super in sonoma Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   


Enterprising Winemaker Aims to Better Sonoma's Reputation for Cabernet
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Super Sonoman

Many in Sonoma County would take issue with being told that their winemaking region suffers from what might be called a bit of a varietal void.  But arguably, much of its reputation has been built on the quality-driven production of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.  Can the same thing be said of Cabernet Sauvignon?   With a negative answer to that question, at least one local producer has gone out on a limb to assert not only that the Bordeaux varietal can, in fact, become a major player in Sonoma, but that there is one particular geographical feature that would be instrumental in making it so: the micro vineyards on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains overlooking the Russian River Valley.  Super Sonoman, the relatively recent venture of Chris Taddei and his wife Dana, involves the making of wine from those ridge-top vineyards.  As a brand, it serves as a testament to their firm belief that Sonoma's potential for producing lush, elegant, and ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon has gone largely untapped and is capable of surpassing the best on which neighboring Napa has established its own reputation.  Curious, I set out to learn more about Super Sonoman and what its winemaker hopes to achieve with its implicit message.

A native of Sonoma County, Dana Taddei herself was instrumental in providing her husband's first significant exposure to California wines.  This was an important shift for Chris, an Old World enthusiast whose point of reference was firmly established early on through his exploration of French wines, in that it eventually provided the foundation for his enthusiasm and eventual advocacy for the industry in Sonoma.  Upon discovering the quality of the fruit produced on its mountaintops, he set out on a mission to realize what he vehemently believes is the region's capability to make world-class Bordeaux varietal wines.  I sat down with the couple in the facility where Super Sonoman is produced, and listened to Chris tell their story from his perspective as winemaker.

NM:  What are you hoping to accomplish with Super Sonoman?

"For Cabernet, I really believe that the right locations in Sonoma are as good or better than some of the best locations in Napa."

CT:  The whole concept behind Super Sonoman is that as I got to learn more about California wines, I realized a couple of things.  One, I really love Cabernet.  I mean, I love wines, but I really love Cabernet; to me, it's just an amazing varietal.  Another thing is that Sonoma County is a very different region, obviously, than Napa.  What people haven't really focused on so much in Sonoma is tweaking out their vineyards for Cabernet.  And I really believe that the right locations in Sonoma are as good or better than some of the best locations in Napa.  And the reason I think that is because you have all that cool air coming in at night — there's literally a 10-15 degree difference if you drive over that hill (I do it all the time).  With that, you get higher acidity.  When you try these wines, you'll see that the acids are there; these wines are going to last a long time and are just going to get better and better.  And that, to me, was the crux.  I could buy fruit from anywhere, but what no one has really done is looked at Sonoma County [for sites that are ideal for Cabernet].  They're doing it now with Pinot Noir, but at the point that I started all this, Pinot wasn't even on the charts, frankly.  When I made the '03, there was no [movie] Sideways.  The average person wasn't thinking about Sonoma in the context of being able to produce super high-quality wines.

Super Sonoman Cabernet SauvignonBut my perception has been different: I think that most of these ridge-top vineyards are phenomenal!  And what's happening in Sonoma County — as opposed to Napa, which has been built out by people with lots of money and big organizations who own all that fruit — is that you've got all these retired guys who come to Sonoma and spend $50k, $60k, $100k an acre because they can afford it.  And these rich ex-tech guys or ex-surgeons or whomever build micro-vineyards.  But it's a pain in the ass to work with micro-vineyards if you're doing ten-, twenty-, fifty thousand cases of wine; you can't do it!  So it facilitates a different type of a business model — like Super Sonoman's, where I can go and cherry pick the best fruit and work the vineyards the way I want them worked.  Sure, I'll pay a premium but I can get stuff that no one else can get their hands on in Sonoma County!  That's the beauty of it!

