Category Archives: Winemaker 2 Winemaker

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Ed Killian of Souverain and Killian Wines

Ed Killian 2Few people have influenced my career and winemaking philosophy as greatly as Ed Killian.  He is one of the unsung heros of California winemaking with an unassuming style and relaxed fun loving nature who year after year manages to craft amazingly beautiful and concentrated wines without ego or guile that can be so frequent in our industry.  I had the privilege of working with Ed for three and a half years of my time in California.  I say working with because even though I reported to him, he never made me feel that I was anything less than an equal partner in our winemaking for Souverain.  He remains to this day, one of my favorite people and I am delighted that he agreed to be interviewed for this story.  If you haven’t tried his wines then you should definitely seek them out.  We recently caught up and opened one of our wines, the Souverain Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 which was spectacular!

NC: I remember from working with you that you had originally intended to be a vet. What made you decide to move into winemaking instead of deciding to go to veterinary school?

EK: At the time, I though winemaking was an avocation and vet medicine was a real profession. Coincidentally, both were taught at UC Davis, so I applied to both schools the same year. I got into the Food Science dept., but not the vet school (which was much more competitive) and rest is history.

NC: Did you have a person or people in your career you felt were instrumental in inspiring your personal winemaking style?

EK: Since I jumped into a small winery as winemaker after only 3 years of lab work, I didn’t really have a close mentor. But we did have a fairly close-knit group of winemakers in the area that met and tasted quite frequently and shared ideas, so I guess that’s where I formulated most of the ideas and techniques I like today. I was also quite experimental by nature, so always had various trials going every year to sort out different ideas.

NC: You have become known for making fantastic Chardonnay in your career. Why did you focus on this variety and what do you feel sets your style apart from other Chardonnays on the market?

EK: I’ve always liked the variety’s ability to morph and react to both growing conditions and winemaking inputs. It’s sort of a “winemaker’s wine”. I loved white Burgundies and their combination of rich, honeyed fruit often complexed by notes of oatmeal and smoke. So most of my experimental efforts centered on yeast strains, ML inoculation techniques, skin contact and solids manipulation. Today I promote slower, slightly stressed barrel ferments with moderate lees retention that generated a more richly endowed spectrum of tropical fruit, integrated toast, creamy mouth but with low diacetyl impact from co-inoculation with ML bacteria.

NC: You are now building your own brand, Killian, in addition to your work on Souverain which was recently acquired by Gallo. How difficult is it for you to balance your time between the two?

EK: Fortunately right now the Killian Chardonnay is quite small at around 300 cases, and is made at a local winery which takes care of all the work based on my protocols. But the big help is the day to day business aspects are being watched over by my wife Jean so I can focus on the day job. So it’s working so far. There will come a time when some tough choices will have to be made.

NC: What are your biggest challenges as a small brand? Do you feel that you have an easier time or a harder time since you have been the face of Souverain for so many years?

EK: Actually, having been in the industry for over 30 years has made it easier because of the many relationships I have in the market, and having been a national brand winemaker for 24 years lends some credibility so when I approach a market, I’m not just the next hobbyist that wanted to go pro.

NC: I know you have Grenache planted in your yard. Do you see yourself expanding into Rhone varieties for the Killian label?

EK: I would love that! But right now I only have 103 vines that are more than enough when it comes to personally pruning and picking them. We just harvested the 2015 vintage of what we fondly call “Black Dog Red” after our late Kelpie. It makes one barrel of wine, so to go commercial, somebody other than me is going to have to plant the rest of the hill behind my house!

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NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again and why?

EK: That’s a hard question, but perhaps my first vintage making wine at Lambert Bridge Winery. The harvest was early and fine, but the memorable part was how much fun it was to actually be making commercial wine with just me and two other guys. We were so passionate about it and into every aspect. It was almost like making backyard wine with friends – we just had a fantastic time!

NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

EK: Probably deciding that a 24-48 hr. skin contact on Chardonnay was a good idea. Made for pretty heavy handed wines up front that died quickly over time. Most of the many other mistakes were things that resulted in difficulties for me (like being covered in grape must) rather than having an impact on wine quality.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?

