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 ( 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 |]

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.

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