Weekly Interview: Wayne Bailey

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-18-2014

Wayne Bailey.

Wayne Bailey.

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Wayne Bailey, the winemaker and owner of Youngberg Hill in McMinnville, Oregon.

Bailey grew up in Oakland, Iowa, where his father farmed corn and soy beans and raised hogs.

Although Bailey graduated from college with a degree in engineering, he spent most of his career in food and beverage consulting. In 1997, he landed a three-month contract in Burgundy to help a number of vintners with branding and marketing, and that’s when he fell in love with wine.

Bailey was most impressed with the fact that in Burgundy, all the winemakers simply considered themselves farmers. Since he’d always felt a connection to farming, he decided then that one day, he’d own a vineyard.

Since his heart was with Pinot Noir, Oregon felt like the most natural fit. So when he began looking for land, he asked the late Jimi Brooks, then the winemaker and vineyard manager at Maysara Winery, for advice. (As regular readers know, we interviewed Brooks Winery’s Chris Williams earlier this month.)

Brooks steered Bailey toward Youngberg Hill, where Ken Wright had planted vines in 1989 and been sourcing fruit from ever since. In 2003, Bailey purchased the 20-acre site – and he’s been farming it and making wine there ever since.

Check out our interview with Bailey below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Brooks Painter

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-04-2014

Brooks Painter.

Brooks Painter.

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Brooks Painter, the director of winemaking for V. Sattui Winery and Castello di Amorosa, both in Napa Valley.

Before joining the Sattui family in 2005, Painter worked at Robert Mondavi Winery, where he worked as the winemaking operations manager for five years. Before that, he was an assistant winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Raised in northern California, Brooks studied chemistry and biology at UC Santa Cruz. He has been making wine for 30 years.

Check out our interview with Brooks below the fold! Read the rest of this entry »

Sommelier Interview: Gene Alexeyev

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 03-28-2014

Gene AlexeyevGene Alexeyev didn’t plan on becoming a sommelier.

Born in Russia, Gene began his career as a journalist. Once he left the newspaper industry to begin freelance writing, however, he needed an additional job to supplement his income – so began tending bar at Vidalia in Washington, DC.

A serious food and wine destination, Vidalia remains fertile training ground for sommeliers and chefs. Gene quickly gravitated toward wine, and soon began working in the industry full time.

In 2009, he joined the team at the Bombay Club. And in 2011, he moved to Todd Gray’s Watershed.

In early 2012, one of my favorite spots in DC, Blue Duck Tavern, brought Gene on to work as a food and beverage manager. The next year, he was promoted to sommelier. He has since completely revamped the wine program, and today, it’s one of the most exciting in town.

Check out our interview with Gene below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Mal McLennan

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 03-21-2014

mal mclennanEach week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Mal McLennan, the winemaker behind Maimai Creek Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

Mal was always a farmer, but spent the first 20 years of his career working with sheep and cattle. In 1994, he returned to his family farm and began studying viticulture and winemaking at Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay.

At the same time, he began developing a 37-acre parcel of Sauvignon Blanc. Over the next decade, Mal would purchase more land and start developing Riesling Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah. These grapes were mostly sold, but in 2004, Mal decided to launch a winery.

Check out our interview with Mal below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Chris Williams

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 03-14-2014

Chris WilliamsEach week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Chris Williams, the winemaker at Brooks Winery in Amity, Oregon.

Brooks was created in 1998 by Jimi Brooks.

A Portland native, Jimi fell in love with wine – and learned how to make it – while working for the Deschamps family in Beaujolais in the early 1990s. When he returned to Oregon in 1996, he landed a job with WillaKenzie Estate, where he worked under Laurent Montalieu. Two years later, he launched his own brand while still working at WillaKenzie.

In 2004, at the age of 38, Jimi died of a heart attack.

He left the winery to his then 8-year-old son, Pascal, and his friend Chris took over the winemaking duties. Chris had learned to make wine from Jimi, so it made sense for him to stay on.

