The Fine Art of Really Great Winemaking
By: George Balling
The time I spent working at Balletto Vineyards located in the Russian River Valley appellation of Sonoma County was invaluable. It continues to positively impact my career to this day. The time I had there when Dan Cederquist was the winemaker taught me so many things. He was and still is a master at his craft of producing world class wines. Similarly, having a winemaker the caliber of John Lancaster of Skylark Wine Company in our family gives us the opportunity to continue learning so much about the ins and outs of winemaking. It makes us better at what we do.
What winemakers are capable of is truly remarkable. The best at what they do use a heavy dose of art and apply just enough science to create really great wine. Many times, they are forced to do this in the face of challenging growing conditions in the vineyards. The best always find a way to make some really great wine regardless of what they encounter. The only condition they can’t overcome is when the grapes are tainted by wild fire smoke, but we have covered that sufficiently over recent years. It is way more fun to talk about all the positive magic so many winemakers are able to work.
I recently tasted and wrote about the Ex-Post Facto Syrah from Brewer Clifton winery. The winery recently sold but Greg Brewer is still pulling the levers of the winemaking apparatus. This wine is truly a magical production with art dripping off of every sip. The wine undergoes an extended period of skin contact during fermentation, over 45 days. This time on the skins results in a very dark wine with extraordinary texture and weight on the palate. What is so interesting about this wine, is that even with all of that color extraction the wine is not overly tannic. Many times, color and tannin go hand in hand, it is Greg Brewer’s art that makes this happen, no amount of science could. I would love the opportunity to learn how he executed that trick.
Each and every year at this time of year we eagerly await the new vintages of Skylark Pink Belly and Skylark Pinot Blanc. The art that is so evident in these bottlings shows in their consistency. Each year, good growing conditions or tough ones the Pinot Blanc is the most elegant white wine we carry and the rosé remains our most popular with its delightful dry, crisp and zippy palate. If John were only working with the science of winemaking, he would not be able to turn out the best wines year in and year out, it is the art that allows him to do that.
We have felt for some years now that the Washington wine industry is suffering from a degree of “sameness”. Too much extraction, too much oak, too much alcohol, too much blending has led to wines that are challenging to differentiate save for the labels. And then there is Rich Funk owner/winemaker at Saviah Cellars. Over the years we have owned the shop we have been fortunate to spend significant time with Rich, both at the winery and on a couple of occasions walking his vineyards. Notwithstanding Rich’s background in science, he is a true artist when it comes to making wine. He produces truly unique varietals for Washington, and sticks largely to varietal wines avoiding the all too ubiquitous blends. Like John Lancaster he excels at producing great and consistent wines in good years and tough ones. His Barbera shows this artistic flair and should not be missed because it is delicious but also because it is unique for Washington.
Ehren Jordan owns and does all of his own winemaking at Failla located just outside St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Ehren is a pilot and flies his own plane when he travels so he understands science. His art though shines through in every bottle we have been privileged to drink. His Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel are some of the absolute best we have ever tasted. While like others we have mentioned here he is consistently great at his craft, his art shows through in the nuance of the wines he makes. You can really taste every vintage and every vineyard site when you have a glass of his wine. He embraces all that the growing conditions offer him and what the terroir does to subtly influence each varietal making for an unexpected but always fabulous experience with each wine.
As a wine consumer first, every one of these wine memories is vital to what we do as a wine professional, we will continue to work diligently to bring artist/winemakers like the ones mentioned here and others to town so you too can benefit from learning about what they do and how they do it.