The reasoning behind starting Super Sonoman was twofold.  One, as I mentioned, was this idea that Sonoma County can really hold its own against Napa in so many ways — maybe in some ways even more.  From the perspective of a lot of different varietals, my personal humble opinion is that Sonoma County has the terroir.  Period, end of story.  But this is the challenge: I'm up against every great Cabernet that comes out of Napa County.  I've tried really hard to do a great job — not just a good job, but a great job.  I've done everything from researching the soils to learning the barrel programs and vineyard management — leafing, dropping flower clusters, and all that kind of stuff to really drive the flavor profile of the fruit.  The second reason for Super Sonoman was that I'd always envisioned doing a Cabernet-Syrah blend, which would have been my version of a Super Tuscan for Sonoma County.  In my mind, I grapple with that all the time, though we haven't actually done it yet.  Of course, I really just love Syrah, but I think it would be cool to have a 'Super Sonoman' as a Meritage for Sonoma County.  But once we did a great single-vineyard Cabernet in 2003, the name just stuck, so we kept it.

NM:  I'm hearing from you that this project is not just about making wine, but also an effort to convey a message.  Through Super Sonoman, it sounds like you're asserting your belief that Sonoma, as an appellation, has a tremendous amount of potential for making fine Bordeaux varietal wines that hasn't quite yet been tapped.

CT:  Absolutely.  I would love for the world to look at a bottle of Cabernet like that, open it, appreciate it for what it is, and say, "That is among the best wines ever."  I believe that Sonoma County can produce such a wine, and I think I can help deliver the message as a winemaker.  And it's not because I can't buy Napa fruit.  There are extremely talented winemakers in Napa and a tremendous amount of extraordinary vineyards.  In fact, I was just offered Beckstoffer fruit last week — I didn't say 'no' to it, but I don't want to diminish what Sonoma is about.  A huge part of what I want to do is help to increase awareness for how amazing Sonoma County is [for Bordeaux varietals].  I think perhaps part of that is inherently driven by the fact that I came out of college thinking that the only wine you could possibly drink was a French wine.  But my palate changed as I began to have more really good California wines — different, but really good.

NM:  How are the choices that you make today as a California winemaker shaped or influenced by the fact that your initial point of reference for wine appreciation was based entirely on fine French wines?

"One of the trends in California wines is that people push the pH because they're trying to push the phenolics and polyphenolics, so they let the fruit hang for long on the vines and it loses a lot of its acid."

CT:  When you taste the 2008 vintage, one of the things you're going to get right away is the acidic quality of the wine.  One of the trends in California wines is that people push the pH because they're trying to push the phenolics and polyphenolics, so they let the fruit hang for long on the vines and it loses a lot of its acid.  You can always add acid back in, but it's not quite the same.  So, one of the things that I love about the Sonoma ridgetop mountains is that you get a wide temperature differential, which — especially on Redwood Hill — pumps up that acid.  It's cold at night, hot during the day, and out of the fog belt so you don't get much mold action.  Now, flash forward about ten years: how many California wines have you had that are flabby and have lost all their appeal at that ten year mark?  At only four or five years, many of them are already at their peak.  Now think about an amazing Bordeaux.  Drink it young and you'll probably recognize that all the elements are there but they just haven't come together quite yet.  Drink it in a couple of years and you'll likely notice an improvement, but still feel it's not quite there yet.  Then one day, years later, you open another bottle of it and you're blown away!  That doesn't lend itself to the quick-fix appeal of our American lifestyle, but it's winemaking in its most extraordinary capacity and manner.

Super Sonoman Bottling LineNow, I'm not suggested my wine is going to be some phenomenal Bordeaux, but it has a lot of the things that will enable it to age and improve.  Having worked with the hillside and being familiar with it, I know where this wine is going to go.  Three or four years from now, it's going to be delightful; ten years from now, it'll be amazing.  Because it has everything there: the tannins, the acids, the fruit, everything.  And to answer your question more directly, taking our 2008 vintage as an example, I could have de-acidified the wine.  Easily.  I could have brought the pH up and made a wine of which I knew I could crack a bottle open after only six months in bottle, be able to drink it, and it would be like nectar!  But I don't want to do that.  I want this thing to evolve, and I know that it will.  And I know that it will for a few reasons: first, the vineyard is rock-star; secondly, I've used the best barrels and I know what the chemistry is in this thing, so I know what it's going to do.  My point is that if you touch this wine in four or five years, it may not be your favorite wine, but your shit is going to get rocked when you drink it!  I know it will!  It's just going to get better and better!  And that's the difference between how a lot of guys make wine in California and how a lot of guys make wine in France, at this level of quality.  In France [at this price point] they're not thinking about popping this open as soon as they bring it home from the shop.  At the same time, it goes against the grain of having a business in the first place: you want people to drink your wines!  And that's why guys like Kosta Browne make these big, extracted Pinots — which I like — but it's not like drinking a bottle of La Tâche twenty years after it was bottled!  There's a big difference!

