Weekly Interview: Nick Bleecher

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 06-21-2013

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Nick Bleecher, the general manager and winemaker at Jerico Canyon Vineyard in Calistoga, California.

Nick arrived at Jericho Canyon when he was a baby — his parents purchased the land, which was a cattle ranch at the time, when he was just one.

As a teen, Nick spent his summers working at the winery, helping with all manner of odd jobs. So by the time he entered the viticulture and enology program at University of California, Davis, he had quite a bit of experience.

Upon graduation, Nick headed to New Zealand but returned home after one harvest to help with the family business.

Check out our interview with Nick below the fold.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I know it’s cliché and unlike me considering how much I love wine chemistry, but I still would have to say minimal manipulation of fruit. Much like the Hippocratic oath — “Do no harm.” As winemakers, our job begins in the fields keeping each vine happy and producing optimal fruit. At Jericho, we spend endless hours pampering each little cluster. Once in the winery, we gently guide the fruit towards greatness without forcing it into a rigid mold of “perfection.” I’m not a parent, but it is probably a lot like raising children. Your job is to support the grapes in becoming the best possible wine they can be without trying to change who they are.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

Not a thing. My partner, Tara, and I believe in finishing what we start and, as such, never have leftover wine in the morning.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

David Ramey would be the first to come to mind because he came to us when we were just grape growers, recognized the quality of our fruit, and tamed our bold hillside tannins without the use of fining agents or filtration, something we still continue to incorporate to this day. It takes a great winemaker to understand a specific site and truly express the uniqueness of the vineyard. His time with our fruit certainly showed us his depth and understanding of the entire process and I grew up on the Rudd and Ramey Jericho Canyon Vineyard designate wines.

I am also really enjoying seeing what Aaron Pott and Michel Rolland are doing with our fruit. It goes without saying that all three are exceptional consulting winemakers and, living in Napa Valley, I’m surrounded by talent.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I’m excited about all of the next generation of winemakers because we, unlike our predecessors, are in the age of information where we have so much more science and knowledge available at our fingertips. We can collaborate much more readily and bounce ideas off one another.

Specifically, I’d have to say I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Kieran Robinson and Jade Barrett. I’ve gotten to know Kieran in the last year and think he brings a calmness to wines. His even keeled, dependable, personality is reflected in his Syrah and Viogner. Jade has the nose of a bloodhound and is one of those meticulous winemakers. I can’t wait to see his influence in Ladera’s wines.

How do you spend your days off?

What’s a day off? All joking aside, I spent Christmas Eve barreling down our 2012 block 3 Cabernet Sauvignon, New Year’s Eve with a shovel fixing trenches due to torrential rainfall in our Sauvignon Blanc terraces, and, most recently, Father’s Day hosting guests in our caves. Of course, on a particularly hot day, that doesn’t mean I won’t take a quick midday dip in our reservoir!

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

To me, there is nothing better than Jericho wines. I’ve imprinted on them like a duckling and I drink them almost every night. I like big, concentrated Cabernet and tend to gravitate towards wines more similar to our own like Kelly Fleming, Gemstone, Shafer, Araujo, Harlan and Outpost wines.

As far as interesting wines, I’d say some of the house wines made in the Italian hillsides. You can never really quite tell what they are. Often effervescent and somewhere between a rose and a red, and very, very, dry. In 2010, Tara and I spent some time in an Italian mountain town, Agnone, visiting my father’s old roommate and friend, Antonio. I was entrusted to bring back two bottles of the local rose, my dad’s favorite. Thanks to RyanAir, we drank them both in Rome and it is still absolutely the best rose I have ever had.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I might have a bottle or two left of my grandfather’s basement wine from the 70s but I wouldn’t really call it wine at this point. When I was 12, I convinced my parents to gift my sisters and I each a case of wine a year. So, that would have been the 1998 Rudd Jericho Canyon Vineyard (vineyard designate). We opened a bottle in December and it is still alive and well. The most expensive might just be a shiner bottle my friend Jules crafted during a harvest in New Zealand. I had to leave behind my favorite (though utterly deteriorated) Blundstone boots to make room for the bottle coming home. You can’t put a price on your favorite winery boots.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

I’m a creature of habit. Every night at dinner, I’ve enjoyed leftover tasting bottles of Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Why change unless, of course, we magically had a month’s supply of 2007 Reserve Cabernet? With only 3 barrels produced and none left, it is unfortunately a reserve to me as well.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

On the personal side, there is a reason for the term “harvest widow” and I am lucky that Tara has stuck with me and continues to be supportive. Additionally, balancing the ‘shop and pop’ trend in which the vast majority of wine is consumed within the first 48 hours of purchase and staying true to our vineyard. As a steeply terraced hillside vineyard, our wines will always benefit from laying down in the cellar for a few years. At the same time, we’d like to be able to fully appreciate them within a reasonable amount of time. It is a delicate balance.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

In 5th grade, my family spent a year in Spain and I think it was the wine culture that stuck with me. My grandfather used to say “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine” and, if any one culture has embraced that, it is the Spaniards. I highly recommend all wine lovers go out and purchase a porron.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Everyone in the industry knows that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. Being just over the hill from Russian River Brewery, Lagunitas, and Bear Republic is one of the many fringe benefits of employment at Jericho Canyon Vineyard. I’ve dabbled in brewing myself and we plan to brew a high alcohol Sierra Nevada IPA clone this fall.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I have always been an avid ping pong player and the only American oak barrel in our cave is a trophy I won at Nadalie’s annual ping pong tournament.  I starting investing in stocks at age 11. I built my first computer at age 12. And I’ve been working in the vineyard since age 6 (not by choice).

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Lying on a tropical beach somewhere and, ultimately, probably getting bored and starting a pineapple or sugarcane distillation project.

How do you define success?

Life is built by the cumulative effects of every tiny choice made. Right now, for me, success is making the best possible choice at each juncture and, of course, it is the same with wine. From the oak on the last year’s vintage to the final blending session; each decision has its impacts. So far I’ve been lucky to be ‘successful’ (most of the time).

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