March 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview CHUCK ORTMAN

The Central Coast veteran is a boutique winemaker again

by Laurie Daniel
Chuck Ortman
Matt Ortman (left) has brought new ideas to the table while working with his father Chuck in the family vineyards and winery.
Winemaker Chuck Ortman's career has taken him from cellar rat to winemaster, from small wineries to a big one and back again. He's now working with his son Matt at San Luis Obispo-based Ortman Family Vineyards, and last fall marked his 40th harvest.

Ortman, 68, actually started out working in commercial art, but left it behind to enter the wine business. Although he took a few courses in winemaking at UC Davis, most of his training was on the job. After starting out as a cellar worker at Heitz Wine Cellars, Ortman worked at or consulted for Napa Valley wineries such as Spring Mountain, Far Niente and Shafer.

In 1979, Ortman made a Chardonnay under his own label, Charles Ortman, later renaming the brand Meridian. When the parent company of Beringer Vineyards bought Meridian in 1988 and moved the winery to Paso Robles, Ortman moved, too. He started the Ortman Family label toward the end of his tenure at Meridian (he retired from there in 2003). Ortman now holds the title of winemaster at Ortman Family, while Matt is the winemaker and general manager.

W&V: What first attracted you to winemaking?

Chuck Ortman: I had a very close friend, Dave Bertoli, who worked at Souverain, where Burgess Cellars is now. I knew him from the first grade through high school in Berkeley. My wife, Sue, and I went up to Napa Valley to visit David and his wife, Carmen. We had a tour of the winery, tasted the wines, and went back to their house and had a nice barbecue. I fell in love with the lifestyle. I was in commercial art at the time, and that really wasn't my gig. I wanted to get involved in hands-on labor, and it struck me that winemaking would be a great thing to get into.

Sadly, shortly thereafter, David passed away suddenly. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I applied for his job during the 1966 harvest, but Lee Stewart, the owner of Souverain, wanted someone with experience. He helped me make some connections, however, and I was eventually hired by Joe Heitz. St. Helena was different back then. In those days, you drove down the open street, waved to four or five people, then parked and left your keys in the car.

Chuck Ortman
W&V: You were something of a pioneer in California when it comes to barrel fermentation of Chardonnay. Why did you decide to pursue that technique in 1973, while you were at Spring Mountain Winery?

Ortman: I simply wanted to make a more complex wine with rich vanilla flavors that you get from barrel fermentation. In those days, you only had two woods to select in French oak barrels--Limousin and Nevers. I would ferment the Chardonnay in tank until it reached about 14 or 12° Brix, then I finished it in barrels. I wanted to catch the fruitiness in the tank first, before fermenting it in the barrel. After fermentation, I let the heavy lees settle out, and racked off these gross lees into a tank, then racked it back to barrels with the lighter lees for about four to six months.

People argued that we were copying French wine, but I said, "No, we're just working with the same grape in different climatic conditions." I did get the idea from Burgundy, but the idea wasn't to copy them. We were very fortunate that, because of our climate, the warmer summer temperatures and foggy nights, we got more fruit development, more richness from the grape. With barrel fermentation, I was just trying to bring more complexity to that terroir.

W&V: How were you introduced to Edna Valley and the rest of the Central Coast?

Ortman: My friend Frank Mahoney of Carneros Creek became ill during the 1979 harvest, and could not take the grapes that he'd wanted from Pacific Vineyard in Edna Valley. I flew down and met with Jim Efird, the vineyard's manager. We went through the blocks that Frank was going to take. I tasted and loved the fruit, and so I took all 22 tons. It was a long, late harvest that year, similar to 2006. I was using the Rutherford Hill facility, and the grapes didn't come in until Halloween. The hang time was incredible, and the thing that really jumped out at me was the intense tropical fruit character.

W&V: What was the biggest adjustment you faced in downsizing from a big winery like Meridian to your Ortman Family Vineyards label?

