Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Ed Sbragia

March 2012
by Laurie Daniel
    Experiments led to Nevers

    After 35 years as a winemaker, Ed Sbragia knows what he likes in a barrel and doesn’t deviate much from that. But he has experimented with other barrels in the past.

    “I have in the past taken the same wine, both red and white, and looked at different coopers, different forests, different grain density, different toast levels but not sizes to see what I liked,” Sbragia says. “That is how I have made my decisions.”

    While he was at Beringer, he adds, “I looked at as many forests as I could get my hands on.…I bought some American barrels. I used some Yugoslavian and Hungarian oak. As a young winemaker, you experiment with everything. Then you settle in.…I loved the flavor of Nevers oak. I liked it 20 years ago, and I still do.”

    These days, when Sbragia tastes with other winemakers and finds something interesting, he occasionally experiments. “When I can afford them, I try some other barrels,” he says.
Winemaker Ed Sbragia grew up around wine. His grandfather Giulio was from Tuscany and worked at the old Italian Swiss Colony winery in Sonoma County, Calif. His father Gino worked there, too, and grew Zinfandel near Healdsburg. Red wine was a part of every family dinner.

Still, when Sbragia attended the University of California, Davis, he studied chemistry and was headed for a scientific career. But his first job was as a research chemist at Gallo in Modesto. “Then I got the bug,” Sbragia says. He went back to school, earning a master’s degree in enology at California State University, Fresno, in 1975. After a year working at Foppiano Vineyards in Sonoma County, Sbragia went to work at Beringer Vineyards in 1976 as Myron Nightingale’s assistant. He became winemaker in 1984, when Nightingale retired.

In 2001, while he still held the title of winemaster at Beringer, Sbragia started his own winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards. He and his son Adam make about 12,000 cases per year of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in their Dry Creek Valley facility from vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties. Sbragia is also still a consultant for Beringer.

Wines & Vines: What sort of improvements or other changes have you seen in barrels during your 35 years as a winemaker?

Ed Sbragia: I would say the quality has improved. In general, the selection of wood is more closely regulated to give the winemaker the tightness of grain, the air drying of the oak staves and ideal toast levels for the particular wine. I feel the French barrels were good 35 years ago, (today) they are more uniform and better made. American barrels are much improved. Thirty-five years ago, the only American barrels were made for the spirits industry. When coopers started making American barrels the same way French barrels are made, everything changed.

American oak and French oak are very different in taste. They both are good aging containers, but the flavors are like different spices used to flavor foods. It is a subjective decision and differs from one winemaker to the other. I was weaned on French oak, and I had the luxury to stay with French.

W&V: Which coopers do you prefer and why?

Sbragia: No comment. I use four to five cooperages, but I am not going to say which cooper is my favorite. Sorry.

W&V: What size of barrel do you prefer and why?

Sbragia: The standard size of a barrel is from 225 liters to 228 liters. Bordeaux barrels, which I use, are 225 liters. Burgundy-style barrels are 228 liters. The Bordeaux barrels are longer and not as fat. The Burgundy barrel is shorter and fatter. I think because Burgundian wines are usually left on the solids (lees), that deeper bow holds the lees and can be decanted cleanly more easily.

I have always used Bordeaux barrels. They were the ones I used most often, and the racks that I have bought fit that type of barrel. That is a practical reason, but that is why I use Bordeaux-style barrels. For my whites, I use Bordeaux-style barrels coopered in Burgundy. Barrels coopered in Burgundy are made by people that usually drink Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I think they have a better feel for the taste of the wine.

W&V: What toast level do you prefer?

Sbragia: I use medium-plus toast in whites and medium in reds. Toasting is done, like the bending of the staves to form the barrel, over a little brazier with chips of oak. The toast can be controlled by using a wet cloth, and also the heat can be controlled by placing a lid on the open top of the barrel. That controls the heat, but my personal preference is to not use the lid so much. I don’t like the smoky character that the wood gets when it is trapped in the barrel. I ask them to toast at a lower temperature for a longer time.

W&V: What about heat-bent vs. water-bent staves?

Sbragia: Staves can be bent with heat as I described above. Staves can also be bent with water. Immersion in hot water heats the wood, and the stave can be formed to make the barrel. This process is said to make a barrel with less harsh oak tannin. Lots of winemakers are fans of water-bent staves to make barrels. I’ve never really used water-bent, so I wouldn’t know how to comment.

W&V: How about forests of origin for the oak? Or is the grain more important than the forest?

Sbragia: I like Nevers oak, since it usually delivers a stronger flavor and, at the same time, has a fairly tight grain. It is a matter of taste; Nevers barrels from the coopers I use suit my taste profile: good, rich cedar spice and not a resinous, woody taste. I use it for pretty much everything.

W&V: How do you decide how much new oak to use and how long to leave a given wine in oak?

Sbragia: It depends on the character of the wine that is being aged in barrels. The bigger wines, like Cabernet Sauvi gnon from mountain vineyards, have strong flavors and tannins and can accommodate the flavors of new oak barrels. As you get to softer, more elegant wines, I use less new oak and more once- or twice-used barrels. These add a little oak, but it is less intense and does not mask the flavor of the wine. It is a spice: The flavor of the wine and the wood need to be balanced.

For example, for my Cimarossa Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain, I use new oak. It is a big, rich, extractive wine with a lot of spice and fruit. New French Nevers adds to the flavor but doesn’t dominate. My Gino’s Vineyard Zinfandel comes from southern Dry Creek by the Russian River, where it’s cooler. I use only about 30% new oak for that wine, which is an elegant, full-flavored Zinfandel. It would be dominated by 100% new oak.

At a certain point, the wine will start to lose fruit. You get a feeling for cycles in certain wines. Over the years, you get a little intuition, but it’s a matter of tasting. The Dry Creek red wines spend about 18 months in barrel. The bigger wines, like Monte Rosso Vineyard and Howell Mountain, are two years.

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.

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