May 31, 2012
I was looking out the window the other day at our vineyards growing lushly in the late Spring. The vines were trellised and the vineyard was uniform and the riotous odor of bloom was carried on the breezes. We work hard to make sure our vineyards provide the best fruit possible for as long as possible, and their planting was well conceived and well executed about 15 years ago. This manicured imagining is duplicated all over wine country and the fruit from these many thousands of acres of vines is worth billions to their owners.
A day or two later as I was walking up to my office, I noticed a rogue vine creeping along through the landscaping. It was probably the product of a seed that had passed out the ass of a Starling and it was doing what its many millions of grandfathers had done over millions of years, programmed to spread copies of itself across space.
What struck me in the juxtaposition of the vineyard and the vine is the constantly evolving attitudes of man to nature. Hawthorne saw chaos and uncivility and Godlessness in the forests of Massachusetts in The Scarlet Letter. Contemporaneously, Thoreau saw the immanence of the Creator in the very same woods; his Walden Pond relationship was a reconciliation of man to the original Garden.
Today there is a healthy debate going on between “conventional” growers and those “natural” winemakers and grape growers who
preach (sometimes with a shrill timbre) a minimalist philosophy about their crafts. These latter would
contend that the natural energies of a vineyard site become misaligned and depredated by the use of chemicals to ward off infestations of malign insects, mold, and fungi. Perhaps rightly, they believe that the farmer’s vigilance in the vines is the greatest prophylactic and vitiates the need for chemicals. These biodynamists are convinced that the addition of esoteric teas derived from natural products and applied at times corresponding to the cycles of the moon are the only sprays a vineyard needs to produce healthy vines and grapes and wines of unique energy and liveliness. There’s no real way of telling whether these wines, which are then generally made without or with very little sulfur, are in any way superior to wines made from conventionally grown fruit. The religious implications inherent in the “natural wine” philosophy along with the purely subjective and individualistic nature of tasting and evaluating preclude a non-subjective, non-emotional conclusion.
Despite the lightest touch of man in the vineyard and the cellar, the vineyard and the wine are man-made objects. The vine I saw creeping along the ground searching for some vertical guide to bring it Sunward has no chance to produce fruit that will be made into wine. Modern wine is a product of rational thought, experience, specialized equipment, chemistry; the vine is pruned and leaf-pulled, and shoot-thinned, hedged and sprayed, harvested by hand and machine.
There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Jurassic Park when the Jeff Goldblum character, weary of the hubris shown by the scientists who switch off the sex of some of the dinosaurs they have created so only one gender remains, says that no matter how advanced the science, no matter how thoroughly these scientists have assumed the role of God, nature finds a way to endure. It was true in the movie, but not true in the vineyard. No number of monkeys banging on keyboards can ever create a First Growth. This takes intention and the guiding hand of man.
Ultimately, the natural world deserves our concern and protection. The vineyard and the winery, though, are not truly part of that world. No matter how careful the farmer and non-interventionist the winemaker, the relationship of the man to the material is a benignly exploitative one.
May 29, 2012
I just never had gotten around to it until this past week. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am thinking it’s time now to begin to slowly (and, hopefully, intelligently) move into territories outside of California with our Steven Kent Portfolio wines. One of our basic and
most important criteria for deciding on new markets is “Do we know anybody there?” The fact that New Orleans, which is home to relatives and friends of our Vice President – Retail Sales, Tracey Hoff, is also a great food city and the home of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience to which we were headed to pour wine, made it potentially a slam dunk. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, but I’ve never had a better start to a distributor/supplier relationship.
Business potential aside, I have a new love. My wife, June, and I had the pleasure of spending a week a year -about 10 years ago- in Key West. It was exotic, had great food, warm people, a tiki bar, and, you could drink the water. New Orleans is all that…on steroids (tiki hut to be found on the next trip).
Like all great places, New Orleans has layers. There is the sublime shlockiness of Bourbon Street (5 minutes here is all anyone ever needs, ever),
the hidden gardens of Chartres; the incredible artistry of Stella! and THE BBQ Shrimp of Mr. B’s. There’s the music that both commiserates and stirs the loins; the humidity that pushes you down to the ground but connects you to the streets. There’s the graciousness of the people – “darlins” all around – and an easy rhythm lost north of Virginia and west of the Rockies.
Then there is the wine part. I traveled down to New Orleans ostensibly to pour at the New Orlean Food & Wine
Experience, and on the way we gained an enthusiastic new distributor and made a lot of fans with our portfolio of wines. There were a lot of thank yous from folks who were pleased to have small California wineries represented and a willingness to try wines they’d never heard about. It felt as if we had begun to make a new home for our wines here, and that is a rare and blessed feeling, indeed.
In the aftermath of Katrina there was talk about letting New Orleans go. She was an elderly auntie and had had her time but there were younger folk to worry about now. One should not scatter treasures to the dirt, and youth is not served on the headstone of the old.
May 28, 2012
Wine is a potent liquor, and the least reason is for its alcohol content.
Wine recalls histories both personal and societal; it lubricates the engine of discourse and oils the gears of intercourse – verbal and otherwise. Wine puts a pin in the most cherished memories and is the symbol of success and celebration.
Wine is almost always a forward-looking indicator. When you buy wines from the birth vintage of your children, it is with the intention of celebrating – with them – when they come of age. In the responsible house, though, the lessons of wine and what make it potent and great should come early and often.
