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And all of this really harkens back to my experience at [UC] Davis, where we learned what the rules are. If you know the rules, then you know how you can break them and what the consequences of that might be, both good and bad. I know that my prolonging the addition of sulfur [after secondary fermentation] is an unsafe winemaking practice. The wise move is to add the sulfur and button it up as soon as it's done, so you're immune from oxidation and microbial intervention. But once you add the sulfur, the evolution of the wine as a biochemical entity is done; you've stopped it at that point. Yet, as I mentioned, I want the diacetyl to assimilate into the wine, which though an unsafe practice, is one of many choices that I take in an effort to make better wine based on the knowledge that I've got.
Rearing Children, Raising Vines
NM: It's certainly an approach that spills over (pardon the pun) into your red winemaking, judging from their beguiling depth and alluring texture. These Pinots are downright sensational! What would you say has been significant in the process of crafting your Pinot Noir wines?
GB: I guess I have my understanding or assessment of what the vineyards are about, in terms of their aromatics, flavors, and textural qualities. And I would strive to support those significant, distinctive qualities as necessary without playing down any negative qualities. If, for example, I know that the Van der Kamp Pinot Noir from Sonoma Mountain is predisposed to meaty, smokey, foresty-floor qualities, then my barrel selection becomes very important so as to not overdo those qualities. I would reign back in on a particular barrel producer and/or toast level, in order to try to accentuate more of the fruit characteristics rather than those other qualities. To use an analogy, I feel there's a way that child-rearing has a lot to do with wines. The French don't really have a word for winemaking; they say 'elevage,' which is the same word they use for raising children. And I don't think that's coincidental! I, myself, have two boys who are 15 and 13 years old, and are very different from each other. They need to get consistent parenting from me as their father, and yet for either of them to thrive and blossom in their own way, they need different input, direction, and emphasis. So, I would say that I bring the same sort of awareness to my winemaking. I think that's most profound with the two Pinots, because quite literally the only difference between them is where they grow: they're both [clone] 777, both grown with a Vertical Shoot Positioning system, both farmed with the same loving care — and yet they couldn't be any more different! And that's a result of where they are, because once they come into the winery, they're getting the same 'parenting' — the cold soak is the same and they're undergoing more or less the same barrel program. But then there's a way in which they also have their own lives, their own identities — the peak fermentation temperature in the bin of one Pinot might be different from that of the other — and there's very little I can do about that. So, I think all that is something significant I've observed and has really helped to shape my approach in making these Pinots.
NM: Similarly, I think the challenge to a winemaker's work lies in striking a balance between deferring and intervening in the process of making wine. Which is where technical skill and artisanship come together. It's quite a balance — a dance, even.
"Even though I feel I have a terroir-driven, hands-off approach, it's still very subjective."
GB: Right. Again, it's that subjective quality. One thing I certainly enjoy and I think is significant to the brand, is the vineyard designation program. My philosophy is, I've found these great vineyards; let them speak — and not overwhelm them with too much oak or too many winemaking artifacts. So, I began each with a 50% new oak program, which I thought was enough to support the wines without overwhelming them, giving them a richness without camouflaging what's there. At the same time, I realize that there is a sense of subjectivity: one could say with the vineyard designate idea and a relative hands-off approach that we imprint the wines — all of us winemakers do in one way or another. But I'm involved. And the grower, too, is involved; does he have a philosophy of two tons to the acre or twelve? Choices like that are going to have a huge impact on the fundamental character of the wine. With my 50% new oak selection, I think that's a reasonable number to support and not overwhelm the wines. But another winemaker might say 70% or 30%. And so, even though I feel I have a terroir-driven, hands-off approach, it's still very subjective. I mean, after all, it's my definition of 'vineyard designation,' 'terroir,' and 'hands-off.' And ultimately, that's going to be a difficult concept to translate to the marketplace. The consumer is going to have to spend a little time to get that story from me, if s/he really wants to understand what it's about. But I think the reality is that the wine geeks are the only ones who are going to do that. In the end, I guess what it really comes down to is that I hope people will get what I'm trying to do! If they have any interest in learning more, I feel I have to take them there.