Wine with Stéphane Vivier
Stéphane and Dana Vivier started their Pinot Noir, and Rosé of Pinot Noir label, Vivier, in 2009 with credit cards, and 30 cases of wine. By 2011, they jumped to 150 cases. Their wines draw on small lots from vineyards in Sonoma County, each of which Stéphane works with hands on. Originally from Burgundy, Stéphane has also served as winemaker for HdV for 12 years. I fell in love with Vivier Pinots last summer, and was lucky enough to meet with Stéphane multiple times to discuss his winemaking philosophy, which he describes as “being a lazy winemaker.” Following is a transcript of his story from our conversations.
“My wine, Dana, and I married in 2009. I was already with HdV but my wife suggested I make Pinot Noir. She thought I was missing something. I grew up in Burgundy on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. She said to me, “to be complete, there is something else you need here. You need to make Pinot Noir.” I asked her, “where will the money come from.” She told me, “don’t worry. This is America.”
“I grew up with rosé of Pinot Noir in Burgundy. I would come home and sit outside with my parents. My mom would bring in things from the garden, and my dad wine from the cellar. We would talk about the day, and most everyday have a bottle of rosé.
“I grew up with wine of perfume. The nose is very important. But it is important too to focus on the texture of the wine, really important. I like restrained, elegant wine that changes in the glass. I want it to change in the glass, and go with food. I like it when people have trouble describing, or deconstructing a wine. It’s a sign that the wine is complex. Wine is about pairing with food, about pleasure and enjoyment. Alcohol is a form of enjoyment. Wine is for making and consuming.
“Being a lazy winemaker is all about being patient, letting the place talk, and being gentle with the grapes. Making it simple. I like a long [slow] press, and a long, slow fermentation, not too long but clean, and long enough so the perfume develops. The idea of balance in wine is an extensive subject. It is about what is best from the site, letting the wine speak the site. There is a lot of feeling in winemaking, a lot of following what you learn.
“I spent time listening to old men and how they compare wine to old vintages, wines that are 14 or 15 years old. It puts everything in perspective. That wine is about being patient, and building a strong foundation.
“Acidity is the foundation of every wine, of good wine, just like the pyramids that have a broad base and so they lasted. If you want wine you can drink early, perfume is important. If you also want wines that can age, acidity.
“I have been at HdV for more than 10 years. People asked me in the last decade what my next job would be. I want to grow with a vineyard, to start young and grow up with the vines. Wine is like life. You start young, and the older you get, the wiser as well. It is the same with vineyards. I have a young daughter, and I can see it’s exactly the same. Some things you have to train for to get in certain ways, to learn how to do. With growing a vineyard too, there is a lot of training, and you can train in a way that is best for the site, and also for types of wine. It is important to know vineyards very well.
Stéphane walking in the vineyard, Sonoma, July 2012
“It is difficult to be simple, [to make something that is simple, while also rich, and not boring. When you are able to make something simple,] it is a work of experience. Winemaking is a work of experience, vineyards, and age.
“Balance is very difficult to define. So is stability in wine. It is hard to say stability is an energy, but it is in a way.
“Wine gives you this ability to grow on the same roots, and not necessarily make the same wine, always trying to make better wine every year from whatever it is you have. That is why we are looking to start with young vineyards and to get older with the vineyards. I couldn’t do this in Burgundy. You can feel this in Australia. You can feel the history of vineyards there from the 1880s being established. You don’t get that sense of history in the United States. Most vineyards here are young.
“Making wine with the same vineyard again and again, it is like Monet painting churches. He went back and painted the same church at different points in the day for different points of light over two weeks. Each vintage is the light. You capture that moment in the vintage. But Monet was also commenting on tradition, asking, what can I contribute to it? His work in paint was a recognition of tradition and the importance of time both. Monet could go back and paint that spot any time, winter even. But the winemaker can only go back once in the same year. Still, there is always something to discover while always working with the same vines.
“I want to give myself to time. These are the constraints in which I operate, and make choices. Pre-deciding in advance what the wine, grapes, vine health should be sounds cool and innovative, but is actually deciding in advance what the wine should be. It is adapting the grapes to himself, instead of adapting himself to the grapes. But you can adapt yourself to the place, and then make the wine of what you are. This way, like Monet, you can have innovation from within tradition. That is why you want knowledge of established vineyards, or vineyard practices, and to grow in age with the vineyard. Terroir needs to be farmed, and needs to be respected. If you respect it, you are in that top 15%.”
Thank you to Stéphane and Dana Vivier.
Thank you to Dan Petroski.
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