Today, Brooks has a reputation for making delightful Pinot Noir and Riesling – and they’re definitely worth finding. Check out our interview with Chris below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Loos Interviews Jay McInerney

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 02-27-2014

Photo by EJ Camp.

Photo by EJ Camp.

While the most anticipated event of last week’s Wine Writers Symposium was Robert Parker’s keynote address, the most entertaining was Ted Loos’ conversation with Jay McInerney.

McInerney began his talk by telling attendees about how he learned about wine. While earning his master’s at Syracuse, McInerney landed a job at a decent wine shop in a dodgy neighborhood, as the owner hoped the neighborhood “might gentrify someday.”

At this point in the Loos/McInerney conversation, I decided to start recording. Only the first few seconds are missing. Check out the transcript below!

Jay McInerney: …In the hopes that the neighborhood might gentrify someday. Number one, he had a section of good wines, which kind of gathered dust. And he also had a big selection of wine books. So when I wasn’t working on my book, I would read through the books he had there. And also, it was a tradition among the clerks, since we were so badly paid, to take home a bottle every night.

So I started at the bottom. At that time there was a Yugoslavia, and we had Yugoslavian Cabernet and a Yugoslavian Chardonnay. So I kind of started there and worked my way up.

The height of my ambition as a thief was that I worked my way up to a Freixenet, the Spanish cava. And that was for special occasions, including the day that I got a phone call at the wine store saying that my first novel had been accepted for publication. It was pretty exciting. I might have taken two bottles of Freixenet home that night!

So in a way, these two careers were intertwined. Bright Lights, Big City was published in 1984 and it turned out to be a much bigger success than I could have imagined. I was sort of planning to have a career as an English professor, and eventually it seemed that I might actually have a career as a novelist. And when I got my Master’s degree, I left Syracuse and moved to New York.

So I was happily pursuing my career as a novelist — I think I wrote probably five or six novels between 1984 and 1995. And in the meantime, I had become a bit of an oenophile. The release of Bright Lights, Big City — or the big sales of it — happened to coincide with the release of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. So I was very fortunate to lay down some of those, which I still have, and I am very grateful for Robert Parker, for telling me and everybody else that this was a very special vintage. He was right, and almost everybody else said that it wasn’t. God those wines are still good!

So that was my first love, Bordeaux. And I don’t think I really drank anything that excited me from California for quite a long time. Anyway, in 1995, a friend of mine took over the editorship of House and Garden Magazine, which you may remember, a venerable Conde Nast title. And she wanted to really kind of bring it into the contemporary era. So in addition to food, she felt that the sort of people that were interested in fabrics and American Beauty roses might also be interested in Cabernet Sauvignon. And she wanted a wine column. As a connoisseur herself, she felt that most of the wine writing at that time was pretty boring. Or, it was technical.

I always thought there were certainly two schools of writing then.

There was the English school of writing, which had a lot to do with the flowers, you know? Everything smelled like flowers. And knowing nothing about flowers myself, that wasn’t very helpful. And then this was sort of technical school, about new oak regimens, malolactic fermentation. I can honestly say that in 1995, I had no idea what malolactic fermentation was, and it didn’t really help me to enjoy what I was drinking.

So basically, you had Parker there, really helping to guide you through. And he was actually writing tasting notes. And there wasn’t a lot of really interesting and fun wine writing, which is ultimately what persuaded me to take this on.

Initially I said look, I don’t know enough about wine to write. I’m just a fan. And my friend said, well why don’t you just write about it from a novelist’s point of view? You know, be honest about what you don’t know, but why don’t you just tell the stories about the people that make it?

And the other thing I thought eventually was that, so much wine writing — particularly tasting notes, of course — is an attempt to literally describe the flavors of wine. And I have to admit that I don’t think this is my strong suit. But I think as a novelist, something that I do bring to wine is basically a new set of metaphors, and similes and analogies.

So when I started this thing, which I thought I might try for six months, I was basically working with what limited tools I had. And I started comparing wines to, you know, actresses, pop songs, poems, automobiles.

