bjørn and bred Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Bjornstad Cellars

Sonoma Viticulturist Strikes Out on Own with Vineyard-Designated Burgundian Varietals
— An Interview with the Owner/Winemaker of Bjornstad Cellars

Greg Bjornstad wasn't raised to be a wine lover.  Yet judging from his early internship with a prestigious First Growth producer, eventual colloboration with several renowned Napa and Sonoma trailblazers, and current devotion to exploring and manifesting the utmost potential of the Burgundian grape varieties, one would think he'd been born among vines.  Indeed, the learning curve of his career has been steep, one reason of which was his direct involvement in the construction of vineyards that eventually contributed to Sonoma Coast's increasing significance as a wine producing area.  And yet, in spite of his illustrious career track, which includes work at Joseph Phelps, Flowers, and Peter Michael, I'd known next to nothing of Bjornstad when I first sampled his wines at a small, private tasting event at the facility where he makes them.  Hailing from some of Sonoma Coast's most esteemed vineyards, these wines immediately struck me with their mesmerizing grace and seductive allure.  It was at that point when I'd resolved to meet with the winemaker, only to learn that his winemaking talent is but a recent vector on a long trajectory of viticultural work.  As I sat down with Greg in the spartan confines above the main cellar of Vinify Wine Services in Santa Rosa, we talked of vineyards, varietals, and vintages, all while reflecting on the development of both his career and the recent releases of Bjornstad Cellars.

From Bordeaux to the Burgundian

NM:  You've chosen to make wine using Burgundian varietals — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — sourced from some prominent vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.  Unlike with an estate winery where the fruit is grown and vinified on the same property, the model of production you're engaging in hinges on building and maintaining relationships with growers.  What has been your experience with all that?

Bjornstad Cellars WinesGB:  My experience at Château Lafite-Rothschild was one of the things that really galvanized my perception that the wine industry really needs to be one industry of growers and winemakers working together.  And, of course, there are many cases where it really is one.  But there are also many where it's not.  In California, for example, in the past, it hasn't necessarily been the case; there's often been a rub between the vineyard grower and the winery.  Years ago, it was common for them to be at odds over quantity, tons per acre, and sugar levels at picking time [which affects weight and therefore the rate at which a grower is paid].  But at Lafite, the vineyard guys would come into the winery to taste the wines all the time, just as the winery people would into the vineyard to taste the grapes — and there would be constant dialogue between them over what they noticed, imagined, and anticipated.  So, the lesson that I brought back from that formative experience was that great wines are made in Europe because great grapes are grown for them, and it's really just one seamless process.  That was my first hands-on lesson in the industry and it has stuck with me ever since.  Today, I bring that awareness into all my professional engagements.  As the viticulturist overseeing grower relations at Joseph Phelps, I would talk to the growers, listen to them, and act as something of a liaison — rather than just a winery representative who wasn't so welcome a visitor.  We would brainstorm about issues and concerns.  To a large extent, I still do that in my private [viticultural] practice.  And I like to think that I've got some great wines because I know some great growers and have cultivated those relationships.

Winemaker Greg BjornstadNM:  And here we are, ten years on, with so much having developed for the Sonoma Coast as a wine region.  How did things evolve from this formative period to allow you to venture into your own winemaking and eventual launch of the Bjornstad label?

GB:  [After leaving Flowers], Greg La Follette and I started Tandem Winery with the 2000 vintage of the Pisoni Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands.  Now, one of the things about a collaboration like that is that, generally speaking, the winery guy is more 'out there' and a bit more of the public face of the brand, whereas the viticulturist is not as much.  And that was the case with us, so a lot of the relationships we built came about because he'd met the Van der Kamps and the Pisonis, buying fruit from them first for Flowers and then later for Tandem, when I developed my own relationships with them.  Since it was his major at [UC] Davis, he was on the front lines with the winemaking, where I was more in a peripheral and supportive role.  With that experience, I really got to know the growers, how the fruit comes in, and what the course is that the wine takes once the grapes arrive into the winery.

