Continuing the Conversation with Tyler Thomas
Tyler Thomas, Jan 2014, standing in Dierberg Sta Rita Hills
Tyler Thomas, winemaker at Dierberg and Star Lane in Santa Barbara County, brings a strong foundation in plant physiology to all his decisions as winemaker. His background includes work in Botany with him doing what was essentially an extended Masters in the field, before then going to earn another Masters in Viticulture and Oenology. In moving into his work at Dierberg and Star Lane he has chosen to spend as much time as possible observing the vineyards themselves, and also to increase small lot vinifications from the sites. Both choices, for him, are a matter of getting to know the site more intimately.
Last week I posted a portion of a conversation I had with Tyler Thomas during my recent visit to Santa Barbara County. That section of conversation focused on the controversy around ripeness in relation to site expression, and the idea of how a winemaker can get to know a particular site. These are ideas I’ve been lucky enough to speak with Tyler about on multiple occasions. In the post last week, I chose to offer quotations from Tyler’s side of the conversation, rather than offer my interpretation of his ideas.
Gratefully, the comments on the post have continued the discussion even further, giving interesting consideration of the problems with pursuing a sense of terroir in the New World, as well as what it means to work with and get to know a site to then show in its wine. If you haven’t looked back at those comments, check them out on the original post here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/20/capturing-variability-as-capturing-opportunity-a-day-with-tyler-thomas-star-lane-dierberg/
Because of how the conversation has continued in the comments, and also my own experience in having these extended discussions with Tyler, I am choosing to post more from our conversation during my recent trip to Santa Barbara County. The following excerpts show more of Tyler’s views on the relevance of plant physiology, and how he thinks about getting to know a site.
Tyler Thomas, Jan 2014, standing in Dierberg Sta Rita Hills
We’re driving to Dierberg Drum Canyon Vineyard in Sta Rita Hills. I’m asking Tyler about a conversation we’ve had before — how we can bring together scientific views of winemaking with the more transcendental views of winemaking. He responds, “When you have the opportunity to make good wine, having the opportunity doesn’t mean you will. It’s this idea we’ve talked about before that the person that can be most successful at winemaking is the one that can have a foot in both worlds, who can reach towards the ethereal, and yet also be tethered by a deep understanding of technique.”
I ask Tyler about how he is bringing his knowledge from previous winemaking experience forward into this newer position at Dierberg and Star Lane. “As a winemaker stepping into a new situation, I can lean on my understanding of how particular vineyards grow, and my understanding of the architecture of wine. In wine building, if you will, I can make decisions on what I think the mouthfeel should be like based on the standard varietal characteristics, and also my assumptions of what a site will be like. You can take over a place, and not have made any of the decisions about what varieties are there, and yet still make beautiful quality wine.
“In winemaking, it’s like wanting to have a vision for the wine, while also expressing the site. It’s like having a vision for your children doesn’t mean you box them in. You are trying to understand who they are, and help them be the best person they can be. In winemaking, you draw on your technical training, and that provides a baseline for being creative. Like being a painter, artists didn’t just do Cubism because they didn’t know what they were doing. They were pushing the boundaries of their training.
“I definitely leaned on my understanding of how a grape vine grows in moving here. You just go back to the basics. All of the training helps me make presumptions about what a wine is and how it tastes. It doesn’t mean you’re always right, but it give you a base line. Like, fermentation temperature, for example, it has a big impact on how a wine is going to taste. If I can get that right it simplifies the other variables.”
looking over the top through Pinot vines at Dierberg Drum Canyon
We arrive at the Dierberg vineyard in the Drum Canyon portion of Sta Rita Hills. Drum Canyon branches off the Highway 246 stretch of the appellation, wrapping North in a notch pulled back from the highway. The vineyard climbs a slope side growing from the rolling flats at the bottom, all the way to the crest of the hill. Tyler and I drive to the top, stopping in a couple places along the way, and he describes to me his walking the vineyard to try and identify naturally differing sections within it in order to articulate appropriate vineyard blocks. He believes really knowing the vineyard will take years but he’s been able to recognize some elements already. The top of the slope (shown in the image above) is basically pure sand. The bottom flats are sandy loam. The mid-slope is mixed. The further up the slope, the more the vines are exposed to wind.
Tyler begins to describe how he approaches thinking through the Dierberg Drum Canyon property. “Knowing how to separate out the impact of the wind here versus that of the sand is difficult. It’s incredibly windy here to the point that if there is not a wind screen on every fifth row the shoots won’t grow more than a foot.
“I love plant physiology. Part of what I love about wine is that we’re tasting the result of a plant interacting with its environment. A plant can’t just run inside when it gets cold.
“We can think of wind as a form of touch. The shoots being so short are a result of wind impacting the plant’s physiology. So, if we can accept that, it isn’t a stretch to say it impacts the berry physiology too. How it might impact the fruit flavor is much harder but we do know that flavors are impacted by stress, so does the wind impact the flavor?
“Still, I don’t worry about the flavor so much as I tend to focus on how these factors impact vigor and how that connects to quality. In winemaking, my focus is not on flavor as much as on the architecture of the wine. When it comes to architecture and vine physiology, the journey the berry takes is more important than where the berry ends up.
“If you understand the science, basic plant physiology, you have a lot to work with. We’ve known this stuff — that we can manipulate vines for varying results — since the 1980s. In the vineyard you can simply change the ratio of leaf to grape, of source to sink. The leaf provides nutrients the leaf uses. I don’t care about tons per acre. What is the ton per vine that the plant can support? This is our whole idea of balance. Balanced pruning equals balanced vines. Balanced vineyards equal balanced wine. The more in tune with plant physiology you are, the more readily you can reinterpret your experiences with the vine.”
To read the previous post on Tyler: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/20/capturing-variability-as-capturing-opportunity-a-day-with-tyler-thomas-star-lane-dierberg/
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 to Tyler Thomas.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com