Ted Loos: Do you need a partial list of actresses? Jessica Simpson, Audrey Hepburn, Christie Brinkley, Grace Kelly, Angelina Jolie. And Angelina Jolie you were comparing a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Jay McInerney: Really? I must have been drunk!

In my defense, there were some male figures there as well. I know at one point I compared a Turley Petite Sirah to Arnold Schwarzenegger. And also to a Chevy Suburban.

Ted Loos: Because it’s the Craft of Writing Day, I’d be curious to know how you toggle back and forth. I imagine, for novels, you’re sitting on the deck, you know, happily writing. But for your Wall Street Journal column, how do you deal with deadlines and go back and forth?

Jay McInerney: Well, sometimes it’s hard. I’ve actually been working on a novel for the last two years. And just this past year I asked the Journal to dial me back to once a month, just so I could finish the novel.

On the other hand, I have to say I kind of look forward to writing about wine. Fiction is my day job. And writing about wine still just seems incredibly fun to me. So I almost look forward to the moment when I realize I have to drop the day job and focus on the wine writing.

It’s a great, great luxury to have that to turn to. Because frankly, there’s a lot of days when I stare at my computer screen, and I find myself having incredible difficulty conjuring imaginary characters. Whereas, one of the things that I love about wine writing is that there is thousands of fascinating characters in the wine world. I mean, there aren’t a whole lot of dorks and boring anal-retentive people in the wine world, you know? Most of them have a really good story. Read the rest of this entry »

The New California: An Interview with Jon Bonné

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-31-2014

Bonné discussing his book in Brooklyn with Abe Schoener.

Bonné discussing his book in Brooklyn with Abe Schoener.

“Slowly, I encountered other winemakers with similar beliefs. I found people who remained committed to restrained, compelling wines that spoke clearly of their origins — and who shared my frustration with California’s modern style.

“Some… had been toiling for decades; others were upstarts with the same energy and ambition as the pioneers from previous generations. Eventually, the brushstrokes began to turn into something recognizable: the seeds of a new movement, a new California wine in the making.”

These words appear in the introduction to The New California Wine, the just-released book from Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle.

To say I’m excited about Jon’s book would be an understatement. The wines that fill the pages are both compelling and delicious – and all the producers he highlights deserve the attention.

Last week, Jon and I chatted about his book. Check out the interview below!

David White: What inspired you to write The New California Wine?

Jon Bonne: I think it was just realizing, after seeing a lot of clues, that there weren’t just some people doing interesting things in California, but really a sea change that was starting to happen. It was finally something that was worthy of spending the time that’s required to do a book.

Second, it was really important to get there early because it had been about a decade since there’d been a serious California wine book — and it was a moment that needed to be captured, because you just don’t get too many moments like this. So it was a very distinct case of right place, right time.

In your book, you obviously spend lots of time discussing the new, exciting producers. But you’ve said that a defining moment in your understanding of where California wine is headed was a meeting Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards. So talk for a moment about how a winemaker like Draper fits into the New California paradigm. In other words, you talk a lot about the folks who have been doing the same things for decades – Paul Draper, Josh Jensen, and Cathy Corison – but also folks like Steve Matthiasson and Matt Rorick, who are relatively new. How do those two planets align? Is what’s old new again? 

There were two things at play there.

One, it became really clear to me that if I simply made this about people who had come to this relatively recently, it was going to diminish the book. It was going to make it just about new and shiny things, and make it look like, “Well this is just the millennial wine book.” And I really didn’t want it to be that, mostly because I felt that this wasn’t about the amount of time someone had spent working to make California wine and pioneering, but it was about style. It was about an ascetic, and a social change that was taking place.

So I had to include people like Cathy Corison and Paul Draper and Josh Jensen, who had really been inspirations for a lot of younger winemakers and whose wines had come back into currency. It’s important to remember that Ridge and Calera, after having sort of found their way into the background for a long time because they just weren’t doing flashy, were finding a new audience once again. So it became evident I had to include them.