So, when it was time for me to step up and do it myself in 2005 with Bjornstad Cellars, I'd already had some background and went to the four growers that I'd been working with for the longest — the Porter-Bass and Ritchie vineyards for their Chardonnay, the Van der Kamp and Hellenthal vineyards for their Pinot Noir.  These were the vineyards from which we'd already been buying fruit, with the exception of Hellenthal.  Gard Hellenthal, who had had some land with grapes that he was selling to W.H. Smith and Eric Sussman at Radio-Coteau, was ready to develop a five acre block of his land into vineyard and came to me as vineyard consultant.  So, we did the soil pits and development together, and then I designed it all — with the same care and attention as if it were my own.  Then, lo and behold, it happened that I ended up buying from that very land!  And that's how the four of these vineyard designates came about for the Bjornstad label.

"I went through a radical switch from the Napa Valley to Sonoma County. It was a completely different world, from the geography to the people."

NM:  So, in one way or another, you'd become involved early on with a number of Sonoma Coast producers who have since successfully built stellar reputations making wine from Burgundian varieties.  Given the sheer talent you were working with at the time, I'm guessing that this period was very formative.

GB:  Absolutely!  When I was studying for the two years at [UC] Davis, the bright light in my perspective seemed to be Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon — and I'd pursued that with Château Lafite and then later with Newton and Joseph Phelps.  But then I went through a radical switch from Saint Helena in the Napa Valley to Fort Ross in Cazadero, Sonoma County, just a few miles from the ocean.  It was a completely different world, from the geography — the steep and rugged coast, the desolation, the remoteness, the rain — to the people, who couldn't have been more different from the well-heeled residents of central Saint Helena.  It was a huge shift!  Then, on top of all that, it was suddenly about the Burgundian varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and even some Pinot Meunier.  It was a complete change of direction.  But through with my involvement at Flowers, I learned so much from that change; it was an amazing education.  And it was also an exhausting job, much more than what had been initially advertised.  I was hired on as the assistant winemaker for [a modest] size of production and 23 acres of estate, and then within a month of that, they bought a whole other ranch of 300+ acres with the intention that 80 acres of it were to be developed into vineyard. So, there I was, tasked with farming the existing land and developing the new land in this completely new world of the Sonoma Coast — which at the time had no existing infrastructure!  I'd been connected in the Napa Valley, but here it was suddenly a question of 'Who do you get to do your work?— your subcontractors, your equipment, your surveying, all that kind of stuff?'  It was so remote, there was no labor pool.Fog Rolling Over Sonoma Coast

Veraison of an Appellation

NM:  But as challenging as things were at first, it turned out to be quite a good fit for you.  In fact, moving over to the Sonoma Coast in many way really shaped your career by allowing you to take part in the early evolution of a burgeoning California wine appellation!

Bjornstad Cellars WinesGB:  I had definitely been on the Bordeaux [variety] track earlier in my career, and could have done fine with that.  Who knows what life would have looked like had I not come over to the Sonoma Coast and just stayed in Saint Helena.  I think what really captivated me and had me bitten by the Burgundy bug was what was happening at Flowers: it was really the excitement over a paradigm shift for what these two grape varieties could be, something we'd never seen before.  Even well-regarded Chardonnays had been huge wines that were heavily oaked, oily, and viscous, and generally from places that were much warmer than Sonoma County — most notably, Napa.  And so, to come up with something that was steely and minerally, like a Chassagne-Montrachet but from the local terroir, was very exciting!  And that was with the same clonal material.  The area was also becoming very popular with people growing Pinot Noir who were pushing the envelope beyond what had then been the accepted norm for that variety — which had mainly been from Carneros [in Napa], with its delicious, soft, round, and strawberry yogurt flavors.  But now in this new area, Pinots were being grown that were far more structured, deep, dark, burly, and rich, often approaching Zinfandel and Syrah in their qualities. So, I'd say that that really shaped my choice of varietals to work with.  But there were other incidental qualities.  I really like Sonoma County and the diversity of its topography — the coast, the hills, the valleys.  I also feel it's more diversified in its industries, whereas the Napa Valley seems very singular in that it's primarily about the wine industry and what's affiliated with that.

"It was really the excitement over a paradigm shift for what these two grape varieties could be, something we'd never seen before."

NM:  Dovetailing with your comment about a paradigm shift, I think it's safe to say that in the last decade or so, we've seen the wine industry in Sonoma County really tightening its focus and drive towards quality production with the Burgundian varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Would you say that they've found a home in Sonoma and that this region might very well provide some of the best terroir in California for them?

