Musings on making wine in two hemispheres
Since 2003, I have been working two harvests a year: California, where most of my work is, and Casablanca Chile, where I work with Kingston Family Vineyard. This has put more than a couple of gray hairs on my head, but has also let me fast forward my enological education, by making wine twice a year instead of just once. Pinot Noir, in particular, has a very different expression in Casablanca Chile than it does elsewhere in the world, and dealing with this has made me a more thoughtful winemaker, in ways I would not have discovered had I not ventured outside of California.
When I first stepped off the airplane in Chile after my first flight down more than ten years ago, I was struck by how similar the landscape, flora and fauna looked to the south central coast of California. Notably, it was not that the plants and animals were the same, they were in fact different species, but they looked the same, obviously having evolved in similar ways in response to similar environs. This lead me to believe, mistakenly, that the grapes would taste and behave similarly to those in the central coast of California, a region which I know pretty well. This, I quickly learned, was not the case.
It was a useful lesson to learn: react to the fruit, rather than decide ahead of time how it should taste. Let the wine tell me what it wants to be and then adapt my methods accordingly. Fortunately, I was open minded enough to recognize this early on, and once I overcame my initial embarrassment about being wrong about a lot of things, it became quite the adventure to rethink and reshape my winemaking practices to suit the Chilean fruit. And while the things I do down there are still recognizable as Pinot Noir winemaking, in many small ways the way I treat the fruit there has changed a lot since the first vintage, 2003.
There's been a lot of cross-pollination, so to speak, between the wines I make in Chile and the wines I make here. Inevitably, when I pondered a winemaking decision in Chile, I also thought about whether the things I was doing in California might also benefit. And it turns out, many of the lessons I learned there were useful here.
There is a winemaker's retreat every summer in Oregon called the Steamboat Conference. Not to be confused with Steamboat Colorado. At this event (I have been going for many years) the participants gather for three days of formal tastings of unfinished Pinot Noir wines from all over the world. It's great fun and quite educational. Several years ago, I met Francois Millet from Comte de Vogue at the conference. Since one of the greatest wines I ever tasted, one that inspired me to make Pinot Noir in the first place, was de Vogue Musigny Vielles Vignes, I was thrilled to meet him. That year, I happened to have taken one of the Pinot Noirs I was working on in Chile to show during the blind tasting, curious to hear what other winemakers would make of the wine. After the tasting, he graciously complimented not the wine, but my approach--not being afraid to show a wine that was "ugly," as an example of finding, rather than having found, the essence of a place. He may not remember it, but that was a lightbulb moment for me, and a turning point in how I think about all the wines I make.