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SF: In addition to the Starmont wines, I oversee all of the other Merryvale tier of wines that are made down in Carneros, at the Starmont facility: Pinot, Syrah, and Chardonnay. And occasionally we make some Cabernet and Merlot down there that might end up in the premium Merryvale tier. During harvest, between the two facilities, we put things where it makes the most sense and what's best for the fruit, taking into consideration the constraints of harvest itself. The benefit up here [at the St. Helena facility] is that Graham is working on 10-15% of our production, and he can just put a lot of time and energy into that 10-15% to really craft those wines. At the Starmont facility, we put a lot of energy into Pinots and Chardonnays under the Merryvale tier, and are very hands-on with those wines as well. The blocks of those varietals tend to be smaller, so they're much more handcrafted.
NM: Speaking of which, what are the challenges that you face in making wines for the more premium Merryvale tier?
SF: Wines from lots that go into our Merryvale label of wines come from selected vineyards that are at a higher level of potential quality. And because they tend to be from smaller vineyard blocks, the fermentations are also done on a smaller scale. We're looking to get things absolutely right for those wines, so we want to make sure when we pick that we're capturing precisely what we think we're going to capture. With Starmont, the vineyard blocks are bigger, so it's a bit harder to pinpoint what we're going to get when we pick — we try to, but because of the sizes, we can't go out and taste everything. But with Merryvale, we're honing in on a particular block at a specific time and then layering that with a lot of handcrafted, detail-oriented work. One example is using punchion-ferments, which is a much more labor intensive fermentation process: a half ton of fruit is placed into an open-top punchion, is punched down by hand, and then undergoes native-yeast fermentation that requires a bit more monitoring and careful observation. Once fermentation is done and the wine is ready to go into barrel, we want to ensure that we're picking the barrels that best integrate with the fruit. Because barrels are to winemakers like spices are to chefs; the fruit will respond differently depending on how heavily a barrel is toasted or on the selection of the wood itself — some wood has more grip to it, others more finesse and elegance. And so we try to match that with the wine. Then during the aging process, we're always taking care of the wine, thinking about which choices to make. Ideally what we're doing with the Merryvale tier [much more so than with the Starmont] is starting with fruit that has more concentration, depth, and complexity to begin with, and then layering that with winemaking decisions to expand and improve upon it. So, there's more really potential to work with in the starting base of the Merryvale tier than the Starmont.
"You cannot have just one recipe for winemaking and apply it to everything. You've got to be flexible and keep an open mind."
NM: Overall, in the years that you've been making wines, what have you learned that has really surprised you and perhaps even dismantled some prior assumptions that you might have had in your earlier understanding of winemaking?
SF: One that comes to mind that we're actually working through right now is the way we manage our Cabernets on the skins. Early on in my career, my attitude was to extract everything we possibly could from the skins. And that meant doing things like a lot of pump-overs and extended macerations. What we've been learning and developing, as the science has come more into practice, is that we don't necessarily need to extract so much of the fruit from some vineyards. The grapes from some sites may be off better pressed early, before they get too much tannin and phenolic compounds in them. What we're trying to do now is find the best balance for each wine, depending on the vineyard source and vintage. Some vineyards yield fruit with a lot of tannin in them already, so we might not want it all in the finished wine; we'll extract a good amount, find the right time, and press off. That could even mean pressing while the wine is still a little sweet, just as it's finishing primary fermentation. And then with other vineyards, we might leave the fruit for an extended period of time on the skins. It's always a constant challenge with dismantling dogma, that there's no one right fit for everything — rather, we've got a big tool bag and are always adding new techniques to it, and so trying to find the right technique for a given situation is always a challenge. You cannot have just one recipe for winemaking and apply it to everything. You've got to be flexible and keep an open mind. We're very curious in the way we do things and we experiment — because there's a lot to be gained with experimentation; it really pulls the gems out, as you uncover them.