What Does Wine Mean to You? Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Four

This the fourth part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, Mac McDonald answers the question that I ask every winemaker - What Does Wine Mean to You?

Please enjoy this three minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #58 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.

Winemaker Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars answers Austin Beeman's signature wine question. What does wine mean to you? www.austinbeeman.com

Mac McDonald:

What does wine mean to me? Wine means to me friendship, enjoyment, socialization. It means a lot to me, and the reason that I say that is because I've met so many wonderful folks through this wine business and having a glass of wine. I just think that folks who drink wine, they're very interesting individuals because you have something in common right away, you can talk to them about it. It don't matter if you don't even like the variety of wine. You may like Pinot Noir. You may like cabs. You may like Zin. Whatever it is, you got something in common. I find the reason that I say that socialization, friendship thing, over the years that I've been traveling with Miss Lil around the country doing wine events, wine tasting, I've met so many folks.


I probably have, come to visit our winery or visit our vineyard every year, probably have over 1,000 people just stop by to see me that I met from all over the United States, and I think that that felt really good that I meet these folks and give them my card and says, "Come out to visit us. We'll make you lunch or something," and they show up. That's a good feeling because I wouldn't have never met the folks. The big socialization, the big sharing of knowledge, from the knowledge that I get from folks like yourself, doing wine tasting events, and I'm even going to do a wine tasting maybe here later on today. You come in and meet these folks and they come out and see you, or when I come back here to Ohio, I go to these events. I had a big event every night I've been here. I've been here four nights, and it's somewhat like an old family reunion meeting. They come back time and time to see you, and you may not remember all of their names, but they remember who you are, and you just get to see them and you talk to them.

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I don't know what I'd do to trade that socialization off for someone else, and let's face it. I enjoy wine.


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Video: What Makes Sonoma Pinot Noir Special? Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Three

This the third part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, McDonald talks about why Sonoma County is such a great place for Pinot Noir and why it is special.

Please enjoy this six minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #57 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars discuss the specific characteristics that make California Pinot Noir - and specifically Sonoma Pinot Noir - so special. www.austinbeeman.com

Mac McDonald:

From my mind, what makes California fruit a little bit more consistent is that we've kind of figured out what type of soil condition, what type of weather patterns that you have is the best area to grow Pinot Noir. We've found that nice cooler areas, cool at night, maybe when it's a little bit warmer during the day, you know 80s is not to high into the 100s and stuff like that. Well, its more ideal for drinking and making Pinot Noir because you don't get the over ripe fruit all the time, unless you purposely trying to do that. So I think we are a little bit more consistent and we do have a tendency to get a little bit more alcohol you see than Burgundy or Oregon. I think when you look at Northern California, I think we're pretty consistent in finding a good location to grow Pinot Noir and I think that, that's really the determining factor.

Burgundy, you know they don't get a lot of heat and in that Burgundy area. So your alcohol normally is not as high and the wine can last a lot longer. Of course, we make our wines in California so that they'll be able to be consumed a little bit earlier. Now when I get into California itself and I think about Carneros, I think about a more dense, maybe a little bit more hardier of Pinot Noir because you don't have a lot of hot, hot weather in that Carneros area. It's quite close to the water. You get over into Sonoma County where I live, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley, ideal for Pinot Noir.

Our property is maybe three quarters of a mile from the Russian River, which is nice and cool in there. When the ocean itself is about 45 miles away. It's nice and cool in that Russian River Valley, where you get up in the 80's, once in a while you get up, you know 95 or something like that, but normally it's in the 80's and at night it kind of cools down so you get more of a cherry, real ripe plum kind of a fruit from that area, not as dark as it is in Carneros. Then when you get down to Monterey County, to the Santa Lucia Highland, particularly upper part of the Santa Lucia Highland, around Solidad, in that area. I purchased fruit from the Gary's in Rosella's Vineyard and a Las Ventura's vineyard that's owned by the Wagner family, and I tell you, that's an ideal area itself for growing Pinot Noir.

You still get that little dense kind of a fruit there. The acid can be high in that area, a lot higher than it is in I say Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, or Carneros, or in Napa area and part of it is in Sonoma. The acids can be pretty high down in the Santa Lucia Highland and into Monterey County. When you get down past Santa Barbara and that area, now you're picking up a little bit more ripe of fruit, a little bit lighter fruit and you can kind of get more of what I call that candy apple kind of a bright sweet kind of a real cherry, real not wild cherry, but real bing kind of a light cherry kind of a wine. With maybe a little bit of berries and the typical raspberry flavors down there.

