Winemaker Interview: Trevor Durling

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 08-02-2019

Trevor Durling

Trevor Durling

As our regular readers know, from time to time, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker to probe their winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how they became who they are. This week, we are featuring Trevor Durling, who in 2017 took over the helm as the chief winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyard.

Trevor is a native of Northern California’s wine country, born and raised in Sonoma. Like many of his colleagues in Napa and Sonoma, he attended UC Davis, worked harvest (in his case, at Sonoma-Cutrer and Gloria Ferrer), and jumped into the industry full-time after graduation. He went from Moon Mountain Vineyard to Provenance Vinerads and Hewitt Vineyard. And in June 2017, he became the chief winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard.

Amazingly, Trevor is only the fifth chief winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard in its almost 120 years’ history. Now one of the most iconic American wine brands, Beaulieu Vineyard was founded by Georges de Latour in 1900. One of Trevor’s four predecessors at Beaulieu Vineyard is the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff.

Check out the interview below the fold!

Where were you born and raised?

I’m a native Californian, born and raised in nearby Sonoma County.

When and how did you get into wine?

Growing up in Sonoma County, I always had an interest in wine, as I was surrounded by the culture. My parents had enthusiasm for enjoying great wines at dinner, so I was introduced to wine at a young age. By the time I arrived at college and was enrolled in UC Davis, my intention was to focus on the ROTC program and eventually become an officer in the US Air Force, following in my grandfather’s footsteps. He was a 37-year veteran, and I idolized him. But in the back of my mind, I also knew that UC Davis was renowned for its exceptional winemaking program, so I was interested in exploring this opportunity as a student at the university. I then enrolled in an introductory class to winemaking, which awakened my love of agriculture and science. Soon after that, I transferred to the university’s Viticulture and Enology program, which began my career in winemaking.

What has been your career path to where you are?

I started out in the industry with an internship at Sonoma-Cutrer in 2003 and two consecutive harvest internships making sparkling wine at Gloria Ferrer. After graduating from UC Davis, I joined Moon Mountain Vineyard, a small, well-regarded organic vineyard in Sonoma. In 2009, I moved over to Napa Valley and temporarily worked out of Beaulieu Vineyard supporting the winemaking team. I worked directly with my predecessors, Joel Aiken and Jeffrey Stambor, and learned a tremendous amount about the legacy and heritage of Beaulieu’s renowned winemaking, so I’ve really been involved with the vineyards and the crafting of the wines at Beaulieu for a decade.

Then, I joined Provenance Vineyards and Hewitt Vineyard in March of 2010 as assistant winemaker. Working under Tom Rinaldi, who is a great mentor of mine, I had the opportunity to craft fantastic wines sourced from some of the best vineyards within Rutherford and Napa Valley. That first year at Hewitt, I was so honored to see that my efforts contributed to the exceptional 2010 vintage of Hewitt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which earned the title of Wine Spectator’s No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon in 2013, and the No. 4 spot on Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year list. It was an exhilarating and humbling experience, and Tom helped me put everything into perspective. When Tom retired in 2015, I was appointed Chief Winemaker at Provenance and Hewitt.

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?

What makes our wines so special is that we hand select grapes from the finest cabernet sauvignon vines on the western bench of the Rutherford AVA in our iconic BV Ranches 1 and 2. These were the first two vineyard properties originally purchased and planted by Georges de Latour himself in the early 1900s. In the 1990s, in collaboration with UC Davis, BV Ranch 1 was replanted to various cabernet sauvignon clonal selections (4, 6 and 337), and fruit from BV Ranch 2 showcases the best we produce from clones 4 and 6, along with 7 and a small selection of merlot. Grapes from both ranches are used today to craft our Tapestry Reserve, Rutherford and Napa Valley Cabernets, and of course, our icon Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the last of which can easily be considered Napa Valley’s first cult cabernet and is unparalleled within Napa Valley. The wine has been made since 1936, so this year we’ll be celebrating the 80th anniversary vintage with the release of the 2016. The Georges de Latour is the Cabernet Sauvignon with the longest legacy in Rutherford and Napa Valley and is still made to the highest quality standard today. Truly an unparalleled example of the best of what Napa Valley can create.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I think the more you spend time doing something, you learn to focus on what really matters, and I now recognize what’s going to move the needle and make a big impact. Asking questions, prioritizing, and focusing on the right things is my guiding mantra. I also put a lot of value on the importance of spending time in the vineyards and working closely with my vineyard managers, ensuring the fruit is of the highest quality. I believe it shows in the glass during my tenure at Provenance and continues to guide me on the Hewitt and Beaulieu Vineyard wines.

I also feel that while we honor the fruit of the land that has been farmed since Georges de Latour planted roots here, we’ve also invested significantly to improve the quality of our winery and the reserve cellar. We’ve brought in state-of-the-art winemaking technology, innovations, fermentation tanks, and tools to help us craft wines of the highest caliber and maintain status as the standard of quality for decades and decades, so it’s my job not to mess that up.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

The biggest challenge is always the unpredictability of Mother Nature, which will alter the vintages from year to year. But if everyone is fully engaged, working together in the winemaking process with the same goal in mind, and feels a sense of ownership at each step, this will be reflected in the quality of the wines and tell our story for decades and future generations.

