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NM: Speaking of Chalk Hill's Cabernet Sauvignon, there's a great deal of softness and bright red fruit to the wine. I find that to be very typical of coastal Sonoma Cabernets in general. And this one definitely shows its cooler origin.
JF: And this is a Cabernet that's going to age and age and age! I had a group of French people here tasting our wines, representatives from the cooperages, and they loved this wine. It's coming into its own right now, but it took it a long time. Plus, there's still the question [in the industry]: Can you really age a super-ripe Cabernet? The jury's still out on that, right? Whereas I know that this Cabernet is going age, phenomenally. It's got so many levels of complexity because we get a really long, cool growing season. We pick in November, so you can imagine how many different flavors develop in the fruit along the way!
NM: But out in the marketplace, California Cabernet brings with it a certain expectation of flavor, ripeness, and texture. How do think that Chalk Hill's Cabernet is sitting with that expectation?
JF: I go back what I mentioned earlier. Our belief is that a consumer will think, "Since I already trust Chalk Hill for their Chardonnay, which I love, now that I want to buy a red, I feel confident to try their Cabernet." Plus, tides are turning among critics. They've recently been turning attention towards Sonoma County reds, and that's opened the door in the marketplace for the style that red wines tend to have here. But it's also a trust factor with consumers; we always have to make sure that we meet expectations they might have with our reds, based on what they've come to expect from our Chardonnay. Thankfully, a number of things have happened all around the same time, allowing our red program to gain a real foothold: production from the new vineyard we have [where red varieties are primarily grown], higher praise in the wine media for reds in general from Sonoma County, and three warm vintages in a row that are just now hitting the market. You would think someone who drinks Chalk Hill wines would be a Chardonnay drinker, but we have people in our wine club who only want red wines!
NM: Bringing it full circle, what would you say are the most rewarding aspects of making wine in general for Chalk Hill, especially given this high level of quality in the context of what we might consider a sizable amount of production?
"I know that this Cabernet is going age, phenomenally. It's got so many levels of complexity because we get a really long, cool growing season."
JF: Because we're at 30-35,000 cases — which, although not tiny, is definitely not big — I'm able to come up with interesting club wines. We do tons of trials, so there's room for that and a real appreciation for it, too. And then within that we're culling out special wines. It's great! We've made them all in this high-end winemaking style, so we can charge a bit more because we have the audience who appreciates them. And that's a lot of fun; it's definitely the highlight of my work here. Now everyone is realizing that the direct [-to-consumer] market is the way to go. So, it's nice that we have the club already established. And I have no restriction with these wines as long as I make no less than two barrels of whatever I want to make — we can do a club wine on anything!
NM: Now, that's exciting! Because with the club wine program, you have what amounts to a canvas where you have a lot more artistic license than with the the standard portfolio, which I'm guessing has been great for your professional development. On that subject, what have you learned in making wines for Chalk Hill that has really shaped your identity as a winemaker and your understanding of winemaking at its core?
JF: There are several things. First has been bottling wines unfiltered — there's no safety net with that, so I have to be on it from the get-go and be thinking about it from the beginning. Second has been developing and having a goal of what I'm trying to achieve in the glass — I probably would have had that at this point in my winemaking career anyway, but it happened to coincide with me being here and having these different varieties to work with. I've also learned the importance of being honest with myself while tasting, really trusting what I taste; if I don't trust what I taste in the moment, then I know I shouldn't make any decisions at that point, but should come back later. I ask myself: "Do you like it, or do you not like it? If not, then don't try to fool yourself into thinking that you do." I don't let myself [fall into that trap], because I always taste blind.