Sunday, October 2, 2011

Richard Serrano of L'eft Bank: Selecting Domestic and Austrian Wines – Part I of III


MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Richard Serrano, Wine Manager of spirits and domestic and Austrian wines with L’eft Bank Wine Company, 4918 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI about the wine business.

His bio on the L’eft Bank site (http://leftbankwine.com/FUN.aspx) states: Raised on beer and tequila since the age of 12, Richard had his first sip of White Zin at the age of 26, and declared it righteous. A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot followed a week later, and there was no turning back. After a brief flirtation with high-alcohol fruit-bombs, two years in wine retail tempered and matured his palette. He now spends his time in the Sisyphusian pursuit of finding Domestic wines that emphasize balance, purity, and terroir. Known as the company hothead, he spends his off time listening to acoustic blues, reading Decanter, and trying to find old bottles of Roussanne on closeout.

MWS: How long have you been with L’eft Bank?
Richard: Six years.

MWS: How many domestic and Austrian wines in L’eft Bank’s portfolio?
Richard: As far as wineries go, we represent, give or take, about 75 domestic wineries. Within those wineries there are multiple SKUs. Austria: I am carrying wines from about 15 different producers from Austria.

For L’eft Bank, total, with everything we represent we have about 2500 different SKUs in inventory.

MWS: How do you select wines? What do you look for? How do you put your wine portfolio together?
Richard: You have got to strike a balance. I was a retail buyer before (with Sendik’s in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin) and so that gave me buying experience.

One is region – (not all distributors work this way – some of the big corporate houses just carry whatever their liquor companies happen to own*) but I try to do it from a terroir basis. So when I look at California, for instance, obviously Napa and Sonoma are major areas, so I want to have multiple producers representing regions within those areas.  For instance in Napa, it is important to me to have both mountain growers – people like Smith-Madrone from Spring Mountain making wine with mountain-grown fruit along with people in key bench land areas like the area of Stag’s Leap represented by Shafer and Regusci.

I want to cover a region completely with both terroir and stylistic differences within that.

And then coming down the state, representing areas such as Paso Robles properly and Santa Lucia highlands and Santa Cruz mountains and so I want to have a broad representation of all those areas of the state.

At the same time I also have to look at price points. There are the lower-end wines, the bulk type products -- those are the ones that keep the lights on. They allow us to play with the more terroir-driven wines. So I also need to make sure that I have all the price points covered. Do I have domestic Cab, Chard, Merlot, Zin represented at $7.99 on the shelf and at $8.99 and at $9.99 and up to my $14.99 categories. So all of that comes into play.

*[MWS: Constellation Brands can illustrate Richard’s point about wine labels that are owned by liquor companies. Constellation Brands’ wine labels include Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois, Blackstone, Estancia, Ravenswood, Mt. Veeder, Kim Crawford, Inniskilin, Jackson Triggs, Black Box, Franciscan, Ruffino, and Simi; their beer brands include Corona, Modelo, St.Pauli Girl, and Tsingtao; their spirit brands include Svedka, Black Velvet and Paul Masson Brandy. Thus, a big corporate wine distributor would likely carry the entire lineup of wine labels regardless of the quality of wine. One wine distributor in Madison refers to itself as “a Gallo house”. Gallo’s lineup includes Louis M. Martini, Mirassou Vineyards, MacMurray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco, Ecco Domani, Frei Brothers,Red Bicyclette, Bella Sera, Turning Leaf, Black Swan, Sebeka, Twin Valley, Barefoot Wine, Redwood Creek, and Bridlewood.]

MWS: How many Napa Cabs in your portfolio right now?
Richard: Maybe 30-35 in inventory right now.

I have access to more but I can’t carry them all. For instance I have got some producers that make other single vineyard Cabernets and I don’t bring in everything. We have one producer that does five different Napa Cabernets at different price points from different areas and I carry three of those.