NM:  Yes, there is a mentality of immediacy in the winemaking choices of a large number of California producers, especially below a certain price level where they're positioned in the market for rapid consumption.  Overlaid on that is our American culture that's unaccustomed to thinking in terms of longevity, which translates into almost a complete absence of cellaring considerations in the context of even super-premium wine.  Since we haven't been making wine nearly as long as some Old World regions, do you think it's simply a matter of time before the American wine industry changes in that regard?  Or do you think there are elements of American culture that will hold us back?

CT:  I absolutely think there are elements of our culture that will hold us back.  I think some people will get it — those who are deeply engaged with connecting to their own humanity and who firmly embrace doing so through wine.  But I don't know that everybody is like that.  I think there are guys who are always going to come home — no offense to them — and who are going to watch Survivor, pop open a Miller Light with their buddies, and that's going to be what they think is the coolest thing in the world.  There's nothing with that; maybe some of those guys are wine drinkers too.  But I think American culture is inherently consumerist and focused on immediacy.  For me, life is entirely different, life is about beautiful things, about communicating, expressing yourself, being whom you are, loving what you do, loving why you are in the world, and hopefully about touching other people every day in a productive, positive way.  And I believe that wine facilitates that.  But I don't think it does so for everybody.  Maybe in a couple of hundred years, after Americans have been drinking wine for a while, our culture will have evolved.  But in the next five years, I don't think it's going to happen!

I think what we'll do, as the Super Sonoman program evolves, is that we'll make wines like our current portfolio for people who will cellar them.  And then I'll probably do a different style of wine for people who want to spend a little bit less and pop the cork sooner.  Because I believe there are ways of tweaking my wines for earlier drinking.  My whole point is that it may become necessary to focus on making the best immediately drinkable wine that I can, and also the best cellar-able wine that I can.  This is what I'm about.

NM:  Speaking of winemaking strategies, tell me about how you first learned to make wine.  And what has Super Sonoman taught you that you wouldn't have learned otherwise about winemaking?

CT:  I think my process for becoming a winemaker was a little different than other people's; it started in a parallel path.  First, though I'm not an artist, I've always been surrounded by artists and have an appreciation for the creative process.  Plus, I love food and wine, so my winemaking skills began with my winetasting experiences.  What I did early on is to decide to try all the best wines that I possibly could.  I wasn't thinking that I was going to be a winemaker; I was focusing on the fact that I loved wine.  So I started drinking through all these fine wines and learning through research about where and by whom they were made.  And while I never fancied myself as a winemaker, I started to experiment with it; I was just having fun with it, trying to produce something of high quality in my garage, which is how it all started.  Once I got bitten by that bug, which didn't take long at all, I got deeper into it; I couldn't wait to harvest the grapes and make the wine!  I would walk into the garage, where I had a perfect setup for it all, and the fermentation smell was like magic — the whole house would smell of it, it was awesome!

Super Sonoman Winemaker Chris TaddeiAnd I think that just gets into you — maybe not for everybody, but for me it absolutely did!  So then I started reading everything I could, every book I could get my hands on.  And my wife [Dana] is a Doctor of Pharmacy, so from a chemistry perspective, a lot of things I would defer to her — I might ask why something's going on and she could break it down into an equation or whatever.  I don't know if that's necessarily relevant to being a good winemaker, but it doesn't hurt.  Some of the best winemakers are [University of California,] Davis guys who understand to the nth degree how the chemistry works.  But I have a slightly different spin on it: guys like them are great winemakers because they're trained to be great scientists, but if you don't have the palate that goes along with it, then you may never be the guy who makes that wine to blow people away.

NM:  Do you believe that winemaking can be technically sound and cohesive — perfect in a textbook sense — yet still produce mediocre wines?

