from coterie to cuvée Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Coterie's Barrels

An Interview of Coterie Cellars, an Urban Winery

There was a time when the term "urban winery" would have been considered an oxymoron.  But for wine producers who source their fruit from growers, the lack of attachment to any particular vineyard allows for a great degree of choice regarding winery location.  An increasing number of them are opting to set up shop in areas that may be a distance from the nearest grapevines, but which are conveniently located, both for themselves as well as potential customers living in more urban areas.  One such winery is Coterie Cellars, a newly established micro-production facility located amidst the quasi-urban sprawl of San Jose.  Though I'd briefly met the proprietors, Kyle and Shala Loudon, during the 2008 Pinot Days tasting event in San Francisco, I followed up with the domestic garagistes more recently during a visit to their rather compact winery, where I learned more about the evolution of their urban endeavor.

With its first commercial vintage in 2007, Coterie Cellars is a recent venture on the landscape of wine production.  And with a total case output currently around 500, it's quite the small one as well.  But the husband and wife team consider the size of their winery advantageous to their continuing exploration of winemaking, in a number of ways — not the least of which is their ability to house the entire operation within one small warehouse.  Their size has also allowed them to divide the myriad of tasks typical of any winery in a way that's still manageable for the two of them, and to some degree matched to their respective skill sets.  As chief cellarmaster, Kyle came into the wine industry with an already keen understanding of work process, thanks to his background in technical project work.  This translated into a methodical and graduated approach in learning to make wine, starting with a period of mentoring with a 'coterie' of enthusiasts by some established winemakers.  In the process of producing small amounts of wine under experienced guidance, the couple became intimately familiar with specific vineyards and their grape clones, ultimately empowering them to venture forth with their own brand.  Kyle's collaborative, disarming, and open minded disposition has allowed him to strengthen existing relationships and forge new ones with a handful of quality-driven and reputable growers.  His wife Shala, with her own client-focused experience in luxury retail, brings a good amount of marketing savvy to the winery's operations.  In engaging the two, I found a compelling story on going from mere enthusiast to masterful entrepreneur.

NM:  You have a successful career in the technology industry.  So what got you interested in making wine, ultimately compelling you to do so commercially?

KL:  It goes back to when I was four or five years old, believe it or not.  Of course, I wasn't drinking wine at that age, but I had a real interest in food at a very early age.  I had a family that really appreciated food, with grandparents that frequently cooked many interesting dishes for us.  Even as a kid, I thought that someday I would love to own a restaurant; that was one of those things in the back of my mind that I might end up doing.  Coupled with that interest in food, I definitely had a long standing interest in wine.  But there's not a lot of opportunities to produce wine in Indiana.  And when I moved out to California in 1992, I started spending time with some producers and growers out in this area.  I really did not get the chance to start working with wine in any detail until after 2000.  So, we started volunteering for a couple of wineries up in the East Bay — Eno Wines and Harrington Wines, small wineries that both produce really nice wines — and started producing wines with them.  A lot of the influence in how we make wine came from those early producers that we worked with, and they themselves had been influenced by some small production winemakers as well — Ed Kurtzman, Brian Loring, Dan Kosta & Michael Browne, Adam & Dianna Lee.

Coterie Pinot What's interesting is that when we started working with those other wineries, we didn't realize that it was possible to combine our excitement for food and wine with actually producing wines of our own.  And what we came to find out, as we learned from these other winemakers and started getting exposed to new wines, is that not only can you it, but you can do it well, at this [small] level.  In fact, in some ways and in some cases, you can do it better than larger wineries, because you've got some things you can do as a small winery that big wineries can't do.  And, of course, there are trade-offs — there are advantages, as well, to producing at a large winery.  You can produce great wines at both ends of the scale.  But it's nice to know that you absolutely can produce world-class wines, really, at a very small scale as well.  And that realization was really exciting to us and is what drove us to do this.  The other thing that's influenced us is that Shala and I have done a fair amount of traveling in wine producing regions.  Shala actually has family in northern Italy, so we've spent time with them over five or six trips we've taken in the last few years together to Italy.  Her grandfather was actually a cooper, a barrel-maker.

NM:  Okay, let's take it a step further.  Here you've got a winery in the unlikeliest of places: just a short way's from downtown San Jose and in a region known far more for its industry in technology rather than in wine.  Not to mention, you're on the complete opposite end of the San Francisco Bay from where a considerable piece of the wine industry resides, both in grape growing and in wine production.  Tell me about this choice to set up your winery here in this warehouse in San Jose — what led up to it and what is it like producing wine here?