My only son has just turned 21 and has just now begun to express a desire to know more about wine. He has tasted in the past, but wine was not of particular interest to him then. He asked to bring samples home from the winery so that he would be able to convey to our guests what our wines tasted like. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.
As is my custom I started making plans in my mind about how to break a wine down into its constituent parts; what makes it balanced; why this wine is less good than that one, etc. I caught myself though. At its very core, wine is a delicious beverage that makes life better, a little better, anyway. That is the first and most important lesson about wine. And that is a lesson that needs no teaching. Just a little bit of tasting with a kindred soul.
May 24, 2012
Steven Kent Winery started as a wholesale brand. It was the only kind of sales stream I knew back in 1996.
I found out over the first few years that pouring wine for guests and future club members at our tasting room was a much more re
warding way to build relationships and fans of the wines. What was once a network of about 25 distributors dwindled down over the years to just a couple.
The other thing I found out is that for a small brand (that wasn’t yet a darling of the press or didn’t have a huge marketing budget), my wines would succeed in a market if there were a winery employee doing the heavy lifting. There are too many gigantic brands out there that suck the air out of the room for a distributor to really succeed with a tiny brand.
There is that thing about building lasting relationships, too, that we can do well in person, but that are exceedingly difficult if we go into a market cold. The growth for the brand is slow, but the growth is also solid and gratifying. As an example, the industry average for wine club member retention is 18 months. The average for the Steven Kent Portfolio wine clubs is 46! We have been able to build a lot of great friendships with our club members, some of whom later became members of our team.
I think we’ve hit on a strategy that combines the need to spread our wings again and the desire to spread them among friends. We are, in fact, seeking out our friends. We’ve begun a small movement outside of California to the Las Vegas (NV) and New Orleans (LA) markets specifically because of relationships we have built with restaurateurs over time and with family and friends. We are trying to duplicate the dynamic that occurs when you join passionate producers of wine with an already-familiar-with-the-wines group of folks passionate about producing great food.
I have audacious goals for my brands that will take a career to fulfill. The next small steps are Sin City and the Big Easy.
Above all, a wine should be balanced. There should be a sense of momentum through the mouth too. Balance is about fruit and acid and
wood and tannin working in harmony (not necessarily of equal measure) to create a sense of beauty and inevitability. While balance might be understood as the Apollonian father, Momentum is about Dionysus; it is what puts the sex in sex-appeal
We know that wine is a living thing. What should be explicit in this, but is often unacknowledged, is that living = energy = purpose. If only in the microcosm of one’s mouth, there should be an energy inherent in the wine (its Momentum) and a purposefulness as it moves from lip to gullet (its Balance). The best of wines tell a complete story. Though a marvel in their youth, these wines (and their stories) only gain in richness and complexity as they evolve and mature.
With the 2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay – Ferrington Vineyard, Tom Stutz was able to craft a wine with great elegance and intent. The Ferrington Vineyard in the Anderson Valley is perhaps better known for Pinot Noir at this point, but it is, as Tom has shown, a wonderful place for Chardonnay too. Made from the Robert Young clone, this wine has a propriety to it. This Chardonnay doesn’t jauntily flaunt its fruit, and its youthful reticence now is in great service to the honed acidity and persistent length. Proper storage will allow this wine to continue to bloom for years.
Great wines compel. La Rochelle – Ferrington is such a wine.
May 14, 2012
Wine serves many roles…religious, culinary, historical, enhancer of life, enhancer of food, object of science…so many as to have no
bounds. The role it serves best, though, is that of the window.
All of things that it shows us about life and history and family and the earth and things that are delicious are so much more interesting than the things we force it to tell the world about us.
Asking wine to be your reflection is to reduce you and it to some stale representation. Open up the window instead and let your wine tell you stories of the world.
May 5, 2012
Thankfully, the prospect of a new car or the shiny girlfriend half my age holds about as much joy as as a root canal. Nonetheless, I’ve been staring into the gaping maw of a mid-life crisis recently.
It started strangely and innocently enough with an aversion to eating the meat that I had loved for so long. I just can’t get past certain ethical dilemmas that, being aware of but not compelled by, before, have now wrapped me up tight – and discomfited – in a vegetarian knot.
More relevantly, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in my attitudes about the wines I make. It happened again yesterday while working with my
newest winemaking team member, Craig Ploof, while evaluating barrels of Merlot for our 2010 Bordeaux Varietal Series offering. I have repeatedly been questioning the relationship of fruit to wood and to structure recently. We made a couple of mock blends of Merlot, both of which were very nice. But I concluded, ultimately, that I liked the idea of the one that would have been most characteristic of a Steven Kent release better than I liked the actual wine.
The other blend, the one I eventually chose, is a terrific wine. The important issue for consumers of Steven Kent wines is that the wine is a beautiful example of the varietal, year, and site. My job…my passion is to make GREAT wines…and those can come in any number of different presentations. The subtle shift in emphasis – big for me – may not be detectable to anyone else. In the end, that’s more than okay.
May 4, 2012
A little housekeeping to send April off….Reviews from the esteemed Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine for several of the Steven Kent Cabs:
STEVEN KENT Clone Thirty. Ghielmetti Vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon. Livermore Valley 2008