Some people get excited when they meet an actor or athlete. That's fine and I get it... but for me, its the winemaker who produces wines I really enjoy. I'm absolutely serious too. Sweaty palms, dry mouth, stuttering... yup, that's me. Totally weird but its true.
Regardless of the stammering, I love talking "shop" with them. They always provide the honest truths behind their wines as opposed to the tasting room staff who regurgitate the marketing spin from the winery's website -- as they should, of course. But the winemaker looks at the end product in a much different light. Often, they see what should have been different during fermentation, smell the result of too much time on the lees or taste the extra days of barrel aging before bottling.
Hearing these little stories makes me fall in love with the wine all over again. Because its through these nuances that I truly appreciate the effort that went into the bottle.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Matt Michael of Baldassari Family Wines and assistant winemaker at Sebastiani Winery. Matt and his father are still in the early stages of bringing the family name to the public. But in just the past few years, Matt is proving to the wine world, one bottle of Syrah at a time, that he's a man with the passion and the skills to be one of the valley's "winemakers to watch".
My excursion began with meeting Matt at Sebastini, and then heading into town where we enjoyed lunch at the El Dorado Kitchen. Afterward, we continued our chat over a vertical review of his '04, '05 and '06 Syrah.
My interview with winemaker, Matt Michael:
Q: So why Syrah?
We like Sirah, both of us a lot. And looking at it right, there's only a few people that are doing it up here. It's a good standalone varietal; it's not something that we're going to need to do a lot of blending with. And we kind of liked the Bennett Valley area, for that cool climate, which we did in '03 and '04. And we're back there in '06. It's really, really supple fruit.
Q: You don't see a lot of people focusing JUST on Syrah, especially in this area.
Syrah is going to have it's day. I just never thought that the Syrah market would fall so flat so quick. When we started it in '03, people were much more in tune with trying Syrah than they are now.
Q: Why do you think the Syrah market here in Northern California is weakening?
I think its because of the Australian Shiraz craze. They're squeezing out the $20 and under bottle, and the proliferation $20 and above small production Syrahs, it's all come to this price range and people are unwilling to try them unless they have a score attached to them. At least that's what I'm hearing from people in the shops.
Q: So how important to your success is obtaining high scores?
I think the product speaks for itself. But quite frankly, when trying to sell to stores and four or five other Syrah winemakers all have scores and ours doesn't, it's hard to compete.
I hate to say that, but that's the reality of the situation. That's the way we have to come to the table. There's a few guys out there that are willing to take the wine because they like it and they trust their own palates. They don't want to have the score sell the wine for them. But then there's a lot of guys that are not willing to do the work.
"This isn't going to sell for me, so thanks but no thanks." is what I hear when I go out there. It's hard because I wish it wasn't like that. But they're in business to make things easy on themselves. Most people want to sit behind a counter and have customers read a shelf talker, "91pts Robert Parker", "Oh, I'll take three of these". That's what I've found to be more of the norm than less.
Q: What are your ultimate goals for the Baldassari brand? Are you looking to stay niche?
We're trying to stay niche. We don't want to get above 500 cases any time soon. We want to concentrate on Syrah but we're branching out. In '08 we're making about 30 cases of Petite Sirah. And there's probably going to be a Zinfandel next year or so.
Q: You speak so highly about Sonoma's fruit but in your '05, it was a 50/50 blend of Napa and Sonoma fruit. Was that the original intent?
What happened is when we got a good remarks on our '03, the person we bought the fruit from forced us to bid back on our deal. They had interest because we put the vineyard on the label but they received other interest and higher offers than what we agreed upon. They're a new grower and was the second year of fruit producing so maybe they had some bills that were staring them in the face and needed to pay it down.
But it put us in a really uncomfortable position, because it was two months before harvest. I scrambled to pick up this Napa fruit which I really liked a lot. It just didn't go along with our kind of overall vision. I mean, I'm very happy with the wine. I worked my ass off to make it but it just didn't go with our vision. And maybe someday down the road I'll try it again.
Everyone asks me that too. "Why did you do that?" Honestly, I could make up some fancy story, but the reality is that the two wines on their own weren't as good as the blend. That's the real reason. I'll sacrifice having "Napa Valley" on the label, because I want to put out the best wine. That's all I really care about.
Q: How did you go about blending? Did you blindly combine them or was there a methodical process?
We whittled it down in a series of threes, because it gets overwhelming if you do too much. In the beginning, I looked at each one individually and then the blend. We did triangles with it to make sure that we weren't fooling ourselves. And every time it was the 50/50 blend. So I said, "Okay. Well, maybe we're onto something here, but before I jump the gun, let's do 75/25 Napa then favor the Sonoma 75/25. Let's look at 50/50 again." So I said, "All right, let's look at a closer range, 40/60 this way then that way." Every time, it was the 50/50 blend so that was obviously saying something. And you've got to trust that.
Q: Explain what "triangle" tasting is.
