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NM: It sounds like you began with that vision even without yet having had viable estate-grown fruit, choosing instead to source from growers.
MS: Oh, absolutely! And, honestly, when we sat down and talked about the branding in 2005 and 2006, we didn't have a Chardonnay because we didn't own any and weren't sure we could find the growers that we really trusted enough and had a good enough relationship to achieve our objectives. But we found one in the Martinellis, for both sites, the Sonoma Coast [which will be labeled a single vineyard designate in future vintages] and La Pommeraie.
NM: What are some of the risks you take in the making of your Chardonnays, which you feel are potentially worth it to maximize their quality and expression?
MS: The Chardonnays are all made with native yeast fermentation. But we do use cultured malolactic fermentation just because the the pHs are so low; it's hard to get the native malo-lactic populations to complete secondary fermentation. In always letting the wines carry over through vintage in barrel, white wines specifically, there's a risk in understanding what the balancing point is. I think the wines lose some of their primary fruit and you get some of the secondary qualities, some of which come around from the initial time in barrel. Texture is a quality that you continue to refine over time. So, right now, I'm very pleased with the wines. But talk to me in ten years to see to which direction they'll ultimately have gone in and how my own palate will have changed!
NM: Are you pleased with the overall direction that your Chardonnay program is going? Is it consistent with what you're wanting to see for the brand?
MS: In working with these new sites, I'm pleased with the expression. With our estate properties, we have the most flexibility in terms of farming, growing, planting. I'm also pleased with the texture of the wines — for me, white wines often lack a dimension of texture. Bottling wines without filtration gives you an initial textural dimension, and I like how that dimension has turned out in these wines. Looking in the future, the amount of time in wood and the amount of new wood are things we'll play with over time to achieve some balance.
NM: Chardonnay as a varietal wine has gone through quite an evolution just in the last decade. What do you feel is the outlook for California Chardonnay in general and of quality-driven Sonoma County Chardonnay in particular? And, in light of that, what do you see for the future of Benovia's own white wine program?
MS: Chardonnay, because it is such a malleable varietal, with the swing of the pendulum, really feels the changes in style and consumer demand more than any other varietal. Coming from a bigger, richer, fatter, riper style, I think that the varietal was maligned as a condition of the producer's objective. The wines got that way and people started saying that they don't like Chardonnay! Well, Chardonnay as a varietal doesn't equate to big, fat, rich, and oaky; it can be lots of different shades of gray. As a producer, I'd love to see it come back to something that has better balance, something that has a little more acidity and restraint. And I believe that's we're doing with our wines.
Reflecting the Facets of the Region's Pinot Noir
NM: Of course you love Chardonnay, but — and I may be asking the obvious — would you say that Pinot Noir is your real varietal of choice?
MS: Yeah! Why am I here in the Russian River? — it's to make Pinot Noir. I do love Chardonnay and Zinfandel, but Pinot Noir is the bread and butter of Russian River and western Sonoma County. I grew up in Sonoma County and cut my teeth on its Pinots. When I was a kid, my dad had penchant for the varietal, but there weren't many Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma County. And most of them were making Pinot from Alexander Valley back in '60s and '70s — those wines were quite variable but in a cool year, you could find something that was pretty and had a lot of ethereal qualities. As a consumer and once I went to school and learned the trade, I found that Russian River had a very attractive quality in that its wines had power but elegance; the wines have a distinctive personality.