Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Kris Curran

December 2010
by Laurie Daniel
Kris Curran
Kris Curran
When winemaker Kris Curran was growing up in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, she spent a lot of time working with animals. But by the time she earned a degree in animal science at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo in 1994, she knew she wanted to be a winemaker. Curran subsequently earned another bachelor’s degree—this one in enology—from California State University, Fresno, in 1996.

After stints at Cambria Winery and Koehler Winery, both in Santa Barbara County, Curran became the first winemaker at cult Pinot Noir producer Sea Smoke Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills. In 2008 she joined Foley Estates, where she was overseeing production of 20,000 to 30,000 cases per year until her departure in October 2010.

In 1997, she started her own label, Curran Wines, which is now part of D’Alfonso-Curran, the wine project she operates with her husband, winemaker Bruno D’Alfonso. The Curran label focuses mostly on Spanish grape varieties.

Wines & Vines: When you’re buying barrels, are you looking for particular forests, grain tightness, coopers or a combination?

Kris Curran: I think that all of these factors come into play, but as far as what type of oak morphology I choose, I always order tight grain because of the types of wines that I make and the length of time I leave them in barrel. I age my wines longer in barrel than most producers (20-40 months on average, depending on varietal), so I prefer barrels that can integrate over longer periods of time. Many people think that the longer you leave a wine in a new barrel, the oakier it will become. That is definitely not the case. In fact, the longer you age a wine in new wood, the more integrated the wine becomes with the barrel and the less oaky it becomes. So grain tightness is a major consideration when determining my cooperage. A coarser grain barrel will give up a lot of tannin but not as much flavor.

Quality and craftsmanship also have a lot to do with my decisions regarding purchasing barrels. I purchase barrels from coopers that best suit our programs, which more often than not revolve around the particular cultivars and sites in our vineyards rather than the varietals themselves. Integrity of the barrel, salesperson and the cooper also play a very important role in our purchasing decisions. While I have never believed that what is stamped on the head of a barrel (forest, grain, stave age, toast) has been accurate, I now have a better idea of who was “gaming” the system. These producers, according to the European Union, are no longer allowed to use the name of the forest of origin on their barrelheads and have had to come up with proprietary names instead. This does not keep us from purchasing barrels from these producers, however. We have many years of experience with some of these coopers, and their barrels have worked very well with our wines.

W&V: You use mostly French oak barrels, but you’ve also used some hybrid barrels. What results have you found?

Curran: While I have predominantly used French oak, whether coopered in France or the United States, I have recently started to run experiments with “hybrid” barrels (American oak bodies with French oak heads) from World Cooperage. I was very pleased with them in a Chardonnay program I was working on but had never considered trying them in our Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir programs. My goal for using the hybrids with the Chardonnay was that I wanted to bring out more of the fruit and floral esters without covering those esters up with too much oak, while still extracting enough tannin structure from the barrel to give the Chardonnay a firm backbone. These barrels did just that and added just a hint of exotic spices to the mixture. In 2009 one hybrid barrel made its way into a Pinot Noir lot at D’Alfonso-Curran. This wine surprised us tremendously, as it was vastly different from the other barrels in the lot. When we realized it was a hybrid from World Cooperage, we were even more pleased with the resulting wine. This is definitely a wine/barrel combination that requires extended aging, but the marriage of the two was already quite obvious. It has the body, texture and structure of what we look for in a classic Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. There was a great breadth to the wine with a very silky middle; the end finished a little grippy, but the wine has another year to go in barrel.

W&V: How are you matching barrel styles and coopers with your various lots of Pinot Noir?

Curran: There are a few key components that I look at prior to making my cooperage selections. Obviously, I look at the crop load, clones and vineyards to determine which coopers I think will work best during the given year. I have found that some coopers, and the various types of barrels they make, work best with certain clones, exposure to sun, soil and rootstocks. I use a lot of new oak in my press lots, especially if we decide to make a heavy press. Once again, it is logical to think that the tannins in the press wine and the tannins in the barrels will build on top of each other to overwhelm the resulting wine. Realistically, the tannins are able to form long chains that actually make the press wine taste softer and silkier than if you had put the same wine in a used barrel. As for selection of barrels for particular lots, we have found that, as far as Pinot Noir goes, it is extremely important to match the clones to the barrels. Lighter, silkier clones such as Pommards work well with our more elegant barrels such as Sirugue and Boutes “Grand Reserve.” Our 2As and 777s need to be examined on an individual basis, and their structure has a lot to do with the vintage itself, but in general they can handle the aforementioned barrels, World Cooperage profiles 2, 58 and 80 and Radoux. Our heartier clones such as 115 and 667 stand up well to our “heavyweight” barrels such as Seguin Moreau, Boutes, Gamba and Remond.

W&V: How do you decide on toast levels?

Curran: I have always steered clear of heavy toast because, in my experience, they lay on top of the wine like an ill-fitting suit. Similarly, I have not been impressed with lightly toasted barrels, as they tend to lend a planky tas te to the wines and can have an edgy tannic finish that is difficult to get rid of, even with fining. So I stick predominantly to medium and medium-plus toast levels.

W&V: Are there other types of barrels or oak alternatives that you’re interested in trying?

Curran: I have not used, nor have I ever considered using, oak alternatives. I think the flavor profiles of oak alternatives are very obvious, especially with the varietals of wine that I make. One of the reasons why I age wine for extended periods of time in new barrels is to lose some of those resinous characteristics. When you cut up oak into smaller pieces, that just exacerbates those resinous qualities. It is for a very similar reason that I do not use alternatives like tannins in my wines. My wines are not in the price point where I need to consider incorporating any of these products into my finished wines.

At D’Alfonso-Curran Wines, we tried some Hungarian oak for some Merlot from the Santa Ynez Valley one year, just for fun. It was written up in the Wall Street Journal as “the best young American Merlot we’ve had in a long time.” While the fruit was good, I really think that the Hungarian oak, coupled with our barrel aging regimes, really added some fantastic nuances to our wine. We would consider using Hungarian oak in the future for certain varietals, like Tempranillo and Grenache.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail

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