Weekly Interview: Dan Fishman

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-07-2014

Dan Fishman

Dan Fishman

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Dan Fishman, the owner and winemaker at Hatton Daniels Wine Cellars.

Dan did not grow up in the wine industry. It was by chance in college that he took Wine Appreciation 101 and feel in love. Now, a decade or so later, Dan makes wine not only at Hatton Daniels, but also at Donum Estate.

Below, Dan tells us about dropping out of a PhD Program in Psychology to work harvest, about how working retail shaped his winemaking philosophy, and about making a name for yourself as a new winemaker.

Check out our interview with Dan below the fold!

Where did you grow up?
I grew up and went to high school in Oshawa, Ontario, which is a small city east of Toronto. Growing up in Canada, there was not much of a wine culture, or even much of a restaurant scene at that time, so I didn’t really have exposure to it until the undergraduate wine class I took at Cornell – Wine Appreciation 101 – when I fell in love with wine. If I had known that it was possible to work in wine without having a degree in it, I might have skipped grad school altogether, but it was still an interesting experience. Right after Cornell, in 2004, I went straight to Vancouver to start my Psychology PhD program.

Then you decided to leave the PhD program and work harvest at Donum Estate. Was that scary for you, to jump career paths like that?
It was a really tough decision. I don’t think my parents were fully onboard! That first harvest was pretty challenging, learning a whole new set of skills with no background and working 85 hours a week, but even when I was at my lowest I didn’t really ever wish I was back in graduate school. I was just ready to move on, I guess.

How did you get that opportunity Donum Estate, anyway?
It was pure chance. They had someone lined up to come from South America but his visa fell through last minute, and I saw an ad for the job online around August 10th. I talked to Brian, who ran Punchdown Cellars at the time, and he said the job was mine if I could be there in a week. So I quickly packed up in Vancouver and moved down with nowhere to live and no real idea what I was going to be doing.

Then you worked retail. Any crazy retail stories?
Well I worked at Wally’s in LA for a while, and we definitely had some cool celebrity shoppers: Jerry West, Michael Keaton, and, as a big Saved by the Bell fan, my personal favorite, Tiffani Amber-Thiessen. The only quirky customer that really stands out was a guy who got really mad at me for trying to figure out what kind of wine he liked. Apparently he just wanted me to magically pick something he was guaranteed to like.

How did the opportunity in New Zealand come up? Was it something you looked for or something that came to you?
There was a bit of a connection between the winery there, Wither Hills, and some people who worked at Punchdown who had gone down for previous harvests, so I was able to get hooked up with them that way. Harvest is kind of a rush, and retail in January is pretty slow, so it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

When you started Hatton Daniels with your friends, was it hard to make a name for yourselves?
I started Hatton Daniels with John Hatton, Dan Caddigan, and John Black in 2009 with just 50 cases of Pinot Noir, slowly growing to our current production of about 400 cases a year. It was definitely a challenge to get any attention for a small brand like ours, especially since all four of us have full-time jobs and need to work on HD on the side. We were really lucky to meet Josh Genderson at Schneider’s on Capital Hill, who has been a huge supporter of our wines since the 2010 vintage. As our production has grown a little, we are working on getting out there a little more and seeking out people who are interested in the kinds of wines we are making.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
My goal is to make wines in what would, I suppose, be called the “natural style.” I avoid additions other than a little sulfur, and pick rather early. I personally like wines with energy and character as opposed to power, so I try to make the wines that I like to drink. I want the wines to be vibrant on the palate, and hopefully to get people to focus on the textural experience of the wine.

Do you think your time in retail affected your winemaking philosophy in any way?
For sure. Being in retail is a great way to get exposed to wines from all over the world, and working in production it is really easy to have tunnel vision and lose sight of the bigger world of wine, so I think it was really helpful. It helps put what I am trying to do in a bigger context. It also gives you much better insight into how wine is actually sold and purchased, although I am still trying to figure out the whole selling part.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Maybe this sounds a bit weird, being in California, but it is sometimes a struggle to pick fruit that is fully ripe, as I need to get it while the acid is high enough that no addition is necessary. Being committed to no additions means the picking decision needs to be nailed within a small window, and it takes some time to learn where this is for a given vineyard. The advantage is that this typically means the alcohol levels are on the low side, and native fermentation is no problem.