I don't think that, that's a problem with that, but I think we're consistent in all the areas that we're making Pinot Noir in, but finding out that the temperature in except in those areas makes a big difference in how Pinot Noir should be coming out and how the trellising of the vines and how you can actually get the exposure to the grape to the sun shine that you need, but we can't change the sun. We can change how the sun hit the fruit itself by the way we prune it or by we go out and pick the leaves off of it. So I think overall, California's learned how to farm is the bottom line.

Now Oregon, a lot of folks in Oregon they kind of maybe live there, made wine in California so they've taken a lot of the practice up there that we had. They started out in Oregon using the fruit from that area and not trying to make it a California Pinot Noir style. They started out real light. They're gonna get a lot of sun, lot of heat. So they were able to just make a wine from the area and it was so different than California and I can remember when I used to go up there and I'd taste those Pinot Noir's and I use to think, "Oh, what do these guys think they doing?" Because, I was suggested to drink in a little bit different style of Pinot Noir. But I think overall, they doing a great job. They're making their Pinot Noirs up in Oregon and parts of Washington as well now.

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Video: How (and Why) to Grow Pinot Noir. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Two

This the second part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, McDonald talks about the reasons he chose to pursue great Pinot Noir and the challenges of working with such a complicated and finicky grape.

The first part of the interview is here.  "From Rural Texas to Napa Valley Wine Country."

Please enjoy this six minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #56 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.  Direct Download Link.

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars discusses why he chose to grow great Pinot Noir and the complex challenges that he faces.

Mac McDonald:

Pinot Noir is what we do. Folks often ask me, why do you choose or select the toughest type of grape? Well, number one, in California, Northern California, and you want to make Cabernet unless you come out of Napa Valley, folks normally think it's not that good. So I thought if I could craft a great Pinot Noir, because Burgundy is the same grape, that if I could craft a good Pinot Noir then I think I could play with the big dogs. I'm pretty competitive in everything that I do so I want it to be good, I want it to make a mark for doing what I was doing. And at the time as a winery in California called William Seylem that I thought was doing a great, great job and then I also thought Sanford down in the Santa Barbara, those are the only two great Pinot producers that I thought was really, really good and I thought if I could make a great, great Pinot Noir then I could compete. 

That's why they was selected. I had no idea all the crazy things about that grape even exists but I'm a pretty fast learner so I learned a lot about it. Well, it's a real challenging thing because if you think normally about the clones of a Pinot Noir grape, the challenge of growing the grapes, making the wines and selecting the right yeast and keeping the temperature at a certain control. To start off with, you have to really know your soil condition and really match your soil condition with your root stock. Root stock, how much water you have, the soil condition, how much you want to grow per ton, like a Sauvignon Blanc, it doesn't care, it's like a weed, you can just overload it with tons and tons of fruit. In the Chardonnay world, let's say, you have about 50, 60 plus clones some place in their different varieties, different clones. Same with the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, you have about 50 or 60 there.

But in the Pinot world, you have about 11,000 clones. These things just mutate, you start out, for example, with a 667 or a 777 clone and you may have one side of the road, you may have this clone planted over there, the other side another different clone and they'll completely go different flavors. Then you get into the pruning process of it. You talk to different Pinot growers and they have different methods of pruning and I just like a little bit of exposure to my fruit. So it's really consistent with leaf picking, in other words, if you get more sun on the east side you may wanna leave a little bit more leaves on that. You don't get enough on the west side of the vine you may want to pull some of that off. So it's a constant juggle of trying to get the ripeness, in the evening ripeness, on the fruit itself. 

Austin Beeman: Isn't that challenging? 

Mac McDonald:

Yeah, it's pretty challenging and like I said, we all, a lot of us have different thoughts about it but I think we all come into an agreement. That's why we've been able to craft better Pinot Noir in California. It used to be, like I said, Brett William was the king of it but now you've got a lot of folks making great Pinot Noir. In fact, even here in the state of Ohio, they have a Pinot program, it's doing pretty good. I gave a big lecture at Ohio State several years ago on the crafting on Pinot Noir and I came back and tasted what some of the things that they made and they doing pretty good. But it's a real tough grape to grow. There's a whole bunch of choices of selections of yeast that you use to ferment your fruit and that makes a big difference in the end result of the flavor. 

The type of yeast you use helps determine the flavor you get on the end and then you have the other extreme of that, barrel selections is really, really critical because in my mind, a Pinot Noir should be treated like a white grape. It's a delicate thing. You can get too much wood on it or you can get too much alcohol in it. I'm not saying that if you don't like high alcohol Pinot Noir you shouldn't buy them but I'm just thinking that 13.5, 14.5, in there, is ideal alcohol level for a Pinot Noir. Now with that said, sometimes your vineyard, your fruit is just not there. Out of 25 bricks, equivalent to a 13.8, 13.9 of Pinot Noir and so you may have to let the alcohol get up a little bit higher because it's a little bit riper, so the riper it is, the higher the sugar content and the higher the sugar content is, higher the alcohol is gonna be in the finished product. 