CT:  Yes!  I believe you can over-think things.  The beauty in the craft by a lot of winemakers I've known — that, to me, was exceptional — has been that they've felt it.  It wasn't about the chemistry behind it, although they probably understood that better than I.  It was that they really felt it.  And I can relate to that — although I'm not trying to put myself in those folks' category nor am I trying to call myself an artist, for that matter.  It's like in beautiful design, where an illustrator knows how to design something because he can see it in his head, really visualize it, and then it becomes something amazing.  That is what I'm striving for.  For me, it starts with getting into that vineyard, walking up those hills, and looking at things vine by vine.  We fine-tune it because we know the vineyard already, because we know, for example, that there's a vine or two that has a rock down there and whose roots are not going to get the same kind of water, or that there are ten vines, maybe, that need just a little bit of extra tweaking.  Honestly, I don't think I'm the best winemaker, but I do think I'm doing a good job, and I believe that because I have more feeling than I have technical expertise going into it.  I don't know, maybe 'feeling' is not the right word to use…

NM:  Intuition?

"Wine has that beautiful ability to open us up, to allow us to communicate with one another, to appreciate each other, and to just really enjoy life — like a beautiful piece of art."

CT:  You know, I have a statement with Super Sonoman, and people always ask me about it — "'Winemaking with vision,' what does that mean?"  Well, to me, it means two things.  One, I've believe in Sonoma County and I think that someday I'll produce a wine about which people are going to go, "Spot on!"  And maybe that'll be my little thumbprint on Sonoma County, and maybe it'll never be anything beyond that.  Secondly, I am always thinking about those vineyards.  It's that thought process that I live by.  I walk the vineyards, I see the fruit hanging, I know what it's going to taste like, I get excited by it, and I know how I want to tweak it each year.  '07 was different from '08, and '09 will be even a little bit more different.  I get what I do with that fruit, I'm starting to learn the vineyard, and I'm sure I'll learn more over the next five years.  It's that sort of approach to it, knowing what that dirt can kick out for me, and then taking it, bringing it to life, and putting it in a bottle!  Ultimately, somebody's going to spend a lot of money [on one of these bottles], they're going go sit down with friends and family, open that thing up, and drink a glass of wine together.  I want to take what I know about that vineyard and communicate it to those people, and I want them to go, "Ahhhh, it's so good to be with you guys!"  That is what wine is; wine is a communicative tool.  It's like art, in the sense that a good artist can communicate and express himself.  Wine has that beautiful ability to open us up, to allow us to communicate with one another, to appreciate each other, and to just really enjoy life — like a beautiful piece of art.

I really love being a part of that process.  I love walking into this winery, I love talking to people about wine, I love drinking wine, I love pairing wine with food — which, to me, is really what it's all about.  I don't simply want to make a wine (although I have) that you would think of in the context of just drinking wine; I want to create wine that is food.  I like wine to be part of life because we communicate every day, and I see a great bottle of wine as a form of communication.  It helps us to understand an expressive quality of the world and at the same time helps to open us up.  It has an inherent, natural power to enable us to connect.

NM:  If you were to distill your goal into its simplest form, what would it be?

CT:  I want to make something that is profound, something that you may not even know why you like it.  Here's an analogy: there is some design that is so good, you don't even recognize it as design; you enjoy and accept it and use it for it was intended.  And that's a beautiful thing!  I want to create a wine that when somebody pours it, it's seamless — whatever it may be; I don't know if it'll be a Syrah or a Cabernet or what.  I want that to be part of someone else's life, because it's been part of mine.  There's this beautiful thing about wine that settles and slows you down, and let's you to take a step back and go, "Life is amazing."  That's what I like about the wine industry, and I want to encapsulate it.  Of course, it won't always happen because there are going to be bad vintages.  But if I could change somebody's life because they've sat down for one meal and had an epiphany — that's a beautiful thing.  I want the person who opens a bottle of my wine to understand and appreciate the thought that went into it, and hopefully utilize their time with that bottle to maybe even become a better human being — as crazy as that sounds!  Communication is everything.

Communication and connection: core values that have driven and sustained Chris and Dana Taddei throughout their winemaking venture, and ones which they hope come across strongly in their wines.  But they're only one side of an equation that's balanced by the wine drinker open and willing to hear the message in the bottle.  To learn more about their portfolio of wines and how to get them, visit Super Sonoman online.  v