EK: That’s a question I think only you would ask! I respect the primacy of the grape quality, because as we say “great grapes make great wine”, then the reason why we do it –hence:

Autumn grapes hang ripe

Expect the best wine from them

Sipping is reward

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

EK: Pay most of your attention to the big drivers of quality before you bury yourself in the weeds of minutia.   Then be decisive.

NC: If you had to pick a favorite wine region (outside of the one you are in of course) where in the world would it be?

EK: Most likely somewhere in the south of France. I love the flavorful blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, etc., etc.

NC: Where can my readers find your Killian’s Chardonnay?

EK: National distribution is small and largely centered in Colorado and So Cal. The best location is to tap the website at www.killianwines.com.

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Jan Matthias Klein of the Mosel

Although Jan Klein initially did not have plans for going into the family business once decided, he went after it with boundless enthusiasm.  With experience in multiple wineries all over the world, from New Zealand and Australia to France and many different places in Germany plus education in Marketing and Sales, Klein brings a well rounded knowledge to running his family’s 1,150 year old winery legacy.  He was gracious enough to sit down and answer some of my questions this past week.  I’m sure you are going to love the answers as much as I have!

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NC: As the 7th generation to be the caretaker of Staffelter Hof, did you just know you were destined for the wine industry or did you want to explore other career options before settling

JK: Well, I did know that it was my destiny when I realized that both of my brothers weren’t interested at all to go that way. Towards the end of highschool I had many interests that I was keen to pursue, especially languages and mathematics. When I finished high school I sensed that my parents were really hoping I would be the one to continue the family legacy. They never pushed me in my decisions but nonetheless I knew that it was now up to me make a important decision.

I chose to do a two year apprenticehip in viticulture & winemaking working in two different wineries, an organic one in Rheinhessen and a premium steepslope focused one in Mosel. During that time I became more and more fond of this profession, working in nature, controlling every step of the production process, hard but very fulfilling work it was. After the two years were over I studied Wine Marketing and economics to broaden my knowledge to successfully run our family business. After internships in wineries in France, New Zealand and Australia where I also managed to learn two languages fluently, I returned back home in 2005 to follow in my ancestors big footsteps.

NC: With such a great history to your winery, how do you balance the need to respect tradition with the need to constantly improve and innovate to remain relevant?

JK: We of course use the history in our communication a lot. There’s not so many 1,150 year old wineries around! In contrast to that our labeling is rather modern but with a twist that gets us to talk about the history of the winery again. In the vineyard, we work 100% organic and are starting trials for going biodynamic using over 100 year old methods for treating plants & soils. Also in the cellar it’s pretty basic (which is in a way modern now again) with no big fancy machines or additives to the wine (no enzymes, finings etc.), that way we could even label our wines as vegan, which is very trendy at the moment. Innovation is mainly important when comes to finding new ways to market your wines such as using Social Media, doing private tasting parties, or wine markets in different countries.

NC: The Mosel is one of the most iconic and dramatic wine growing regions in the world. What is the most challenging aspect of growing high quality wine there, particularly Riesling?

JK: To be honest the most challenging part is to make enough money to feed your family. With production cost over four times higher than in flat vineyards. And when you’re aiming for higher quality your looking generally at lower yields which makes this effect even stronger. For someone who only works in steep slopes it’s almost impossible to get by when he’s not famous and gets high enough prices for his wines. The model that works quite well is a mix of flatter vineyards, where you can use machines for the entry level and steep slopes for the premium wines, which is also how our winery is set up. Producing high quality is not a real challenge in the Mosel area, the biggest challenge is whether you can sell it at a high enough price that makes the effort you put in worthwhile.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku ?

JK: With wine from grapes

in harmony with nature

life is fulfilling

NC: Many German winemakers are moving back to extremely traditional winemaking for Riesling including skin contact, native yeasts and large oak casks for fermentation. Do you feel this is important for your wines and if so why? Do you also use modern techniques and if so what are the most important for your process?