So it's kind of an up and down thing with that grape in that sense as well.

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Video: From Rural Texas to Napa Valley Wine Country. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part One

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars is not what you would expect from someone making some of California's best Pinot Noir. 

Mac speaks with a southern drawl, wears a farmer's hat, and sports blue jean overalls in a world of California's "Wine Country Casual."  He is a boutique craftsman who makes his wine in the corporate beast that is Wagner Family Wines.  He is also African-American in an industry where diversity is in the terroir and almost never among the winemakers.

Mac McDonald is also one of my favorite winemakers.  Not only because he makes delicious Pinot Noirs - which he does - but for the perspective he brings to the industry.

Please enjoy this 5 minute video or read the transcription afterwards.  

This is Episode #55 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman Podcast.  // Direct Download Link.

Winemaker of Mac McDonald (part one) of Vision Cellars interviewed by Austin Beeman. Mac McDonald discusses his path from rural Texas to being a winemaker in California.

Mac McDonald:

I am Mac McDonald. I'd like to say I'm the owner, winemaker of Vision Cellars but I'm married with Miss Lil so I just make the wine for Miss Lil. 

Well, you know, it's kind of interesting how I got into wine. I grew up 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas. I grew up way in the woods, way in the country. I consider myself as an old organic kind of a guy, growing back up in there, squirrel eatin' type of a guy. At 12 years old, there used to be a couple hunters used to come down in these woods and go hunting with my grandfather and drink my father's moonshine. So one of them used to drink burgundy and these guys would give him a hard time about drinking that burgundy wine, blah, blah, blah.

But they was drinking corn whiskey. So one day he said to me, he says, "Hey, son, would you like to have this bottle of wine?" And said yes, but 12 years old, I didn't know how to get it open but I finally dug out the cork out of it and I took a stick and shoved it off in there and I tasted it. You don't have to worry about Child Protective Service because they didn't have anything back off in the woods to do that anyway. At any rate, I tasted it and I drank a half a bottle of that wine that day. It tasted pretty good. From that point on, all I talked about was I wanted to be a winemaker. Fast forward through high school, my coach says to me, "If you wanna make wine, you need to move to California."

That's why I moved to California, from Texas to California. I grew up about 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas, around Palestine, Waco, in that area. So I get into California, we had a pretty tough time getting to know winemakers and I didn't know who they were or what they do, any of that thing. So I started hanging around up in Mendocino County, which is about 160 miles north of San Francisco. Met a guy by the name of John Parducci up there and old John wouldn't give me the time of day but that was okay because some kid coming out of Texas talking about you wanna make wine but I kept going back up there and he started talking to me, telling me stuff. But really what kicked me off into this wine business is I met a family over in Napa valley. A family called the Wagner family and I hung out with Mr. Wagner probably for 9 months and I didn't know who he was, he didn't say anything about who he was.

And one day the taster room manager came out and said, "Hey, why you always out here bothering Mr. Wagner?" And I says, "Well, what do you mean? That old guy out there?" He goes, "That ain't just some old guy, that's Mr. Wagner. He own this place." I had no idea for 9 months I'd been hanging out with the owners of Caymus Vineyard. Fast forward a little bit further, I've known the Wagner family for around 31 years. 17, 15 years or so after hanging out with him, Mr. Wagner said to me, "Son, you ought to be in the wine business." And I thought, "Well, you know, I'd like to but I don't have that kind of money." He goes, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of ya." So 17 years ago, my wife and I, Miss Lil, we started Vision Cellars and to this day, I'm the only non family member that's allowed to make wine at Caymus.

All my wines are crafted at Caymus Vineyard in Rutherford, California. I make 'em all myself. We own some vineyards in Sonoma County, which is about 110 miles north of San Francisco, Russian River Valley. We own this little vineyard there and we do craft wine from that vineyard. That's basically how I got into the wine business.

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Can a Jackass Improve with Age? A Vertical Tasting of Martinelli's Jackass Hill Zinfandel

Jackass Hill is one of the legendary vineyards of California.  Planted in the 1890s by Giuseppe Martinelli, this is a legacy vineyard of Zinfandel.  One of the oldest in Sonoma, the vineyard is farmed without irrigation or pesticides. 

Called Jackass Hill because "it is so steep that only a jackass would farm it," the wines produced from the vineyard are some of the most sought-after Zinfandels in California.  They are extracted, high-alcohol, expensive, beasts that are in very limited supply. The wines routinely sell for over $160.  If you can find them.

This is normally not a style of wine headed for the cellar and it isn't readily apparent if they will last, improve, or decline with age.  People are buying this wine for the delicious blast of powerful fruit and pleasure of owning a scare luxury item.