A triangle tasting is when you have two wines that are the same and one that is different. You have to see if you can detect which one is different. If you can't, then there's no statistical relevance. You do that throughout the process and it keeps you honest. It's a very civilized tasting. We'll do a round of three, then we'll come back a week later. You want to have time to digest the results and make sure that what I was thinking and what I was tasting is the right thing.
Q: How do you go about finding the right fruit?
There's a vineyard out in Russian River that I really like their fruit, but I have to convince them to sell me some grapes. The problem with what we're doing is that no one who has good fruit wants to sell just one or two tons because they could more easily sell all ten or fifteen to someone else. I have to convince them. "This is good for you. Since it's a single vineyard, I'll put your name on the bottle. You can get recognition and charge more for your fruit. It's going to be a beneficial relationship. Yeah, it's really easy to unload your fruit to someone for the county average but your fruit's good. Why not let someone do something good with it instead of blend it away?" So it's challenging. I have no leverage whatsoever.
Q: So an even bigger problem is growers aren't willing to work with small time winemakers like yourself?
Most people want to unload it all because it's a pain in the ass for them. For instance, I like to hang my fruit out there, make sure it's ripe. If the grower has five or six different winemakers buying and they all have different ideas eventually, the grower gets to the point where it's just a huge headache.
When I meet with them, I sit down and let them taste my wine and explain what we're about and how I like to make wine. I explain, "It's going to require these things and are you on board with that or are you not?" That usually will weed out 65% of growers. It avoids all the confusion down the road like, "Well, you never told us about this and you wanting to hang it out; we're losing crop here."
I learned this the hard way. You've just got to find guys that are on the same page as you.
Q: At the end of the day, when you bottle and taste the wine yourself, how satisfied are you?
Never. I'm being honest with you. I never am. I never think it's good enough. But I guess that's what keeps you going.
Q: Explain your methods for using oak barrels
There's actually a good wallop of oak on here [we're tasting the '04 Syrah] but I've found that if your grapes are good, the oak seems to integrate really well. If the grapes aren't that good, then the oak really stands out.
I used one new American oak barrel and then all the rest is one-year-old French. The wine stayed in its barrel the entire time until its time for blending and bottling. I only buy enough barrels to store the wine that I have. No barrel rotation program here.
Q: What's your typical fermentation look like?
I do as much cold soaking as possible. It's just a feel for me. Usually, I do everything in one ton bins and I'll ferment there. I try to ferment really warm... very hot, like up to 95 degrees, which is pretty hot for some people. You get better extraction, better color. You just have to be mindful of your yeast and the nutrients that are there. I use a Rhone isolate yeast called D21 - pretty standard.
Q: Any enzymes, additives or additions you always turn to?
I just use a color enzyme when I start but I don't use heaps of it. It breaks the chains down. I use it in my cold soak because they're more water labeled than they are ethanol label. It's fine and works for your color during fermentation but they don't want to come out as readily once you start forming alcohol. I try to encourage it to come out during cold soak. If the must is sitting on CO2 pellets, I mix it up everyday. Once I start to see good color, then I start fermenting.
Since I'm harvesting ripe, I don't want to add a lot of tartaric. I've also got higher PH. You don't want a lot of spontaneous craziness going on because then you lose the aromatics. If you get all these weird microbial activity, then you lose all the pure fruit and aromatics that you get.
Q: What's your percentage of whole berries to crushed grapes?
It's a lot. It's probably 75% whole berry. Completely de-stem but no crush. So the whole bin looks like a big thing of blueberries when it's done. It breaks open during fermentation pretty readily, even during cold soak with the enzyme. I know the enzyme people areshaking their heads but for me I'm looking for color extraction upfront. Color extraction is two things; it's enzyme work and it's heat. By the time you get to 95 degrees, you've already got a lot of ethanol in the wine so you're not going to get the anthocyanin in wine to come out as much as if you were early onset.
Q: Tell me about press day
I press to one bar, which is just one atmosphere -- or about fourteen pounds, I think? Then everything else goes to hard press and in the stainless steel kegs.
Usually, I get off one ton and about 15 gallons of hard press. I'll fine the hard press because it's usually tannic and the pH is a lot higher so I'm treating that a little bit differently. I want to be able to incorporate it back but want to make sure that it's reflective of the other stuff.
Q: So you're an advocate for fining?
I'm a tannin freak so if I feel like if the wine has tannin issues, then I'll deal with it by fining. I have no problem fining but people have this huge problem with it. In Bordeaux, if you look at some of the classic literature, they'll fine some of their finest barrels up with up to six egg whites per barrel-- that's some pretty heavy fining. Fining isn't your enemy. Fining is simply if you have excess tannin, sometimes it's just never going to be good unless you get rid of it.
Different vintages extract differently so you have to evaluate each year differently. I don't come in with a formula. I first assess the grapes to be good and ripe. I'm not going to have to ferment nearly as hot as I would with extraction. On a cool year, I have to handle it completely different; have to ferment way hotter. Usually when tannins aren't as ripe, it's much harder to get them out of the skins.
Q: How long do you let it sit in bottle?
