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.

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