So, when I was invited into a back room of the Martinelli winery to taste a vertical of Jackass Hill Zinfandel with the Martinelli family, I knew it would a special moment and a chance to taste some Sonoma Valley history.

Here my notes on the 2014, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997, and 1996 vintages.

Here are my tasting notes of a few memorable bottles.  All the wines were of the finest provenance possible, pulled directly from the winery's cellar, and were tasted first by the winemaker to confirm that they were tasting correctly. 

Martinelli 2014 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Tight and intense. Yet perceptibly soft with extreme black fruit. Flavors of charred meat and hickory smoke. Very smooth. Right now this wine is a strange mixture of alcohol burn and smooth mouthfeel.  The genre here reminded me of bourbon, even if the taste did not."  90 points.

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Martinelli 2007 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Luscious with an apricot and jalapeño compote. That is an incredible thing to write in a tasting note, 'tis true, but it is also an incredible thing to taste in a red wine.  It was truly there and obviously so.  The texture is very smooth with red berry jelly with the least perceptive heat from the alcohol of any vintage of JHZ that I've ever tasted."  92 points.

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Martinelli 2003 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Peaches, plums, and apricots in a slow-cooker with dashes of herbs. A crusty char from smoke and heat. Creates a dark delicious goo."  93 points.

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Martinelli 2002 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "The Jackass Hill terroir shows through the alcohol with strong apricot aromas and flavors. Also some stone fruit. Sexy and extreme! Incredibly big and incredibly lush. Massive but not ungraceful. Sweet stewed peppers. A finish that recalls apricots on the grill."  95 points.

Martinelli 2000 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Two bottles were both off-putting and funky. Winery representatives considered them flawed. Not enough experience for me to know if this is the end of this vintage's life or if we just got unlucky."  No Rating.

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Martinelli 1997 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Exotic and lush with those aromas that are created when you pour red wine into cooking tomato sauce. Sweet potato cream. Apple pie with cinnamon. Spicy tomatillos and salsa on the finish."  91 points.

Martinelli 1996 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Over the hill at this point, into the funky tomato-paste thing."  83 points.

Some final thoughts on Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

These wines are not subtle shrinking violets and if you want to age them, you need to be prepared for some wildly usual flavors.  I absolutely adored the grilled apricot flavors that hit this wine in the 8-14 year age bracket, but at the 20 year mark, I was not a fan of the stewed tomato character. 

It is unlikely that you are going to find old bottles of this on the market.  Most have likely already been consumed.  But if you spot one, and if you want a wild adventure, consider picking up one of my recommendations here.


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A Different View of California Cabernet Franc: John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company

One of the exciting things about working in the retail wine business was the ability to go to industry wine tastings.  Not only could to taste a wine variety of wine, but you often got a chance to meet cool winemakers.  At this trade event in 2010, I had the chance to interview John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company.  He had a very interesting take on what was possible for Cabernet Franc in California.  **It was also the era before cell phone video and this was shot on a small jittery pocket camera.

This is Episode #12 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman podcast.  Enjoy. Transcript is below the video.

Transcript:

Hi, I'm John Skupny from Lang & Reed Wine Company in Napa Valley, California. I'm the proprietor and winemaker for Lang & Reed Wine Company along with my wife, Tracy. We are one-of-the-only wineries in California that work exclusively with Cabernet Franc. That's kind of the whole story.

In California, they had been following the Bordeaux Model for a long time and a few people focused on Cabernet Franc. With Lang & Reed, in the early '90s, we decided that there was some inherent and distinctive charms about Cabernet Franc, particularly when it was expressed by themselves. The places in which we had Cabernet Franc planted and the vinification techniques all sort of favored the Bordeaux Model. We looked at some of the charming ones from the Loire Valley and decided that we were going to try and create something that expressed those inherent attributes of charm that came from Loire Valley recognizing that we had different circumstances in Napa Valley.

We moved to California 30 years ago in 1980 and at that time, as I mentioned before, it was this sort of influx of the thought of what did the Bordeaux know that we didn't know. Deconstructing the blends, I was always charmed by Cabernet Franc in its early stages. We start barrel tasting in January or February after a harvest and you'll find that of the Bordeaux grapes the Cabernet Franc expresses itself in a much more effusive way than the other varieties do in an early stage.

In the early '90s Tracy and I decided to start to look at producing wine on our own and we thought nobody was doing Cabernet Franc with that kind of intent. That might be something that we could create our own niche or market. Even in the year 2010, making and selling Cabernet Franc is a little, we call it the Rodney Dangerfield of varietals, but it's a little bit like rolling a rock up the hill and it's still in a pioneering phase.

