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MS: (con'd) And so, if you were to buy an established winery with a reputation, there's not a lot of opportunity to shift that; you may have something that's amazing, but you're limited because the style of your wines is locked in. In fact, we have one vineyard where the vines just went in last year. We planted about six acres of Chardonnay, mostly heirloom selections — one from Larry Hyde over in Carneros that's late-ripening and really holds its acid well, plus with a higher flavor intensity and a bit more mineral expression than your standard clone.
NM: Of the viticultural choices you're making, how much of them is a function of the vision you have for the wine brand and how much are rather dictated by the demands of the individual vineyard sites?
MS: With good cultural practices and good farming practices, you can have a palate that's irrespective of a site; you can have a set of parameters that you farm to. And then beyond that, you can look at a site individually and say, "This is how we begin to tweak the site, these are our expectations." With that said, I think it would take fifteen to twenty years with a site to really have that level of insight. It takes a lot of time to get to that where you can say something like, "I like the red fruit characteristics of this site and I want to begin to emphasize those characteristics; how can we do that from a farming standpoint?" For myself, I think there's a level of that every year I make wine or work with a site, where my focus becomes a bit more narrow. As you begin to discover more, you find additional opportunities or variables that you hadn't initially taken into consideration. So, even as you get tighter and tighter in your focus of input in and output from a site, the picture never really becomes perfectly clear. It's the nature of viticulture.
NM: And if you were to distill your viticultural philosophy into a few words, what would that be?
"This concept of small vines and high density planting is part of that low-input philosophy."
MS: I'm a very big believer in limiting water and fertilizer input. I think that while growing big, green vines that produce enormous amounts of crop might be aesthetically beautiful when you're driving past them on the highway, when you actually taste the wines made from them, there's not much there! Wine quality and the translation of what you do to what ends up in the glass is the most important thing. Another thing that's important is matching the site to rootstock and varietal, and also trying to maximize the site itself. This concept of small vines and high density planting is part of that low-input philosophy.
NM: How are you hoping this philosophy will ultimately translate into the bottle?
MS: This whole concept of low-input, having a small vine footprint, producing fewer clusters of vine, and matching clones that might ripen a bit later and hold their acid — all of these things allow us to achieve physiological ripeness with hopefully lower alcohol, which I think is something we're all trying to achieve, and have an intensity of flavor that still achieves balance in the final wines.
Crafting Chardonnays with Grace and Allure
NM: Speaking of the wines themselves, let's start with your Chardonnay. What's your vision and intent for the varietal in the brand's portfolio?
MS: The pendulum is certainly swinging in the mind of the consumer away from oak-driven, overtly sweet, somewhat blousy Chardonnays to those that are leaner, certainly even stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay, which offers a unique perspective on the varietal. For the Russian River Valley, I believe that matching some barrel fermentation with some cool-climate sites provides additional texture to the wine, as long as there's enough acidity and framework to match the wood. I think that balance is key. For us, our estate property here was just planted, but I have a pretty good idea of how it'll come about in terms of its expression and profile. It'll be one that's similar to our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay or La Pommeraie Chardonnay [grower-selected, single-vineyard wines].