That leads to the second point, which is that there’s obviously a stylistic continuity between the wines they make and the wines that some of those younger or newer winemakers in the book make.

More specifically, and this is what I thought was really important, there were two generations of pioneers that I needed to capture somehow.

One is the current generation. But the second is a generation that included folks like Draper, Cathy Corison, Josh Jensen, and Bob Travers of Mayacamas. And honestly, that really included, more than anyone probably, people like Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski. And that generation — the generation that pioneered great wine in California 40 years ago — had spiritual similarities with the current generation. What’s happening now is really a new iteration of the pioneering spirit that put California on the world stage in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

So I needed to include the people who had really been the original pioneers and kept the faith. But also, there was a kinship. If you look now at how those two generations have come together, I think there’s finally this realization that what made California great as a wine region is very much being explored again, and being explored in a similar way to how it was successfully explored about 40 years ago.

So guys like Josh Jensen and Paul Draper avoided the rise of what you call “big flavor.” Let’s talk about that for a bit. In one interview, you note that it isn’t just about alcohol but that it’s about “some fundamentally cynical beliefs in what California can achieve.” What do you mean by that? To what do you attribute the rise of big flavor? Read the rest of this entry »

Pursuing Balance: An Interview with Jasmine Hirsch

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-16-2014

jasmine hirschIn 2011, Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch teamed up to create an event celebrating the “wineries striving to produce balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California.”

They dubbed it “In Pursuit of Balance.” The event wasn’t without controversy.

In showcasing those producers who eschewed ripeness and power and in favor of restraint and elegance, Raj and Jasmine created an exclusionary event – one that had no room for the producers most favored by prominent wine critics. Last year, for example, Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman proclaimed that he “[resented] the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can’t be balanced.”

Of course, Raj and Jasmine have also helped counteract the notion that California only makes fruit bombs. They’ve helped bring much deserved attention to producers that make precise, focused wines — wineries like Ceritas, Littorai, and Peay. And for that, they deserve everyone’s praise.

This year, IPOB will visit New York on February 4 (tickets here) and San Francisco on March 10 (tickets here). Both events will be fantastic.

Earlier this week, Jasmine and I chatted about IPOB. Check out the interview below!

David White: What inspired you and Raj to launch IPOB?

Jasmine Hirsch: When I got started in the wine business, which was in 2008, I had been living in New York and drinking amazing Burgundy — just kind of diving into old Burgundy and being blown away by what they were able to achieve with Pinot Noir in the Old World.

When I started working for my family’s winery, Hirsch Vineyards, I started to taste a lot more California Pinot. Raj and I were friends and we were hanging out and having this extended conversation about wine and one of the questions I was asking him was, “why can’t we produce wines like this in California? Why can’t we make wines like these Burgundies in California?”

He said, “well, we can, and some people are making these wines.”

He then started to introduce me to the wines of Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. And I knew the wines of Littorai and was tasting them more. Raj was starting to make his own wines. So we originally had the idea to get all of these producers together and do a cool-climate Pinot Noir thing. That came out of the discussions that Raj and I were having and the tastings we were doing.

Then I think it was Raj who noted that it is not just about climate, it’s about intention, it’s about balance. If you look around the world — not just California — you can see that while climate is hugely important, of course, you can make wines that are incredibly ripe and fruit forward in relatively cool climates. You can make fairly restrained and elegant wines in warmer climates, too.

So it’s not so much a question of climate, it’s more a question of what are you intending to achieve in your Pinot Noir. So we kind of shelved the idea for a year and then I found an old email that I had written to him about this. So I said “hey, do you want to restart this conversation?”

We met for drinks at drinks at RN74 and we literally wrote down names of the wineries we would like to invite on the back of a napkin. So it started really casually and informally, and we held our first tasting in 2011 at RN74, where they were kind enough to provide us with a venue. It was packed I can’t remember how many producers we had — I think around 20 or 25 – but it was just this amazing, amazing dynamic event with so much energy around it. And people were really excited about the idea and it grew from there.