It is a touchstone grape in sort of its volatility of acceptance. It's not unlike Sauvignon Blanc where you'll find people who really, really dig it or people who really don't. Some of it has those because it has fairly overt characteristics. We say that it lies on the green edge or the herbaceous edge. Some people like that and some people don't. It often times depends upon what you're eating with it because it is an exceedingly food-friendly variety because of that herbaceous streak to it.

Well, it is a cool climate variety. It's adaptable to both cool and warmer climates. If you look at vinifera growing in the world, it's like a pencil line going around the northern hemisphere and a pencil line in the southern hemisphere and Cabernet Franc happens to be a fairly soft pencil and covers a pretty wide swathe. If you imagine that it excels in the Loire Valley, which is a very, very northern region in France, and it also does really well in Bordeaux, which is a fairly southern region in France.

If you make that swathe across the United States, you'll find it excelling in Washington State, Napa Valley, San Ynez Valley, on the western coast. You also see Cabernet Franc doing well on the east coast in Long Island, Finger Lakes area in New York, in Pennsylvania, Ohio up near the lake, and also in Virginia. It's really actually more adaptable to come into ripeness in a lot more places than Cabernet Sauvignon will come to ripeness.

The one thing you find, because it has this wide swathe, is the cooler the climate, the more herbaceous, more green characteristics you either contend with or utilize. The warmer climate, the more you sort of rise the sugars above that stage, for good or bad. You may lose its inherent characteristics or charm in too ripe a climate.

Half-bottles, Restaurants, and the Meaning of Wine. Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery: The Complete Interview

My interview with Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery was a pleasant wine conversation with a pleasant lady who makes very good wine.  What really makes this a turning point was that I asked her "What Does Wine Mean to You?"  It was a question I had asked of Dirk Richter and would soon become a motif in later interviews as well.  Enjoy!  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

My name's Elizabeth Pressler, and I am the Elizabeth of Elizabeth Spencer. My husband Spencer is of course the Spencer. We put our first names together to make the brand name. People often mistake the name Elizabeth Spencer as being one single person, and of course it's not. It's the unification of the two of us.

Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

That's a really hard question. It's interesting, because wine is a passion of mine. Wine is my business. Wine is something that stimulates my mind and thinking, and it's a lifelong pursuit. Once you get hooked by wine, you learn about it every time you open a bottle of wine and taste, and it's a lifelong growing experience because you're always experiencing new tastes when you're interested in wines. I also love the way wines bring together the culinary arts. When you begin to love wine, you also appreciate food, and you think about how flavors go together.

Spencer and I cook at home. I love how we will come home and pour a bottle, pour from a bottle, have a glass of wine while we're making our dinner, and we talk a lot about wine.

We have a side board at home in the kitchen, a marble top table, and we have zillions of bottles open, where we're always tasting and sampling. What we'll do is we'll open a bottle of wine and watch it over the course of five to seven days to see how it changes over time, and on that side board, you'll find wines from Napa, Sonoma, France, Italy, Australia. We're always looking at what our friends and colleagues are doing around the world, because we think it's very important to know about wines from other regions.

What else does wine mean to me? I love the way it brings people together. Once you open a bottle of wine and share it with friends or family, suddenly the conversation flows. The conversation moves to interesting things. You talk about art, politics, what movies you've just seen. It just is an added enjoyment to life and to living.

Part Two: On Cooking and a Little History

Oh, gosh. I was raised by a mother who loved to grow organic gardens back in Pennsylvania, and we always had fresh corn, and tomatoes, and lettuces, and my favorite, the strawberries. I got to learn what great, good food tasted like, so that was part of my interest. I always liked cooking, and we always cooked at home as kids with my mother. When I met Spencer, we loved cooking as well, and both of us have spent much time in the restaurant business before we got into the wine industry.

I started out as a waiter, which I think is some of the best training that anybody can ever, ever have for life, because you really learn how to think on your feet, but you also get to appreciate and enjoy fine wine and fine food. I also worked in front of house as a maitre d, and I organized all of the waiters, and I seated our customers. I was even a sommelier in a restaurant, where I went from table to table and really increased wine sales, so I love restaurants, and love food and wine, and putting it all together.

Part Three:  What are the Characteristics of a Good Wine Restaurant?

A restaurant where you get an opportunity to taste wines from around the world, and I love the idea of having different size pours. For instance, I think it's great to have a two ounce pour, so you can really have a sampling or a taste of wine, and then maybe a five to six ounce pour so you can actually enjoy it with a meal, and then I like the idea of having a variety of wines that you can enjoy throughout the course of a meal.

You and I were talking earlier about the beauty of half bottles. My husband and I often like picking those off of the wine list so that we can select a wine that goes well with each course, so it would be fun to have a white wine with our first course, and then move into a red for the second. Of course, I can't forget sparkling wine. We love having champagne as a cocktail, so it's great to have a half bottle or a split of champagne to begin.

