I will never forget the day I spent blending wines with Steve Pessagno.
A dozen years ago, on assignment from Central Coast Adventures, the now-defunct monthly magazine of The Monterey County Herald,
a friend and I drove down to Lockwood Vineyard to join the veteran Monterey winemaker as he and his crew assembled the label’s flagship red Meritage blend. I had been to some large tastings and done some blending trials for my own garage wines, but I had no idea what I was getting into.
Five of us power-tasted our way through about 100 candidate barrels, looking for the choicest lots of all five Bordeaux grapes for the blend. Each barrel got marked with yellow chalk as an A (definite final blend contender), a B (useful if more of this variety is needed) or a C (don’t bother), at the rate of about two per minute. Each half-minute evaluation involved popping the bung, pulling wine with a thief and dribbling it into five glasses; swirling, sniffing, staring, sipping and spitting; and finally grading (Steve had more votes), dumping leftover wine back in the barrel, and pounding the bung back in. Over and over. Having never really done this kind of thing before, my palate was shot and my head was reeling by about barrel 28; fortunately, I wasn’t making any decisions, and Steve seemed entirely unfazed.
Then, while we had a quick lunch, the cellar staff pulled samples from the “A” barrels and mixed up some trial blends, starting with the proportions that had gone into last year’s bottling. Steve popped a Van Halen CD into the stereo system, cranked it up nice and loud and started pouring glasses from calibrated beakers for all of us to evaluate. Given the soundtrack volume, the communication was more facial expressions than vocalization. Ten minutes into the whirlpool, Steve barked, “This is all wrong!”—meaning not the blend, but the music, which was promptly replaced with some Dave Matthews. Things went much better. After about an hour, we all raised the white flag, well spotted with purple. It took Pessagno and his crew two more days to get it right—mostly, he explained to me later, to the strains of guitar wizard Joe Satriani.
The reason this memory is so fresh in my mind is that Steve Pessagno died in his sleep June 8 at the age of 55, way too young. The reason it’s the lead-in to this column (being written two weeks later) is that this slightly wacky day taught me volumes about how actual humans make first-class wine in the real world. The genuine article is in another dimension from textbook winemaking, and much more visceral than ethereal visions about the expression of terroir. The heart of winemaking is pushing through the hard stuff—tons of grapes, fermentations that won’t take, more samples than any sane person would want to taste at one sitting—and having a ton of fun in the process.
I learned a lot that day about what makes successful winemaking tick, and added Steve to my mental Rolodex of smart, engaged winemakers (without whose input this column wouldn’t exist). Losing a valuable source in no way compares to losing a father, as his four sons did, or to losing a lifelong colleague, as so many winemakers in Monterey did, or to losing a tireless champion for his wine region, as the entire Monterey wine industry did. But without the hard-earned wisdom of hands-on winemakers, wine writers can easily get unhinged from their subject, as if their opinions determine what’s in the bottle, not someone else’s bone-crunching labors. Steve was one of my reality checks, and I will sorely miss him.
Take it from a production winemaker
Over the years, I probably spent less than 24 hours in any form of contact with Steve, counting the blending session and a couple other visits, lots of phone calls and emails, and the occasional shake-and-howdy at trade tastings. Nonetheless, he was one of the folks I recruited to do guest columns earlier this year while I was hibernating with a book manuscript. As it turned out, Steve’s take on what they don’t teach you in wine school, “Lessons Learned the Hard Way
,” came out in the June issue of Wines & Vines
, a few days before he died.
In the column, he offered “a few pearls for the younger winemaking crowd and some ‘I remember when that happened to me’ anecdotes for winemakers of my generation.”
For instance, “Remember to periodically (and I might say thrice daily) mix your stuck fermentation tanks while they are being warmed. If you don’t, I can guarantee that when you do try to mix the tank, the dissolved CO2
in the partially fermented juice will erupt and eject the contents up through the top manhole toward the winery ceiling. The mess on the ground does look like you lost a lot of wine, but it is usually not that bad. Trust me.”
