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JC: (con'd) Now, in general, when you try to make a Bordeaux blend [as opposed to a California Cabernet], it's much more intricate, like a Swiss watch. It's more difficult to put those elements together than to put together a bunch of bold Cabernets that like being together. There's a simplicity to our Cabernet, but a complexity to our Elivette. From a winemaker's perspective, it's finely integrated and much more detailed to build a Bordeaux-style blend like the Elivette than it is to build a California Cabernet. Besides, the Cabernet in essence keeps saying, "I don't want to be in your fine, elegant blend!"
NM: There's a very prominent price differential between the two Cabernet wines you produce, suggesting that there's a difference in quality. Is that really the case?
JC: That gets at another reason why we wanted to make [and position] a California Cabernet, specifically: so that it could find its way onto restaurant wine lists in the proper place. Prior to 2003, buyers had a tough time placing it when it was just the [lower-priced] estate Bordeax blend. In a case where both wines [as blends] ended up on a wine list, the only thing separating them was cost. And so a customer would wonder, "is one better than the other?"— No, that's actually wrong; quality is not the issue. But when you stack them that way, quality looks like the issue. [Because of that, we replaced the lower-priced blend] with a California Cabernet whose quality is every bit as great as the Elivette — except that it's a straight Cabernet and has a different style. There's still a price differential between the two wines, but our intention is eventually to bring the Cabernet much closer in price to the Elivette. Because in the end, the two wines have the same quality of fruit, the same quality of production, the same quality of oak. Stylistically, though, they're very different. With that said, there will probably always be just a bit of a price difference, because the Cabernet is not as difficult to assemble; it's made up of bold, big flavors that just love to be together. Plus, we hold the Elivette back for a year longer before release, and that costs money.
Supporting Roles: Nodding to Burgundy & Northern Rhône
NM: In addition to the Cabernet and Elivette, there are some other highlights to the portfolio, one of which is the Sauvignon Blanc.
JC: The Sauvignon Blanc is a blend of two separate vineyards whose soils are very different. From one, we get flavors of melon and stone fruits, whereas with the other, we get more mineral character and citrus qualities. And so, we put the two together and then barrel ferment that. The idea is to take those two elements and blend them, bringing two concepts of Sauvignon Blanc together into one wine, along with just a little bit of Sémillon. We start with a reductive process to preserve fruit translation. Then we start the fermentation in tank, and as soon as it's going we transfer it into neutral barrels and ferment it for about a month. After the fermentation is complete, we'll stir the barrels weekly for about four or five months, which is key for this wine. The stirring of the yeast lees (the sur lie batonnage) is a process that will slowly erode the fruit presence, but will develop texture and midpalate to the blend. As those two things are working, we'll find a point that we're happy with it and finally bottle it. The balance they achieve in Bordeaux with the more textural polish in the midpalate from the Sémillon and the brighter notes from the Sauvignon Blanc. But when we started doing this, we didn't yet have the Sémillon; and that's where the sur lie batonnage came in. It's actually a Burgundian technique that they use in Chardonnay production, but we borrow it and found it be very handy in this particular case.
NM: Then, in clear departure from Bordeaux varietals altogether, you also make Syrah.
JC: The Northern Rhône is more unique to producing just Syrah with small amounts of Viognier that they'll blend in. Guigal is the producer that most people identify with in that area. And so, we try to mimic both our approach to growing the fruit and making the wine, though ours is a little more fruit-driven, maybe more smokey than meaty, and with not as much of the exotic flavors but just more pure Syrah. We make a wine where we co-ferment the Viognier and Syrah together — a technique that Guigal uses in some of his wines. The owner and I had had a conversation about it and he'd said how much he appreciates Guigal, so I told him that since I've used that technique in other places, we could try that. And so we did in 2003 and it was a success. But this is a case where's much more difficult for Ron to make this happen than for me. The challenge is getting [the two varieties] on the same day!