MWS: Let’s say I am an aspiring winemaker in Napa and this is going to be your 36th Cab. What would lead you to add me?
Richard: First I would say stay out of the industry. The market is overloaded with labels, the consumer is confused, shelves are bulging with too much product that is not moving out the door. When I got into the industry in 2000, there were I think 3,000 bonded wineries in California and now there are over 6,000 bonded wineries. There is just too much.

But if you were an aspiring winemaker a couple of questions I have immediately.

One, tell me something about yourself. Do you have experience and are you making the wine? I don’t really get excited by a guy who has millions of dollars and hires the top-paid consultants to make his wine, and he buys fruit on the bulk market, and puts on a fancy label and asks for $100. That’s not a real narrative.

If you had a little plot of land, and you were growing your own grapes, and you were making it yourself, then that’s more special to me. Or maybe your family has had a vineyard for a couple of generations and you were always selling grapes, and then you decided to start your own winery – that can also be compelling.

It would also depend where you are, where those grapes are going to come from, and what your price point is going to be.

And also frankly what is the label going to look like. I have some wineries come to me, where I like the wine, I like the price point, and the label is so hideous that I just know that I am going to run into a brick wall with every buyer I show it to. I have seen labels that are so ugly that even if the wine is good, I know that every time I take it to a buyer they are going to give me a hard time about it. I have a lot of rocks that I push up the hill; I can’t have all rocks that I am pushing up the hill in my portfolio. Some things need to work on their own.

Then if it looks compelling to me then the usual next step is that you send me some samples and I try them and that is the real deciding factor.

MWS: So when you try these wine samples what are you looking for?
Richard: At the end of the day, when I taste a wine, since I have been doing this for a long time, I know what a Napa Cab that is going to retail for $20 should taste like, and if someone is going to send me one for $50 I know what that should taste like. Now that is not to say that they should all taste the same but I know if it is delivering $20 worth of Cabernet. So I am looking to see if what is in the bottle matches the price point. That’s not always the case in California, because land prices are so inflated.

Secondly if it is a terroir driven wine then what is important is typicity in region and typicity in grape variety.

So for instance, Zinfandel can be made in a million different styles. Stylistically it is all over the board. However, Zinfandel does really show off its terroir in California more than other grapes, more than Cabernet. So for instance a Dry Creek Zin from Sonoma should be balanced and much more elegant than a Zin from Lodi which is going to be more fruit-forward, and more rich and more mouth-filling in the palate. Both styles have their own things to say. If I am looking at two different Zin producers I want them to represent that.  If somebody sends me their Dry Creek Zin, and it is really gooey, and over-the-top and tastes like it should be coming from a much hotter region, then that is going to give me pause. At the same time, if I was looking at my portfolio and I see that most of my Zin producers are making a very elegant style, well then I need a Zin that has got more gooey fruit. So there are a lot of factors always coming into play.

The next posts will discuss selection of wine producers, Austrian wines, and changes in the wine industry.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Great Chateauneufs on the Wisconsin River – Blue Spoon --Part II of II

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Mike Boss, Director of Operations of the Blue Spoon Cafe (http://www.bluespooncafe.com/) in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

A previous post described Blues Spoon’s retail offerings. This post will discuss Blue Spoon’s by-the-glass offerings and their wine tastings.

MWS: How do you pick the wines that you offer by the glass?
Mike: The offerings change frequently.  

They obviously have to fall into the right pricing category to start with because of two things – our glass pour is larger than most  -- we pour a 6 oz. glass and so we get four pours out of a bottle, typically our competitors will get five pours out of a bottle; the other is that we want to keep the price between $5 and $8 a glass.  So that determines the category of wines that you can choose from and then I just go through my inventory – what I have got, what I am interested in, what I want to introduce.  

This summer I will be introducing the next level of wines by the glass that will be in the $10 - $15 range to afford our guests an opportunity to enjoy a better wine by the glass.  By doing that I will be more willing to open up a $30 bottle of wine to pour by the glass and charge $12 per glass.  

Typically, most restaurants want to pay for the bottle on the first pour -- we don’t quite do that – we are not quite that aggressive in our pricing.

