One of the great things about the wine world, or the world surrounding any artistic endeavor, is the countless talented individuals toiling away at a personal vision out of sight of the general public. Because the production levels are usually miniscule for such people, it is possible to overlook their work, even if one happens to be studying the very thing they are creating. I experienced this sensation recently during a visit to the Salinia/NPA winery.
We took some of our staff up to visit Kevin Kelley and his assistant Hardy Wallace at their winery in Santa Rosa. Kevin makes many different wines. The two projects I know best are his Natural Process Alliance wines (the impetus for this trip) and the Lioco wines that he makes for Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor. Both of these labels are exciting, but on this visit I was moved by a different project. We tasted through three vintages of each of the three wines that Kevin makes for his Salinia label. I now believe these to be the most serious wines made under his roof.
Tasting multiple vintages was educational. It showed me that these are wines made to improve with age. The older vintages were beginning to gain the complexity that only time can lend to a wine. While there are plenty of young wines that are excellent and delightful, the truly great wines have the ability to age in bottle. And the Salinia wines are shooting for greatness.
Another attribute of great wine is that they are site specific - as in only possible from sites meeting very specific requirements. The vineyards for the Salinia wines are cool climate, located on the second ridge in from the cold Pacific. The syrah especially is grown on the razor’s edge of possibility for the variety. Kevin said of the last six years he has only decided to pick once. Every other year he was forced to pick because it was so late in the year that all of the leaves had fallen off the vines and winter storms were rolling in. In 2010 the fruit was still not ripe when nature decided the growing season was over - so no syrah in 2010.
Both the Chardonnay and the Syrah come from the Heintz Ranch between Occidental and Graton. The Chardonnay was planted here back in 1982. The vines have 30 years on them now and are well known to produce some of the best fruit in California. The Syrah was planted in 2002. It is generally not a good idea to plant Chardonnay and Syrah in the same spot and Kevin admits to having doubts about the Syrah working out well. The very first vintage resolutely changed his mind.
The Pinot Noir comes from a tiny, beautiful vineyard just down the road from Heintz Ranch. There is a small white gate and an artistically broken down mailbox with the name W.E. Bottoms on it. The vines are planted super tightly (4 X 4 spacing), almost twice as dense as at the Heintz Ranch. The vineyard is completely surrounded by huge redwoods that seem to cradle it in their towering branches. It is a stunning place.
Kevin is known for questioning the wine wisdom of the day. I wrote in an earlier post about his Natural Process Alliance wines - ‘bottled’ in reusable stainless steel bottles, made using as little sulfur as possible and with varying amounts of skin contact for the white wines. These three decisions are answers A, B, and C on a multiple-choice question at UC Davis about what not to do in the winemaking process. The correct answer to the question is, of course, D. All of the above. Yet the wines are compelling and correct and delicious. And equally important, the endeavor is a success.
He is no less adventurous with his Salinia wines. The farming at both of his fruit sources is organic. This is a gamble many are choosing to make now but a gamble nonetheless. It takes more work and requires more attention to detail, but it is hard to find a great winemaker or vineyard manager these days who will say spraying chemicals on a vineyard is a good thing. Necessary at times perhaps, preferred to using extra gallons of diesel in a tractor maybe, but if one can farm organically, one should. This is accepted.
Kevin shares his fruit sources with other winemakers. Save for one, Ted Lemon from Littorai, Kevin has his fruit safely in the winery a week or two before the others pick up the phone to call a picking crew. In many countries it is very risky to let your fruit hang out in the vineyard at harvest time. It can be in California too, but our weather generally allows you to get your fruit as ripe as you want. I feel like the term ‘phenolic ripeness’ was invented to have an excuse to let fruit hang until it begins to raisin, because, you know, the flavors just aren’t there yet. As fruit hangs out there and the sugars build to grape preserve levels, many winemakers see the points awarded their wines from major publications rising with those sugars. These are not mistaken visions, and in this economic environment and cutthroat game, who can blame them? Here in California, where the highest grossing wineries declare adamantly that there is ‘no hint of green!’ in their wines, picking early is the real gamble.
In the winery, Kevin allows his wines to begin fermentation as they see fit. The safest way, the only way according to some, is to dose the freshly picked fruit with sulfur to kill off any harmful bacteria and some of the yeast and then add a hand picked yeast strain in high enough populations to take over fermentation. There are many types of yeast on the grapes when they come in from the field. Different types of yeast can give different types of flavors as they begin the process of converting sugar to alcohol, heat, and CO2. The theory is if you let the entire population do whatever it wants, you won’t be able to control the flavors in the wine. If you add sulfur and then a selected strain with a specific flavor or conversion rate (sugar to alcohol rate), you have more control and get a more consistent product. The other boogeyman that winemakers speak of is a stuck fermentation, where the wine is not dry and the yeast stop working. This is bad. Commercial yeast strains are selected for their propensity to finish the job once they start. But Kevin believes allowing the entire population to get in the game from the beginning creates complexity. Yes, they all add a little something to the wine, but the more diversity of flavors the better he thinks. He has both knowledge and experience on his side here. He did lab work at Davis on native yeast populations and native ferments, photographically documenting things on a microscopic level. And working at a custom crush facility, he says he saw more stuck ferments with commercial yeast than with native yeast.
Taking risks, questioning accepted knowledge, experimenting: these are not done for thrill’s sake. They are done scientifically for the sake of making great wine. The usage of whole clusters is a good example. With his Pinot Noir and Syrah, he made his first vintage with completely de-stemmed fruit, no whole clusters. He wanted to get a sense of the fruit on its own. In the next vintage, both of the finished wines had 30% whole cluster. The whole cluster portions were made separate from the de-stemmed portions, so he was able to taste 100% whole cluster versions in the second year. The next year his Syrah was 100% whole cluster, the Pinot he upped to 50%. In the case of the Pinot, he found himself tasting the whole cluster barrels and preferring them to the blend he ended up making. The next year, and now, both are 100% whole cluster. Accepted theory on using whole cluster is to use them only when the stems are lignified, or when they have turned brown and lost the greenness of color and flavor. I asked him what the stems were like for these two wines. He answered, “Neon green”. I was getting used to answers like this. He continued, ‘Yeah, I know, they are supposed to be brown. But they don’t get brown here, so...’ So he used them anyway, experimented, tasted the results, and found his own way.
This sense of experimenting, of discovery, is refreshing. As we taste through the line up of wines with Kevin, I can see he is examining the wines just like we are. He is tasting them critically, trying to understand them so as to be able to guide their brothers and sisters with a more skilled hand and a deeper knowledge. He will freely admit he is learning as he goes. (It is surprising that so many people in so many fields try to pretend they have nothing left to learn - don’t we always have something left to learn?) I question him about everything and I can tell when I ask questions he has already asked of himself. If he has come to a conclusion, the answers come out easy and free, unburdened by ego, if he has not, the process is laid bare and the lack of conclusion explained without remorse. If I happen to stumble upon a question he has not asked himself, the result is genuine curiosity, even gratitude. I love that.
We received only a case of each of these wines. They will not last long. Kevin has a small library working and in it are a few more cases of each of these - but that’s it. I know it’s just a bottle of wine, but there is something fascinating about holding a bottle of wine that is about to be extinct. This living, evolving thing - this snapshot of a moment in time written not in ink or pixels of color but rather in flavor and texture will cease to exist at some near point in the future. It is exciting and sad all at once and buried in there somewhere is a grand life lesson.
I hope these wines speak to you the way they did me, and that Kevin continues his exploration of the ways of the winemaker.
Posted April 5, 2011 • Filed under Wine
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