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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?
GB: 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.