MWS: What percentage of wine sales is by the glass vs. bottle sales?
Mike: A great percentage is by the bottle.

MWS: With bottle sales how do you keep your prices competitive with the bigger wine stores?
Mike: We just do. It does no good to overprice it and have it sit on the shelf.

MWS: How do you decide what wines to feature with your monthly wine-tasting events and how successful have they been?  
Mike:  A lot goes into it. I start with a theme and then I start researching the topic.

It’s fun for me because if I am going to be the presenter it requires that I spend a fair amount of time learning what I am going to be talking about. In a lot of cases it is a lot of new knowledge to me.

For instance, one tasting was on Piedmont – the Killer B’s I called it - Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco.  Obviously I was limited to what I could get from my distributors, so I asked them what they had from Piedmont and once I heard back from them I went through their list, and compared that to what I had in stock and came up with a combination of wines that I thought was going to fit the price – usually $30 a person – it has got to be a value for the customer but I also have to make money at it so I couldn’t offer 12 Barolos – so it had to be a mix of price points.

Frequently I will have a distributor’s rep, usually from General Beverage, come out and lead our tasting, and in exchange they like to see their wines being featured. But I am also sensitive that they have a limited lineup and I can’t always feature just their wines because I want breadth and depth in the lineup that I offer.  

We get between 30 and 50 people at our tastings and we give them an opportunity to purchase wines the same night and we sell anywhere from 15 to 25 cases of wine that night.  They come prepared to buy.

[MWS: See posting of 15 April 2011 for a review of the Killer B’s wine tasting].

MWS: What are the most popular selling wines?
Mike: Number 1 is Wollersheim’s Prairie Fume.  We sell a lot of Wollersheim wines, by virtue of their popularity and our proximity to their winery, and our relationship with the owners of the winery. Generally it’s a broad range of wines that are in the $15 or less category that we sell the best, when it comes to how many bottles we sell.

MWS: Disappointments – wines that haven’t done as well as you thought?
Mike: Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Even when we had our restaurant in Middleton we tried to feature Chateauneuf-du-Pape on the wine menu and we couldn’t sell it.  People don’t understand it; don’t appreciate it for what it is.  Personally it took me 2 – 3 years to get my arms around it and to decide that I liked it.  It required a trip there to come to grips with how I really felt about the wine. I spent the whole day at Domaine Grand Veneur with the owner and winemaker, which was very educational and informative. So I came back from the Southern Rhone and laid into a bunch of labels, three different vintages, wonderful selections – and I am still trying to sell them. They may end up in my cellar at my personal cost. There is a small group of people who are Chateauneuf-du-Pape enthusiasts.

I am also sitting on a few bottles of some nice Tokajis and I will have to very selectively hand-sell those to particular wine enthusiasts

MWS: Surprises – wines that have sold better than you thought?
Mike: Ménage a Trois.  

Another was the Guenoc Victorian Claret which normally sells for $18 but last year I was able to get a special deal from General Beverage and price it for $10.  I marketed it as my Wine Pick of the Year and sold 30 cases of it. I need to come up with more Wine Picks of the Year!

MWS: Do you carry the Haraszthy Zinfandel for its regional significance?
Mike: Yes.

MWS: How many people realize the significance?
Mike: The locals do.  Wollersheim has a Case Club with 10,000+ members and their enthusiasts are tuned in to the history of the winery, so a lot of people who visit us after visiting the winery, they know about the Haraszthy name.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Great Chateauneufs on the Wisconsin River – Blue Spoon --Part I of II


MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Mike Boss, Director of Operations of the Blue Spoon Cafe (http://www.bluespooncafe.com/) 550 Water Street, Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

MWS: How long has Blue Spoon been offering wine?
Mike: I have been here for seven years, and the Blue Spoon has been open for 11. Prior to me coming on, we offered wines by the glass and by the bottle for on-site consumption. Craig Culver, who is the owner of the Blue Spoon, basically picked the wines and the wine list matched Craig’s tastes. His tastes tend to go towards California primarily. The list was small; there was not a lot of depth to it.