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

Andre Tchelistcheff – for many reasons but mostly because he built the foundation for everything we do at Beaulieu and throughout the Napa Valley. He was the leading mentor of California winemaking and not only influenced me, but directly influenced so many of the winemakers I’ve learned from personally. Also, Tom Rinaldi because of my personal relationship with him and because of his mentorship. He taught me the importance of engaging wine lovers and consumers through the love of wine with storytelling, collaboration, social engagement, and just plain fun. He brought joyous elements of sharing wine and stories with others and is an amazing winemaker. Finally, Michel Rolland. I met him in 2009 and had the opportunity to work with him closely for 3-4 years while at Provenance and Hewitt. I admire his ability to assemble wine blends that others may not naturally see potential in and that really work in the long run. He has an innate ability to look into the future and understand what components will work together to create a spectacular wine.

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

I’m excited about Aaron Pott, Philippe Melka, and Thomas Rivers Brown, even though they aren’t necessarily new, because they are trendsetters. I’m constantly inspired by how they’re innovating, crafting so many different wines but not making wine to follow critics’ attention or fads. They are making distinctive wines that express the true terroir from which they come and bring out the best from the grapes they’re given. This is what I enjoy most about tasting wines from the same person but from different regions – they always have a focused philosophy and stay true to themselves, without replicating or recreating the same thing every time.

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

I love Burgundy – the wines, the people, and the region are very inspirational for me. I had the pleasure of spending two weeks there in 2016 and had the chance to visit some incredibly famous vineyards and wineries, even having a chance to do a vertical tasting of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti on my birthday, which left an indelible impression. Overall, I was struck by the amount of passion from each of the vintners I met, and how each vintner was also the person farming the land, making the wine, selling the wine, and, in some cases, they were even the 10th generation of their family to do so. There is also incredible history in Burgundy. As a bit of a history buff myself, I was completely drawn to the old buildings and the stories behind them. This was an incredible experience for me, and I enjoy reliving it while I enjoy the wines at home.

I also love drinking Bordeaux and Champagne. Additionally, Mendoza, Argentina left a lasting impression. Mendoza is newer than the historical French winemaking regions, but the culture and passion of its people and its amazing wines were a memorable experience. Domestically, I also really enjoy Oregon and Washington wines, which I find very interesting to explore and to learn about. These regions are still considered “up and coming,” so I enjoy watching them evolve. Stylistically they’re very different to what we see here in California, so that’s always intriguing for a winemaker.

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

Early on in my winemaking career, I had the privilege of trying a mint-condition bottle of Beaulieu Vineyard 1968 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I was with a family friend, so it wasn’t for work, and it blew me away. I’d never tasted a wine like that before, especially one that had aged so well. I was young and just getting into wine, so this experience left a permanent impression on me. And like so many other winemakers before me, the tasting of this extraordinary bottle really shaped my career path and encouraged me to be the kind of winemaker that could craft something that beautiful and age-worthy.

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

In my winemaking library, we have a 1945 Beaulieu Pinot Noir in which the grapes came from our historic Rutherford vineyards. At the retirement lunch of my predecessor, Jeffrey Stambor, we opened a bottle and it was extraordinary, and while it isn’t the most expensive in my cellar, I would argue it’s certainly the most interesting. It’s incredible to think about that it was crafted when WW2 ended, and the bottle is signed by Andre Tchelistcheff. Not to mention, there’s so much life still in the bottle. The acidity was still there and carried it alongside some beautiful fruit, with some tertiary notes of course. Overall, it far exceeded all expectations in how it held up and truly is one of the most historic bottles I’d ever tasted.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

Nothing is open in my kitchen – when I open something, I drink the whole bottle! I’m not one to leave wine open. When I commit to opening a bottle, I follow through.

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

I mean if I could pick anything and money and sourcing is no issue, I’d pick Domaine Romanee-Conti for the red, right? And if the sky’s the limit and I can enjoy a bottle every night, it would be 30-year-old bottles of DRC. For a white, I’d pick a nice crisp, clean Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc because it goes with everything and always hits the spot.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Absolutely, yes, especially after a full day of wine tasting or winemaking. As they say, “it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.” There’s nothing better than a nice cold beer in a frosty glass. Any experienced winemaker would tell you this.

How do you spend your days off?

If I’m taking a break from wine altogether, I love getting a few holes in on the golf course, snowboarding in the winter, and watching baseball – go SF Giants! I also enjoy playing and listening to music, barbecuing and cooking at home and outdoor activities, hiking, etc. enjoying nature around us.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’ve thrown out the 1st pitch in MLB games three different times… all 3 were strikes of course!

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

If I were doing anything else other than winemaking, I would have loved to have been a professional baseball player. If I could only break 90 mph as a pitcher, then I’d like to think that I’d be playing professional ball for the San Francisco Giants. Or a musician because I’ve always loved music, a lot.

How do you define success?

Success to me means a few things. It’s having a true passion for what you do because then you’ll be better at it and lead a happier life, as well as leaving a lasting impact on a place because it’s better off than when you arrived. I also define success as making a positive difference either for myself or for those around me.

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