Ortman: To be honest with you, there was no major adjustment, but I was excited and enthusiastic to return to my roots in making small amounts of wine, which I did in the very beginning when I was working with Heitz and Spring Mountain, and when I was a consultant. Having Matt join me in the cellar was very gratifying, too. Our label has swirls on it, and these swirls are symbolic of an eddy in a stream, where the water goes round and round against the current, picking up new water along the way. That's how I look at Ortman Family Vineyards. It's about coming full circle and keeping the family tradition going.

W&V: What is your winemaking philosophy; that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?

Ortman: I want to make fruit-forward wines that are balanced and complex, and that finish with harmony on the palate. Balance is the word I keep coming back to. I don't want anything to stick out. I also want to capture the aromatics of the terroir, the character of the vineyard. But it's not a complicated thing. It comes down to making wine that enhances a meal, and that people enjoy.

W&V: Are you filtering any of your wines?

Ortman: We do filter on a wine-by-wine basis, based on bacterial counts. We use a plate-and-frame filter. Our lots don't lend themselves to DE or cross-flow filtration. I would say that, on average, about 30% of our wine is filtered, and only the whites are sterile filtered. We try to keep filtering to a minimum. We typically don't fine our wines, so filtering is usually employed just to brighten things up a bit.

W&V: Your son Matt has brought some new ideas to the table. What sort of winemaking techniques have you learned from him?
Ortman: For one thing, he's convinced me to be a bit less cautious regarding our ripeness levels and overall extraction--not to the degree of compromising our emphasis on balance, but just making sure that we don't shortchange our flavor potential. He has a knack for when to pick our grapes, and how to bring the best out of them during fermentation. This has been a great thing for our wines.

Matt has a degree and experience in engineering, too, and that helps him really keep pace with the latest winemaking equipment and technologies, things that really keep us moving forward in the pursuit of quality.

W&V: Is there any new winemaking equipment that you've been impressed by?

Ortman: Lots of it! One thing that jumps out are these small 3-ton stainless steel open-top jacketed fermenters that you can move with a forklift. We just didn't have tools like that when I first started. High-pressure barrel washers, portable ozone equipment, automatic punchdown units that attach to a forklift for small-lot mobility. I could go on and on. These things not only make our life easier, they also make the wines better. You can really control every step on the path to quality.

W&V: Are there any new winemaking techniques or tools you'd like to experiment with?

Ortman: We've considered experimenting with micro-oxygenation on some of our red varietals, like Petite Sirah or Syrah, to soften the tannins, stabilize the color and round out the wine. But it's still a relatively new technique, and you really need to be on top of it, so we're going to wait and see for now.

W&V: What are the biggest changes you've seen in winemaking since you got started 40 years ago?

Ortman: So much has changed, but one of the biggest changes is just our overall awareness of how to handle each varietal. This starts, obviously, with planting the right varietal in the right place, but now it goes far beyond that, and we now have a lot of innovative equipment to go with our knowledge, and the possibilities to fine-tune things are endless. Back when I started, people treated Pinot Noir like Cabernet. They beat it up. Now we're making classic Pinot Noir, and we can be as gentle and selective as possible. It's just an evolution, and it's exciting to have experienced it, and to still be a part of it.

Ortman's Chardonnay Approach

Chuck Ortman
Over his long career, Chuck Ortman has worked with a range of grape varieties. But he developed a reputation as a Chardonnay specialist. After his early experiments with partial barrel fermentation, he has further refined his Chardonnay style.

"The most significant refinement," Ortman says, "was a change to 100% barrel fermentation, to get a little more richness in the wine. In those first few vintages, I wanted to make sure I maintained the fruit with that initial cold fermentation in the tank, but after some experimentation, I realized that we had enough natural fruit quality in the grapes that the wine could handle 100% barrel fermentation."

Ortman uses French oak, particularly Allier and Jupilles. "Our whole thing is to have complexity, so we tend to blend forests and coopers," he says. He also uses a range of toast levels, from medium to "a touch of heavy toast.

"We vary these things depending on the nature of the vintage," Ortman adds.

As for yeasts, Ortman says he always uses at least four cultured yeasts, "depending on the clone and what we want to get out of it. The goal is to create more complexity and fullness." He declined to say which yeasts he's using.


A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. 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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