What Success Looks Like…

I’m heading to Florida early in the morning. Two flights, 3000 miles, all day. I’m not at home with my wife and dogs (my favorite place) nor at the winery (the next best), and I’m hoping that what I’ll do over the next couple of days will yield positive results. And as I’m listening to Bob Seger’s Against the Wind I’m feeling just a little melancholy. So many IMG_0901trips like this in the past and so little ability to determine if the results have led me anywhere other than away.

Certainly not just the fact I’m 50 now, or a first time grandfather, but I’m acutely aware of time passing and all too aware also of the fragility of life – the lives of loved ones and of companies. Success is taking on a different meaning for me now. While it can never, nor should be, uncoupled completely from the inevitability of commerce, it is the pure, more fundamental relationships, that drive me now.

Being a small brand with world-class aspirations (and wanting to be holistically complete) my idea of success for Lineage | Livermore Valley is being circumscribed evermore completely by relationships. My idea of the proper relationship for winemaker and the IMG_0938vineyard and the craft has changed dramatically. No more am I trying to twist and mold and lengthen and compress. Now, I’m in a symbiotic relationship that is less about control and “making” than it is about revelation. Each element works in concert with the others and the process of sharing energy and desire with all my “partners” can lead to moments of perfection, or a state of perfect now-ness.

I am happy that I’ve realized this now so that I can spend the rest of my career unlayering complication in myself and in my wines in order to approach true clarity. Each little stage of this process, a moment of seeing my work for what it is and what it means, is a successful one.

Success, too, looks like my Lineage Collectors and my guests at the winery coming away from their experience with a deeper sense of the magic of wine and of the place that wine holds in a well-wined life. Without an avid and enthusiastic receiver of experience, the IMG_0946most magical moments echo soundless in the vast nothingness of today’s techno-reverb. It is my hope that this “sloughing-off” we are trying to accomplish will invite one to contemplate a more authentic and atavistic experience. When this happens – even if only rarely – that will be a deep and good thing.

The final piece of my evolving vision of success is the caretaking of our land. There are a multitude of sources available to describe how one can farm organically or biodynamically, and they have profoundly affected my thinking about what we are doing now and where we ought go. The simplest way for me to describe this relationship to the vineyard is embodied in a phrase you see if you’ve ever hiked in the White Mountains.”Pack in. Pack out.” Simple. Don’t leave footprints. Leave things the way you found them if they’re right. Make them right if they’re not.  It is crucial – as with every other relationship – to work to reverberate at the same frequency so that outputs naturally come from what has been put into them.

Perfection doesn’t mean a lack of flaws, and it comes about by doing just those true things that need to be done. The well-lived life is spent discovering what those true things are.

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What Does It Mean to Have a Wine Culture?

Jon Bonné, former San Francisco Chronicle wine writer, was the Keynote Speaker at the In Pursuit of Balance tasting held in San Francisco a week or so ago and which I wrote about here. Bonné recently wrote a book in which he segregated winemakers here into the “old” (read, those who are doing it all wrong) and “new” camps.

Bonné does not love California, neither the predominant wine “style” (if such a thing actually exists) nor the wine scene in his erstwhile home town. If one wanted to be sensitive, much of what he spoke about were the viticultural and enological failings of CA when implicitly compared to Old World regions that he obviously prizes (I look at Bonné as I would anybody else trying to sell something. He’s attempting to build his brand, and whether he actually believes what he writes or not, it may be “good business” to move against what he perceives to be the overarching critical flow of the moment). Though he didn’t flesh the point out well, Bonné noted that great wine culture was about intent and that great wine was, among other things, culturally significant.  This argument is somewhat self-referential and circular, but I think I understand what he means.

Great wine is made with a very specific and thoughtful philosophy and rationale. The winemaker shepherds and escorts grapes through the fermentation process and helps the fruit to achieve its inherent best so that it reflects a time and a place and that philosophy. Though I may take issue with Bonné’s attention-seeking style, his lack of deep knowledge about California wine history, and his very cursory tasting of the bounty of CA wine, this subject is at the heart of winemaking and profoundly resonates with me. Much more waits to be written about it.


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I believe strongly in listening to and telling stories. Storytelling is how we share (family history), how we teach (family craft), and how we connect emotionally.

There are a lot of ways to tell stories, and I will be trying many of them out. Just as I amfire stories never quite sure how one of my wines will be received, I do not know whether a picture or a recording or a video will be the thing that connects me to another wine lover.

Time flees, and I am honored by any little bit you care to share. Here are some links:

To listen. To watch. To read. To view. To note. To tweet.