KL:  You're right, this area is certainly not wine country.  In fact, we like to think that we're taking the 'country' out of wine country!  But it is an area with tremendous interest in wine.  One of the great things about being located here is that Shala and I live only ten minutes away, so we're really making wine in the community that we're a part of.  We're able to be right here, near the winery, giving the wines attention whenever needed.  There are many small wineries like us that are custom crush clients (they have somebody else produce wines for them).  It may be that those winemakers are still very involved with their wine, but it's in another facility.  Or it may be that they're not that involved in the production at all; they have someone else doing a lot of the production to their specs.  What you see here is done 100% with our own hands and those of our helpers — from the 80% of the wine business that people don't talk about, the cleaning, sanitation, and all the things that you have to do to be a good winemaker, to the 20% that's the more romantic stuff that people do want to hear about.

Another thing about being in this area is that even though we're not in wine country per se, we're within reach — two or three hours — of all the vineyards that we work with: Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, Casatierra Vineyard in the Fiddletown area [Sierra Foothills], and Fairview Road Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands.  That means we can make as many trips as we need throughout the summer and again throughout the fall when we get close to harvest time.  And then on the day of harvest [for each vineyard] we go in the middle of the night, pick early in the morning with the growers — we're always there for the picks — then we bring the fruit back and start the fruit on its way to wine that very same day.  So, not being in wine country really doesn't have that much of a disadvantage for us, other than the fact that sometimes consumers want to go to wine country to taste a bunch of wines with other wineries.  We don't have as much of that sort of community down here yet, but I think it's actually going to develop as more and more interest starts to form around these small wineries.

NM:  You're sourcing your grapes, and therefore have quite a range of choice in the varietals you choose to vinify.  This, of course, is very much unlike an estate winery established on a plot of land whose terroir might have a direct influence on which varietal(s) you would plant and therefore make into wine.  Given that you had that range of choice, how did you settle on the actual varietals you've chosen?

KL:  There are several things I could mention.  One influence came from the vineyards we knew and had experience with, so that we were able to have witnessed very closely for several years what those vineyards were about.  You really never understand a vineyard as well until you work with it yourself — actually either working right beside, producing a wine, and seeing what happens from that.  So, all that definitely went into the decision to choose some of the varietals we did.  Overall, though, why certain varietals?  Personally, we really like Pinot Noir.  We think that the vineyard in the Russian River Valley is very distinctive for that area.  As is the vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is right in between Gary's Vineyard and Rosella's Vineyard, a great location.  Both of those vineyards express Pinot in very different ways, and we love that fact!

Coterie Rosé Regarding the Roussanne, that's a variety that we love as well, and we think many other people in the United States would like it if they'd heard about it yet!  A lot of people have tried it — because it's the main variety of [white] Chateauneuf-du-Pape — and just not realized it.  Plus, you don't see it that much in the U.S.  It's such an aromatic and very pretty white wine with a very nice mouthfeel.  It's a wine that we get great responses on, even though when you see it sitting on a shelf you may not recognize it by its name.

Finally, we have a rosé made from the Syrah we source from the Fiddletown vineyard.  It's a dry rosé made very much in the style of Southern France.  And it's a unique wine.  I mean, there are other producers doing that in the United States, but we do ours barrel fermented in neutral oak where it spends some time on the lees for several months.  It's neutral oak, so it doesn't impart any oak flavor, but there are other things that barrels do for a wine, and that's what we're trying to achieve.  What's kind of neat is that it takes on a bit of a salmon hue after it's been in the barrel for a little while and the mouthfeel is little rounder.  Overall, it's a more complex wine than a lot of other bright rosés that come out of a stainless steel tank after just a couple of months.  And there's nothing wrong with those wines, but that's what a lot of rosés in the United States are made like.  Ours is something that's actually more similar to the wines of the south of France, even though those wines, of course, are unique in their own ways.  But the idea was to produce something like that.  Shala and I have spent some time in the south of France, and when you go there you see all these beautiful salmon-colored rosés in the villages, so we thought it would be something unique and interesting for us to do.  You're probably picking up a theme here.  Being so small, we want to produce wines that are something unique.  As a small producer, we can't make a wine that is just like any Chardonnay you might find on a store shelf — that wouldn't satisfy us and it wouldn't satisfy the people drinking it either.  So, certainly there are personal reasons for the wines that we produce, but I think there are also reasons that people who taste our wines would respond to.

NM:  Now, let's focus on the vineyards from which you're sourcing your fruit.  First off, you've got contractual agreements with these growers, correct?

