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An Interview with the Winemaker of Dry Creek Valley's Montemaggiore
Biodynamics. Based in a holistic and largely spiritual world view, it seeks to balance the interrelationship of land with the plants and animals thriving on it as a tightly integrated and self-nourishing system. While a great deal of biodynamic principles remain unexplained and in many cases even questionable, increasingly more grape growers in the wine industry are embracing its practices. They do so in an effort to bring better balance not only to their vineyards but also to the wines ultimately made from them. One such producer is Montemaggiore, located on a hill overlooking Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. I initially met its winemaker, Lise Ciolino, at the 2009 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting event whereupon I was struck with her candor and enthusiasm in discussing the close relationship between her land and her wines. It was only upon sitting down with her later, while taking in the stunning vistas of the estate she shares with her husband Vince, that I learned of the unexpected route that led her to winemaking.
After a successful career in computer science, Lise found herself drawn to wine with a passion that really began in childhood. She followed in her father's footsteps not only initially by virtue of pursuing higher academics, but ultimately by way of embracing artisan-driven wine inspired by old world craftsmanship. But as with any truly successful endeavor or captivating drama, Montemaggiore bears beneath its surface a finely balanced tension, a dance between proactive empiricism and intuitive artisanship. Hearing Lise describe the challenges and rewards of this duality was nothing short of inspiring, as it beautifully encapsulated the struggle that all quality-minded modern winemakers face today.
NM: Before we discuss how you're growing, tell me about what you're growing: Syrah.
"Syrah has had a special place on my palate! I love the diversity and the surprise of it, and I love the fact that it has so many faces."
LC: When I was a kid, I never liked red wine. I would always taste the white wines and loved them all. When I was sixteen, I went on a trip to the Northern Rhône and had my first Chapoutier Hermitage at one of the those luncheons that only the French can do — the large swathes of white linen on the tables, three waiters for every diner, and all the wonderful foods and wines — and the experience made me fall in love with Hermitage. Ever since then, Syrah has had a special place on my palate! I love the diversity and the surprise of it, and I love the fact that it has so many faces. In fact, there are aspects of Syrah that make it not such a good varietal to take off in the marketplace, because it's so dependent on where it's grown; there is no classic Syrah style. So when people buy it, they don't really know what kind of Syrah they're going to get. As we know, at the extremes, warm climate Aussie Shiraz is very different from cool climate Northern Rhône Syrah. So, understandably, it's confusing for consumers. But that's actually a big part of what I love about it, that it's inherently so diverse that you can make so many types of Syrah, depending on where you grow it. There is no single, accepted style; there's a spectrum. Overall, it's the earthy character, the fruit character, the complexity, and the versatility of Syrah that I just love. So when [my husband and I] were first looking to buy a vineyard, we looked at those where Syrah was grown. And, of course, that narrowed the choices down quite a bit and made things easier. Although, the vineyard here wasn't entirely what we wanted — originally it started out as five acres of Syrah and five acres of Cabernet — but we've moved that over to what we really wanted [by replacing some of the Cabernet with Syrah].