GB:  Speaking generally, because there will always be people who take exception, I think that in large part we've acknowledged that some varieties really like specific climates, and we've accepted that there's a certain style that people have come to expect from wines made from those varieties.  The Bordeaux varieties in Sonoma really aren't as well-regarded as their Napa counterparts, in large part because of the difference in terroir.  I think that's predominantly because of temperature, although there's certainly soil differences between here and there that account for some of that.  So, a warmer environment is generally going to help the Bordeaux grape varieties get riper, and I think that style (big, rich, and fruit-driven) is very popular right now, whereas people aren't interested in having herbal qualities in their wines — black olive in their Merlot or leafiness in their Cabernet.  In the same way, there are expectations on the Burgundian grape varieties.  Sonoma is generally a cooler area and more people are appreciating the complexity that can be found in a Pinot from a cooler region.  Of course, there are some delicious Carneros Pinots — I feel like I cut my teeth on that style; the strawberry yogurt quality is yummy!  But it's also great to see so much more potential being realized for Pinot in parts of Sonoma.

As for these varieties finding a home, I think what we have in California — the New World in general — is a freedom that you don't find in the Old World because of its controlled appellation system.  Old World regions are bound by law in what they can do, and that came around for some good reasons after hundreds of years of making wine and learning from what they perceive is the best and right varieties in the right places.  But one of the things about that entire concept is that it's actually very subjective — that's a very important part to remember about the system; humans have decided that this or that is the highest expression of the grape.  I think that's also important in our situation in California because we're not held down by controlled appellation concepts; we're being driven by market forces that vote with their dollars on what they want in a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon.  People are voting when they buy a Napa Cabernet over one from Sonoma, or a Sonoma County Pinot over one from Carneros.  Sonoma Coast's Hellenthal VineyardMore specifically, I think Russian River Pinot Noir is probably the most developed and recognized area for Pinot, because it's a little smaller than the Sonoma Coast, for example.  And so those Russian River wines fall within a certain range of flavor and textural qualities, more so than the Sonoma Coast, which is a larger area and therefore not as distinctive a region for making a connection on the label.

Sonoma Coast Chardonnay GrapesNM:  Albeit not in the legal sense, as in the Old World regions to which you alluded, do you feel that we might be seeing the beginnings of controlled appellation thinking here Stateside, by virtue of certain varietals being increasingly grown and produced within specific geographical areas?

GB:  For the subjective market-driven reason, rather than the legislative aspect of the European system, yes, I think that's true.  I believe certain styles are becoming galvanized and I think that that will be what drives consumer expectation.  And so we've got the larger regional aspects, the sub-appellation qualities, and then the vineyard designations that take it down to a whole other level.  It's interesting because the wine-drinking public is extremely diverse; there's a huge range of familiarity and knowledge around the wines being consumed.  So, given that, how do we make wine and communicate with consumers in an effective way that's informative and real, and not simply a marketing speil?

Balancing Technique with Artistry

NM:  Switching gears and focusing on your own wines, what can you say about your winemaking approach, first off and specifically in the context of Chardonnay?  What have you learned from the Chardonnays that you've produced?

GB:  The first thing that comes to mind is the amount of attention they need.  I'm a pretty attentive winemaker; I'm here every day, certainly at harvest.  The thing about the Chardonnays that's different from the Pinot Noirs (and not necessarily particular to the two vineyard designations, but rather how I choose to do them) is the barrel fermented.  So, while you can have a five-ton tank of Pinot Noir that turns into something on the order of 250 cases, the Chardonnays are fermented in their barrels — each of which is about 25 cases and can be completely different from its neighbor, on the same rack and from the same juice!  You can have wildly different experiences from one barrel to the next, so they need constant monitoring.  It could be the difference between night and day: one can take off [and begin fermentation] after three days in barrel, where another one is still waiting after seven days.

But there's a level of that that's really desirable!  I would say that the winemaking techniques I'm practicing are not necessarily the most safe and secure or easiest ones to go with.  And it definitely builds in more work.  With the Chardonnays, I could leave them in tank longer, innoculate them there [with cultured yeast] to get that fermentation started, and have it roaring for a full day before they go into barrel — if at all.  I could fully ferment in stainless-steel and not have anything to worry about, leaving me with a five-ton tank of Chardonnay that's done in a week, if I wanted.  But that's not the kind of wine I'm looking for; the effect of that barrel fermentation is significant!  And it's not just about innoculated vs. native yeast, but even the dynamic with which the fermentation builds.  A native yeast fermentation builds very slowly and so, over time, you get this population building, which in itself has a tremendous impact on the wine — and you will taste it!  I don't know that I could tell you exactly what it would do, but I do know that it makes a difference in richness, complexity, and texture.