JK: I think the reason for this is that it often works better and gives you more exciting results. Mosel unlike many other wine regions lives from its diversity, and it shows best when you’re leaving the industrial path of winemaking. For me the art of making great wine means to keep it as pure as possible, and when you work hard in the vineyard and harvest good fruit it’s actually quite easy to make wine with nothing but grapes and little bit of SO2 to keep it stable in the bottle and enjoyable for many, many years. I use selected yeast strains for my entry level wines in order to have product consistency from vintage to vintage because wild yeast ferments which I use for all premium wines vary a bit more with the flavors and style you get eventually. I also mainly use stainless steel tanks to keep the wine most pure and not affected by oak. Oak only comes into play for special traditional style wines I make. Last but not least I invested in a computerized fermentation control which automatically helps me avoid that ferments either go to fast or warm or both, without it being necessary for me to check each tank twice a day. It is a great luxury to have to save 2 hours of work per day during harvest when you’re having very long days already and have very important decisions to make.

NC: How do you achieve the delicate balance between sweetness and acid in your wines? Do you wait for the yeast to stop the fermentation on their own or do you stop the fermentation through some other means to retain a balanced level of sugar?

JK: Several methods come into play. For dryer styles, I often work with maceration on skins to extract flavor and minerals that will buffer the acidity in a natural way and make for a better balanced wine. For the sweeter styles we usually stop fermentations by cooling down and adding SO2 at the sugar levels that we think harmonize best with the individual acidity of the vintage. In low acidity years we usually pick grapes for sweet wines earlier, when the acidity is still higher and also whole bunch press to get a leaner more acidic style

NC: If you could make wine anywhere else in the world besides the Mosel, where would you go?

JK: Portugal, I’ve actually just planted some white Portuguese indigenous grapes in a steep slope here in Mosel.

NC: Early in your career was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

JK: I had several older friends whose wine styles and approach to viticulture I liked, most inspiring for me have been my friendships with swiss winemaker Daniel Vollenweider who started a Mosel winery from scratch in 2000 and Thorsten Melsheimer, one of the best and most authentic organic/biodynamic producers in Mosel.

NC: Do you have a winemaking mistake in your past that you remember to this day?

JK: Not really, but you can avoid screw-ups by not rushing yourself, not working too long hours (>15hrs), not doing three things at the same time and of course by pulling the mixer back before pulling it out of the tank.

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable pieces of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

JK: Be authentic, don’t listen to the press, don’t care about ratings too much, do your own thing!

NC: Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?

JK: Theres two very different projects I’m a part of right now:

First is the BERGRETTUNG initiative, where we rescue old steep slope vineyards from getting abandoned, because the former owner are giving up on them because of hard work/too low income. – check www.klitzekleinerring.de/en

And then I have created a Riesling based summer drink called MARI. It’s a blend of sparkling Riesling with Yerba Maté tea and elderflower sirup. It’s very refreshing and has some natural caffeine from the tea as well. – check http://www.jointhelama.com/en/start/

Jan’s wines are available at Acker Merrall Stores in NYC, through Crystalline Selection, and in Florida at GOS Wine & Spirits

 

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: A Conversation With Tony Bish, Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill

This month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker interview stays in New Zealand but travels north to Hawk’s Bay to speak with Tony Bish, the Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill Winery.  With 30 years in the wine industry Tony has 31 vintages under his belt and this year alone he and his team have produced 15 gold medal wines. Tony studied a degree course in wine making at Charles Stuart University in Australia while gaining practical experience working on vineyards in New Zealand and Australia. He joined Sacred Hill in 1985, managing the estate vineyard for the Mason family and was there at Sacred Hill’s inception a year later. He then departed to further his vineyard and winery experience offshore, returning to his roots at Sacred Hill in 1994.

Tony is very much a “vineyard” winemaker, putting into practice the old adage that the best wines are made in the vineyard. To that end he has worked closely with the viticulture team to develop new vineyards, on better sites, in the best grape growing areas in New Zealand.

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NC:  You’ve been in the industry over 30 years now.   What initially drew you to winemaking?

TB: Initially it was the need for a job after running out of money living on a glorious beach in Gisborne.  The long hours were great for saving money, which then funded ski sojourns to the South Island, so I kept doing vintages, and fell in love with wine along the way.  After a few very enjoyable years with this lifestyle, I took the plunge and enrolled in a Bachelor of Oenology Degree in Australia.

