Commercial yeast, when used, creates very short, hot fermentations, cooking the wine, and blowing off all the prettiness.  Native yeast takes 4-5 days to get started, having a mellow start and mellow end.  The native yeast fermentations are 5-7 days longer, creating a real difference in mouthfeel, texture, and aromatics.  

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) was one of the first California winemakers to use native yeast.  Helen Turley and David Ramey also got a lot of credit.  Draper, although he didn’t boast about it, helped to dispel myths (perpetuated by UC Davis) that native yeast can ruin a fermentation.  Humans have been making wine for 7000 years without using commercial yeast!”

What are the effects of sulfur on wine?

“25 to 30 years ago wineries were using 100 to 150 ppm (parts per million) SO2 (sulfur dioxide) at the crusher (used to crush grapes and destem them) as a standard practice.  Now that range is 25 to 50 ppm. I am doing 5 to 10 ppm, depending on how clean the fruit is.  There are producers who are not using any SO2 at the crusher, and only add it just before bottling.  There are some who don’t use any SO2 at all, but have varying results.  Conversely, SO2 (when added in high amounts) can shut down the fruit, and gives the wine a little harder edge.”

So, why not hit it super hard with SO2?  

“A fermentation, if it is very sluggish, can benefit greatly by adding 5 to 10 ppm SO2.  It knocks down the bacteria allowing the yeast, who are not as sensitive to SO2, to take off without the competition for nutrients from the bacteria.   ‘Brett’ (Brettanomyces – a yeast that can formulate to potentially ruin a wine) might creep up later, or the wine could get VA (volatile acidity) without the use of some SO2.  If you’re wanting more fruit, softer texture, and higher acid (all characteristics that are crucial to making great Pinot Noir), using minimal SO2 is the way to go.”

Have you seen any effects of global warming?

“Global warming has created droughts, and really warm winter months.  I haven’t had a normal vintage in 5-6 years.  I recently had Cab Franc come in from the vineyard, and the acid kept going up during fermentation.  That’s a first I’ve seen in the business.  As a winemaker there were some hard rules that you could count on in the past.  Some of those are changing.  I had a wine that went down in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes) during fermentation, and I’ve never seen that.  Global warming has made things less predictable.”  

I’d imagine that owning a winery, albeit rewarding, is a challenging business.  Can you tell us about some of the challenges you face?  

“Unless you’re getting 97’s and 98’s (the point system used by many to rate wines is out of 100) in the major publications, a small winery will see no bump in sales with scores, even in the low 90’s.  Only the top 1% get the benefits of publications.  (Kind of like the music business!)  

The most annoying thing about the business is all the lies and deceit that goes on in the business.  Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘gravity flow’, ‘organic’ are often used as marketing jargon to attract sales, but very few are actually following through with these practices.  A perfect example is the use of ‘Roudup’ in the vineyards to save money.  There are plenty of wineries that proclaim to be organic, yet spray weed killer in the vineyard to avoid paying someone to get out there with a hoe.

I thought, for sure, that once the public learned about Velcorin (a harsh poison that kills everything in the wine, but breaks down over the first 24 hours), it would become a huge issue, but nobody seems to care. The big boys in Napa and Sonoma use Velcorin in place of sterile filtration to kill ‘brett’ and bacteria, making a wine taste better when it’s young.  Then you can act like, ‘oh, my wine is unfiltered or more natural’, but in actuality you’ve put the harshest poison imaginable in there, and killed everything to avoid sterile filtration.  There’s no accountability for lying to gain a marketing angle.”  

Do you see the point system publications still driving the retail business, and having the impact they had in the 1990’s and early 2000’s?  

“There seems to be some backlash with the younger wine buyers with the point scoring system.  With so many publications out there rating wines on the internet, it’s like any news you’re trying to get.  It’s hard to sift through all the bullshit.  James Laube of the Wine Spectator (who has so much power in the industry) prefers low acid, high pH, and a high alcohol style that tastes more like Cabernet Sauvignon.  He hasn’t rated many wines outside of California, so that’s his frame of reference.  The classic styles and appellations of the world are unknown to him, so finesse and acidity are not appreciated.  Robert Parker has more exposure to Bourgogne and Bordeaux, but the big wines with power and oak are his favorites.  When you’re a reviewer, tasting lots of wine, the big wines really tend to stand out, because you’re palate gets fatigued.  It’d be nice to get somebody (with a major publication) that appreciates wines with more acidity, lower alcohol, more restraint, and having more of a delicacy.”  

What do you think is unique about the Russian River Valley, particularly Green Valley?

“I remember a conversation I had with Forrest Tanzer (former winemaker at Iron Horse, and California icon), and I asked him what he thought was the flavor profile of Russian River Pinot?   He said, ‘well, I don’t think there is one style, because Russian River is so big.’”  

Since then, there has been only one new AVA, the Green Valley, amended in 2007.  However, the Russian River wine world knows there to be five distinct areas.  

“The Green Valley is known for darker, more structured, and tannic Pinots with great aging potential.  Middle Reach (otherwise known as ‘Westside Road’) is warm and the wines are riper (and where the Williams Selyem’s of the world bottle fruit forward Pinot’s that make James Laube blush!).  Laguna Ridge in the Forrestville area (where Joseph Swan first planted Pinot after Prohibition, with the advice of one Andre Tchelistcheff) is all about the mouthfeel.  Sebastopol Hills (also known as ‘West Sonoma Hills’) is the coolest of the five regions, where Pinots have the most vibrant acidity in the Russian River Valley, with crisp red berry notes.  Lastly, the Santa Rosa Plain, also known as ‘Olivet’, where lighter style Pinot Noirs with bright acidity are crafted by deep, gravelly, clay soils.”

Mat could have talked all day about wine.  In a world where there can be so much posturing in the wine business, Mat is one of the good guys.  He’s truly passionate about his craft, and shoots straight from the hip.  He’s says that he’s just trying to scratch out a living by doing what he loves.  But, to me it’s more than that.  Integrity is an important piece of humanity, and a key ingredient in artistry.  Like appreciating your favorite jazz artist (not named Kenny G or Boney James), a great wine IS art, and its sincerity is more important than its image.  

Some Paul Mathew wines that I love:

  • Chardonnay 2013, Weeks Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Pinot Noir 2009, Horseshoe Bend Vineyard, Russian River Valley – tell them I sent you, eh Barb?
  • Pinot Noir 2013, Bohemian Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Cabernet Franc 2014, Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley – get this one for Thanksgiving and December holidays
  • Syrah 2013, McReynolds Hills Vineyard, Russian River Valley

 

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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