KL:  We do, yes.  We have specific blocks within the vineyards that we work with.  We don't just show up in the fall and ask about what they have; we actually have specific areas that we know we're going to be getting fruit from.  And fortunately, we've got fantastic growers all very personally involved in getting out there in the vineyards and doing the work that needs to be done.  The good thing with these growers being so talented and so established is that we don't really have to fix problems in the vineyards.  Some winemakers you hear about spend all this time in the vineyard fixing things that might be going on.  Each one of our growers has been so nice to work with; we haven't had to deal with those kinds of problem issues, it's always about good stuff.  When we go up there, it's more about questions and suggestions than it is about taking care of problems.  The other thing is that we work with other winemakers.  In Santa Lucia Highlands, we actually split that block with Sasha Verhage from Eno Wines.  We go down to that vineyard together at times — and that's great because it's a really nice collaborative effort, in that case, of being able to be down there and talk about things that are going on.

NM:  How did you decide on those specific vineyards, and to what extent are you part of the decision-making that goes into raising the vines whose fruit you're sourcing?

KL:  It's different with each vineyard.  We started working with the Fairview Ranch Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) because one of the wineries that we'd been working with had already been working with that vineyard.  And so, like a lot of winemakers, when we were working with those other wineries, we got the chance to produce a small amount of our own wine.  We got to really experience several vintages of that vineyard before we ever produced our own wine from it, and certainly well before we produced any commercial wine from there.  So we've really seen that vineyard evolve from year to year. Having had that experience helped us to make decisions about how we may want to work with that vineyard — which clones or what percentage of the clones we may use from there, when we would pick, how procedures and challenges are handled in the vineyard.  Those things are primarily in the hands of the grower, but we certainly have input into some of those processes because we're working with growers who, in the end, want good wines made out of their vineyards just as much as we do.  It's very much a two-way relationship; we're very thankful that these growers are so talented and at the same time there are winemaking things that are different but go hand in hand with the growing.

Coterie Roussanne Casatierra Vineyard is another one that we were originally in contact with because of the work that we'd done with other wineries.  It's a small vineyard of six acres and about seven clones of Syrah.  Again, we had the chance to work with several of these different clones over the years, then decided which part of the vineyard we liked the best, which clone we liked the best.  The grower, Pam York, is very nice and flexible to let us work in different ways like that.  And we actually split that vineyard with Scott Harvey, a longtime winemaker, and we're very fortunate because we're able to go in and ask specifically for the little piece of the vineyard that best suits our wines and then Scott takes all the rest.  So being small has its advantages in that sense, too.

The last vineyard — and again these are not in any order of preference, because I love all these vineyards — is Saralee's Vineyard, an icon of the Russian River Valley.  [Unlike the other two vineyards], this one we actually started working with on our own; we found the vineyard when we started looking for some Roussanne.  Roussanne is a difficult grape to grow and not that many people grow it, but it's a personal favorite of ours.  In fact, before we were a commercial winery, we'd started producing a little Roussanne (from Saralee's) because we liked it so much.  And after we'd done that, we started to explore other parts of the vineyard.  Saralee has a vintner's tasting event each year, which is a phenomenal event that she puts on when most of the winemakers [who source her fruit] come back in the Spring.  It's a wonderful tasting event because what happens is that we go up there and we'll literally taste, say, five different wines from different parts of a particular block, and then we talk about and share how we vinified each wine.  And that process really informs the ideas we might start to have about other wines we might want to do from there, or even about the wines we're already making.  In fact, we selected our Pinot Noir blocks, in part, as a result of that tasting.  We gravitated to certain blocks with certain characteristics.  The other wine we produce a bit from there, as well, is Viognier.  That was another block that came about from already having worked with the grower.  So, we got a small amount and though we weren't sure how we would use it, thought it would be nice to have and experiment with a barrel or two.  And we just loved it!  We ended up coming back to her the next year and actually taking up a little block of Viognier.

So these things happen kind of organically like that.  Being small, it's all about these personal relationships with the different growers, where we can take a barrel or two and try something.  We try to make an educated guess about whether something is going to work for us.  Whether something works out one way or the other, we have that flexibility to make some little changes or adjustments.  And in the end, it's always about making something as great as it can be.  I really haven't had any bad experiences with growers to this point; it's all been about moving forward and striving to make better and better wines.  That's what has been tremendously exciting for us about it!

NM:  Focusing now on your winemaking itself, what are some of the practices you engage in, which you feel help to give your wines some of their distinction?