How was 2014?
2014 was a strange vintage in California, with the extended drought and a very early season. Because we pick early for Hatton Daniels, I think we aren’t asking too much of the stressed vines, and the fruit looked great. We started picking on August 1, and were done picking everything except Napa Cabernet on September 3rd! Even the Napa Cab came in in the middle of September. Overall I think 2014 will be solid for most Sonoma producers.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
I had a great time this past summer at Steamboat chatting wine with Dave Paige from Adelsheim, who has some awesome insights about making great Pinot Noir. I’ve never met Bob Travers, but some of the older Mayacamas have blown my mind, and have definitely inspired me to try my hand at Napa Cabernet. The first sip of Radikon was a revelation, so meeting Stanko someday would be pretty unbelievable.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
I make Hatton Daniels at Punchdown Cellars, which is a co-op, so I am lucky to be working around some of the more exciting new brands on the market, like Hardy Wallace’s Dirty and Rowdy and John Lockwood’s Enfield. And my good friend Drew Huffine is doing some really cool stuff with his new Trailmarker Wines.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I guess I would say Barolo if someone else is paying. Or the Loire if I am buying.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I think the best wine I have ever tasted was either 1973 Mayacamas Cab or 2001 Bouchard Montrachet. The most interesting might be one that I had recently, 2012 Les Oeilletts from Jean Yves Peron, which was just crazy—it had certainly fermented a little in bottle, but that just made it more fun.

If it’s not too gauche to mention one of my own wines, I am also really excited about the 2014 Zweigelt that I got from Mokelumne Glen Vineyard—100% whole cluster and 11.7% alcohol, I think it shows a really different side of California.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
My brother has been in town and I think we have pretty much cleaned out my older wines, so I think the oldest right now is a 2000 Dunn Howell Mountain. I think the most expensive is a Vougeraie 2008 Corton Clos du Roi that I got when I was lucky enough to taste in the cellar on a work trip.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
If I like a wine, it seems to have a way of getting finished, but I did have a 2012 Pascal Janvier Cuvee du Rosier open last night.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
I’d want to pick something that would go with a lot of different meals and that I wouldn’t get bored of too quickly. I think it’s an easy call to go with a Gamay for the red, maybe even from the Loire. The white is a little trickier for me, but it would be hard to get tired of Boisson-Vadot Bourgogne Blanc.

Is beer ever better than wine?
There are definitely many times when a beer is called for, but although I love some sours, I don’t think I’ve had a beer that speaks to me the way a great wine does.

How do you spend your days off?
I’m trying to get better at mountain biking, but that’s really just killing time until ski season starts. Otherwise I’m cooking or grilling and trying to find that elusive perfect pairing.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
People are usually surprised to hear that I had a (short-lived and unsuccessful) stint as an actor in Vancouver. Also the real-life guy that Robert DeNiro’s character in Casino is based on is a very distant relative of mine.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I’ve definitely had fantasies of being a sommelier, but if it were going to be out of the wine business I would kind of like to learn carpentry.

How do you define success?
My goal in winemaking is to make wines that speak the way that the wines I have loved have spoken to me, so if someone tries one of my wines and finds something compelling that makes them pause and think about the wine, then I would consider that the ultimate success in winemaking.

What would be your advice to someone who is thinking of leaving behind a career to jump into the wine industry?
I would recommend making some good connections first in the area you want to work in, whether it’s hospitality, production, whatever. Even if you don’t end up working for those people, the network will be invaluable. And if you don’t end up going into the wine industry at all, you will still have a connection to it, and hopefully access to some great wines.


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