Or my very favorite
“When an 8-inch must line connected to a positive-displacement pump starts to plug (and is visibly swelling), it will eventually blow if someone doesn’t stop the pump. Train your crush staff to keep an eye (and ear) out for processing sights and sounds that are abnormal. I can tell you that when the hose ruptures it will launch grapes over the top of a 32-foot tall building.”
These are clearly the life lessons of a production winemaker, someone who moved a lot of grapes through a lot of presses and tanks and barrels and hoses. I soon learned that Steve’s original training was as a mechanical engineer—in later life, he often referred to himself as a “recovering engineer”—and he brought an engineer’s skepticism and do-it-yourself-ism to winemaking as well. He was one of those winemakers who never met a tank he didn’t want to customize. He had short patience for blather and nonsense, and a lifelong habit of asking why he should believe this or that piece of conventional wisdom.
I got an entire column out of one of his “show me” stunts. Accepted wine dogma tells us that fine wines can only be made in small batches, and Steve could not for the life of him figure out why the same grapes would fare worse in a larger fermentor, all else being equal. So after a bet with Leo McCloskey of Enologix, whose company specializes in slicing and dicing the attributes of fine wines, Steve rigged up a trial at Lockwood, where he had plenty of tanks to play with. Side by side, he fermented the same Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in two fermentors of the same width-to-height ratio, one holding 14 tons, one holding 105 tons, with the same yeast, similar pump-over regimens and an elaborate system of sensors to make sure temperatures were uniform. When they ran the results through Enologix’s battery of analytical tests, sure enough, the big tank won—barely, but it won.
A quality guy
For all his skill at large-scale production winemaking, Pessagno was a quality guy, in every meaning of the term. When he took over at Lockwood in 1991, the winery was saddled with a peculiar business model that focused on dozens and dozens of small-batch custom bottlings for restaurants and even mail-order customers. The Lockwood Vineyard was planted to some of everything, including what Pessagno called “some odd choices.”
“At a time when few people had ever heard of Sémillon,” he remembered, “we were making it in two different styles.”
Pessagno knew this was not the way to make quality wine, on any scale, and the project was losing money to boot. Starting in 1992, the vineyard was replanted with Bordeaux and RhÔne varieties, the winemaking got in gear, and by the end of the decade Lockwood was pumping out 80,000 cases per year of very good wine—with a good deal of it selling (this was a decade ago) for $30-$50 a bottle.
The first time I met Pessagno was at an all-day press session hosted by a handful of Monterey labels (my memory tells me they were styling themselves as the Monterey Quality Alliance) determined to tell the world that Monterey could make great wine and banish forever its reputation for under-ripe, “veggie” Cabernet. The crew included the founders and/or winemakers from Morgan, Talbott, Chalone, Bernardus and maybe a couple others, as well as a slide show by Leo McCloskey (there’s that name again) showing how Monterey Chardonnay had the perfect profile to go big time.
Starting with the 1999 vintage, Pessagno began making wines under his own self-named label, and in 2005 he turned to its production full-time. He never dropped that pursuit of quality, and he never forgot that the way to build his brand was to build his region. He did a stint as a county planning commissioner, arguing that the wine industry was an asset for the area, not a nuisance; he helped found the Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands, dedicated to advancing and popularizing that winegrowing area; he helped pull together the River Road Wine Trail, on which he was finally able to build his own winery. His hospitality was boundless; I will forever kick myself for never getting to one of his legendary paella feasts.
Even though Pessagno wasn’t a professional writer, he came pretty close to penning his own epitaph in that June column: “2012 marked my 30th harvest as a winemaker. I don’t have to tell my winemaking colleagues that this is the one profession that makes your non-winemaking friends envious. You are never bored, you make decisions on the spot every day, you drink great wines and eat well, you’re always learning something, and you meet the most interesting people—many of whom become good friends.”
Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.