Home California Plant Physiology, Wine, and Site Expression: Continuing the Conversation w Tyler Thomas

Plant Physiology, Wine, and Site Expression: Continuing the Conversation w Tyler Thomas


Continuing the Conversation with Tyler Thomas

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

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.”

Dierberg Drum Canyon

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


  1. Elaine, thanks again for continuing the dialogue. I appreciate the platform and how it helps me self-examine my own positions as people comment. I did want to make something clearer here in the comments. It is important for people to understand my comments late in the post regarding flavor. It is not that I don’t care about flavor at all; for certainly specific flavors are central to what we experience and enjoy in wine. Allow me to emphasize the preceding paragraphs where you frame that comment. I’ll just add that in trying to understand a new site and its terroir one must not concern themselves too much with what specific characters are going to be there. With less familiarity it is harder to know how one can shift flavor tendencies and this is why it is important to lean on the basics and focus on wine architecture. You do so in the hopes that the flavors will take care of themselves as they usually do. So in some sense I certainly care about them, but not in a sense that I can do much about them.

    Parenthetically I had a wine club member ask me if I was going to change the coffee flavor that he loved in our Merlot. I said if it was coming from oak (not likely but possible) then he might see it fade to the background because I planned to use less new oak but if it was inherent to Star Lane Merlot then it would still be a player in the wine because there would be nothing I could necessarily do about it except in how certain choices either enhance or diminish how much shows in the wine.

    So focusing our mental energy and time on specific flavors in a new situation takes a back seat.

    With all that said, I did look for benchmarks of flavor not only in our own wines but also in others. I leaned on people’s experience in a region so I could understand the tendency of the flavor profile such that I might have better information about how they (the flavors) may fit into a particular architecture or stylistic choice like responding to stem inclusion. Greg Brewer was a big help here because he understood what I was trying to understand. Knowing the flavor tendencies does give one better info on how you can lean the flavor in one direction or another without compromising what the vineyard’s expression might be. But as I said before, I think it still less important to determine whether I’ll have cherry or raspberry, cedar or pepper, and rather focus on structure, concentration, and balance.

    Cheerfully – tyler

  2. Tyler – the idea of focusing on the architecture rather than the “flavor” or aroma resonates very deeply with me. For example, I use more new wood to raise our Pinots than I do for our Rhones, because the Pinot benefits from the tannins, and especially the barrel sugars in building the structure of the mid-palate. The Pinots seem capable of subsuming the aromas from the new wood into the whole of the aromatic profile, while in the Rhones – particularly the Syrah – new oak aromas seem much more apparent to me, to the point of dominating the nose. But I have found this is not true of all Syrah I have worked with. Syrah from some vineyards appears to integrate the oak aromas acceptably, but the wine already has so much structure and mid-palate body that the contribution from the new wood is unnecessary. In fact, the new wood contribution could disrupt the balance of the wine for me. I am in complete agreement that the technique we bring to the making part should focus on focus on structure, concentration, and balance rather than forcing the grapes to fit some formulaic all-inclusive expectation of what a variety should taste like. I believe that’s the approach that gives the interaction of site and physiology to be unmasked.

    • John, it appears we are in complete agreement here, as I know we have been for years. I could sum up your paragraph with a phrase we’ve used before: avoid dogma. The technical components by which measure wine: pH, alcohol, TA, % oak, type of oak, maceration time, mg/L tannin, etc. are paradoxically irrelevant and relevant at the same time. Within a site they provide reference for how we know wine production functions and yet any particular set of numbers is relatively (important to note this word) meaningless. In spite of how some people want to educate consumers, if I tell them my wine has a pH of ‘x’ and an alcohol of ‘y’ they really know nothing of how it tastes. In this conversation I’ve often used stem inclusion in my examples but maybe alcohol would be better. I’ve produced wines from 11.8% to 15.5%…all in the same vintage. The sites dictated it to me. But if we pursue site expression and wonder what role technique has in flavor profiles, we can unveil and grade the impact a particular technique/component component on shifting typicity of a site. Does 13.7% really shift things compared to 14.3%? Not really. 12.5% to 14.3%? More so. The impact of alcohol (and everything it is connected to) can be graded as having impact but perhaps relatively more/less impact than something else.

      This indeed is why terroir is so important. It illuminates the fact that technique is only a tool for harnessing, not defining wine…or at least it should be. Pursuing expression of place ought to level the playing field and help us enjoy the process of wine making even more. Perhaps I can adopt a quote from CS Lewis and apply it to terroir: “I believe in [terroir] as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

  3. Thanks so much to both of you for continuing the discussion here. I am really enjoying it. Since my experience is from outside the winemaking side, just based in thorough going tasting and listening, I feel under prepared to add anything in this particular part of the discussion except to say what you’re both describing seems consistent to me, and right.

    Tyler, I’m really looking forward to you reading my Varner article (coming out sometime this month) because I think it speaks to a number of the points you and John bring up here (John, I’d love for you to read it to. I just mention it to Tyler because we have spoken of it before). One of the things Bob and I talked about is the luxury that spending ample time on your site gives you — when you know your site in an intimate daily way, you can pick based on the readiness of the fruit itself — the texture, the feel (with the flavor expression showing too but without it being primary to the decision) — and check the chemistry AFTER harvest. As we hinted at in the comments on the previous post — chemistry seems more fundamentally to drive the picking decisions when you don’t know the site as well, or don’t have confidence in your knowledge of the site. One of the challenges Bob mentioned that seems valuable to mention here too is the simple point that with vintage variation the relationship BETWEEN the brix to flavor, the acid level to tannin maturity, the acidity to brix, etc, varies widely. So, you could have a ready-to-pick vine with very different chemistry proportions in a cool year than in a warm than in a ‘normal.’ If you don’t know your site the numbers will throw you. If you know your site you can pick based on intimacy with the vines, and checking your fruit. It’s the vineyard side of letting the site express itself. How you then treat it in the cellar comes next.

    • Elaine,

      Yes, that is it exactly. Paying too much attention to one number only misses the point. Sadly, this is one area that many of the new california winemakers seem to misappropriate their energy: targeting low numbers for low numbers sake. Maybe that is a strawman but from what I understand probably not. I’ve picked below 20 Brix before, because the vineyard could do it. I would never do that at other vineyards. Relating numbers to flavor in any given season can be a slippery slope though often there is some consistency.

      One thing I’ve been exploring is water loss and texture. Sometimes 24 Brix in one year is different than another year or another vineyard because in year ‘a’ the grapes dehydrated 5% to 24 and in year ‘b’ they did not dehydrate at all but were still 24. That is going to make the wine FEEL very different. I remember making Merlot (not Star Lane) that if I gave you blind you would swear was in the “old school” camp, Bordelais, and nearly too tart. It was also nearly 15% alcohol but came off as almost thin…for that region. Why? I wasn’t measuring % dehydration then but am nearly certain this was a vintage impact. We made subsequent vintages of Merlot at slightly lower alcohols that were richer and sexier. One must tread carefully with dogma. Yes, yeast ferment sugar to produce alcohol, leaves transform sunlight into sugar (that still friggn’ amazes me), fermented wine can eventually become vinegar. But when we get to the romance and nuance, be careful!

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