Weekly Interview: Chris Christensen

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 02-04-2017

Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen

Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Chris Christensen, the winemaker at Bodkin Wines.

Hailing from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Chris attended Stanford University, and it was there that Chris learned that he enjoyed wine tasting so much. So after graduating, Chris jumped into the wine industry. And he started at the very first rung of the ladder. As he moved up that ladder, however, Chris moved out to work what he calls a “real job,” quotation marks are his, at a bank. But quickly Chris figured out that corporate America was not for him, and he returned to the wine industry shortly after a year.

Chris founded Bodkin Wines as a side project in 2011, and began operating it full-time in 2014. In creating his own brand, in making his own wines, and in perfecting his craft, Chris has overcome the challenges that he faces with ADD and dyslexia, which we think is amazing.

Check out the interview below the fold!

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I know I don’t look much like a stereotypical Iowan, but my mom’s side of the family has been there since they relocated from Scotland via Canada in 1868. My dad’s side of the family has been in the country considerably longer, albeit nonconsensually (just like most other African-American families).

When and how did you get into wine?
Being a native Iowan raised in a devoutly Presbyterian non-drinking household, wine wasn’t really part of my culture growing up. It wasn’t until I came to Stanford for college that I got into wine tasting as a means of feigning sophistication to impress chicks and learned that tasting wine was something that I actually enjoyed. By the time graduation rolled around I started to think that working a couple of harvests would be a fun way to spend a few years before getting a “real” job.

What has been your career path to where you are?
I started at the bottom – working in the lab at Gallo in Sonoma in 2003. From there I worked at Michel-Schlumberger, Maurtison, The Meeker Vineyard, and Armida Winery — all in the Dry Creek Valley — then I got a “real job” working for Wachovia Bank, for 1 year 1 month and 19 days. But I then ran right back to wine production at Thomas George Estates, and next Medlock Ames Winery. During my time at Medlock, I took a sabbatical and worked for Brendan Keys of BK Wines in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. After my return, I started Bodkin Wines in 2011, and I retired from Medlock Ames to work on Bodkin full time in 2014.

