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KD: The first wine is from the Saralee Vineyard is in the Russian River Valley, close to Forestville. This is a cool-climate Chardonnay. The second wine is from the Stuhlmuller Vineyard — a vineyard I've worked with for 15+ years — in Alexander Valley, but southern, in a very cool part of the valley that butts up against Russian River and Chalk Hill appellations. So, it gets quite a bit of cooling influence from the Catati and Bodega Bay, although not as much as Russian River, and it's grown on a very deep gravel bed, which I believe flavors it. So it still has the power of Alexander Valley, but it's not a warm-climate vineyard; it's fairly cool, considering it's Alexander Valley. But it is warmer than Russian River Valley. These are both barrel-fermented with native yeast and native 100% ML, so one would think you'd get an over-the-top, oaky-style of wine, but I don't think they are. What I get, oftentimes when I ferment Chardonnay on native yeast, is a sort of nuttiness with a slight matchstick quality. It's not sulfide, but it's a permutation of it. And yet there's a lot of oily fruit there, also. So, native yeasts ferments, versus cultured yeasts, give you this layered effect in the aromas and flavors.
NM: These two wines definitely exemplify a particular style that's uncommon even among handcrafted, cooler climate Sonoma Chardonnays. How much of that would you say is reflective of how you personally think about the grape variety?
KD: I really love Chardonnay! The goal is really to create layers of complexity.
I think you can tell the wines that I make. There's a similar mouthfeel and overall approach to my winemaking. I purposely try not to make an over-the-top style.
A Style of Subtlety
NM: Can you articulate what that means for you? How would you personally define a wine that's 'over-the-top' versus one that's unobtrusive, perhaps elegant?
KD: First off, let's assume that you have very good fruit that can handle a lot of oak and can handle a lot of maturity. Taking the Saralee Vineyard as an example, that would mean picking the fruit even riper and doubling the oak. Then it would become heavier, more viscous, more of a 'statement' wine. You'd turn the volume up. Now, we could do that and I think it would make a good wine, but I don't think that's really what we want to do here.
DM: Yeah, that doesn't work with our philosophy and our concept. The best thing was, when I tasted his wines before I ever met Kerry, I thought, "From top to bottom, these are all really good wines; there's not a bad one in the bunch." There wasn't a single one that was radically different in the bunch. And we hear from people time in and time out, "All your wines are really good" and they just walk away feeling, "Wow, we had some quality wines." If we went big and over-the-top with any of them, it would stand out and throw off all the other wines.
NM: So, a more florid or exaggerated style is not consistent with your philosophy. In your own words, what is that philosophy?
DM: My philosophy — how I perceive Kerry's wines is that they're bold, they're food friendly, they're approachable, and they're wines that you can cellar but are still drinkable now. It's great that people can age them — and our Cabernets are worthy of aging — but we don't want people to save these wines [entirely]. We want them to enjoy them. And they're not made for a single kind of customer; we have visitors from all over the world who enjoy this approachable, well-made wine.
[Perfectly exemplifying the Dutcher Crossing dedication to the making of elegant wines is the Maple Vineyard Zinfandel. Upon tasting this wine, I found it to be surprisingly refreshing. With oceans of heavy and overbearing Zinfandel on the market, the appeal of one that's bright in acidity, nuanced in expression, and clean in finish simply can't be overstated. Equally unexpected was the wine's eventual prompting of a discussion on Bettanomyces.]
DM: The Maple Zinfandel is one of the vineyard designates in our program. Tom and Tina Maple bought the vineyard about 25 years ago down on Dry Creek Road. They have their set philosophy of dry-farming (no irrigation), all head-trained vines, and these vines are their babies! As growers, they believe in their grapes and they believe in the wineries that use their grapes. They actually interviewed winemakers and winery owners [initially, as potential buyers for their grapes] — instead of the other way around — just to make sure we're worthy of having their grapes.
KD: Yes, I went through an interview!… because I didn't know them prior to that.