Brandon’s path to winemaking resembles many of our paths to wine appreciation. Growing up, Brandon saw that his grandfather collected wine — and did so seriously, buying among other things two cases of 1961 Chateau Latour — and so Brandon naturally developed an interest in wine, as he watched his grandfather open bottles at dinner. Born in Ithaca, the site of one prominent enology school, Brandon studied fementation science at another prominent enology school, UC Davis. After graduating, Brandon spent some time in New Zealand, before returning to California first and to Sonoma County in particular soon thereafter. In 2010, he joined Armida Wines.
Armida Winery was founded by brothers Steve and Bruce Cousins about twenty years ago. The estate produces several bottlings of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay from purchased fruits, and also produced a field blend of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah from a seven-acre estate vineyard.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Ithaca, NY. I was mostly raised in Dublin, CA.
When and how did you get into wine?
My Grandfather was an avid wine collector, and he seemed to have a story for each bottle of wine. The mystique of the bottles of wine that were opened during dinners intrigued me. When I was accepted into the Fermentation Science program at UC Davis, I didn’t think twice.
What has been your career path to where you are?
I studied Fermentation Science at UC Davis from 2000-04. I took the fall quarter off in 2003 and worked as a cellar intern under Bill Brousseau at Testarossa Winery. That first internship confirmed my passion to learn winemaking. Before my last quarter at UC Davis, I was the lead grape sampler for RH Phillips. After graduation I traveled to Blenheim, New Zealand in the heart of Marlborough and worked a harvest for Montana (Brancott in the USA). There, I followed my gut to learn how to make Sauvignon Blanc. Coming back to the USA, I was graciously taken under the wings of the Beckett Family, becoming the Assistant Winemaker for Peachy Canyon Winery in Paso Robles, CA. I always had a feeling that I would end up in Sonoma County, and that’s why I jumped at the opportunity to become Dan Goldfield’s Assistant Winemaker at Dutton-Goldfield Winery in Sebastopol, CA. There, Dan Goldfield helped me to refine my lab, tasting, and production skills. In 2010, I responded to a “Winemaker Wanted” ad for Armida Winery in Healdsburg, CA. Seven harvests later, I’m currently still doing all of the winemaking for Armida Winery.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
At Armida Winery we have two estate vineyards that produce some incredible wines. But the most special vineyards are three old-vine Zinfandel vineyards that we purchase grapes from. These vineyards were planted as long ago as 1910 and as recently as 1937, one year after prohibition. These blocks are part of the rich history and traditions of California winemaking. When I make these wines they give me the feeling that I am continuing a legacy from a “living museum.”
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
“Trust the Process.” During a wine’s aging process, it is impossible for that wine to be tasting at its “peak,” all of the time. It’s important not to overreact and freak out. There is an art to harvesting, an art to blending, but most importantly there is an art in the process. Setting up to barrel down a wine correctly, is just as important as choosing the barrels for that wine to go in.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Making wines that don’t fit my palate preferences. We make a few different Chardonnays and in various styles. I make one that is in the “California Chardonnay” style; big oak, low acid, creamy, and rich. This is not a style of wine that I prefer, but many of our customers do. There is always the temptation to “push the envelope,” but the reality is that the wine needs to sell.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Besides my mentors there are many “influences” I had in winemaking. Phil Steinschriber of Diamond Creek, Jim Clendenon of Au Bon Climat, and Paul Draper of Ridge come to mind. But I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Robert Mondavi. Not only did his philanthropy help me at UC Davis, but his belief that wine should be enjoyed with meals, is a huge reason why we have the thriving industry that we have today.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines. His Sauvignon Blancs (still and sparkling) inspire me. Anthony Beckman of Balletto Vineyards creates amazing Pinot Noirs that are now getting the recognition they deserve. Morgan Peterson of Bedrock: I love his wines and his passion for preserving aging vineyard blocks.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
Awatere, NZ. Just a little bit south of the main Marlborough growing region, this area has a bit more structure and minerality to their Sauvignon Blancs. The flavors being produced there cannot be replicated anywhere else.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I was fortunate enough that my Grandfather purchased 2 cases of 1961 Chateau Latour back in the late 60s. He saved one for my graduation from high school. Knowing that I was headed to UC Davis, I was beginning to pay attention to wines more. When I tried the wine, I had a palate overload. So many layers, so hard to describe. But something clicked at that moment for me that I will never forget.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
A magnum of 1999 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Rose. My wife and I bought 3 magnums; shared one at our wedding table, recently had the second bottle for our 10 year anniversary, and still have one more for our 20 year anniversary? My most expensive bottle is a 2003 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port, and that I’m saving for my 50th birthday.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Cruess 2014 Fiano. Winemaker Anthony Beckman’s personal label shines a light on a lesser-known white varietal. Really refreshing, with a great texture that goes with many foods.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Armida’s Sauvignon Blanc and Tina’s Block Zinfandel. The acidity and structure of both of the wines could go with a plethora of different dishes.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Wow, this is a loaded question for a “Fermentation Science” guy. Dr. Bamforth, my brewing professor at UC Davis would kill me, so this is my politically correct statement. Both beer and wine have different situations where one is better than the other. I wouldn’t want to drink a Cabernet while sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game, and I also wouldn’t crack open a can of “light beer” when I am seated for an aged rib-eye dinner. It always surprises me how much beer we drink during the grape harvest. Currently I’m digging the session ipa’s. Heavy on the hops and aromatics, but light on the alcohol.
How do you spend your days off?
I have two children with my wife, so I love spending time together when I’m not working. Riding bikes, hiking, and swimming are a few of our favorites. I really enjoy gardening and love to prepare meals for the family.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Soon after I turned 21, I entered a home-brewed beer into the California State Fair Competition. It won first place in its division. I will never forget the number of cross looks I got from the “older” homebrewers, when I accepted my blue ribbon.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Making Beer, Making Cheese, Yogurt, Kefir, Pickles, Cider. I’d be fermenting something.
How do you define success?
To be able to share a product created by my life experiences, with family and friends for dinners and life-cycle events, gives me the greatest satisfaction.