The Truth About Wine

  • Wine IS simple. But only if that’s what you want from it.
  • Wine IS complicated. But only if you want it to be.
  • The Fountain of Youth was filled with wine.
  • Great wine ought to reflect the philosophy of the winemaker.
  • Scores are meaningless for 99.9999% of us. How do you put a number to the stuff you were drinking when she said yes?wine bottles
  • If the winemaker is doing it right, he butts the hell out…until (and if) he’s really needed.
  • Like Hamlet, wine is bottomless. There is always something more to learn about the great ones.
  • Biodynamics may be a hoax. Or…it may be the best way so far to represent a proper relationship between farmer and earth.    
  • NOBODY knows what terroir is.
  • It’s ok to get emotional over a great glass. Wine likes that.
  • If anyone tells you you’re drinking the wrong wine, he’s trying to sell you something else.
  • Great wine changes over time. Not always for the better…but if you’re interested in the interesting then the ride is usually worth the price of admission.
  • Great Cabernet Franc is as sexy as wine gets.
  • Wine’s first responsibility is to be delicious.
  • The best wines appeal to the head, the heart, and…the loins.
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It’s a Cliche, but…

0-whoville-feastIt was like the dinner scene from Whoville; there could not have been more food. Everything supplied by family and close friends…smoked turkeys, roast turkeys, prime rib, leg of lamb, three kinds of stuffing, two heaping bowls of potatoes, salads, cheese plates, appetizers, many vintages of wine, 41 wonderful guests.

I think this is the ninth time we have transformed the Steven Kent Winery Barrel Room into our Thanksgiving dining hall. It started out big, with family coming from Boston, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Oregon, Over the years, the numbers have gone up and down (but once you are invited, you’re always family), this year, though, we nearly doubled our highest count.

Thanksgiving is my favorite day of all (though the last day of Harvest is rapidly closing the gap). It encompasses the things I adore most: family, wine, and food. It gives me the chance to spend Tuesday and Wednesday in the kitchen, slowing life down, marking my days with stock reductions, and turkey brines. And then, Thursday comes, and I get to see family and friends who are too far from me, and we spend the perfect day together (looking from the outside, the day would be an ideal scene captured in the snow globe).

And though it would not have mattered ultimately, it must be remarked that the day was absolutely perfect, nearly 70 degrees, and much of this day was spent outside, as it must be, in conditions such as these.

I am enduringly thankful for my wife, June, and for my children. Thankful for all of my family, far-flung though they are. Thankful for my friends and thankful for my team who always have my back. I am thankful, finally, for the accidents of history that contributed to putting me on the course I am pursuing.

Proportion and Balance; Elegance and Evolution

From the proper pronunciation of Pinot Meunier to a workable and acceptable definition of balance, wine can be a really confounding thing…and that’s just for the folks who actually make it. So much of what we ultimately end up doing – from picking decision to press date to final blending is done by feel. I liken this time of year to spinning a ton of plates for as long as possible, running from one to the other to keep it in motion for just a little longer, and ultimately accepting that the “final” decision (the inevitable tumbling of the dish) is the right one.spinningplates

The elements that I keep going back to, especially when thinking about what my final blends will bloom into, are balance and proportion, elegance and evolution.

I had the occasion last night to take my Reserve Room tasting team through a flight of the 2007 Small Lot Offering wines (our 100% Bordeaux varietal releases) in order to highlight the most important elements of those wines for their guests. I had not had those wines (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and LINEAGE | Livermore Valley) at the same time since 2010, and I was overjoyed to discover how some of the decisions I made then – in terms of barrel choice, maceration times, etc, were paying dividends in texture, liveliness in the mouth, and elegance of presentation. This flight will be available to enjoy soon in our Reserve Room.

From the first major decision: when to pick the grapes, to the point of putting the wine into bottle, I am thinking about how to make wines that are of a piece. I believe the best wines are the most beautiful and elegant wines. For me, elegance means proportionality and cohesion. It means that there are no winemaking flourishes that are made simply because I can.

