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eastern exposure Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

OE Cabernet (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)ES:  Sara spent ten years as the head winemaker at [Joseph] Phelps, and two years at Quintessa.  Then she had three kids and left the winemaking business [for a bit].  Now she's making wine again: in addition to Oakville East, she makes Blackbird, Cliff Family Vineyards, and her own family wine, Joel Gott.  She has this great pedigree and she's really fun.  My favorite story about Sara was when I called her, very concerned, during the October after we'd bottled in June for the 2005 vintage.  I said, "Sara, the wine has no taste and no smell!"  And she replied, "Elliot, the only thing dumber than that wine is you."  {laughter}  I laughed so hard!  I mean, Sara's like all of five feet tall and weighs about 90… I don't know what she weighs, but she's tiny!  I laughed so hard, and then said, "Okay, I get it; just wait."  But let me tell you: that wine went from the dumbest I'd ever encountered to earning 95 points in the Enthusiast last month.  It just kept evolving!  But, boy, for the first six months of that wine, [in an effort to get it to open up], I would pour it into a magnum decanter and just shake it!  {laughter}  I would rhumba with that sucker, it was that stubborn!

But, yeah, the working relationship with Sara is great.  She's fun to be around, she makes great wine, and she keeps me involved when she wants me to be.  Though I think I'm atypical in my involvement [as a proprietor] because Sara makes all the choices, every call is hers — the barrels, the grapes, time of harvest, everything.  She does all the blending; I don't get involved with the blending — why would I interfere with a virtuoso?  She's one of the best.  You can't quantify her excellence and limit what she can do to make it good.  We have six different vineyards and harvest probably eleven or twelve times — not many people do that, they'll go wipe out a vineyard and be done with it — so on the cost side, I've virtually said, "Sara, you do what it takes to make great wine."  She has to force me to taste her wines every year, just so I can see the progress and see what's going on.  The only thing I really do is smell the wine sometimes before she actually puts into bottle, because I have a very low tolerance for brettanomyces and other flaws.  In that case, it's nice to have another nose involved.  But as far as the final blendings, and choosing which grapes go into our wine and which get sold off in bulk, that's all her call.

NM:  And how has Sara been about your choice to go in a biodynamic direction?  Is it something that she'd already had some experience in, or has this been also been a learning experience for her?

ES:  On the fruit side, I think a lot of it is that we're all gaining knowledge together — we still have another three years to see the full results.  The truism in biodynamics is that you see the differences each year, but it's in the third year when the fruit really changes and in the fourth when the vines really change; it takes that long.  On the winemaking side, a lot of the things that you do in biodynamics — when you rack the wine and do other things based on moon phases and pressure changes — Sara had already been doing.

Laborious Lessons

"The truism in biodynamics is that you see the differences each year, but it's in the third year when the fruit really changes and in the fourth when the vines really change; it takes that long."

NM:  What have been the challenges, from start to finish, to making wine from the vineyards of Oakville East that you feel are unique?

ES:  The first one would be that it's a lot different working with people by simply buying their fruit, versus asking them to be part of your project where we don't really mean anything because the grapes are the stars.  Another one has been convincing people to change their farming philosophies — that's been very interesting and rewarding.  But I think label design and naming is the most difficult thing you ever do; I found it extremely frustrating and difficult.  Luckily, I already knew a lot about compliance and TTB stuff, so I could get through that part pretty easily.  But then: finished goods.  First of all, I had to learn the whole costing model.  I'd always sold things when they were in the case and taped shut, so they already had a price.  But learning what it costs for labels, corks, capsules, bottles, bottling lines, and a custom crush facility — all of that was a great learning experience.