Oh, yeah. Spencer and I are committed to bottling in all different formats. This is primarily for our Cabernets. Cabernets are wines that can age very well, and classically in France, the French have always bottled in many different sizes.

When you come to our tasting room, you'll see that we have a display. Everything from the 375, which is the half bottle, to the 750, which is this normal size bottle, to 1.5, which is the magnum. We do a three liter, six liter, 12 liter, 18 liter, and recently Spencer even has done a 27 liter.

Don't ask me what that's called.

I have to read the names to know what it's called.

Biodynamic, Sustainable, and Organic Wine. Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars: The Complete Interview

Biodynamic wine?  Organic Wine?  Sustainability?  In the world of wine, these are terms of confusion for even experienced wine drinkers.  In my interview with Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars, I received my first coherent explanation of these terms.  I hope they help you as well.  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

Hi, I'm Rebecca Work, and the winery is called Ampelos Cellars. It's a winery that my husband and I do all the work ourselves. It's a very small winery in the Santa Barbara/Santa Rita Hills area. We make about a total of 3,500 cases. We have a vineyard as well, 25 acres planted. Two-thirds of what we make comes from our own vineyard.

Part One:  Organic? Sustainable? Biodynamic?  What Does it all Mean?

 Many people don't really know the difference between those three practices. Basically, you actually have four farming practices. You have conventional, which is basically you spray herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, try and get the largest yields you can get out of the land. Don't necessarily pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any of the farming aspects. Just try and grow as much as you can possibly grow out of the soil.

Then you have organic, and organic is, you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers. Basically, don't spray any nasty stuff. Organic doesn't say what you must do or how you must do it. It doesn't pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any other farming aspects. Just don't spray that bad stuff.

You have biodynamic, and biodynamic actually came before organic, so it's been around since the early 1900s. This is not a newfangled idea. Biodynamic is you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers, so by default you're organic. But biodynamics says, "Here's what you must do and here's how you must do it." Biodynamic follows the earth schedule and not the farmer's schedule, so examples of that would be, we know that in a descending moon the earth takes in, and in ascending moon, the earth lets out. We irrigate on a descending moon because it takes less water. We get deeper penetrations than if we irrigated on ascending moon.

Biodynamics says, "Everything you take out of the vineyard you must bring back." All of our stems, seeds and skins come back. We compost it. We put it back in the vineyard. Biodynamics says, "You must treat everything like one holistic system." We know we have a lot of beneficial insects, so to make sure those insects don't leave our vineyard, every 10th row, it's totally natural. Nobody's allowed to walk in it. No equipment's allowed to go there, and therefore when the tractor goes up and down the other rows, the beneficial insects have a safe place to go and we don't lose them.

The thing with Biodynamics, though, is it doesn't look at waste management, employee practices, some of the other aspects of farming. Sustainability is a term everybody's using, but now there are starting to come out some certification processes. We were in the pilot of that. Sustainability breaks farming into nine areas. You have employee practices: do you have a grievance process? Social practices: do you tell you neighbors what you're doing? Don't spray at 5 in the morning. Soil management, waste management, irrigation, and you must qualify a minimum in each one of those areas. We're 100% on solar power, so we've qualified in the energy area for that. With sustainability, you can still spray herbicides and pesticides, certain ones, and use artificial fertilizers.

Part Two:  Does Biodynamic Winemaking Make the Wine Any Better?

The school is still out with biodynamics as to whether it made a difference or not. We have seen a difference in the health of our vines. Example of that is in 2008, it was the worst frost we've had in 35 years. Vineyards around us, all on rolling hills like us, all doing the same frost protection like us, all of us getting out there in the morning to turn on the sprinkler systems, lost 50 to 60% of their fruit. We didn't lose a single thing. We weren't doing anything different from them. They were not very far from us. We think the biodynamic just made our vines stronger to protect themselves against the frost.

We have seen in our vineyard where ... We have American oak trees in California. They're protected. You're not allowed to take them out, so you plant the vineyards around them. Problem is, the oak trees taking everything of the nutritional value out of the soil, so you try to plant your rows as far back. We planted it back, but the row by the oak trees just were not doing very well at all. We were about ready to take them out, and over the time of being biodynamically farmed since '05, as of last year those vines were now catching up to the rest of the vineyard, which is telling us there's enough nutrition in the soil to support the oak tree as well as our vineyard.

We think just the healthiness of the vines ... Another aspect is in that frost. We got hit in the fall at the harvest time. We got frost at the beginning and we got frost at the end. That meant many of the vineyards who still had fruit out there, the vines totally shut down and therefore were not going to develop any further than where they were. Our vines just kept on trucking, and so we were able to develop the flavors for our wines even though we had that nasty frost.