KL:  Let me give you a little bit of insight into some of the things we do with our winemaking.  In general, with our red wines, we de-stem but leave the berries whole as much as we can.  This is not something I would expect to deviate from, unless I really saw something in the fruit that warranted it.  For example, maybe we would want to do whole clusters in there because we see that there are some beautiful brown stems, and we'd think that the fruit would be compatible with doing something where we would want a little more earthiness or spiciness by adding a few of those stems.  And the reason why we like to keep the berries whole — and generally a lot of winemakers like this, too — is that it's very gentle, which is important for Pinot Noir especially.  Fermenting whole berries allows maybe a little bit of carbonic maceration to occur inside of the berry itself, which gets more of the fruit to come out in the wine.  And that's a winemaking choice.  Getting back to stem inclusion, generally we haven't done much of that.  So, again, as a small winemaker we can make all those decisions when we look at the fruit when it comes in.  Another choice we often make is cold-soaking, where we soak the berries and keep them cold before any fermentation starts, for potentially four or five days.  It brings out the characteristics that are already there in the fruit — but again it's a winemaking choice, something that small producers can do in small, individual lots.

NM:  You haven't mentioned much in the way of formal training in winemaking, and you're not hiring a consulting winemaker like a lot of wineries with a similar production model as yours.  How did you learn to make wine?

Kyle in Vineyard KL:  I think the biggest influence on our winemaking is from the winemakers that we worked with previously — fortunately we had some very good teachers in that regard.  And again, because they were small producers, we were talking about a lot of smaller lots, so we had a lot of opportunities to try different things, see the results either through our own winemaking or vicariously through the winemakers we were working with who were giving us the chance to do that.  As far as formal training, I have done some work in viticulture and enology at UC Davis, but I don't have a degree in that area.  And you'll here about a lot of smaller winemakers who certainly have done some coursework up there but maybe don't have the formal degree.  My formal degree is in computer science — so from the standpoint of understanding technical things, maybe there's a small connection there.  But — and this is one of the things we love about this industry — there's a tremendous amount of learning that goes on between winemakers.  Some of it comes in the form of research, things that you read, but a lot of it comes through direct contact with other people.  And then, of course, there's experiencing the wines and just having a sensibility about these things; it goes back to my interest in food from many years ago.  It's a bit like asking if someone can be a great cook without any formal culinary school training, and the answer is yes!  And I think it's true with wine, too.

NM:  It's interesting that you bring up the subject of formal training.  Something that I feel is true of a great number of disciplines and industries, but especially so with winemaking, is that there is a continuum of skill that at one end is purely intuitive and artisan-driven, and at the other is purely pragmatic and technique-driven.  Winemaking at the one extreme results in a product that might have character and individuality, but is riddled with faults and is prone to problems.  At the other extreme, the result is a product that's technically sound but lacks any soul or distinction.  Success — again in nearly any endeavor, but quite so with winemaking — comes with being able to balance the two.  Seeing as you've come into this industry from a technical background, I'm guessing that a great deal of the protocol and procedure in winemaking is something to which you've taken very readily.  But what about the other side of that continuum?  Tell me about your creative side.

KL:  Yeah, it's very interesting that you pick up on that.  It's funny, sometimes I feel  like a creative person who's maybe a little trapped in the technical world!  {chuckling}  And winemaking actually is a wonderful medium through which to, like you said, create a balance.  There is a technical side that absolutely cannot be ignored.  Similarly, there's a creative side that shouldn't be ignored.  You're right, there needs to be a balance there.  I've tasted wines that I sometimes think are technically very sound but just seem overly technical, and perhaps even manipulated — and that's kind of a pejorative word — but some wines get manipulated to achieve a very specific result.  On the flip side, as you said, you can be very creative but technically sloppy, and so end up with a problematic result.  So, I think there absolutely must be a balance.

And that's actually a good way to sum up our winemaking philosophy.  First and foremost, I talk so much about the vineyards because that's really where it starts; you absolutely cannot make a great wine without great grapes.  I know it's a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true!  It has to start there; you can't have something that's not great fruit and try to produce something that's going to amaze people.  You have to start with great fruit.  That said, if you take the great fruit and try to make it into something it isn't, I think you can end up with just as bad of a situation.  I think a lot winemaking is trying to really understand what that fruit is about.  Some of that is understanding what the grower is about, what that land is about, what all those different things that go into a vineyard are about.  Winemaking, I think, sometimes is as much about not doing something as it is about doing something.  And so I think our winemaking is balance of that, too — it's a balance of technical and creative, but it's also a balance of intervention and not.

To learn more about these handcrafted wines and how to get them, visit Coterie Cellars online. v