I like to give it at least a year, year and a half bottle age; at least. I think that the wine industry is doing this thing where they've got to release asap but really, after you bottle, I find the wines usually drink the best starting about a year and a half out. It's been my experience, whatever winery I've been at has been like that.
You shock the wine during the bottling process. You have this juice that's been subjected to very little amounts of oxygen towards the later stages of its life. Then even if you are the most diligent you can be getting it out of barrel and to tanks to go to bottle, you're picking up a lot of dissolved oxygen along the way. For a wine that's been that closed up to be super-oxidized for a brief period and then go back, it has this period where it just shuts down.
Q: Do you favor more of the art and the craft of winemaking versus the lab work and science?
I like the winemaking aspect of it by far. I mean, lab work is essential just to make sure that things are in line but I think really the winemaking side is what fascinates me. What I've found is that if I do everything right and don't monkey with the wines too much, then it turns out okay. If you start monkey-ing with the wines a lot, you lose the aromatics. You still have aromatics but they don't seem as pure, as rich. It's hard to explain. It's just missing that. You blow it off the more you move it so I try to be minimalist in that approach.
Q: How often do you rack?
I only rack twice a year. First off the gross lees then about half way. Usually the second time, I incorporate egg whites to fine the barrel. That's it. That's by design. I want the aromatics to develop. I've noticed that with Syrah. It's a fine balance because you can get the pure fruit if you keep them clean off the lees. A lot of the ones that smell real meaty and kind of reduced, those are the ones that usually sat on the lees for a while. Syrah doesn't typically do every well in lees. You can get some healthy lees but typically they start getting this kind of funky, animal, reduced smell. Stylistically, I'm just going with what the vintage is giving me and I'm not trying to stamp my signature winemaking mold on it. I could try to make these more uniform but I don't want to.
Q: Any intentions of making a white wine?
I would like to. The problem is that if I did, it would have to be something that was barrel aged since there's no tank availability for me right now. Maybe a Sauvignon Blanc on oak... that would be edgy.
Q: Where do you find inspirations? Who is it? Where is it? What guides you year to year to learn more and try new things?
That's a good question. I don't know that I really look outside. It's always been something that's kind of been in me. I'm a laid back guy but I'm also internally very driven. This sounds stupid but I've never looked for outside sources to inspire me. I kind of inspire myself, if that makes sense. I don't go home and go "Yeah, I'm going to make a good wine." But I get pretty excited when I try the wines and they come out good. I never say, "Okay, I'm fully satisfied." Because I'm not, but I get excited when I think that I've made a good end product. It inspires me to do more the next year. It's a hard thing though because other than guys like you or something that says, "Hey, we like your wine." You don't get a ton of feedback. People don't say, "Great job. Keep it up." You just don't get it.
Q: Do you have any rituals or habits before you embark down making a wine?
Not really. I'm pretty boring. I just try to not lose focus on what I'm doing. I tend to freak out if I think something's not where it should be. In the past, it's proven to be totally erroneous behavior. It's because I'm so hard on myself that I think that, "Oh my God. This is a total disaster. It's a train wreck. I should bulk it out." I'm just overreacting. I've learned to slow down and just say, "Okay. Let's revisit in a month. See if you still think it's a train wreck. Then if you do maybe we'll incorporate other people and see if they think it's a train wreck." My first year, it was like that. It's just because I want it to be the best product I can deliver.
When you start tasting other people's wines, you're your own worst critic. You're always thinking your wine is shit.
Q: What made you even get into winemaking?
I went to Davis. I had no intentions of doing wine at all. I looked through their catalogue and saw the fermentation class. What intrigued me first was beer, not wine. I started taking wine classes and I realized there is way more depth to wine, not just as a beverage but as a whole industry. Most breweries don't have their own barley fields. The biggest connection you have to where you get your stuff from is where it's stamped on the burlap sack when it comes in. Brewing has its own set of problems but the main difference is that brewers brew year round. Wine has a harvest period.
Winemakers have three months to not screw it up until the next three months, nine months from now.
Q: Geography, availability, price; all that aside. What varietals would you make?
That's a hard one. What intrigues me, which is probably totally stupid because the Cal-Ital time passed, but Sangiovese has always intrigued me. No one really had any success with it here. It's this clumsy grape that's high tannin and low color. No one knows how to do it here. They've gotten to the point where they say, "It doesn't work." I don't think it doesn't work. I just think that no one has come up with a way to make it work. They've been doing it in Italy forever and do a good job with it. So I can't believe that it's the only place in the world they can grow that grape.
Q: If we go to your house right now and there's an open bottle, what is it?
It's a bottle of my '05 Syrah sitting on the counter. I tend to drink a lot of my stuff but I drink everything. Right next to it is honestly, a bottle of Italian. I don't even know what it is - I got it at Trader Joe's. I don't discriminate against anything. I'll try it. I might not like it but I'll try it. I've been surprised a lot.
Q: You really have three vintages that speak for themselves...
I don't want to force anything in any direction. I tend to be a minimalist. I get involved where I feel I have to get involved. Other than that, I just let it go and enjoy.