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NM: What have you learned from the crafting of these two very different styles of Chardonnay, and how has that affected your decision-making in the vineyards?
SJ: I think the most important lesson here is that vineyard site is the main factor that drives wines. I couldn't successfully make this higher acid style of wine (our Napa Chardonnay) using grapes from our own property. [If I tried to do so,] I would actually be shorting the potential of those grapes to make the wine style really suited to them. I can't fit a square peg into a round hole, so to make this leaner and more Burgundian style of Chardonnay, we really needed to source fruit that was planted in an area that would produce that kind of grape. Whereas the Chardonnay we're producing from our own property just naturally wants to be produced in a fuller style. Even if I picked those grapes three weeks earlier so they'd have a lower brix and higher acid, they would still never make a wine like the [leaner, brighter] style from Carneros. There are some differences in the yeast I use for the two wines, but mainly it's a matter of understanding what their [respective] vineyards are producing and providing me, and then tailoring my decisions to fit the grapes and what the needs of those grapes are.
NM: In making these Chardonnays, have you discovered anything new that might have compelled you rethink your prior assumptions or understanding of the varietal?
"It's a big jigsaw puzzle at the beginning before any grapes are picked. Then as you assemble those pieces, you start to see the image being revealed; that's really satisfying for me!"
SJ: I think that Chardonnay is really a winemaker's wine, because there are so many stylistic choices and it's so heavily influenced by those choices — the yeast that's used, the pH and amount of acid, the lees stirring, the barrel type — much more so than reds. Even though all of those things affect them, too, red wines have such an overpowering character and identity on their own. Whereas with Chardonnay, manipulation is really key; there's a lot that you can do, a lot that you can play around with. Barrel fermentation is great, too, because then you can have thirty different barrels and try various things with each barrel: multiple strains of yeast or ML, multiple types and ages of barrels, different lengths of stirring and sitting on the lees. It's kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle at the beginning before any grapes are picked. Then as you assemble those pieces, you can start to see the image being revealed — that's really satisfying for me!
NM: Speaking of risks, you also produce a Syrah, which isn't common up on Spring Mountain. What issues do you face in doing so, which you feel are unique to this site?
SJ: Syrah is a wine that we've not been known for. In fact, we make only 300-600 cases of it; it's very small production. And part of the reason is that Syrah just hasn't reached the level of popularity that people predicted it would. So, while we'd love to make more Syrah, I'm not sure the market demand is there to support it. Syrah is also a very challenging wine to make, more so than Chardonnay. I think that it can be very boring if it's not grown in the right environment and if it's not really pushed both in the vineyard and in the winery. It's a very vigorous vine, so it can grow uncontrollably — especially if there's any available water. Our Syrah gets almost no irrigation, and up here that's very extreme because our soils already don't hold much water; there's no water table since it's so rocky and the water just drains right through. As our vineyard consultant says, we want to "push it until it screams" — and then we'll give it just a bit of water to keep it from totally falling apart. And that's the same sort of environment that grapes are grown in the Rhône valley: you'll see these vineyards that are planted just in cobblestones where there isn't much water for them, and the vines themselves are tiny. Otherwise, Syrah planted in any type of normal dirt will be a very large vine with a lot of vigorous growth. So, it really takes a very stressful environment to get it to express those delicious flavors of spice and blueberry, otherwise it can be a monotonous wine. We do a lot in the vineyard to really push the vines, and from there we pick very ripe and then use no new oak in the barrel aging. And we keep it in that neutral oak for only ten months, not a really long time. Also, I think it's important with Syrah not to rack it too much, not to get too much air in there; you want a somewhat reductive environment in the barrels because all of these exotic aromas can combine together to form a really appealing spicy berry profile. It's a wine that I drink a lot because it tends to be a medium-weight wine that goes with a number of different foods. Plus, it's so variable; there's cooler-climate Syrah that's very peppery, warmer-climate Syrah that's very brambly, and then everything in between.