Each wine I make must express the point that it is exactly what it is supposed to be – a reflection of a place and time and philosophy that gives room for the wine to BE the wine. While it is true that winemakers MAKE wine, I want to be deft in my decision making, striving to make sure that the choices I make are (first) those that – Hippocratically – do no harm and that are made in service of the most beautiful expression of each vineyard and variety I work with. Great wines are those that effortlessly display their complexity, potential for positive growth and – in the end – a living, beating heart.

With the End in View

My wife – June – is a very talented and intelligent woman. There is no end to the useful things that I have learned from her over our years together. One of the most appropriate ideas, especially for this time of year, is “to start with the end in view.”

Notwithstanding the gigantic overage of fruit from some of our blocks that will have to be pieced into the puzzle a bit on the fly, I had a pretty good idea before harvest where each block of fruit was going to end up in respect to the various tiers of wines I make. But as they say, the plan’s good only until the first bullet flies.

June with Bloody Mary at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

June with Bloody Mary at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

I figured that clone 30 Cabernet was going to be the base for LINEAGE | Livermore Valley and that the clone 6 and clone 4 Cabernet (if they got ripe) from Ghielmetti Vineyard were going to be components of both a Single Vineyard Series of Cabernet as well as the Livermore Valley blend; PV in the Small Lot Offering, Syrah in the Collector’s Circle, etc. I didn’t exactly anticipate, however, that we were going to have as many iterations of certain blocks of fruit that we ended up having. We picked clone 30 Cab three different times, and each wine is different in fruit expression and relative weight; each also needs to be put into barrels that will augment its present shape.

Though I started with the finished bottle of wine in my mind, Mother Nature will very often give me starting material that just doesn’t fit the original plan. And ultimately, I believe it is more important to be true to the place and the year than it is to try to torture my grapes into too rigid a vision.

A good plan will help navigate one through the inevitable turbulent waters of real life, and it is probably the turbulence that, in part, attracts one to a business such as wine. Despite the curvebalIs that the season as thrown so far, I remain EXTREMELY bullish on the quality of the 2013 vintage.

Because the Wine Says So

Katharine Hepburn supposedly said that without discipline there is no life. The older I get the more I understand this to be true.

Harvest time in the WineLife necessitates doing certain specific things over and over again in order to achieve a result. A lot of other career choices demand the same thing. You are a baker, and you have the right temperature and humidity in your bakery; you put the right amount of flour and yeast and water and salt in a bowl; you mix it up and put it in an oven set to 350 degrees (not 354); you bake for 12 minutes (not 13); you make great bread. You perform a set of tasks routinely in order to find certain truths. I do what I do when I do because I’m searching for truth too; and because the wine says so.

Page from 2013 Notebook

Page from 2013 Notebook

At this point in WineTime, we bring in fruit that has very specific flavors and textures, a balance of acid and tannin; we put french oak chips in the bottom of our fermentors to help stabilize color, and we put 1.5 tons of crushed fruit in each box. After cold-soaking for 4-7 days, we start punching down the fermenting must. We punch down 3 times per day (to extract flavor, color, and tannin), and each time we punch down, we taste the boxes to make sure that fermentation is proceeding the way it is supposed to. Each time we taste, we write notes about what we are smelling and tasting because fermentation and maceration (even when the juice has become wine, contact with the skins will move the wine structurally, will add and polish tannins) is a continuum. You cannot know how the end product became the end product without going on and marking this daily journey with it; how can you know when to press the wine unless you know how little or big each daily iteration is?

Pressing is like picking. You get only once chance each year to do it. If you are pressing off just to get a fermentor empty then you care only a certain amount about what you are doing. You press when you HAVE TO press, when the wine says so.

After the press, the wine goes into certain, very specific barrels because those specific barrels give very specific qualities to the wine. And you are in barrel only as long as you NEED to be. Because the wine says so.

monkpottery

Is it any wonder that the earliest and best winemakers were from religious orders? They knew a little something about keeping their mouths shut and doing what they were told.

There’s a time to get cute, and a time to just do the work. I am trying to be the best and most truthful winemaker I can be; devotion to the routine helps me to be able to shepherd this magical process (at least as I comprehend it)…and hopefully make a wine that gives the wine lover that WOW we all search for.