NM:  So, some of the choices you're making have a profound effect on the style of your Chardonnay.  Any others you feel are noteworthy?  For instance, there's a pronounced creaminess to the mouthfeel of these wines, strongly suggestive of battonage.

GB:  I stir the lees at first to ensure that the fermentations are finishing — to ensure that the primary [fermentation] is done, that the yeast have eaten all the sugar, and to see that the malolactic fermentation is progressing nicely.  By stirring those lees and mixing up the wine, I'm ensuring first that the fermentations are going and that they'll finish.  Then once I feel like I've got that basic requirement taken care of, the second part is to decide when to stop, depending on how much richness I want in the finished wine.  And so, my preference is to hold off on sulfuring the wine to allow for some evolution in the malolactic fermentation. If I were to add sulfur immediately after that secondary fermentation is finished, Barrel-Fermenting Chardonnay I think it would arrest the development of some flavors in the wine, whereas holding off gives the wine some time to integrate and to really complete the process.  And that might be why the wines develop a richness, roundness, and fatness, but without the overtly buttery popcorn flavors — even though they've gone through 100% ML.  And yet we've also got the natural acidity from all the other acid profiles in there.  So the wines are bright and rich at the same time.

Bjornstad Cellars Pinot NoirAnd all of this really harkens back to my experience at [UC] Davis, where we learned what the rules are.  If you know the rules, then you know how you can break them and what the consequences of that might be, both good and bad.  I know that my prolonging the addition of sulfur [after secondary fermentation] is an unsafe winemaking practice.  The wise move is to add the sulfur and button it up as soon as it's done, so you're immune from oxidation and microbial intervention.  But once you add the sulfur, the evolution of the wine as a biochemical entity is done; you've stopped it at that point.  Yet, as I mentioned, I want the diacetyl to assimilate into the wine, which though an unsafe practice, is one of many choices that I take in an effort to make better wine based on the knowledge that I've got.

Rearing Children, Raising Vines

NM:  It's certainly an approach that spills over (pardon the pun) into your red winemaking, judging from their beguiling depth and alluring texture.  These Pinots are downright sensational!  What would you say has been significant in the process of crafting your Pinot Noir wines?

GB:  I guess I have my understanding or assessment of what the vineyards are about, in terms of their aromatics, flavors, and textural qualities.  And I would strive to support those significant, distinctive qualities as necessary without playing down any negative qualities.  If, for example, I know that the Van der Kamp Pinot Noir from Sonoma Mountain is predisposed to meaty, smokey, foresty-floor qualities, then my barrel selection becomes very important so as to not overdo those qualities.  I would reign back in on a particular barrel producer and/or toast level, in order to try to accentuate more of the fruit characteristics rather than those other qualities.  To use an analogy, I feel there's a way that child-rearing has a lot to do with wines.  The French don't really have a word for winemaking; they say 'elevage,' which is the same word they use for raising children.  And I don't think that's coincidental!  I, myself, have two boys who are 15 and 13 years old, and are very different from each other.  They need to get consistent parenting from me as their father, and yet for either of them to thrive and blossom in their own way, they need different input, direction, and emphasis.  So, I would say that I bring the same sort of awareness to my winemaking.  I think that's most profound with the two Pinots, because quite literally the only difference between them is where they grow: they're both [clone] 777, both grown with a Vertical Shoot Positioning system, both farmed with the same loving care — and yet they couldn't be any more different!  And that's a result of where they are, because once they come into the winery, they're getting the same 'parenting'  — the cold soak is the same and they're undergoing more or less the same barrel program. But then there's a way in which they also have their own lives, their own identities — the peak fermentation temperature in the bin of one Pinot might be different from that of the other — and there's very little I can do about that.  So, I think all that is something significant I've observed and has really helped to shape my approach in making these Pinots.

NM:  Similarly, I think the challenge to a winemaker's work lies in striking a balance between deferring and intervening in the process of making wine.  Which is where technical skill and artisanship come together.  It's quite a balance — a dance, even.

"Even though I feel I have a terroir-driven, hands-off approach, it's still very subjective."