Part Three: What is So Special about Santa Barbara Wine Country?

The thing with Santa Barbara is it probably doesn't have an identity, and that's its biggest problem. You think of Napa, you think of cab. You think of Oregon, you think of Pinots. Santa Rita Hills, what do you think of? We've got cabs, we've got Rhones, we've got pinots, we've got everything across the board. I think with Santa Barbara, we are able to get tremendous hang time on our fruit. We don't start our harvest until the end of September, which is a really late time. By having that longer hang time, it allows the flavors to develop so much more. We get so much more complexity, I think, from that in our wines.

I think Santa Barbara is doing a awesome job in the pinot area from Santa Rita Hills, the Rhone areas from Happy Canyon, Foxhound. We're starting to really show beautiful sauvignon blancs that are coming out of there now. I think one of the things people don't really realize is really, Santa Barbara's not only a great place for a lot of varietals, but we're not into yet the big, commercialized, artificial kind of thingYou'll walk into many tasting rooms and meet the winemaker there, or you'll meet the owner and winemaker, like me and me husband area. Santa Barbara has a lot to offer.

Part Four:  What are your favorite wines?  Not including anything you make.

We’re, especially me, very partial to Greek wines. I know that sounds kind of odd. We've spent a lot of time in Greece. We think Greece has amazing wines that actually doesn't leave the country, and one of my most favorite ones is called Agiorghitiko. It's from Nemea. It's a wine that's so hard to explain. It's kind of like a cab but not really. It's like a cab/Syrah. It's got its own identity, and we just love Agiorghitiko. We try really hard to find that wine.

Part Five:  What Do You See Happening in the Wine Culture?

It’s no longer just something to drink that's good. It's more where we're having a lot of people coming in who want to really learn what goes behind that wine. We have a lot of people who are now interested in coming to work a day of the harvest with us. People have a real kind of desire to learn what goes on in the winery. Why do you do what you do? We're seeing this more and more, especially in the younger generation, who, A, is interested in learning as to what goes behind the wines, but B, is wanting to venture into new kinds of wines that they hadn't had before, like we make a Dornfelder. It's the one time we've made it. It's a German varietal. As far as we know, there's the one vineyard in Santa Rita Hills that has Dornfelder, and most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or tried it. People get excited when they find something unusual that they can take to a dinner party.

I think in the past, people were into the white Zinfandels and that was just something to drink, but nobody was really interested in what went on behind, and how do you make white Zin, even though ... I'm not a white Zinfandel person at all, but ...

I think they want to get rid of all of the technical terms around it, but understand what is a clone? Most people don't understand, varietals are pinot noir, Syrah, cabs, and then within each of those varietals you have clones. Most people don't have a single idea what a clone is. I always explain, it's like apples. You have Granny Smith, red delicious, the different ones, and each one of those apples have totally different flavors. The clones we have for like pinot noir are absolutely, totally different, and therefore makes it our spice cabinet to make the kind of style of wine we want to make. People love it. They come out, and then I let them taste the difference between a pinot noir clone 115 versus a 667 versus a triple-7. They can see how those different clones can make the style of wine you want to make. I think people are really wanting to be educated as to what goes into that wine.

 

 

Behind the Scenes with Dave Miner of Miner Family Winery

I met Dave Miner by accident, as he was passing around a bottled barrel-sample of Tempranillo on the porch of an Anaheim restaurant after hours.  The wine was good.  Dark and rich.  Miner was talking wine and music with Michael Jordan (the Master Sommelier, not the basketball star) and a couple guys from Fender Guitars were improvising a soundtrack on two twelve-string guitars.  It was the kind of January evening that comes with a pleasant frequency for those of us in the wine business.

The darker side of the business would come a year later when, visiting a famous Napa Valley winery, I would be mocked by an entire tasting room staff who had nothing but derision for wine retailers and (even worse) people from "The Rust Belt."

Driving south on the Silverado Trail, I saw the sign for Miner Family Winery and pulled in.  Dave Miner was his gregarious self.  He stopped what he was doing and welcomed me in.  We spoke about the evening in Anaheim, tasted some wines, and shot some video.  A few hours later, I had produced my first wine video in wine country. 

This is Episode #6 of the Understanding Wine video podcast.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.

Dave Miner:

Hi. I'm Dave Miner with Miner Family Winery. We're here at Miner in Oakville, right in the heart of Napa Valley, over on the eastern side. As you can see behind me, spring has sprung in Napa, so it's a good time to be here. We're getting ready for some bud break and you should come by and see us.

Me:

When you're in Napa Valley visiting Miner, you could visit the tasting room. That would be a great place to start, but we're going to go behind the scenes with Dave Miner. Once you get behind the building, what you notice first are the solar panels.