There’s been pushback over your use of the word “balance.” Harvey Steiman wrote a stinging piece last year, where he wrote, “my view is that there is a wide spectrum of legitimate approaches to the grape that can be called ‘balanced.’ The word is not a synonym for ‘light and crisp,’ and frankly I resent the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can’t be balanced.” To his point, I’ve never met a winemaker – not even in Napa – who doesn’t go out of his way to talk about how his wines are balanced. No winemaker will ever tell you that his wines are unbalanced. What’s your response to Steiman? Can you make a ripe, fruit-forward wine with generous use of oak that’s still balanced?

Well I think the word is hugely problematic — I don’t deny that.

But the controversy around the event has come out of not just the use of the word “balance,” it’s come out of the entire endeavor. The word “balance” is subjective and polarizing — and from a marketing point of view, maybe that’s a good thing because it gets people talking. The fact that Harvey Steiman was so offended just goes to show that the event is having an impact and that the conversation is relevant. That people feel so strongly about the event goes to show that this is an important debate in the wine community.

To answer your question more specifically, I have my own, personal idea of what makes for balanced Pinot Noir. I think that most discussions around balance end up talking about style. Style is an important question in Pinot Noir, but for me the most important discussion we should be having in Pinot Noir is about terroir and the intention of your wines.

What you said about no winemaker would ever say her wine is unbalanced, no Pinot Noir winemaker would ever tell you that she isn’t trying to make wines of terroir. That’s true as well.

The reason why I think that restraint and ripeness in Pinot Noir is important is that if a Pinot Noir is overwhelmed with fruit – or, indeed, by any element, like oak, fruit extraction, fruit ripeness, or alcohol — you’re going to lessen the possibility that the wine can express essential place. And for me, Pinot Noir is all about essential place.

What’s the point of growing one of the most fickle, challenging, and expensive grapes in viticulture if not to serve its higher purpose, which I believe is to express place? So for me, perhaps we misnamed the event. Maybe we should have called it “In Pursuit of Terroir.”

I mean, some people would ask if we even have terroir in California. And we don’t know, we’re trying to figure that out. For me, balance serves intention and the intention at Hirsch Vineyards is to make wines of place. So we feel that more restraint in fruit ripeness and oak helps to serve that greater purpose. Read the rest of this entry »

Naked in the Vineyards in Cahors

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-13-2014

Spoiler alert: A winemaker in Cahors likes to run around his vineyards naked.

In my last post, I talked a little about the history of Cahors, a region that began planting vines 50 years before Christ. As I’d mentioned, when visiting Cahors, everything feels hearty and almost suspended in Medieval times. It doesn’t have the grand chateaux of Bordeaux and it doesn’t have the pretty, provincial charm of Burgundy. It’s an area defined by something tougher and older.

It’s hard to imagine a lot of reinvention and novelty coming out of a place that conjures up images of knights and castles. However, Cahors has had to reinvent itself more than once after having its vines bulldozed by phylloxera and then by frost.

To better understand how the wine industry of Cahors views itself today and where it wants to go into the future, I talked to three youthful, exciting winemakers in the region: Julien Ilbert of Chateau Combel La Serre; Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé; and Arnaud Bladinières of Mas des étoiles.

Julien Ilbert

Julien Ilbert with his father

Fabien Jouves

Fabien Jouves


Arnaud Bladinières

See the interview below the fold, including the aforementioned spoiler! Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Roberto Cipresso

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-10-2014

cipressoEach week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring one of the world’s top winemakers, Roberto Cipresso. He’s the owner of La Fiorita, located in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, a small village in Montalcino.

Born in Bassano del Grappa, a city in northern Italy, Roberto studied agriculture in college and moved to Tuscany in 1987 to begin making wine. His work soon took him to legendary estates like Case Basse di Soldera, Poggio Antico, and Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, and he quickly gained acclaim for his work.

In 1992, he established La Fiorita. And in 1998, he began making work in the Southern Hemisphere with the launch of Achaval-Ferrer, one of Argentina’s most celebrated wineries.

Check out our interview with Roberto below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »