Each week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Michael Talty, owner and winemaker of Talty Vineyards & Winery in the Dry Creek Valley
These days, too many Zinfandels are pruney and Port-like, and go down like cough syrup. Talty’s wines – like those of Turley, Bedrock, and Carlisle – are acid-driven and elegant. The big Zinfandel fruit is still there, of course, but the wines are relatively light bodied and pair well with food.
Michael Talty’s story begins in the kitchen, with his father. The two enjoyed cooking and drinking good wine together – and by the late-1980s, Mike had grown especially fond of Zinfandel, so decided to try his hand at winemaking. It started in his garage and in short order, he was taking classes at the UC Davis Extension winemaking school. By this point, his hobby had outgrown his garage, and he started dreaming about owning his own winery.
In the mid-1990s, he decided to quit his job and jump full-time into winemaking as soon as he found the right piece of land. In 1997, Mike and his family found the perfect, six-acre vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. He’s been making wine there ever since. And he’s got a great story to tell.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
A bottle of my 2006 Estate Zinfandel.
How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?
Truly a developed passion. I had been making wine in my garage in San Jose for 13 years when I decided to pursue a wine career. Halfway through those 13 years I had purchased a head pruned Zinfandel vineyard in the lovely Dry Creek Valley. When I started growing my own fruit I was hooked forever.
How did you learn to make wine?
I originally started reading all the books on winemaking that I could get my hands on. Someone told me that I needed to get up to the UC Davis bookstore. There I was exposed to the UC Davis extension program in Enology. I ended up taking all of the classes offered and my winemaking greatly improved. Once I had purchased my vineyard I went back to UC Davis and completed their Viticulture program. Then I took my winemaker philosophy out into the vineyard and started growing grapes as a winemaker and not as a grape grower.
How do you spend your days off?
I mostly get one day off per week and I try to spend that day with my wife and 3 children. Sometimes we head out to the coast and spend the day at the beach and play baseball and have a picnic lunch. Time with my family is very rewarding and grounding for me.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history?
Mike Officer for his great wines, Helen Turley for her understanding of the relationship between the vineyard and winemaking, and probably Paul Draper for his vast experience and humble attitude.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Steve Law of Maclaren Wines, a new and up-and-coming Syrah producer under is new label. Steve was a customer of mine and wanted to come and help make wine. He was relentless and ended up assisting me with my Zins during my 2006 and 2007 harvests. He shares the same passion that I have and is truly on his way to a successful career in wine production. He just received a 91 pt. rating for his second vintage. He is passionate, focused, and has a dynamic palate for fine wines. He also happens to be producing his wines in my winery under his Maclaren label.
What mailing lists, if any, do you purchase from?
I do not purchase or use any mailing lists. My mailing list has been developed over the past 10 years since my start.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
The best wine I think I have ever tasted was a Zinfandel from the original Litton Springs winery, prior to the purchase of Ridge. The wine was a 1987 Zinfandel that was a really was a memorable experience.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest bottle in my cellar is a 1977 Ridge Geyserville. I had another bottle about eight years ago and it was absolutely awesome. I know that is old for a Zin blend, but the Petite Sirah that is blended in gave it a youthful edge.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
The red I would pick would definitely have to be a Zinfandel. I love Zinfandel because it is so lively on my palate and a very versatile wine that drinks alone or with food. I am not much of a white wine drinker, although Steve Law has introduced me to some very awesome Champagnes.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
My biggest challenge as a winemaker/owner is selling the wines. I have to say I am not much of a salesperson and selling is an important aspect of the wine business. I love working in the vineyard and making the wines, that’s my passion! Selling is not my favorite thing, even though I have become better at doing it.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
This is hard to answer do to the fact I have not had the opportunity to travel to other wine regions outside of California. Having a family, switching careers at 40, and especially starting a new winery without outside financial support makes it hard to do much traveling. Many people that come to my winery and have traveled the world say that I live in a very special wine region called the Dry Creek Valley.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes, sometimes. When I have been out working in the vineyard on warm summer days there is nothing like a cold beer to quench my thirst!
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I am a simple and humble man. I strive every day to be as happy as I can be. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I love to do every day. I love going to work every day and look forward to the next day with my family and wine!
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Probably running a business in an industry that is very stressful, managing dysfunctional employees, and very needy clients with all kinds of crazy deadlines. Actually that’s what I used to do before I gave it all up to follow my dreams.
How do you define success?
Certainly not money. Success is making a difference in the lives of the people around you and growing your own internal happiness. Whether it be as a father, mother, friend, or as a winemaker that produces wines that make an impact on the wine drinkers of the world!