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Winemaker Talks, Consumers Buy

Sonoma winery seminar demonstrates how articulate winemakers help sales

by Jane Firstenfeld
Tyler Thomas winemaker
Tyler Thomas
Santa Rosa, Calif. -- Some 50 consumers and about a dozen members of the wine trade including grapegrowers crowded into the barrel room at Donelan Wines/Pax Cellars on Aug. 7 to hear winemaker Tyler Thomas expound upon the choices and contributions of “awesome” winemakers, likening their role to Capt. Kirk from “StarTrek.”

The seminar was the second chapter of a session hosted by 4,500-case Donelan in February, when 40 guests heard Thomas’ theories about terroir, and why two sites in close proximity, with similar soil types, vine age and clones, may produce wines that are, as he termed it, “worlds apart.” 

“As a small producer of primarily single-vineyard Syrahs from the North Coast,” he explained, “We are passionate about discovering great fruit and great sites, and learning what it is that creates the unique governing components of wine.”

On Saturday, Thomas elaborated on his philosophy of winemaking. In an obscure industrial park in northern Santa Rosa, owner Joe Donelan welcomed guests and introduced his winemaker.

“We’re not just in the winemaking business,” Donelan said. “We’re in the entertainment and educational business.” Clearly, business was the business at hand: “Spend money,” Donelan urged his guests. Selected wines were on sale; attendees received discount price lists at the door. Donelan offers wine tasting by appointment only and does not have a wine club, although it does have an open mailing list and sells about 85% of its wines direct-to-consumer.

Two wines accompanied the lecture: Donelan’s 2007 Cuvée Moriah ($30 per bottle by the case, at the clearance) and a 2001 Châteauneuf du Pape from Joe Donelan’s cellar, which had achieved 98 Parker points and now sells for about $120 per bottle -- if available. Both are Rhône blends, predominantly Grenache with lesser quantities of Syrah, Mourvèdre and other varieties. Spit buckets were not provided, as Thomas cheerfully pointed out.

Terroir vs. winemaking
Terroir, he said, is an overused term, devoid of meaning. Accompanied by PowerPoint slides, he weighed the influence of various components, from his own observations. Row direction, clone and variety provide major differences among nearby vineyards, he said, and trellising can make a “huge” difference. Temperature spikes, and the rate of change between two vineyards might appear similar, but even modest variations during the growing season can mean significant differences in the days available for ripening fruit.

When overseeing two vineyards that at first glance seem quite similar, Thomas said, the winemaker’s influence still can be great. The notion of “non-intervention winemaking is erroneous,” he stated.

“Wine is a cultivated product. Grapes don’t care if you make them into wine,” he observed. “The natural process of fermenting grapes does not result in wine, but in vinegar.” People make a choice to transform grapes into wine, and the winemaker, he emphasized, faces myriad decisions throughout the process.

The choices with the most import, in Thomas’ view: extraction, percentage of new oak, stem inclusion, length of aging, harvest timing and blending. Those with less magnitude include fermentation vessel, yeast strain (although he acknowledged that other winemakers might weigh this more heavily); punchdowns/pumpovers; additions (here he took a slight detour to explain and deride additives such as MegaPurple); filtration.

Most wines consumed these days, he said, are not designed to express terroir at all, but merely to provide predictable flavors to consumers of mass-produced wines. The goal of “Great Wine of Terroir,” is two-fold, Thomas stressed. It must first provide pleasure, the element of hedonism; it must also be unique, interesting and distinct.

Harvest timing is, of course, critical; despite the often-quoted notion of “picking for flavors,” the connection between perceived grape flavors and their resulting wines is not well understood. Thomas cited a study from the University of California, Davis, in which 20-30 winemakers were asked to choose from among six harvest dates with grapes ranging from 20º to 30º Brix. They rated their willingness to pick on each theoretical harvest date: “No, I’m sure; No, I’m not sure; Yes, I’m not sure; and Yes, I’m sure.” By the time the grapes reached 28º to 30º Brix, he reported, everyone was sure.

However, when wines from these grapes were vinified and tasted, the wine rated highest actually came from picking date No. 3: smack in the middle of the harvest.

“We’ve only got one shot every year,” Thomas said. “People like riper wines, and if they are overripe, you can de-alc or add water.” The results of the UC Davis research, however, indicate that it is safer to pick earlier, when you are less certain, than to harvest later, even if you are then 100% sure.

Picking later, he said, reduces varietal characteristics. “Chardonnay and Cabernet raisins taste like raisins,” not like those varieties, he pointed out. In contrast to earlier decades, he noted, North Coast growers are moving back toward more reasonable hang-times, and tending to harvest at more reasonable Brix within what he termed the “flavor arc,” in which sugars and other flavor elements reach an ideal balance.

Still, the winemaker acknowledged, “Site trumps everything.” Successful winemakers, he said, must be willing to take risks, and even to be wrong. Plus, he urged fellow winemakers, “B e objective; prevent ‘house palate,’ and be willing to push the envelope.” Grapegrowers, winemakers and their bosses must all be honest enough to admit, “We don’t have the right variety on that site. It will not work there.”

The atypical 2010 growing season, he acknowledged “Will be interesting.” In the absence of premature rains, he said he expects much of the North Coast harvest to be delayed until late October or early November.

True to Joe Donelan’s introduction, the presentation was both educational and entertaining. But did the audience spend money? Indeed it did. Following the seminar, a crowd of around 130 -- most of them consumers -- joined a tasting in the winery tank room. By the end of the day, they’d purchased between 40 and 50 cases of wine, according to Tripp Donelan, who handles the winery’s direct sales.

Thomas explained that Donelan’s unique marketing program is based on the personal touch: “When you sign up for the mailing list, Joe (Donelan) makes a phone call,” he said. “When you buy a bottle, you get a handwritten note. These people become our continuing ambassadors.”

Thomas said the team has hosted similar seminars during East Coast wine dinners, and it would probably do more in the future. The program is successful, he said, because they “show a different assumption about our customers. They want to be engaged more.”
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