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Balance in Wine: It Means Less (and More) Than You Think

Even before the advent of marketing groups like IPOB, “balance” was a word that was used nearly omnipresently by wineries to describe their wines. Because of this, balance had as many definitions as it had folks employing it. For each “overwrought trophy^” that the owner thought was balanced, there is now a “light and watery” example that is thought to be balanced as well.

Though the IPOB manifesto describes a wine to be in balance IPOB logo

when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed….

the shorthand for this elusive quality has come down to alcohol content. Supposedly, wines that are greater than 14% alcohol are inherently unbalanced while those that do not cross that graceless meridian maintain their magical symmetry. As with any shorthand, much of the nuance and drama are lost in the reduction.

I had the opportunity to participate in two seminars and taste Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the 33 member wineries of IPOB in San Francisco yesterday. I learned much from the speakers – winemakers from Santa Barbara County and the North Coast – and learned even more from the many stunning wines available to taste.

Within a relatively narrow range, there are many ways to make great wine. While those wines are generally products of doing less rather than doing more, it is in the details of how fruit is farmed and the winemaking techniques used that these offerings reach their stylistic and qualitative peaks.

Some producers age their Chardonnay on the lees but don’t stir as in the case of the wines from Failla. Others stir the lees, presumably to bring out a touch more palate richness and complexity of flavor as in the wines from Liquid Farm. Others inoculate their fermentations while the wines from Matthiasson and Littorai are fermented with native yeasts. Some ferment in stainless steel, some in concrete, some in barrel – small and large.

I have a specific vision in mind for each wine I make, and I do only those things that I need to do to try to bring that vision to bear in nose and mouth and mind. And while the techniques I use (and of equal importance, the sources from which I acquire fruit) may differ from other winemakers, it is the balance of effort to vision that separates the great from the good.

^Quotation from the Keynote Address presented by erstwhile SF Chronicle writer, Jon Bonne. 

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Oh, Cabernet Franc!

  • Cabernet Franc is one of the classic Bordeaux varieties where it makes up significant percentages of the best wines and on the Left Bank and is the majority in the finest wines of the Right.
  • It is the 17th most widely planted red grape variety in the world;
  • The 14th biggest in terms of tons crushed in California in 2014;
  • The parent to Cabernet Sauvignon (with Sauvignon Blanc) and Merlot (with Madeleine
    cabernet franc grapes

    Cabernet Franc

    Noire des Charentes) and Carmenere (with Gros Cabernet);

  • And it accounted for nearly $27 million worth of grapes sold in California in 2014.

Using these factoids to describe Cabernet Franc is -as someone said- like trying to reason your way to an orgasm. Cabernet Sauvignon is about structure and prestige; Pinot Noir about the intellect and matching outcome to a specific patch of dirt; Cabernet Franc, in its purest form, is all about sex.

From the silkiness of its texture, to the exoticism of its aromas; from the raciness of its acidity to its emotion-prodding “it-ness,” Cabernet Franc is terrifyingly and wonderfully naughty.

As with all great wines, Cabernet Franc is a product of where it is grown. The classic models – Bordeaux and the Loire – produce radically different wines, and not just because one is a blend and the other pure. Cabernet Franc – again, at its qualitative peak – has a relatively narrow range of temperature in which it has the capacity to produce a pure (again, that word!) expression of the varietal.

The grape seems to flourish in cooler temperatures, not Pinot cold, but certainly not

Cab Franc - Loire Valley appellations

Cab Franc – Loire Valley appellations

Zinfandel hot. My vision of the making of the wine is the challenge of walking just on the right side of the pyrazine tracks. Unripe, and CF becomes a weedy, thin, acidic shell. Over-ripe, it lolls around lazily on your tongue, bereft of its floral perfume, the exotic notes of a next-day-fire on the beach, and the tantalizing and frankly, coquettish, arrow of acid that ties the best examples together. And like Sauvignon Blanc, its vinous bedmate, Cabernet Franc takes to new oak like a cat to water. All that toasty caramel, tobacco, and coffee obscure the earthy, fruity, sometimes funky, always mystifying eau de CF. I want to make sure that the fruit in our Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard hangs just long enough to synthesize green notes but not so long that it loses the varietally-correct herbal notes that help give it its absolute individuality.

I made my first vintage of Cabernet Franc in 2005, but came to be obsessed with the grape’s potential in 2007 with the first vintage of Lineage | Livermore Valley. In addition to the 100% versions I make for my Steven Kent Winery brand, CF is an indispensable part of the blend of my flagship brand. A natural blending partner in Bordeaux, in my wine Cabernet Franc is the id…(hopefully) relentlessly and lubriciously driving flavors and aroma and structure forward to a very long conclusion.

The divinity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir have been acknowledged already. The “next big red” sobriquet has been variously used on Syrah and Sangiovese in California. But there is reason to believe that it is Cabernet Franc that might be the next great red hope. Should this happen, there will be a great many mind-blowing wines out there to fall head over heels in love with. I can’t hardly wait!

