The food has not yet arrived for dinner and Sonja Magdevski, winemaker of Casa Dumetz, has begun interviewing me, though we’ve met for us to talk about her wine. Her work history includes a Masters in Journalism, I discover, and she writes for Malibu Magazine, as well as her own site Malibu Grange. The questions she wants to ask center around the career change I’ve made from teaching and academic philosophy to writing about wine. It leads us through intensive conversation on ideas of faith, commitment, passion, and fear. We both turned from advanced training in one discipline to pursue something different, and it gives us a way to mutually interview each other, both of us getting to talk and listen.
When we meet again two weeks later I discover an interesting correlation in Magdevski’s fascination with journalism and her investment in wine. Both include, for her, a sense of responsibility in freedom.
She explains to me the connection by starting first to describe her work as a writer. “It’s always been fascinating to me, journalism. People spend time with me for an interview, like we are doing now, you and me. After, I get to take all this information, and write anything I want with it. There is a real trust there. I want to show in what I write that I understood and absorbed the conversation. I love the freedom in that but I always ask, what is my responsibility? Who am I responsible to?” Magdevski describes her experience with journalistic interviews like she is being given a gift. She takes an awareness to her work that people are sharing something valuable. The responsibility and freedom both show themselves in her asking what she will do to best recognize that.
Wine parallels journalism, for Magdevski, through a similar process of honoring what she has received and asking herself what she will do with it. “All these hands have touched these grapes in the progress [from vineyard to wine], but in the end the decision [of how to make the wine] is made by one.” In this way, the relationship Magdevski sees between so many layers of human help–nurseries that provide cuttings, vineyard workers that plant and tend vines then harvest the fruit, other winemakers that offer advice and insight, people that later sell and purchase the wine–fuels a passion for her work. Listening to her speak about the process makes clear too that Magdevski has a deep appreciation for what it means to be human, and the value of human life. “In wine I am being given all this time. The grapes, they are a gift of time, and a product, and an experience. People take the time to grow fruit, listen to what I want, and then I get to do whatever I want with that.” She continues, again acknowledging the responsibility of it. “That freedom is exciting, and it is also sort of a test of your character. How are you going to impose yourself or not? The freedom of that is fascinating to me.”
The Wines of Casa Dumetz
In considering how these ideas enter vinification, Magdevski again reflects on the idea of freedom. “I love the freedom of being able to take the wine and make whatever I want, and say, here I am. This is who I am.” She continues, “being able to say, this is what I did. I am open to you now, for better or worse.” What she loves most is letting the fruit character speak through the wine. Still, she gets excited about experimentation in the winery as a way of learning how the different sites show. When we meet the second time it is to barrel taste through her current vintage.
Putting her winemaking in context she tells me, “Viognier is why I started making wine. Grenache is why I keep making it.” We taste through multiple lots of Viognier, Gewurtztraminer, Roussanne, and Syrah. In the midst of the experience, she talks me through five different barrels of Grenache varying by clone and vineyard site. Her original Grenache comes from the Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, a steep sloped site banded with limestone, but she wants to work with grapes from other locations as well. Her goal is both to see if she might find something else she likes as much, but also to consider more closely what it is she loves from Tierra Alta fruit. In learning about these differences in wine, she realizes she is also learning about herself. She discovers not only what her own preferences are, but also how she wants to express herself, and what she will or won’t do about how others may receive her and her work.
Magdevski describes Grenache’s character as she sees it. “I really love Grenache,” she tells me. “It has a peasant nature. I love the brightness of the fruit, yet it is super complex, and it can be really elegant. I think of Pinot Noir, and Cabernet as elegant wines, and I like that. But that isn’t why I drink Grenache. I am looking for more complexity and beauty of fruit than elegance.”
Talking through each lot with Magdevski I begin to zero in on the peasant nature she describes. The barrel she likes best right now offers a plush convergence of round fruit integrated with spice and stemy hints. The wine fills while floats in the mouth and tasting it I see pink. It’s texture is more rustic, less candied, and less dense than the other lots.
That plush lift characterizes the wines of her 2011 portfolio too. They are round in the mouth with a core of powder touched fruit. Both the Grenache and Syrah rush with complexity and lightness with an subtle edge of wild funk, while the whites–Viognier and Gewurtztraminer–drink with the warm feel of Grandma’s white tile and wood kitchen–clean, comforting, and familiar. The Gewurtztraminer she started as a tribute to her Grandmother and her family in Macedonia, where the grape is traditional.
With her 2012s, she is playing with not only differing clones and vineyard sites, but also varying techniques. Her whites use a blend of skin contact and straight to press juice that offers dimensionality and a multi-note flavoral echo in the mouth. She will also be bottling both a Syrah and a Syrah rosé again, alongside her beloved Grenache.
In considering what she loves about winemaking, Magdevski tells me it is the dance of going deep into “geeky winemaking talk” about science, the process, the fruit, and the numbers–again a recognition of sharing and learning–while striving to make “a bottle of wine that is approachable and not pretentious.” She reflects again, “I never want to take any of this for granted. This is a gift.” She continues. “The goal is to share this with as many people as possible.”
Thank you to Sonja Magdevski for sharing with me, and for pushing me too to reflect in conversation. Thank you for taking time to talk with me.
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