This month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker interview travels back to California’s Central Coast to visit with winemaker Stephen Dooley. Stephen grew up in the upper Midwest and attended Mankato State University and the University of California, Davis, to earn a degree in Enology. He spent 10 years making wine in the Napa Valley, two harvests “down under” in South Africa and Australia, before arriving the Edna Valley, where he worked for others for seven years, and then launched Stephen Ross in 1994. He met his wife, Paula, in 1989 and they married in 1995. They work together on the Stephen Ross wines.
NC: What got you interested in wine initially?
SD: My curiosity for winemaking started in high school when I experimented with making wine in my mother’s basement in Minnesota. While in college there, I was entranced by a TIME Magazine article, and learned that one could study winemaking and do this for a living. I transferred to the University of California at Davis to earn a degree in enology and have been practicing my craft of winemaking ever since.
NC: Did you have a person or people in your early career that really inspired your winemaking style? Who were they and why?
SD: After graduating, I started working in Napa Valley at the Louis M. Martini Winery in 1977 and spent the next decade there – taking some time off to work harvests “down under”. Coming from the Midwest, I was already instilled with a strong work ethic. Louis Martini himself demonstrated that ethic in action. Despite having handed the reins to his son, he worked at the winery every day, into his old age. One of Louis’ maxims was “balanced into the bottle, balanced out of the bottle”. The key to aging is balance, and I incorporate that into every wine I make.
I moved to California’s Central Coast in 1987 when I became the winemaker and general manager for Edna Valley Vineyards, which at that time was owned by the Chalone Wine Group. CWG’s Dick Graff was my boss and he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about quality winemaking, that I consider him a mentor.
NC: You and your wife run your winery together. What challenges come with that and what advantages do you think you have?
SD: Paula and I consider ourselves one of the luckiest married work teams ever. We get to work together every day, with our passionate and dedicated crew, to produce unique and interesting high-quality wines. My role at Stephen Ross is winemaker, repairman, salesman…you name it. I am the owner, so I wear many hats. Paula wears more of the business hat in the office and oversees Direct to Consumer Sales. We’re a great balance and cannot imagine doing it any other way.
NC: What is your winemaking philosophy in Haiku?
SD: California coast
Mother Nature’s art
NC: Your winery is in the Central Coast of CA. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the industry there?
SD: I think we have the same main challenge as wine regions and other agriculture sectors throughout the state: The continuing drought is number one, and then sourcing crews to align timing of picking is always tricky. We have been working with most of our vineyard partners for years and are intimately familiar with the fruit and when to pick, but it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about.
All of the grapes we grow or purchase are either from our SIP Certified estate vineyard, Stone Corral, in the Edna Valley, or other local SIP Certified or organic vineyards, all who share a commitment to ethical farming practices and high-quality grape growing.
NC: You make a number of different wines for your winery under the Stephen Ross label and the Flying Cloud label. How did you come up with this business structure and how do you describe the difference between the two?
SD: We launched Flying Cloud in 2003 to focus on a suite of Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and a red blend based on Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Petite Sirah. I wanted to experiment with great fruit from surrounding AVAs that didn’t fit the Burgundian program of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars.
Flying Cloud wines are popular because they absolutely over-deliver on quality at a value-driven price point. The wines have wholesale distribution and are also available in several states through the website, mailing list, and tasting room.
NC: What was the best piece of winemaking advice you ever received?
SD: That is quite a question. I am always seeking ideas and learning from my winemaker friends. We have regular, healthy, open exchanges of ideas and practices, which I think is unusual in most industries. In my decades of winemaking, I have gotten many “best pieces” of advice.
NC: Would you add anything to that advice which you could give people just starting out in the industry?
SD: My advice to those embarking on a winemaking career is to be prepared to work very hard, and to be patient. Taste as many wines and as often as you can – form tasting groups, seek new things, ask questions. And, to those starting new brands, winemaking is less than half the battle, you have to go sell your wine, too.
NC: If you could live in another wine region (outside of your own), which would you choose and why?
SD: Another really big question. Burgundy is fascinating with its history. I love the Willamette Valley in Oregon, but it is too rainy for my wife. We both love Italy and its great weather, food and wine. When it comes down to it, it is very hard to contemplate leaving San Luis Obispo. It’s just about perfect here.