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Focusing on What Counts in the Vineyard
NM: Luc, what was it that attracted you to Vineyard 7 & 8? And had you worked with the Spring Mountain appellation prior to this?
LM: There were two main things. Coming from France about 15 years ago, there was no question that [in choosing where to work as a winemaker] the terroir, the location, was extremely important to me. But I learned over time that there is one other important factor: the people. And by 'people,' I mean the owners, their vision, their commitment, their efforts, and their staff. The Steffans family and I met through friends, through Harlan, really. And that showed me how serious they were, being connected with such a reputable producer. Then once I met with Wes, that did it. I would also say that I was attracted by the fact that we are from the same generation and we're both 'imports,' so to speak — Wes is from the east coast, and I'm from another five thousand miles east of that!
Plus, it was very apparent that we both have a passion for quality and that we were in agreement from day one about the style of wine that we wanted to come out of this property. Sometimes people get into the industry with a 'negative' education, meaning that they're going to be very scientific and then they start off with the wrong ideas. Wes started with the best schooling, really, by getting his hands dirty at Harlan, one of the best estates in California. That helped because, as a winemaker, I didn't feel it was a battle each time I told him that we needed to invest in a piece of equipment or do something in the vineyards. We work hand in hand, basically. Then, later on, of course, I got to know the rest of the family and their point of reference, coming from having their own private cellars of great wines that they appreciate on a daily basis. After all that, I decided that this was the place I wanted to be; simple as that. So, again, it really is mainly about the location and the people, those are the two most important things — and from there, we can do anything!
"The volcanic ash gives a prominent minerality to the wine, which allows us to push the envelope and get real physiological ripeness without the risk of getting too much heaviness in the wine."
As far as the terroir is concerned, I initially saw this site but had already had experience with Spring Mountain through my five years of work with Newton Vineyards, taking over from John Kongsgaard. Within those five years at Newton, I had gotten a great deal of experience with growers and maybe fifteen different appellations in both Napa and Sonoma counties. And that was my first experience with Spring Mountain. It's a beautiful appellation, really — one that's made up of a mosaic of soils because it had been broken apart by all the volcanic activity that occurred some millions of years ago. As a result, we see a lot of different types of soil, which is why I think the identity of Spring Mountain as an appellation is not always clear. Here, being on the ridge, the volcanic ash is really dominant — I love that because it gives a prominent minerality to the wine, which allows us to push the envelope and get real physiological ripeness without the risk of getting too much heaviness in the wine. It allows us to maintain an elegance and refinement to the wine because of that background of rock, that minerality. And so that, for me, was how terroir was the number one reason I wanted to work here.
NM: Clearly, then, you have a liking for Spring Mountain as an appellation. Can you say more about that?
LM: I think this is a really neat part of the valley. Spring Mountain tends to be more sheltered because we start to get shade late in the afternoon. So, just when the vines get tired from being in the heat and sun all day long, the shade comes and they get to breathe. We also have a cooler influence with the elevation, which extends the ripening season — we generally pick the Chardonnay around September and the reds around October. Personally, I prefer to see a vineyard that's green, as in Europe, rather than in desert-like conditions, which to me seems artificial since, without irrigation in that environment, you can't do much at all. That's why I generally prefer Spring Mountain to some other parts of the valley. On the other hand, the other Mayacamas mountains [here on the western side of the valley] I feel have a much cooler climate, so it gets perhaps too cool for the type of varietals we grow and the style we're going for. But over here, we have a sweet spot.