A Day with Tyler Thomas, Winemaker Star Lane + Dierberg
Tyler Thomas, January 2014
Winemaker Tyler Thomas stepped into leadership of the wine program at Star Lane and Dierberg in Santa Barbara County during Summer 2013. Prior to his new position he headed winemaking at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, after having assisted winemaker Stéphane Vivier at HdV in Napa.
During his tenure at Donelan, Thomas and I were able to taste and interview on multiple occasions. I have been impressed by his thoughtfulness as a winemaker, and his attention to vine physiology as the root of his winemaking. His background in botany under girds his thinking. One of my interests, then, in visiting Santa Barbara County was in returning to Star Lane to see it under Thomas’s leadership, and to speak with Thomas about his work in the new-to-him vineyards and winery.
After tasting extensively through the cellar with Thomas and assistant winemaker, Jeff Connick, I am excited to keep following their development. Thomas spoke gratefully about his work with Connick. As Thomas explained, Connick’s knowledge of and attention to the wine program at Dierberg and Star Lane significantly advanced the process of getting to know the unique expression of the vineyards for Thomas as the new winemaker.
Thomas and I were also able to taste some older vintages of wines from the Dierberg and Star Lane vineyards. While the winemaking style was different from that expressed through the barrel tasting with Thomas and Connick, a distinctiveness and age-ability showed through. Thomas credits that sense of site expression with age worthiness as part of what convinced him there was something well-worth investing his time in at the Dierberg and Star Lane properties.
After touring the Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, and Star Lane Vineyard sites, we spent several hours in the cellar tasting through wines from both locations, as well as the Dierberg Santa Maria vineyard. Thomas and I spoke extensively about how he’s approaching his new position. Following is an excerpt from our conversation considering how Thomas thinks about and explores ideas of site expression in the context of various varieties, and also the controversial topic of ripeness levels.
near the top of the mid-slope of Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, with Tyler Thomas discussing block expression, January 2014
“Part of our focus is on capturing opportunity by capturing variability. For example, how do we make a Cabernet Franc that is representative of Cabernet Franc of Star Lane, and then find a way to work with that. We work a little harder to capture variability in the vineyard so that we can add a little more nuance and complexity to the wine.” Thomas and Connick vinify small vineyard sections separately as a way of getting to know particular site expression. “We want to make Cabernet Franc as Cab Franc, rather than as the Cabernet Sauvignon version of Cab Franc so that we can see what Cab Franc from here is all about, while also recognizing it might later add to the complexity of our Cab Sauvignon. I don’t mind embracing ripe, rich flavors, but I don’t believe in doing it artificially by picking late and then adding water back.”
We taste through a wide range of Cabernet and Cab Franc from a range of picking times, and vineyard sections and then begin talking about what the unique character of Cabernet at Star Lane is about. “There are some ultra early picks on Cab from here that still don’t show pyrazines [green pepper notes], so I think the conversation, at least in this area, around Cab expression is on texture and mouthfeel rather than on pyrazine level.”
Thomas explains that we are tasting through the range of barrel samples around the cellar to show off the diversity of Star Lane that he is excited about. “This is all to show off the diversity of Star Lane. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a conversation you and I had before [referencing a conversation Thomas and I had previously about asking yourself what you want to love in your life through how you choose to spend your time].
“I’ve been thinking about how we can ask, what do you want to love in wine? There is a question of how elements play out in a wine, rather than if wines taste of terroir or not. There is a lot of conversation around how a wine best expresses terroir. The truth is, riper wines can still show terroir or site expression. Of course Chardonnay raisins and Cabernet raisins still taste like raisins so one must admit there is a limit. Conversely, underripe grapes all taste like green apples so you can pick too far that way too.
“I don’t know if I can elaborate on it more than that. Sometimes you’re standing in a site and you feel like trying something but you don’t know if it’s just because you think you can or if there is something about the site that asks you to. But other times you can taste something there in the wine that you can’t explain, but at the same time can’t deny.
“In thinking about overly ripe wine, just because something is veiled doesn’t mean you can’t know what it is. On a good site, a riper style winemaker can still show site expression, the winemaking won’t completely obscure the site, even if it veils it some. Sometimes things are more veiled in a wine than others. Sometimes our role as winemaker ends up being unveiling the terroir.
“To put it another way, if everyone was picking at the same level of ripeness shouldn’t site be the difference that shows? Ripeness doesn’t necessarily obscure site, it just changes our access to it. In the end, it becomes a matter of what we value, of what we want to love in wine.”
To read guest posts from Tyler Thomas that consider his winemaking philosophy, and views of wine further:
A Winemaking Philosophy: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/29/a-winemaking-philosophy-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/
The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: 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/
Thank you most especially to Tyler Thomas.
Thank you to Jeff Connick. Thank you to Sao Anash.
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