So far, I've interviewed more 'veteran' American winemakers in this series, but I started to think, a new winemaker from a new region. That could be interesting. Recently I wrote up my experience with a bottle from San Diego, Los Pilares and thought his experience could be enlightening, a new winemaker and a yet to be discovered terroir.
In reading over Michael's responses I saw why I resonated with that Los Pilares wine. In 1994 when Michael returned from France, he realized the wines of California had changed. This was the very same strike of lightening that inspired The Battle for Wine and Love.
So with pleasure, I present to you the newest peek into the winemaker's brain. I introduce you to Michael Christian of Los Pilares.
We are the opposite of winemaking veterans. Not only are we beginners, but also we have no education or training in viticulture or winemaking. However, for about eight years we have had humble backyard vineyards and have made six vintages of garage wine.
San Diego Fruit and Soils: What are you looking for?
Soil: in large measure, you take what you’ve got, if you’re committed as we are to making your wine with local fruit. For us, that means mostly granitic soils, and we are happy about that.
Fruit: southern European varietals, picked when ripe, not overripe. We don’t pick by brix; we pick by ripeness as indicated by the taste and look of the grapes, the feel of the clusters, and the color of the pips. For seven years running now, we have proven to ourselves that that this makes good wine here in San Diego.
Mentors? Where does the wine inspiration come from? Or, were you inspired by a kind of wine when you started?
A Chateauneuf in the old-fashioned style or just about any Gigondas makes me happy. They are sort of crunchy and juicy, rarely heavy on the palate. I love Grenache. We were also inspired by the DIY ethic of the many San Diego micro-breweries and by the commitment to authenticity of San Diego’s pioneering farm-to-table restauranteur, Jay Porter (The Linkery, El Take It Easy).
What is your attitude towards Sulfur?
I don’t really know. When I can actually smell it in wine, I don’t like it. I don’t have an anti-sulfur dogma. On the other hand, I hate what the whole technical toolkit (of which sulfur is an important part) has done to wine. There are two sides to the coin: “stable”/dead; “reliable house style”/boring. I understand that industrial-scale wineries want a lot of control, but it’s just wrong in small wineries. And then, of course, the unsulfured wines, when they are successfully made with good fruit can be spectacular in ways that are not available from sulfured wine, at least that has been my experience. A good example is the nose on a bottle of Cornelissen’s MunJebel Rosso 6 that I drank a year or two ago. Insanely interesting -- burnt, candied orange; cinnamon, rose and lemon blossom. I think a big part of that is the natural oxidization that occurs without sulfur. Okay, never mind, I convinced myself -- the less SO2 the better. The Los Pilares 2010 we added SO2 lightly at bottling. That’s all.
What is your philosophy towards using other additions or modifications in terms of extreme process (RO etc.) in winemaking.
When you grow your own fruit and make your own wine, you want to taste the vineyard in every bottle that you make or buy. I am opposed (not philosophically but as a matter of preference and curiosity) to everything that gets in the way of tasting the vineyard. When I say “taste the vineyard,” I mean everything about it. The weather of that vintage, the varietals, the age of the vines, the fruit set, the green drop, the time of harvest, etc.
As I said, we have no professional wine-making education -- don’t know squat about reverse osmosis, micro-ox, spin cones, or “approved additives.” Those are things we don’t need to learn -- the opposite of tasting the vineyard.
Our garage-wine “process” for what it’s worth started with the kind of recipes you find in books for home winemakers. From there we immediately began removing ingredients and steps from the recipe until, two or three vintages before going commercial with Los Pilares, we were down to nothing but picking, destemming by hand (and sometimes not at all), sometimes crushing by hand or foot and sometimes not crushing, lightly covered vessels with a little CO2 on top while waiting for the native yeast to get going, punching down during fermentation, and pressing. No sulfur at all ever. No other additions at all ever. No inoculation.
Do you ever think of 'tannin' management?
Only in the sense that I want more tannins. I don’t really care about favoring “soft tannins.” I like vegetable tannin, as opposed to wood, and want more of it in Los Pilares. You’ll see that in 2012. We are going to extend the alcoholic maceration. In 2011, the wine was pressed as soon as primary fermentation appeared finished. 2-4 weeks. But in 2012 I intend to leave the wine on the skin, pips, and stems for at least a month after primary.
In the garage, I did it for FIVE months with Mourvedre this year. No sulfur at any time. It came out extremely tannic and still delicious, to me anyway. Tart, bitter, chewy, spicy, and still fruity (but only after the swallow, not on the attack). Tasted like something that would last for 30 years in the cellar. Left it in an open decanter on the kitchen counter for six days, room temp. It was still utterly fresh and the nose was just opening up. Why don't people do these kinds of macerations all the time? I'm confused, and I'm just making it up as I go along.
Another way to get good tannins into San Diego-grown Rhone varietals would be to add Mourvedre, but we have yet to find the right fruit in the right quantity.
Curious that you decided not to inoculate for alcoholic but you do for ml. Could you expound?
Sure, for know-nothing mavericks, we were a little timid. We were afraid of getting secondary fermentation in the bottle. So far we have not inoculated the 2011 vintage for ml, and I don’t think we will.