GB:  Right.  Again, it's that subjective quality.  One thing I certainly enjoy and I think is significant to the brand, is the vineyard designation program.  My philosophy is, I've found these great vineyards; let them speak — and not overwhelm them with too much oak or too many winemaking artifacts.  So, I began each with a 50% new oak program, which I thought was enough to support the wines without overwhelming them, giving them a richness without camouflaging what's there.  At the same time, I realize that there is a sense of subjectivity: one could say with the vineyard designate idea and a relative hands-off approach that we imprint the wines — all of us winemakers do in one way or another.  But I'm involved.  And the grower, too, is involved; does he have a philosophy of two tons to the acre or twelve?  Choices like that are going to have a huge impact on the fundamental character of the wine.  With my 50% new oak selection, I think that's a reasonable number to support and not overwhelm the wines.  But another winemaker might say 70% or 30%.  And so, even though I feel I have a terroir-driven, hands-off approach, it's still very subjective.  I mean, after all, it's my definition of 'vineyard designation,' 'terroir,' and 'hands-off.'  And ultimately, that's going to be a difficult concept to translate to the marketplace.  The consumer is going to have to spend a little time to get that story from me, if s/he really wants to understand what it's about.  But I think the reality is that the wine geeks are the only ones who are going to do that.  In the end, I guess what it really comes down to is that I hope people will get what I'm trying to do!  If they have any interest in learning more, I feel I have to take them there.

Learning to Let Go

Sunset in Sonoma NM:  Overall, then, how pleased would you say you are with how the Bjornstad Cellars wines have come along, especially being that the brand is so new?

GB:  I feel that every year I learn something more — some cornerstone for that particular vintage, some new discovery, something that happened with the weather or that was observed in the vineyard, how the fruit behaved in the winery.  There's always a new theme to anticipate for next year.

NM:  One last question — and one that you preemptively touched on with your analogy to child-rearing: During your personal evolution as a viticulturist and more recently as a winemaker, what have you learned that you've been able to apply to your life in general, perhaps making for a fuller one?

GB:  I'd say probably one of the biggest lessons that comes from both the professional viticultural/winemaking arena as well as the fatherhood side is knowing what there is to do, not being overwhelmed with all the information and choices, and knowing that once I've done all that I can, there is no more to do.  It's like the director of a live stage production, where once all the sets are in place and you've worked with the actors who've rehearsed all their lines, the performance is now live and anything can happen; you've done what you could, so it is what it is.  And so, I'd say that there's a way that I've accepted a certain amount of letting-go.  I do my homework, I pay attention — my intention and motivation is devout — and then after that, I can really do no more!  Mother Nature is a partner in this whole process; hopefully, she'll take it in the right direction.  Of course, I'll still be watching, so if something goes awry, I can bring things back.  It's a partnership, a give-and-take in the involvement.  One response requires an interaction and it proceeds from there.  So, I would say that that's probably a life lesson that is apparent in both wine and kids!

Proof of the exquisite balance he strikes between parental intervention and collegial deference is nowhere more resounding than in Greg Bjornstad's wines themselves, each of which beautifully showcases its respective variety and unique terroir.  To learn more about this producer, its story, and portfolio, visit Bjornstad online.  Photo Credits: Bjornstad Cellars. v


Tasting Notes of the Bjornstad Portfolio
  • 2007 Chardonny, Porter-Bass Vineyard: pronounced aromas of bright green apple, orange blossom, asian pear, and lemon creme, all coming through generously on the palate with mineral undertones, bright acidity, and a floral finish.
  • 2007 Chardonny, Ritchie Vineyard: prominent nose of red apple, terragon and sage, plus a hint of toasted coconut, all coming through on the palate with a smooth, supple texture, bright acidity, and a long, savory finish.
  • 2007 Pinot Noir, Hellenthal Vineyard: pronounced aromas of cranberry, salami, and a hint of animal sweat, yet with a flavor of softly spiced red cherry, chalky tannins, and soft, alluring mouthfeel, balanced acidity, and a long red-fruit finish.
  • 2007 Pinot Noir, Van der Kamp Vineyard: powerful scent of black cherry, cloves, and smokey qualities, coming through assertively on the palate with a dark-berry infused creaminess, satiny tannins, balanced acidity, and a lingering oak-kissed finished.

These four wines are all eminently drinkable now.  However, with time, their rich fruit profiles, acidity, and texture will fully integrate to produce wines of increased elegance, power, and harmony.