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
At this stage in the game we own no vineyard — nor is it part of the plan for Bodkin Wines. I went so far as to adopt the motto from the Game of Thrones’ House Greyjoy, “We Do Not Sow — We Only Reap,” for our 2015 harvest shirts. With that said I have to say what makes the vineyards we buy from so special is the people who manage them. The sustainably farmed Sandy Bend Vineyard in Upper Lake, CA for instance is owned by the Schlies family who are multi-generational Almond and Citrus moguls from The Valley while the vineyard is managed by Larry Rogers, the same man who planted it back in 1996. Needless to say they have forgotten more about farming than I’ll ever know and their commitment to sustainable farming reflects their creed to be diligent stewards of the land, which is really something I can get behind.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
“Less is more.” Whether it’s pressing for sparkling base, trying to get a handle on how a red ferment is extracting, or deciding how many new barrels to use in a blend, I have to remind myself that. You can make a better wine by not pressing so hard and avoiding the harsh few gallons at the end of a press cycle, excessive pump-overs and punch-downs can give you too much structure, and it’s usually best to let the fruit speak without trying to over-shadow its voice of terroir with sweet and toasty oak, no matter how delicious each new barrel tastes. This philosophy, however, doesn’t apply to acid in wine — the more the better — ain’t nobody got time for soapy, flabby wines, red or white.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Hands down, my biggest challenge is being ADD and dyslexic. In a career where so much attention to detail, organization, planning, and patience is needed, it’s a struggle to get up every day and fight against my natural disposition. Being dyslexic on top of that adds its own set of challenges. I was not formally diagnosed until I was 31 when I realized I was having so many problems entering lab data. I have to admit it was pretty liberating to finally find out that I was not careless or sloppy and I should stop beating myself up over something I cannot change. I just have to keep a mindful awareness of my disability when writing work orders so I don’t end up writing an 71kg add when I wanted to add 17kg. All in all, I’m not going to let my learning disabilities hold me back from doing what I love and from being good at it. It just means I have to work that much harder and I am proud to do that.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Paul Draper is my hero. I’ve never met the guy but his wines really shaped my palate for Zinfandel. I remember the first time I had old vintage Ridge back in 2006. It was at a tasting and someone brought a bottle of the 1982 Monte Bello, and the 1988 Lytton Zinfandel: mind=blown. The Monte Bello was classic old school Cali Cab, but that Zin really grabbed my attention — I couldn’t believe that Zin could age like that. Fred Payne is another, I had the pleasure of working with him back in 2004 at Michel-Schlumberger. A consummate intellectual and scientist, he crafted some of the best Bordeaux-Style California Cabs I’ve ever had. If you ever see mid-to-late 90’s Michel-Schlumberger online or in a store do yourself a favor and buy the bottle. Lastly, but by no means least, I have to shout out Chris Russi from Comstock Wines in Dry Creek. He’s a phenomenally talented winemaker and an even better friend. Russi has been like a big brother and mentor to me since I came into the industry back in 2003. His highly scientific yet real world applicable approach to making wine has been the cornerstone I have built my own winemaking style around.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Brandon “B-Leezy” Lapides out at Armida Winery comes to mind. Although the winery is perhaps best known for their over-the-top Heaven and Hell based event themes on Barrel Tasting Weekends, Brandon is producing some really slick Zinfandels from the Maple Vineyard in Dry Creek and subtlety hard-rocking Chard and Pinot from Gap’s Crown Vineyard, too.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
It’s really hard for me not to say Sonoma County — I mean c’mon, where else can you successfully grow grapes from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Rhone, the Rhine, and Italy all in an area slightly larger than Rhode Island? After that I’d say for white wines the Wachau region of Eastern Austria. The Grüner from there is good, but you have to try Sauv Blanc from the region — that’s my jam. Riper than SB from the Loire with all the texture and mineral that’s not often seen in the variety — it’s what I go for when crafting my own wines. As for reds I’m a big fan of the wines of Anjou. Over-shadowed by the popularity of the down-river neighbors in Chinon, these wines are really fun to nerd out over, provided you are into higher-acid-slightly-herbal red wine.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
2005 Domaine Ostertag Franholz Riesling is solidly in my upper tier of all time — it was so petrol-vaseline on the nose but so bright and fruit forward on the palate. It was like two different wines in one — major wow factor. I’d also like to name the 2007 Copain Roussane from the James Berry Vineyard — the most spot-on domestic rendition of a Rhone white wine I’ve ever had. And of course the aforementioned 1992 Lytton Springs Zinfandel from Ridge.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
It would be a bottle of white Rioja from 1984 that I found in a liquor store in Palo Alto back in 2003 — I doubt that it has been good since 1985. However the oldest that’s still drinkable would be the Marietta Cellars Port from 1989 and a magnum of 1993 Michel-Schlumberger Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I hope neither of those two are corked. As far as the most expensive goes, I’d say my 2012 Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. I made 281 cases of that wine, which was America’s first sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and all I have left is 8 bottles. I’d pay some good money for a few more bottles.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
I just finished a bottling so I have a bunch of my own wines open. Every bottling I like to tastes at least 3 year vertical of the wines I have bottled, if possible. So there’s a bunch of Bodkin Victor’s Spoils Sauvignon Blanc and Hotspur Rosé open, much to the chagrin of my lady who hates all the fridge space it takes up. I also have in my fridge a bottle of my 2013 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which I consider to be my favorite wine that I’ve ever made. The cool thing about dessert wine is that it can age like few wines due to its chemistry and oxidation on the vine. This particular bottle I have opened on 6/27/14 and taste it every few months to see how it’s doing with extended oxidation, and believe it or not, the wine is really hanging in there after 2.5 years open. Real talk.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
For the white I’d choose Von Brühl Sekt Riesling, hands down. It’s a great wine that shows how fun non-chard and/or pinot sparkling wine can be. As for a red, I’d cross it up and go with a rosé, Roederer L’Ermitage Brut that is. That wine is so crisp yet plush you can enjoy it by itself or have it with a steak.

Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes — most of the time, I’d say. Now before I sound like a traitor to my craft, let me say that wine for the most part tastes like work to me. At the end of a long day, I’d take well-crafted and balanced Pilsner, Blonde Ale, or Kolsch over a glass of wine. As a matter of fact, I’m enjoying a Cooper’s Sparkling Ale as I write this and will reward myself with Michel Huard, 90-92-99 Hour’s d’age Calvados when I’m finished.

How do you spend your days off?
Days off? What are those? I’m a little embarrassed to say it’s hard for to fully disconnect from my business. It’s a rare thing for me to have a day fully off, being a one-man winery and sales force. However, my lady and I were blessed with the birth of our first child last year. All my friends tell me to enjoy it now since kids grow up so fast, so she’s the center of my universe when I’m not working.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’ve shot archery since I was 10. I got all hyped up after watching Robin Hood Prince of Thieves back in 1991 and was the only kid in the neighborhood making life-sized targets of 13th century English men-at-arms. My interest has carried with me and can be seen in my today in Bodkin Wines. A bodkin being a long skinny arrowhead designed to pierce a knight’s armor and I have incorporated an image of the bowmen of England fighting the knights of France on my label. Yup, I’m a nerd — always have been, Always will be.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Well, I have no idea. Wine production is about all I’ve done my entire adult life. I know from my time at Wachovia that my ADD, hatred of office politics, and lack of diplomacy when dealing with incompetent co-workers render me unemployable in corporate America, and so I would go into construction as I have always loved building things and physical labor. Those are the things that got me to consider going into winemaking in the beginning.

How do you define success?​
I find success in the struggle. While I know there’s no making a perfect wine, I still go out every year and try to make all my wines to be perfect. It’s that draw to challenge myself to perfection in an imperfect world that keeps me going even though logically I know it won’t happen — kind of like a golfer trying to hit 18 holes-in-one in a round of golf. I think that I’m so fortunate not only to have found a career that challenges in such an exciting way but also to be able to make a living doing it. As a result, I feel like I reach a new level of professional success at the end of each and every work day.

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