So shortly after I started in 2004, since I had had some experience in doing wine tastings I started a wine tasting series here. I thought we had an opportunity to increase our guests’ knowledge about wines, increase our place in the market when it came to sales of wines, and increase the perception that the Blue Spoon was a destination for wine. So the wine tasting series helped us do all of that.

We also started selling wine retail at that time. As we started expanding the list gradually, we came up with a pricing structure that would allow us to sell wine out the door.  It has evolved into more of a wine shop type of program where the majority of our wine sales are going out the door, although a fair amount still goes to the table.

One of the things we decided a long time ago was we wanted to sell wines in the restaurant, and I struggle with restaurant wine prices as a consumer because I know what the costs are.  So our approach to pricing for the consumer at the table is quite different from anyone else in the greater Madison market.  We price all of our wines at retail, so if you look at the prices of the wines on the shelves they should be competitive with the likes of Steve’s for retail sales.  If you want to enjoy the same bottle at the table, we only charge a $5 corkage fee. So a bottle of Franciscan Magnificat, we might retail it at $48, and so to enjoy it at the table you are going to get it for $53.  If you compare that with what you might get it for at the table at any Madison restaurant, it’s going to be well over $65.  So we offer very good pricing for on-premise consumption.

MWS: How would you describe the Blue Spoon’s typical wine customer?
Mike: Confused -- about what they like, about what they are looking for.

I think people who like to buy wine appreciate help in finding wines to purchase because there is a lot of mysticism involved in wine and we can help clear that up a little bit as they are looking for a wine. I do all the wine purchasing and am here to help customers.  I have attempted to pass my wine knowledge on to key employees so that they too can help customers.

MWS: You carry a wide selection of wines – a Vernaccia from San Gimignano, several labels of Chateauneuf du Pape, White Burgundies including Meursault, Silver Oak, Owen Roe, Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, Poet’s Leap Riesling from Long Shadows, Beaux Frères… along with lesser-known wines. How do you decide which wines to offer?
Mike: For any number of reasons.  I am trying to get better at my logic for wine purchases.  

What I have to temper myself against is what does Mike Boss like, compared to what do I think our customers will purchase.  I have a couple of different sets of customers when it comes to wine purchases – some that are in that $30 -  $60 bottle range and they have a very broad palate, and then the majority of the customers fall in the $20 or less category that we have to market our wines to.

How do we end up with Beaux Frères, the Jaboulet, the selections of Chateauneuf du Pape? – I have got even more in the basement!  Some of that is due to my travels  -- the Chateauneuf du Pape purchases were a direct correlation between my being in Chateauneuf du Pape, and coming home, and falling in love with Chateauneuf du Pape.  So to a certain extent I buy based on my knowledge of what a good wine is, and certainly I try to taste as many wines as I can before I purchase. And I do get the ability to taste a lot.

When I am in the market for buying I will try 30- 50 different wines a month. I work with 5 – 6 different distributors.  I tell them what categories I am looking for – like what can you show me in California Cabernets from ‘07 that are priced less than $30, or Oregon Pinot Noirs in the $15 – 25 range.  

I learn about wines basically through three ways: word-of-mouth, or through reading, or through a recommendation from a distributor. I do a lot of reading – I am pretty religious about reading Wine Spectator magazine as well as their on-line version.  So when I hear about a good wine like Beaux Frères I will often seek it out through my distributor, if I can get it.  

There are lots and lots of good wines that I simply cannot purchase because a distributor does not carry it.

MWS: Not many people know that you carry the types of wines that you do here.  Why don’t you advertise that more?
Mike:  We don’t advertise. We don’t believe in it.  We concentrate on word-of-mouth, referrals, in-store marketing, our website, press releases, interviews – things that don’t require us to spend money with a newspaper.

MWS: Are there some wines that you carry consistently that your customers expect to find?
Mike: Certainly the Wollersheims – we do sell a lot of them.

I am out of stock currently but we have been very successful in selling one of my favorite Napa Valley Cabernets in the value category -- the Villa Mt Eden Grand Reserve – for my money it is every bit as good as a $30 – $40 Cab at $16. Year in and year out they keep producing a good Cabernet. So we have people seeking that out when we have it.

I do like to keep things fresh, so if you come in month-to-month you will see different wines.

MWS: How many different labels do you have at one time?
Mike: We are restricted by size and space, and so right now we have about 150 different labels with between 800 - 900 bottles.  

We do sell more reds than whites.  Are my customers necessarily red wine drinkers? Probably not, but those that like the reds buy more of them.

For example we have been doing our monthly wine-tastings for 84 months now and we get anywhere from 25 to 50 people, and many of them have been at all 84.  We will taste 10 – 12 wines, it will generally be no more than 3 – 4 whites, and the rest will be reds and that’s what they are looking for.  That’s kind of my barometer when it comes to purchasing.

MWS: How long does a bottle of wine typically sit on the shelf?
Mike: Hopefully not very long.  

With the Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage, if it takes me a year and a half to sell it, it’s ok – I will sell it. I will hand sell it to somebody.  I will introduce it to somebody. If I know that somebody is a fan of Southern Rhone wines, I will talk to them about it.  About 5 years ago a case of 1964 La Chapelle was sold for  $1.4 million – it was a 100-point wine and so I can get a customer into that for $130 a bottle – different vintage of course, but there is a mystique about that particular wine. It just takes one person to buy it.

The Sea Smoke is another example – it’s a slow seller but it’s a fun sale for me because it’s such a good wine, those people who buy it usually come back and buy more.

The next post will discuss Blue Spoon’s by-the-glass offerings and their wine tastings.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fine Wines from the home of Peanuts: Eric|Kent Wine Cellars – Part II of II


Madison Wine Scene (MWS) recently visited Eric|Kent Wine Cellars (http://bit.ly/o0ScfE) in Santa Rosa, CA.

Santa Rosa is at the southern edge of Sonoma county, but it may be more famous as the home town of Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame who made Santa Rosa his home from 1969 till his death in 2000. Schulz was born in the Midwest (in Minneapolis) and then moved to California. Similarly, Kent Humphrey moved from the Midwest to California as a child, and his wife and business partner, Colleen Teitgen-Humphrey, grew up in Madison before moving to California to help start his eponymous winery (his middle name is Eric).

Kent’s academic background is in advertising. Before establishing Eric|Kent Wine Cellars, he gained experience at Napa’s Ballentine Vineyards, where he worked on Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc; and at Chasseur, a boutique producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in western Sonoma County.

The inaugural vintage of Eric|Kent was in 2003. It is a small four-person operation and the wine is made (pressed, fermented, and barrel-aged) in a custom-crush facility in Santa Rosa that is shared with about 30 other wine makers. The grapes are from vineyards located in different parts of Sonoma.

The website has the following statement about Kent’s winemaking philosophy:
‘Behind every great wine is a dedicated farmer,’ writes Humphrey in a winery newsletter that pays tribute to Sonoma grape growers, ranging from the cool Sonoma Coast appellation to the considerably warmer Dry Creek Valley. Humphrey chooses fruit from a variety of climates to give an idea of the real Sonoma. ‘It’s important to show what the location produces naturally, rather than forcing a house style,’ he says. He seeks not to subdue the fruit, but to attain nuance — ‘my wines are proudly Californian’.

At present the best way for wine drinkers in Wisconsin to get access to Eric|Kent wines is through their wine club. [In fact, the Pressdemocrat notes that across Sonoma, small and mid-size wineries with strong direct sales programs such as wine clubs largely outperformed the rest of the industry during the downturn: Direct sales harvest | PressDemocrat.com http://bit.ly/njlify]

This post continues the discussion from a previous post about Eric|Kent’s winemaking process, as well their marketing efforts.

MWS: What are the features of your winemaking process? For example, do you use whole grape fermentation for your reds and why?
Eric|Kent: The list is likely too long. It all depends on the vineyard, the harvest that year, the style of wine we are hoping to make, etc. That said, I can describe a few. Our Chardonnay are usually barrel fermented, but in different quantities of new vs. old oak. Some of our reds are completely de-stemmed, while others employ a decent percentage of whole-cluster fermentation. Certain wines are on the skins for a relatively short time (8-9 days) while others can stay there for 3-4 weeks. Once again, it comes down to the winemaking goal, be it showcasing the fruity side of a wine or adding more earth and spice to the mix. It’s not a formula, but a decision that gets made with each lot every harvest based on the grapes.

MWS: Why do you use French oak barrels for aging your wines?
Eric|Kent: French oak is a particular species, grown in different forests in France, all of which can contribute different qualities to the wines. American, Hungarian and other oaks do the same. We have experimented with others and find that we prefer the French oak for our style of wine.

MWS: In your view what makes California Pinot Noir and Syrah distinctive, as opposed to the same varietals from Oregon or France (for Pinot), or from Washington or the Rhone Valley or Australia (for Syrah)?
Eric|Kent: It may sound like a cliché, but the obvious answer is that each place expresses all of the various qualities that define it. Every region has its own particular blend of soil, moisture, rain, sun, fog, heat, cold, daylight hours vs. night hours, overall length of the growing season, etc. etc. And then you have tradition when it comes to many of the Old World areas. The traditional winemaking culture can and often does have a big influence on a region’s wines.

MWS: As you blend the wines, what kind of profile are you looking for in the finished product?
Eric|Kent: The defining goal is always to make the best possible wines, meaning great aromas, flavors and balance. After that, we are hoping to produce blends that stand out as being different from their siblings. Whether it’s a vineyard-designated wine, an appellation blend or a county blend, the goal is to make sure you can tell the difference between them.

MWS: Do you think your wines are best by themselves or as an accompaniment to food?
Eric|Kent: That’s a question that I could go on and on about. At the end of the day, I think it’s often presented as a “one or the other” scenario when it doesn’t need to be that way. I feel best when our wines taste good by themselves and then, when paired with complementary dishes, taste even better with the food. If there is one house attribute to our wines, I’d say it’s that they have decent acidity levels, so all of the wines ought to go well with food. That’s when we drink wine at our house, so it follows that we’d make wine that goes well with our meals.

MWS: Are you aiming your wines at the restaurant or the retail market or both?
Eric|Kent: We sell about half of our wine directly to consumers through our pre-release list. The rest goes to both restaurant and retail shops. Before I ever made wine, I remember being introduced to new wines by my local wine merchants and how great it was to make a new discovery that way. So I feel strongly about having people be able to discover our wines that way too.

MWS: As a relatively new and smaller winemaker, how do you overcome the obstacles in penetrating a very crowded marketplace?
Eric|Kent: With patience and endurance! Offering a product we believe in and taking the time to share it with people at events, barrel tastings and any other time that suits them helps us a lot as well. But really I’d say our artist labels are the single greatest attention getter for us. It’s visually grabbing and creates a whole story to go along with it. But it remains a long-term and slow business (except during harvest!) and that is part of the allure. I hope to make wine for the rest of my working life.

MWS: How do most of your customers hear of you?
Eric|Kent: I don’t think there is one answer to that. Many find our wines in restaurants and stores. Still many others hear about us through friends and family. And then new customers discover us every year at trade events and tastings. Of course, the vast and influential world of wine criticism spreads the word as well, be it the long-standing publications or new online reviewers and bloggers.

MWS: The labels on your bottles are very distinctive (see picture at the top of this and the previous post). Each label is unique and each is a reproduction of a piece by an emerging artist.  What led you to take this approach?
Eric|Kent: My wife, Colleen, is a painter. When it came time to design our label, we wanted to combine our passions and decided it would be a great opportunity to help emerging artists get their work in front of a larger audience. So every wine gets its own unique art on one side, with the artist’s name and contact information on the other. We also tell their stories on our website, show more examples of their work and provide links to their own websites. We’re very happy to say that we’ve have a number of artists sell work, get offers for shows or be commissioned to produce new works from being seen on our labels.  

