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Russian River Valley Tag

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.



Sonoma County is Laid Back, Stylish and Has Some Great Values. 6 Wines that Pair Well with Food – All for $20 and Under

pressing grapes into wine glass_Blog

Even though Napa Valley seems to get all of the attention, this week I’m going to highlight the gems of Sonoma County, and why it produces some of the best food pairing wines in California.

One of things that makes Sonoma so special is it’s geographical location. Nestled between the Mayacamas Range and the Pacific Ocean, the natural environment creates the perfect recipe for high quality grapes. It’s the diurnal temperature variation that makes Sonoma so special.

The hot days followed by fog influenced cool night time temperatures make it a melting pot for many different varietals to flourish.  So basically, the hotter it is, the riper and sweeter the grapes become.  But it’s the cooler air during the evening that regulates and balances out the sugars with acidity.  This is a key component that makes many wines of Sonoma County perfect for pairing with food.

Napa is known for Cabernet and Merlot, whereas Sonoma County’s multiple microclimates offer much more variety.  Sonoma is divided up into 15 sub appellations (or AVA’s) that allow specific varietals to flourish.  Pinot Noir loves the oceanic influence of the Sonoma Coast and the cool breezes of the Russian River Valley.  Zinfandel does really well with the hot daytime temperatures of the Dry Creek Valley and Cabernet does well with the soil types of Alexander Valley, Knight’s Valley and Sonoma Mountain.  There are so many subclimates in Sonoma that there’s bound to be a wine for every palate.   

The one Sonoma County wine that changed everything for me was the 1996 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Mountain.  I discovered it in 2006 and was amazed at its power, grace, earthy complexity and gorgeous fruit.  Until then I didn’t think Sonoma could touch Napa Cab’s.  Boy was I wrong!  It’s level of complexity and finesse beat the pants off of Napa Cab’s that were twice its price.  Sonoma wines became my new favorite in terms of approachability, complexity and value.   

What I also like about Sonoma is it’s laid back, down to earth vibe that welcomes visitors to relax and enjoy the simplicity of life.  I often buy wine directly from places like Paul Mathew, Les Caves Roties de Pente and Speedy Creek, because I prefer supporting the small wineries that have a passion for winemaking and aren’t pretentious about it.

Napa wineries can be great too, but one of the big differences is that they usually come with a different vibe and loftier price.  If you’re looking for a more regal vibe and love being a part of the buzz, then Napa is your place.  In contrast, if you’re looking for more of a laid back, country feel with some decent value, Sonoma is the spot.

Truthfully it’s been a difficult task to find great Sonoma County wines for $20 and under.  Most of them are either $25 and up or the style and value don’t exist for under $20. However, these 6 wines from Sonoma County are fantastic while pairing excellently with food – all for $20 and under:

Barber Cellars Pinot Gris 2013, “Rougissant”, Keller Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – $18

This tiny winery makes sustainable, organic and biodynamically farmed wines.  The Keller vineyard was planted in the 80’s insuring that these old vines produce grapes of wonderful complexity.  Think of this wine as somewhere between pinot grigio and a French Rhone white.  It’s honeysuckle nose and gorgeous stone fruit are balanced out by a savory finish with plenty of structure.  I’d go grilled pork loin with this wine.  

People’s Wine Revolution Viognier 2013, Salem Ranch, Dry Creek Valley –  $18

Speaking of French Rhone … this is in the style of Rhone with wonderful mouthwatering acidity that pairs really well with fat.  All of Matt Reed’s wines are deliciously made and a relative steal.  Classic notes of honeysuckle, peach, green apple, green melon and chalky minerals pop out of the glass.  Think of the body as heavier than Sauvignon Blanc but lighter than Chardonnay with vibrant acid.  Pair this Viognier with sautéed duck breasts with honey, ginger and lavender.  

Paul Mathew Gewurztraminer 2014, Harvest Moon, Russian River Valley – $20

I love the wines of Paul Mathew.  This husband/wife knock it out of the park with care and reverence for the land while making wines that’ll make you sing in the rain. Winemaker Mat Gustafson cut his teeth as a sommelier to put himself through school then worked for CA icons Joseph Phelps, Oakville Ranch and the Dutton family.  Most of these small lot hand-crafted wines are pricier than $20, but this “Gewurtz” is a gem for the price.  The classic nose of peach, orange Marmalade and clove will pull you into the glass while it’s meyer lemon acid and dry finish balance out the fruit.  It’s perfect with Phad Thai or smoked ham with a spicy apricot-orange glaze.  

Lioco Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma County $19.99

The gents from Lioco fell in love with wine through the restaurant biz.  They wanted to counterbalance the “bigger is better” CA movement with more subtle, nuanced wines.   A decade later … mission accomplished.  Their wines remind us of “vintage California”, a time when wines weren’t attempting to score big in publications and reflected a desire to create wines to go with food.  Nose of lemon blossom and jasmine with pear, apple and rocky minerals.  The palate is clean with balanced body and acid and a slightly creamy finish.  Pair this with a crab salad with a lemon-curry dressing.

Brack Mountain “Barrique” Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast – $17

All of the Brack Mountain “Barrique” wines are as good as it gets for the price.  The Pinot is complex with sea-like minerals, graphite and raspberry on the nose with a soft, supple, sophisticated and sexy body.  Pair this it salmon or a wild mushroom risotto.  

Gundlach Bundschu “Mountain Cuvée” 2012 Sonoma County – 16.99

a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel from a great winery near the town of Sonoma.  Gundlach Bundschu had its beginnings in 1868 leading to a 4th generation vintner in President Jeff Bundschu.  Notes of blackberry and plum-like fruit, clove, tea and spices. Soft and robust with a great texture.  Pair it with grilled lamb and porcini sauce.  

Be sure to try some of these pairings and leave a comment below on how they were for you.  What’s your experience of Sonoma County wine?  Are you a fan?  What are your favorite places to visit and why?  Do you have a favorite Sonoma winery for great value?