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Wine is Only as Simple as You Want it to Be…or The Wonderful Complication of Tasting

I had the occasion recently to talk to my tasting room team about evaluating the bottles that we pour for our guests at the Winery. We tasted three or four bottles of each of the different vintages that we had opened and noticed that there were subtle variations from redox diagrambottle to bottle.

What started as a conversation about quality control soon morphed into talking about the role of oxygen in wine, reduction/oxidation, corks, the varying oxygen transmission rates in different closures, and how do we efficiently reconcile this complication so our guests get the best tasting experience possible.

Underlying this “inside baseball” detail, though, is an inescapable AND wonderful truth mock blendsabout wine and wine tasting: its only as simple as you want it to be. While I have observed in restaurants and tasting rooms that most drinkers prefer less detailed information to more, and the simple pleasure of enjoying a nice glass of wine shouldn’t be mocked, those who are passionate about great wines have a nearly unequaled subject upon which – in those relatively few vinous gems –  to lavish their enthusiasm.

I would contend, that by its very nature as a living substance, wine must be complicated. And like people and great works of literature, the more one dives into it, the more our wonder and awe at its bottomlessness grows.

shakespeareIn his book The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum refers to the bottomless quality of the playwright’s work in its ability to give the passionate reader an unending set of discoveries each time a play is read. This sense of depth, this sense of vastness as personified by the infinitely capacious consciousness of Hamlet (and his creator) circumscribes all of the horrors and miracles of creation while also leaving one subject to the “unbearable burden of infinitude.”

If not so freighted as Hamlet, a great bottle of wine still gives irreducibly of its secrets. From terroir to farming to philosophy to the effects of age to the associations it conjures, we can never truly get our minds completely around the beauty and enormity of it. And that’s just the first sip. I want more people to drink wine, to experience the simple pleasures of the family meal made better with a bottle well-sipped. At the same time, not only do I think it is appropriate to celebrate the complexity of great wine (certainly, what we aspire to with Lineage | Livermore Valley), I think we do these rare beauties (and our capacity to feel and contemplate so much) a disservice to deny our enthrallment to them.



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The Lineage | Livermore Valley Blend: Revealing Inherent Perfection

Putting together a world-class wine blend is about shaving off the edges of failure, until the harmonious roundness of success is all that is left.

I have been making wine for nearly 20 years now, and putting blends together for almost exactly the same amount of time. Though a blended wine like Lineage | Livermore Valley can be exceedingly complicated, there is nothing particularly complicated about the term.Lineage_Label2

If one starts with Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, in a variety of different barrels, the act of putting a grouping of those barrels together (while discarding others) is, by definition, blending a wine. Each barrel has a role in the play; each contributes something individual that exalts the whole. It may be a flavor contribution or the adding of texture or length, but each barrel sacrifices its individuality to the greater good. In some cases (due to the need for a specific volume) the act of blending can be one of “good-enoughs.” In that example, there isn’t a barrel that is so disparate that it too greatly affects the final wine in an adverse way. This is the easier blend.

mock blends

A series of mock blends.

The harder blend is one of “not-good-enoughs.” These blends, like Lineage | Livermore Valley, comprise only the best barrels – those barrels that are irreducibly and profoundly great. The joy of making Lineage is in taking only the barrels that express the purest potential of each individual variety AND then making sure that each expression of individuality contributes an even greater level of purity when it is part of something larger. The allusion in the beginning of this post refers to the act of making blend after blend after blend that we realize is just not commensurate to the final wine’s potential. There were 28 failures in 2013, 28 sandings of rough edges, 28 not-good-enoughs before my sense of the best wine was realized.

For the Lineage Wine Company there is only one wine each year.  The final wine is meant

All that's left of a failed blend.

All that’s left of a failed blend.

to be a triumph, organoleptically and emotionally. Not emotional in the sense that each of the wines is like one of my children, but emotional in the sense that each wine has a natural and inherent potential to express the perfection of the growing year; the perfection of sunlight, of rain, of tannin and acid and sugar; the perfection of vision.  And it is my job to discard all of the extraneous, all the “not-good-enough,” keeping only the most complex, most alive, most beautiful, most inherently perfect elements. Being human, perfection is not to be attained. However, the desire for it and the working toward it never ceases.

In the end, we winemakers will be cursed always by the very quality that makes wine the bottomlessly interesting and heartbreaking thing that it is: all of its moments of perfection and all that we have done to express it are transitory, mutable, and in the process, already, of being transported to the past. Any measure of greatness that may have achieved will have been – by the time the glass is empty – sacrificed to implacable, uncaring Time.

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