MWS: How do you select artists for your labels?
Eric|Kent: Ah, that credit goes to Colleen. She is our “curator” and does an absolutely fantastic job. She researches many artists by herself by checking out galleries, art magazines, websites, art blogs, etc., and also gets many referrals from past artists and friends.

MWS: You also have a second line of wines – the Sarapo family wines. What kinds of wines are you offering under that label?
Eric|Kent: The goal there is to bottle really great wines that cost about ½ to 2/3 the price of our Eric Kent wines. We do not “make” these wines from start to finish, but rather we carefully blend wines together made by other local producers to create the Sarapo wines. They will vary from year to year and region-to-region, depending on what we can find that is of high quality. So far we’ve bottled two Pinot Noirs, two Chardonnays, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a red blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache. Sarapo is my mother’s maiden name and the family is notorious for having all day meals, with wine, of course. So we thought we’d honor that tradition by giving the Sarapo family its own wine!

MWS: What wines do you and Colleen drink when you are not drinking your own?
Eric|Kent: Auteur, Hatton Daniels (made by our co-winemaker), Carlisle, Donum Estate, Radio-Coteau, Littorai, Williams Selyem, Kosuge, Semper and many others.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fine Wines from the home of Peanuts: Eric|Kent Wine Cellars – Part I of II

Madison Wine Scene (MWS) recently visited Eric|Kent Wine Cellars (http://bit.ly/o0ScfE) in Santa Rosa, CA.

Santa Rosa is at the southern edge of Sonoma county, but it may be more famous as the home town of Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame who made Santa Rosa his home from 1969 till his death in 2000. Schulz was born in the Midwest (in Minneapolis) and then moved to California. Similarly, Kent Humphrey moved from the Midwest to California as a child, and his wife and business partner, Colleen Teitgen-Humphrey, grew up in Madison before moving to California to help start his eponymous winery (his middle name is Eric).

Kent’s academic background is in advertising. Before establishing Eric|Kent Wine Cellars, he gained experience at Napa’s Ballentine Vineyards, where he worked on Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc; and at Chasseur, a boutique producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in western Sonoma County.

The inaugural vintage of Eric|Kent was in 2003. It is a small four-person operation and the wine is made (pressed, fermented, and barrel-aged) in a custom-crush facility in Santa Rosa that is shared with about 30 other wine makers. The grapes are from vineyards located in different parts of Sonoma.

The website has the following statement about Kent’s winemaking philosophy:
‘Behind every great wine is a dedicated farmer,’ writes Humphrey in a winery newsletter that pays tribute to Sonoma grape growers, ranging from the cool Sonoma Coast appellation to the considerably warmer Dry Creek Valley. Humphrey chooses fruit from a variety of climates to give an idea of the real Sonoma. ‘It’s important to show what the location produces naturally, rather than forcing a house style,’ he says. He seeks not to subdue the fruit, but to attain nuance — ‘my wines are proudly Californian’.

Their Spring releases, with most recent production figures, are:
Small Town Pinot Noir – 288 cases
Sascha Marie Pinot Noir – 112 cases
Russian River Valley Chardonnay – 352 cases
Green Acres Hill Chardonnay – 150 cases

Their Fall releases are:
Kalen’s Big Boy Blend Syrah – 213 cases
Dry Stack Vineyard Syrah – 197 cases
Stiling Vineyard Pinot Noir – 347 cases
Sonoma Coast Chardonnay – 139 cases

At present the best way for wine drinkers in Wisconsin to get access to Eric|Kent wines is through their wine club. [In fact, the PressDemocrat notes that across Sonoma, small and mid-size wineries with strong direct sales programs such as wine clubs largely outperformed the rest of the industry during the downturn: Direct sales harvest | PressDemocrat.com http://bit.ly/njlify]

MWS: Why do you focus on Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay?
Eric|Kent: These are the varietals Colleen and I drink the most. And we figure with a white, a light red and a heavier red, we’re pretty much covered for all seasons and meals. And Sonoma County excels in growing them all.

