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WS: (con'd) The most important thing about that process is that we don't have a set number of cases [of wine] that we feel we need to produce. That's important because having such a goal would bias our decision-making, since we might feel pressured to use wines in the final blend [to meet a certain case-production number] that might not otherwise meet our standard of quality. Without the expectation of producing a certain number of cases, we're focused entirely on the quality of the wine. In some years we've made only 600 cases of our estate wine. There's no saying that next year we may make only 500 cases. And that fluctuation is based not only on vintage variation but also in making sure that we're selecting only the absolute best barrels for both wines.
LM: It's a very selective approach. We start with the Estate Cabernet, which is blended from the very top wines of the estate. Then we build a second wine from wines that almost made the cut [for the Estate Cabernet] but not quite (because, for example, the vines might be too young). Everything else that we're not happy with gets sold off. That way, we feel very comfortable with the product we're putting out in the market. And of course, in terms of marketing, it's much easier for us as a winery to sell a small number of cases of excellent wine rather than large amounts of wine that, while still good, would be somewhat ordinary.
NM: Are the decisions you're making on what goes in the final blends based entirely on the vineyard source?
"One of the techniques that I love to use is that we taste the barrels before using them, to get them ready — and very few winemakers actually do that. That's one way to discriminate for quality."
WS: The estate wine, of course, is all estate fruit. Even as our younger [estate] vines start to produce, the fruit from them isn't going to go immediately into the estate wines…
LM: But to be fair to these newer blocks — because they are planted with what we think is the right spacing, the best rootstock, and best clones — what we do during our blending trials is that we taste blind. That's because we want to give a chance for these younger vines to prove themselves. In the '07 and '08 vintages, there were a few lots that didn't qualify the year before, whereas this year they will qualify. So, really, in the end, "In Vino Veritas."
WS: And there could be fruit that we get from the estate that doesn't classify for anything, and the same thing with the fruit from our growers. While the estate wine is our flagship, using fruit from our property, that doesn't mean we don't give the same care and attention to the "7" Cabernet that we make from the growers. Not being grown on our site is really the only reason the wines from that fruit are not considered 'estate.' But we've selected those growers with the same philosophy and same standards that we use for the fruit we grow here — the best clones, the best rootstocks, the best soil characteristics. And if we're going to have a new grower, we give them a try for a couple of years; if it doesn't work, we go for another grower. So the growers we currently work with, we know their fruit and its history, having chosen it because we think it's the best quality that we can get.
LM: To give a fair picture of the selection process, this is all really just to say that we won't be cheap by trying to make use of a few barrels [of finished, pre-blended wine] if the quality is not there. But the majority of barrels, of course, we're happy with; it's only a small percentage that ends up leaving. When it does happen, most of the time it's because of the cooper. So, we do a barrel-for-barrel tasting, as well, to make sure that everything is okay.
One of the techniques that I love to use is that we taste the barrels before using them, to get them ready [before aging the wines] — and very few winemakers actually do that. That's one way to discriminate for quality. Of course there's a visual inspection of the barrels; any good winemaker would do that. But a tasting of barrels is something that's quite different and good for us to exercise, so that down the road we don't have any major surprises.