Dave Miner:

We started doing solar a couple years back. We started the project, and we've been on the solar panels for roughly a year and a half now. We generate our own solar power. We're 100% solar powered. All of the waste that we produce here from wine making, whether it's skins, stems, seeds, all go to compost. All of our water is recycled back into irrigation for our property here. We really try to be very conscious of our footprint and our presence here, and not leave a mess.


Me:

The same care that Miner gives to the environment, they also bring to their wine making.


Dave Miner:

We hand harvest everything that we do and then dump that directly into the hopper. We sort of hand sort, as well, as we go through. We also don't tend to harvest a lot of grapes at one time. We might do 15, 18 tons in one day and that's it, not a huge amount. It really kind of allows us to manage everything in fairly small quantities. Make sure that the quality of every little lot is premium. Essentially, the whites go right into the bladder presses down here. A whole cluster whether it's Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. We pretty much do all of those, the whole cluster press.

Each of those bladder presses will hold about seven or eight tons of grapes. We'll drop those all in there, rotate and just gently and lightly press them over two hours. Then, the juice will go off into a tank for fermentation in the tank. Although, Chardonnay, we actually ferment in the barrel, but it goes into a tank first. We kind of cold stabilize it, chill it down a little bit, start the fermentation process, and then move it on to barrels.

The red wines would go through the de-stemmer. For the most part, about 95% of our red wines are completely de-stemmed. We do have some wines that we actually do some whole cluster fermentations with, Syrah primarily, or Tempranillo. The rest of them are all de-stemmed, and then the berries are just kind of lightly popped. Then, they go into a tank, or into a bin for fermentation. Pinot Noirs, we actually do all our fermentations in picking bins, with a lid on or off. The punch downs are all by hand, so we mix the skins up all by hand. The fermentations are all natural. Again, in the smaller quantities, it's easier to sort of control the quality of each little bit that we do.

This is essentially 20,000 square foot cave, which we dug in 1998. Took about 14 months to complete. Can probably hold about 5,000 barrels, although it's not that full. We built it a little bit larger than we probably needed, just so that we would have kind of a comfort level room to work. The great thing about the cave is that it's much more energy efficient. It's 60 degrees and about 90% humidity all year, so you lose a lot less wine to evaporation. Above ground, you can lose roughly 5%, 6% of your wine every year to evaporation. Under ground, you lose 1% or less a year. Significant savings in wine loss. Consequently, you have less labor because you don't have to top the barrels off as often. You want to keep barrels full so that the wine doesn't oxidize. The faster it evaporates, the fast you've got to top it off.

We have variety of cooperages that we buy from. We have a couple that we buy a lot from. Then, quite a few other smaller producers that we buy smaller amounts from. That's kind of an ongoing thing. We always kind of experiment with some of the different producers, different types of barrels. See if we really like them. It's a little harder to do that with Cab, because you're racking in and out of those barrels a couple times a year, whereas with Chardonnay, once it goes into the barrel, it stays there, so you can get a much better of a idea of the effect of that barrel on the wine. You can taste the same chardonnay in four different barrels and really get a sense for what that barrel adds to the mix.

This is basically one of our Cabernet lots from Stagecoach Vineyard from the '08 vintage. These will essentially get blended here in the next month or so, and then put back in the barrel as the blend. Then, bottled roughly in August of this year. This is from a block at Stagecoach that we call the bowl, which is about an 11 acre block, 10 acre block, that's basically just kind of a bowl. It's a western facing area up at Stagecoach Vineyard. Stagecoach is just east of the Oakville Appelation. It's a fairly large vineyard. It's 550 planted acres. On the north end it kind of butts up against Pritchard Hill, runs along Oakville, and goes pretty much all the way down to Atlas Peak. It's a huge vineyard, great, rocky, volcanic soil, roughly around 1,500 to 2,000 foot elevation. It's kind of an ideal vineyard for the Bordeaux varietals. Keeps the yields low. Keeps nice acidity in the wine. Gives the grapes just fantastic intensity. It's also, because it's higher up in the valley, it tends to not get as cold, and not get quite as hot. You get a nice kind of breeze effect off the the bay up there. It's kind of ideal growing conditions for a number of these grapes.

Everything we do is in really small batches, very hand crafted. Quality really is kind of the key thing for everything that we do. Balance. We like to makes wines that are very well balanced, that go with food well. Also, lack of pretension. We like to have people come here and have a good time, no matter what their experience level with wine is. We want them to feel comfortable that they can come here, have a good time, learn some things if they want to, taste good wines, and just enjoy themselves. I think those are kind of the themes here at Miner that we try to promote all the time. You'll get to taste a lot of different kinds of wines, which is unusual, and I think really good, quality examples of every varietal that we do. I think you'll have a really good time, so come visit.