Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Michael McNeill, director of winemaking at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma.
McNeill’s winemaking career began shortly after graduating from California Polytechnic University with a degree in chemistry. Inspired by a book on home winemaking, McNeill secured a harvest internship at R.H. Phillips, the now defunct winery in California’s Dunnigan Hills AVA. Within months, he became the winery’s research enologist, a job he held for two years before moving to Chalone Vineyard.
McNeill spent six years at Chalone, eventually becoming the property’s assistant winemaker. From there, he moved to a number of wineries and also spent some time in Burgundy, doing stints at Silvan Ridge Winery in the Willamette Valley; Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains; and Keller Estate Winery on the Sonoma Coast. In 2008, he landed at Hanzell Vineyards.
Check out our interview with Michael below the fold.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
My winemaking philosophy has always been to do my best to ensure each wine reflects the vineyard. In essence, grow the very best fruit possible. Then, don’t mess it up. Here at Hanzell Vineyards, we have a winemaking tradition that goes back seven decades. Hanzell’s winemaking style, first established by Brad Webb and then faithfully carried forward by Bob Sessions, has age-ability as its cornerstone. It is a style that I fell in love with when I was working at Chalone Vineyard back in the early ’90s.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
2012 Hanzell Vineyards “Sebella” Chardonnay. We just finished bottling it and I really enjoy the fresh, floral quality of it – it actually smells like a Chardonnay vineyard in bloom. We had a bottle of 2006 Domaine Drouhin “Laurène” last night – just beautiful. I have always admired Domaine Drouhin’s wines.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
I feel I need to give credit and thanks to Michael Michaud who was my mentor and boss at Chalone Vineyard. He taught me about being diligent to the fine details of winemaking. I think Pierre-Yves Collin is making some of the best whites coming out of Burgundy.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
There are so many new young winemakers getting into Pinot Noir now in California. I see a movement taking hold. The winemaking pendulum is swinging back to creating more elegant wines that reflect a sense of place.
How do you spend your days off?
I like to be outdoors with my wife and son. In the winter it is skiing. In the summer – camping, fishing, hiking or puttering around the garden with the San Francisco Giants game on the radio.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
The first library tasting after I arrived at Hanzell Vineyards included the 1969 Pinot Noir. The wine had all of the complexity and nuances you would expect, but there was no sign of decay. It still had the structure and vibrancy to go another ten or twenty years! It absolutely blew my mind that 40 year-old California wine, let alone Pinot Noir, could age so well.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest is a 1978 Mayacamas Cabernet I received from Bob and Jean Arnold Sessions. The most expensive? It would probably be some of the Champagne that my wife brings home, but she won’t tell me the price.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Any wine? Well, I’m a Pinot/Chard guy… if it not Hanzell Vineyards, then it would have to be something from Burgundy. The red, maybe Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche or his Clos-de-Beze. For white, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Chenevottes”
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
In the vineyard, the biggest challenge I face is how to achieve physiological maturity without sky high sugars. Pinot Noir seems to love to make sugar, so it is about slowing it down. In the winery, probably the most challenging thing to do is nothing, and for the wine, it is usually the best thing.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
Pretty easy answer – Burgundy!
Is beer ever better than wine?
Is this a trick question? Of course beer can be better, it just depends on the context – at the end of a day of harvest or bottling, with Mexican or just about any spicy food, at a baseball game, at the end of a long hike…
What would people be surprised to know about you?
What a big baseball fan I am – Go Giants!
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I would likely be teaching science and math. I currently have my dream job, but my fantasy job would be a baseball broadcaster. Those guys get paid to go to games and talk about baseball!
How do you define success?
I don’t know if I would define it as success, but every time I hear “I don’t even like Chardonnay, but I love Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay” I feel pretty successful, and fortunately I hear it pretty often.