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winemaking

Wine with Stéphane Vivier

Stephane 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.

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“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.

Stephane walking in one of his sections of Sonoma vineyards

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%.”

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Thank you to Stéphane and Dana Vivier.

Thank you to Dan Petroski.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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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/

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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.

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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.

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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/