By: George Balling
Many of you have met one of our most talented and hard-working distributor sales people, Kevin Olsonberg. We work with him a lot so naturally he is at many of our winemaker dinners and tastings with the wineries he represents. Many of you also know that he is a talented musician, a rock and roll and country music drummer. Kevin was nominated for a regional Grammy Award not long ago. With his passion and background, we often talk music, all kinds of music. Kevin “grew up” if you will, emulating many of the great jazz drummers, and given the choice I suspect would love to be drumming with a jazz group.
After the recent passing of the drummer for The Rolling Stones Charlie Watts, Kevin and I were discussing his work and his legacy. Kevin’s comment was that he never really looked completely comfortable playing with “The Stones”. It was after that when the obituaries and tributes were pouring in that we learned Charlie Watts was actually trained and started out as a jazz drummer prior to joining The Rolling Stones. Neither Kevin nor I knew of this important piece of background. We talked after that it was likely why he looked a tad uncomfortable playing rock and roll.
Right about now you are all saying, “this is supposed to be a wine column, what gives?” You are correct and here it comes. I think what we saw of Charlie Watts and where his natural talent laid can be said of winemakers too. Winemakers like all artists have certain areas where they excel, varietals that they love and work with that are their best work if you will.
I recall when I was working at Balletto Vineyards, the head winemaker was Dan Cederquist. Dan and I got along great and worked well together, even so far as co-designing the first dry rosé from Balletto that went on to win a gold medal in San Francisco. Dan always said, “Chardonnay is the easiest grape to make into wine.” I have often thought, including in the rock and roll versus jazz context above, is it really that easy to make or is Dan just that good at making worldclass Chardonnay? Both the Chardonnays he produced for Balletto were delicious. The current one he makes for Matchbook is equally great and the best-selling Chardonnay in the shop. So, is it that easy or is it just Dan’s natural talent? I suspect the latter.
I can construct a long list of winemakers that have these areas of expertise and talent where it shines through in all they do. Ehren Jordan at Failla and the Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, although his Syrah and Zinfandel are pretty swell too. John Lancaster and his work with Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache and Pinot Blanc is a sweet spot of talent to be sure. Loredana Adari and her phenomenal work with all things from Piedmont comes to mind, as does Aron Weinkauf the current and very talented winemaker at Napa superstar winery Spottswoode and how he handles Bordeaux mainstays Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. I could go on… for a long time.
Even the best winemakers will stray from time to time. They get offered a bit of “fruit” from this vineyard or that one which is priced so well they can’t pass it up so they decide to give it a go. Sometimes the results are good, other times not so much.
Here is the punchline for consumers, focus on wineries and winemakers that do really great work in certain areas or with a small group of varietals. Find the winemakers that you really love and buy the wines from them where their natural talent is and more times than not you will be thrilled with the bottles you open from them. Keep in mind too that this is not price point driven. The Matchbook Chardonnay I mentioned previously made by my pal Dan is one of the least expensive Chardonnays we offer in the shop. Much goes into the price of any bottle of wine and talented winemakers will end up working for wineries that reside at many different spots in the wine pricing hierarchy.
There is a common axiom in the wine industry that you should always buy the winemaker over the vintage. I would take it one step further and just recommend that you not only buy winemaker over vintage but also to buy wine from your favored winemaker that are within his or her realm of natural talent.