The following is the second of a two-part series, guest posts written by Tyler Thomas, winemaker of Donelan Wines.
To read the first of Tyler’s guest posts: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/
tasting Donelan Wines, summer 2012
It is a privilege that Wakawaka Wine reviews has invited me to post as a guest. Elaine and I have spoken much of philosophy and approach to winemaking, partly because of the very important role I place on “wine worldview”: i.e. how we think about wine informs actions of the way we end up producing that wine. What follows is somewhat of a personal winemaking philosophical statement that I apply to our efforts at Donelan Family Wines where we make Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
While obtaining a B.S. and M.S. in Botany and Plant Molecular Biology, I was fascinated with plant physiology: how a static organism could adapt/interact so well to its environment. Winemaking is a wonderful professional avenue to enjoy the fruits of such interaction in a way that brings pleasure to so many people. In this industry my focus has almost exclusively been with producers who sought to maximize wine quality (and hence, your pleasure) by maximizing our understanding of any particular place and bringing forth that expression with deft work in the cellar. My desire is to produce wines of great and special character consistently and efficiently each vintage.
I’ve learned in my tenure as a winemaker that unique vineyards, great equipment, proper education, and excellent cellar techniques are only part of the story. First and foremost I believe that one must develop quality leadership, a quality team of people, and a quality winery culture to produce peerless wine vintage in and vintage out. My experience in winery upheaval and transition has emphasized the importance of leadership, philosophy, and vision combined with patient communication in order to develop substantive change. We must cultivate wine, but also people.
With an excellent team in place, making great wine vintage after vintage is a result of two places: the vineyard and the mind. While inimitable wine presumes inimitable fruit, the role played by the mental juggling of variables involved from vineyard to glass are less easily delineated. I’ve read once “don’t learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade.” Knowing how to clean a barrel doesn’t necessarily make me a better winemaker, but knowing the language of winemaking (another way of saying the science and art) and understanding how people handle different challenges might. Deciphering how another individual thinks about wine – their philosophical approach to making a wine, to balance, to quality; understanding these elements from one person or culture can be integrated into handling the fruit from your own region, climate, and vineyards.
This is exactly what I have taken away from each opportunity in the industry. Experiences in the Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma, Napa, New Zealand, and across Europe were paramount to developing my own perspective on wine production. These experiences evolved my mental approach to wine production. Concepts like balance, importance of extraction, emphasis on mouth feel over flavor, the tool of patience, and perhaps most importantly: how wine was esteemed in each culture.
I will always remember having a candid discussion about acid and bubbles with a winemaker in Champagne when a light bulb went off about the greater role of acid in texture and wine let alone great Champagne. That informed my time as an Assistant Winemaker with HdV Wines in Napa and altered the angle of my view of California wines ever since. Who knew the halls of a corporate cafeteria in France could be so informative for a boutique winemaker!
Across cultures the purpose of wine is pleasure. My goal is to make wines that please by their compelling nature. That is you find yourself both hedonistically and intellectually compelled to go back to the wine over and over again. It calls to you, and you answer. Many wines can draw your first glance, but can they sustain your desire?
I find that both cuvees and single vineyard wines can achieve this goal. The hope of any cuvee is to utilize all the parts, all the colors, to paint a picture or present an offering that is greater than any of the individual parts. Vineyard designated wines ought to stand alone as complete wines (complexity, depth, length, structure) but generally offer a certain unique something that is sine qua non. They ought to have a unique, intriguing aroma profile as a result of their place, but also a balanced texture and complexity to deliver both pleasure and distinction.
I believe that the greatest wines (cuvees or single vineyards) are not made but discovered. While many say that great wine starts in the vineyard (and it does), my goal is also to discover and distill what truly makes an impact to the governing components of wine and only do those things (okay, that’s also because I’m a little lazy and don’t want to create extra work for myself!). For example, by segmenting vines as a result of natural variation within even the smallest of sites we can capture only the best of the best in a vineyard. This assists in learning more about small sections of vineyards, and about essential and nonessential parts of the production that influence how a wine tastes from that site.
Perhaps this is disappointing. Perhaps you would prefer a recipe or some other secret to our vineyard and winemaking approach. Well, maybe I make it out to be simpler than it is, but as my old mentor used to say: “don’t forget, it’s just wine.” We look for good people, create good culture, make wines we enjoy, and hope you will esteem them.
I’ll sum it up this way. Just the other day I was telling Joe Donelan that I found a vineyard that would make the best Mourvedre in the state. We could make one acre, 4 barrels, and drink it all ourselves! Wouldn’t that be great! People, passion, pleasure.
The foundation to achieving this is laid on the quality and knowledge of the team corralled. Establishing a quality vision and culture, and uncompromisingly executing the details will in the end produce the most satisfying of all the beverages: transcendent wine.
Thank you to Tyler Thomas for his work writing these posts to share here. I am grateful for the opportunity to share his ideas, as conversations with him have consistently proved insightful and engaging. I also admire the quality of his wines.
To read more from Tyler, you can follow the Donelan Wines blog here: http://www.donelanwines.com/blog/