MWS: Any plans to add any other varietals or blends?
Eric|Kent: We are already working with a bit of Grenache, and I expect that will find its way into our regular line-up. We are also making some Sauvignon Blanc for a friend’s label called Cosa Obra.

MWS: Which vineyards do you get your grapes from?
Eric|Kent: We source from 10 different vineyards: For Pinot Noir, we work with Cleary Ranch Vineyards in Freestone, Stiling Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sangiacomo’s Roberts Road Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap area and Petersen Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region.  For Syrah, we are now working with Atoosa’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Ray Teldeschi Ranch in Dry Creek Valley, Las Madres Vineyard in Carneros and Steiner Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. We were working with Dry Stack Vineyard in Bennett Valley, but that vineyard is now for sale. As for Chardonnay, Stiling and Petersen Vineyards again, plus Sangiacomo’s Green Acres Hill Vineyard in Carneros. Grenache right now comes from Ray Teldeschi and Kick Ranch in Sonoma County.

MWS: How do you select your vineyard partners?
Eric|Kent: Vineyard location, clonal selection, soil type, vineyard management, other wines from the vineyard that impress us, and nice people to work with. The goal is to form a great relationship and work with the same vineyards and people for as long as they grow grapes and we make wines.

MWS: What are the differences in grapes between these vineyards, since you get the same varietal, e.g. Pinot Noir, from more than one vineyard?
Eric|Kent: Each place has its own unique weather patterns, elevation, soil, and clones and ultimately expresses the varietal differently. The end result is multiple bottlings of the same varietal that all taste quite different from one another. That is one of the things that excites me about wine the most.

MWS: Those same vineyards probably supply other winemakers with the same varietals? What makes Eric|Kent wines distinctive and different from what another winemaker might do with the same grapes?
Eric|Kent: It’s a lot like giving the same fresh ingredients to different chefs. But in this case, we get to have input on the farming practices for our blocks and choose when to harvest, so you’ll have those differences right out of the gate. Then it becomes a matter of how you approach the winemaking and the final blending of the wines. The goal every year is to produce what we think is the best from each site that vintage can produce. But the “best” may be a different expression for each winemaker.

MWS: Some of your wines, for example the Dry Stack Syrah or the Stiling Pinot Noir are single vineyard wines. How do you decide which wines will be designated as single vineyard?
Eric|Kent: I think wine marketing has created a false idea that a vineyard-designated wine is inherently a “better” wine than a blend from multiple sites. I don’t necessarily agree with that. But when a vineyard has something special that comes through year after year, something that makes it noticeably different from another one, then producing a vineyard-designated wine lets people know they can expect to find that “signature” in the wine. It should be about celebrating that vineyard’s unique expression. And that may or may not be to every wine drinker’s liking, but it is true to the location. On the other hand, a blend from multiple sites may produce an incredibly complex and layered wine that can only be labeled an “appellation” or “county” wine but is nonetheless a superlative example of a varietal.

MWS: How much control do you have over the cultivation of these grapes?
Eric|Kent: We are very fortunate to work with wonderful growers and fantastic vineyard managers with whom we’ve developed strong ties. That means we can have significant input as to how each block is farmed. Thankfully, it also means we can often rely on the knowledge each team has about the vineyard and gain from their experience as well.

MWS: Do you specify the clones of a particular varietal that you want a vineyard to grow?
Eric|Kent: If they are planting on our behalf, yes, absolutely. If they have already planted the vineyard (as is often the case), then we usually have the ability to choose from the various rootstock and clonal selection already there.

MWS: What do you want to have the different clones contribute to the finished product?
Eric|Kent: Much like each vineyard expresses a varietal in its own way, so do all the clones express themselves differently. Two different clones of the same varietal grown at the same vineyard may turn out dramatically different wines. Clones are selected from around the world for their various aroma and flavor profiles, their durability, their response to different weather patterns, their tannin and color levels and many other attributes. Each clone may have something unique to add to the wine and help create a more complete or complex final blend.

Another post will continue with Eric|Kent’s winemaking process as well as their marketing efforts.