NC: When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

TB: Definitely pulled from a wide range of sources.  I try to glean or learn something from every wine I taste. Like many winemakers of my generation, we were taught to be technical winemakers. As I gained more experience, I learnt it’s just as important to know when NOT to intervene as it is knowing when and how to intervene. I know employ a wide range of winemaking strategies that embrace new world science and understanding, with old world sensitivity and “gut feel”.

NC: I don’t know how it goes in NZ but in the US, SB is a very difficult variety to keep from producing sulfides even under the best of circumstances.  Do you see that in NZ as well?

TB: Despite high juice nitrogen status, we find we need to supplement juice nutrition fairly proactively, or else sulphides rapidly form in ferment. We now get our retaliation in first, and add complex nutrients as soon as the ferment is underway, and a repeat ferment feed at about 17 Brix. We assess every Sauvignon ferment twice daily, and if any sulphides appear, we add more food. We are fermenting at relatively low temperatures (10-12C), so this no doubt causes some yeast stress, but this is the best way to preserve desirable volatile aromatics. The key is to have clean ferments as they finish, as any remedial treatment on Sauvignons strips aromatics and the palate.  As an aside, just adding DAP is not the answer. This can just stimulate bigger yeast reproduction, so you have more cells needing feeding, and more sulphides, in a chase your tail cycle of doom.  We recommend complex nutrients that may include a percentage of DAP, but importantly will contain yeast cell wall derivatives and thiamine.

NC: I’ve read about your Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc.  How do you manage a native fermentation in Sauvignon Blanc?  Is there anything that you have to look out for that is different than any ferments using cultured yeasts?

TB: Sauvage is handled very differently in that it is hand picked and whole bunch pressed. We don’t clarify as much, taking more fluffy lees into ferment. We chill our barrel room to manage temperature peak to under 20C in barrel, and this is important. These barrel ferments seem to need less nutrition, but the same proactive approach is taken, with frequent monitoring.

NC:  So many people in the US think of New Zealand as only Marlborough but Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand with a diverse range of varieties growing there.  What are the key aspects of this region that make it unique?

TB: Hawke’s Bay produces most of NZ’s finest wines. We have outstanding Chardonnay, very elegant yet powerful. Our blends made with the Bordeaux varieties have been extraordinary, and many times have sat comfortably along side First Growth Bordeaux’s from great vintages in internationally held blind tastings. These wines are seriously good, and represent great value in the context of global fine wine prices.  Syrah is the most recent star, and has become the darling of the UK wine critics. Distinctive, profound, yet fresh and floral, the best of these are good enough to take to bed!

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?

TB: Oh yeah, 2013 was a dream run! But fortunately 2014 was very nearly as good, and arguably even better for Chardonnay. The best years here are defined by long dry warm summers and settled autumn weather for harvest. The hottest years are not necessarily the best; it’s the consistently warm but not baking days that produce our best wines.

NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

TB: Prematurely opening up a white juice drainer as a young vintage intern and watching 25 tonne cascade on the floor. It was scary (nearly got sluiced into an inclined de-juicer in the process), and the clean up was epic in magnitude.

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

TB: Well after over 30 years winemaking I feel I am starting to get the hang of it. So be patient, trust your instincts, remember numbers are only a guideline not a philosophy, and sometimes less is more.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on red wine extraction in haiku?

Glistening black grapes

Like love need oxygen

Or bitter will be.

NC: I checked out your blog at and was very excited to see you are a fellow blogging winemaker.  What got you started?

TB: After just launching my own “indie” wine label, I felt a need to express my voice by blog, to build context and a sense of truth about my wines, but also to bring my consumers along for the ride. It’s fun after all!

NC: In addition to Sacred Hill, do you have any other projects that are very exciting right now?

TB: Between Sacred Hill and my own family label, four kids two dogs and eight chickens, life is busy! But my lovely wife and I have just purchased an acre of coastal land with the most incredible views in the world. So the next project is to design and build a home that does justice to the views and the location. East coast beach magic!