In your short time as a winemaker, what were the techniques you've tried and abandoned.
I have only done the basic stuff, and I have given up on most of it. Sulfur, yeast food, and cultivated yeasts. Our partner, Jay, has done a lot more with his garage wine: enzymes, wood chips, staves, etc.
Do you see yourself as part of the next generation of 'New' American winemakers? And if so, what does that mean to you?
Yes. When I’m feeling expansive and ambitious, I hope to make wine that transforms San Diego as a viticultural region. I hope to make one of those bottlings that people look back on in 15 years and say, “oh yeah, that’s when San Diego found its way.” People are going to hate me for saying this, but come on, really, why try to make a Napa cab in San Diego? Doesn’t the world have enough of that already? San Diego is a perfect place to do something great: no recent legacy to live up to as an appellation, varied terrain, Mediterranean climate, granitic soils, high-altitude vineyards, and mostly small wineries. It’s easier for small wineries than for big ones to experiment and take chances. In San Diego we don’t have to break the mold, because there’s no mold to break. What is this wine region known for? Nothing. Yet.
How is the 2011 progressing?
It will have some close similarities to 2010, because it was another long, cold growing season, and we got the same fruit in the same proportions from the same growers. But 2011 wasn’t as long or as cold, and the fruit ripened much more evenly. Honestly, both the Grenache and the Carignane looked picture-perfect, super clean. I don’t think we will get that bit of funk you liked in the 2010. In exchange, tank tastings suggest that it will have more elegance, a fuller mid-palate, better acidity, and bit of honey in the nose that is not in the 2010.
What is your feeling about all of this talk about natural wine, and is it relevant?
Sure it’s relevant. I think about it all the time. I mean, it’s vague, ill-defined, disputatious, and often conflated with other ideas like organic, biodynamic, and low intervention. But it’s relevant, because it’s part of a backlash against boring industrial wine and food. I think the best response to the arguments about what’s “natural” and even to the arguments about whether natural wine making is a good thing is disclosure. Winemakers should do their best to tell consumers, critics, and journalists everything they might want to know about every bottling: all the ingredients and processes. The virtues of disclosure in wine making are many. Let the debate rage on about whether you can add SO2 at bottling, or use grapes from an irrigated vineyard and still be “natural,” but tell the truth! The truth helps consumers. It might, for example, reveal to a consumer that she loves wine made with heavy-handed additions of oak extract. Let her drink them. Let her easily find more to her taste. In the same way, the truth helps writers to know which differences in ingredients and processes make a difference in the bottle.
It’s not practical to put all these disclosures on a label. Therefore, in the interest of disclosure, I would like to help start a voluntary association of winemakers who pledge transparency and publish their disclosures on a web site available to everyone for free. The association would invite all wineries to participate. If I find like-minded people to help me get this going, I would hope that journalists and consumers would encourage all winemakers to add their disclosures to the site.
ADDITIONAL NOTES AND BACKGROUND
All of our wine-making ideas and projects started with our perspectives and preferences as consumers, not with the class “consumers” but rather with our own tastes as consumers. My tastes were affect by travel in two ways -- one was exposure, the other was absence. I’ll explain.
Personally, I have been drinking seriously (and seriously drinking) since the late 1970s, mostly Californian wine. From 1983-1985 I travelled all over Africa and Western Europe, getting some exposure to French and Spanish wines. I lived in France from 1988-1994. During my travelling and expatriate time, not only did I drink a lot of French and Spanish wine, but also I adopted their way of drinking. To traditional Spaniards and French, wine is not a cocktail and rarely an aperitif; it’s food, consumed as part of a meal, and a meal is a social event.
By the time I got back to California, the wines being made here had changed. They had gotten very alcoholic and woody and fruity. It was very noticeable to me, because I was gone during that period of time when “Parkerization” really took over the new world. It was like not seeing your nephew for five years; he used to be cute, but now he glares at you and has acne and an ugly Adam's apple. After just a few months living back in California, I realized that I really didn’t like my nephew, and it didn’t matter whether he was wearing his Cab clothes or his Zin clothes or his Pinot clothes or his Chard clothes; he was still ugly. He looked the same.
Coleman, my wine making partner who is our vineyard manager and fruit hunter, had similar experiences travelling and living abroad and a similar evolution in taste. So we decided to make our own wine. We both love the brush-covered hills east of San Diego. They look and smell and feel so much like the Vaucluse. We both love Rhone wines. So, we planted red Rhone varietals in Coleman’s backyard which is composed of decomposed granite and is very typical of our backcountry.
My garage became our winery. By the time we had finished five vintages, we were absolutely certain really good Grenache and Mourvedre could be grown here. There were bumps along the way, but the quality of our garage wine was more than encouraging to us.
We don’t need to mess around with the fruit. It ferments by itself. Seems never to get stuck. By the way, sometimes that means very restrained alcohol. The 2010 Los Pilares is at a true 12.5% with no watering back. This need not be uncommon in San Diego, because the days are shorter here during the growing season. The hours of sunshine are less. But if the brix is high when the fruit is ripe, then that’s what we will pick and vinify, and we will not water back.