An Interview with Paul Mathew Winemaker – 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.