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ST: The process is ongoing. Even though we have a well-developed knowledge of what works, we're constantly reassessing everything, always hanging a question mark on all that we do. That's part of the fun of winemaking — it's intriguing, it's always a puzzle, every year is different. We know what's worked in the past, we know the basic framework, and certainly we do borrow from some of the other styles in the portfolio when making a particular wine. But in general, we're always questioning assumptions in winemaking. We're also constantly looking at what worked and what didn't, why something worked in one vintage but not another. There's a wide degree of variability that happens in any given year, a lot of which is weather-driven, which has us always reevaluating things that we do. We know what definitely works, but we're always seeking ways of improving the process and making the wines even better than they are now. And the changes we might make are small and incremental.
For example, in evaluating the fruit from the three mountain vineyards — Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain — we decided to bottle the Howell Mountain Cabernet sooner than the other two. That's because we wanted to really capture the floral, spice, and bright fruit qualities of the wine, as opposed to possibly losing some of those more delicate nuances by having the wine sit longer in barrel. We really wanted to highlight those features, so we got it out of barrel sooner rather than being formulaic about it by allowing it to sit for the same length of time as the others. And we did that with Keith's influence; having been through all this for the last four vintages, he's got a really good understanding of what can be achieved in our wines.
"None of this is formulaic. We need to make decisions in real time, when things are happening."
RC: Yes, usually the changes we make really are small steps. But one really big one we took about four years ago was to no longer filter the Cabernets. And that's one of the things that Keith has brought to the general winemaking — more gentle handling along with really focusing on retaining the things you want in the wine and not extracting those you don't.
NM: On the one hand, you're needing to keep sight of all that's fairly standard in winemaking, but on the other hand you're having to stay on your toes and remain open to unexpected variation brought about by the vintage itself. How do you know where to draw the line, how to strike that balance?
ST: It's a day-in-day-out job! You wake up in the morning and you start thinking about these things. But to get back to broad picture, there are certain ways of going about making wines in the Napa Valley and they're there for a reason — they work, they're successful. But being open to new ideas is critical. As soon as you close yourself off, you've lost the game right there. You mentioned earlier that there are increasingly new ways of thinking about wine among winemakers, one example being how in the last few years they seem to have a better handle on managing tannins and making wines more approachable — all of that is the result of discussing ideas with other winemaking colleagues and of being open to constantly improving wines by trying out some of those ideas. That's how it all comes about and that alone is really a full-time job. We can't simply say, "We've been doing it this way and that's how we're going to continue doing it."
RC: A good example of that is the managing of temperatures during fermentation. You almost pretty much have to do that lot by lot and day by day. Honestly, when we began, we thought we'd want the wines to emphasize the beauty in the fruit, so we'd have fairly low temperatures during fermentation — maybe 75-80ºF. But that's too simple. Sometimes we really need to run up the temperature and then decide how long to hold it there. That's real winemaking, because it's not done by rote; it's done wine by wine.
ST: None of this is formulaic. We need to make decisions in real time, when they're happening, when the ferments are occurring, we need to be tasting and evaluating, and in large part relying on experience. Bob has a lot of experience and history with the fruit; he's got a really good sense of things. To arrive on the scene and be a winemaker on day one — it doesn't work that way; it takes time to develop your palate, it takes time to recognize these things before you can really get a sense of what might work.