Tag Archives: Souverain

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!

Ed Killian 1

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.

Crazy Times: Notes on Blogging, Vintage 2011, Winemaking, and the MW exam…

To my returning readers, my apologies that I have been unable to get a post up for the last two weeks but my life has been insane between full-time winemaking, an on-going house renovation project, a 50 mile bike ride for Diabetes research and my MW studies.  To my new readers…Welcome to the Personalities of Wine!

I have never considered myself a blogger but a winemaker who happens to blog.  I began this blog to inform and educate people further about wine and viticulture.  So far it seems to be accomplishing that goal and now I have signed up for my first Blogger Conference, BlogHer in Atlanta.  I’m not sure what to expect.  It is a food blogging conference but since wine and food are so closely related I should fit in just fine.  It’s interesting though as this is the first time I’ve really done anything like this.  I read all the other wine blogs about different writer’s conferences and strategies to turn blogging into a paying profession.  I have no intention of ever going “pro” at blogging.  The goal is to have my blogging support and complement my winemaking as well as keep consumers and other interested parties involved with the winegrowing season year round.

Speaking of the growing season, I just returned from my first visit, this season, to the Central Coast vineyards where I source Chardonnay and Merlot for Emma Pearl.  The vineyards are coming along beautifully down there and thanks to our outstanding vineyard crew I am happy to report that we missed the frost damage that impacted so many others.  The vineyard is currently a spectacular rolling sea of bright green leaves slowly reaching towards the sky with tiny flower buds preparing to open in the next week for bloom. Vineyard crews are busy spraying and thinning shoots so that the ones that remain will be stronger for it.  The smell of sulfur leaves an ever-present, slightly metallic tang in the air, which is comforting to me because it means the vines are protected from mildews and fungus.  This is the time of year of soft breezes and mild weather and we are all waiting with baited breath to see what weather the next few weeks will bring, warm and sunny being the ideal for fruit set. My nose is tuned for the first lightly floral smells of grapevines in bloom. 

In the winery we are in full blown blending season.  There are several blends including 2010 Emma Pearl Chardonnay as well as 2009 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon that are being prepared for bottling.  There are few times outside of harvest that is as critical for me as blending.  It is the last opportunity to drastically affect the style and quality of the final blends and I do turn into a bit of a perfectionist at this time of year.  We line the wines up, taste through the components, assemble a blend, taste the blend, tweak the oak style, change the percentages, and taste the blend again…all in a continuing cycle until the wine is as we feel it should be. My mind, during this process, is on my consumers.  Will they be happy with this blend?  Do I feel it is close enough in style to the previous blend while remaining true to the vintage variations of the year?  In the new world we, as winemakers, make wines more to a house style with a nod to vintage than the old world method of making wine to a vintage with a nod to the house style. We have much in common with Champagne in that regard.  The final question for me is “Am I happy to say I blended this wine and is it consistent with my winemaking philosophy?”   If the blend answers yes to all of those questions then we assemble it and move on to the next one.  As I said, it’s one of the most critical moments outside of harvest.

The other major event that is coming down the line for me is the MW exam.  It’s now almost exactly one month away.  I’ve been mentally and physically training for this since the summer of 2007.  With the “high fail” from last year’s exam I am determined not to have history repeat itself.  Many more essays and outlines have been written.  I can now see the bottom of my question basket through the remaining balled up slivers of paper that is all that remains of my original goal of writing an outline or essay for every MW question for the past 10 years.  The MW Exam Mix is playing frequently on my iPod ® including an eclectic collection of music that for some reason I find very motivational.  This year does feel different from last year.  Last year I was excited beyond belief for the exam, so sure that I had a pass in my hands.  Looking back on my mentality last year I feel like a person at the middle of their life looking back on a young, hopeful and energetic child.  This year, it’s more a steely determination that has replaced the hopeful excitement. The mental state to get through the exam is not about the vast knowledge it requires or the extreme time and financial commitment, although these things are daunting. It is a mental marathon meant to test not only your knowledge but your determination in achieving the goal. This program is not for the faint of heart or mind, however I am resolute in my focus and in my resolve to prevail.  We’ll see how it goes.  Only the results in September will tell if all the preparations have been enough.

 In the meantime I’ll be in the Atlanta area on an Emma Pearl Sales trip in a week or so! Keep your eyes out for the Blue Label!

Wine Trails and Weeping Vines

I spent a good bit of my Saturday at the Asti Winery tasting room for the Barrel Tasting Weekends for the Northern Sonoma County Wine Roads.  This included an event for Dry Creek, Russian River, and of course my stomping grounds the Alexander Valley.  I love events like this because I was able to talk to so many great people who loved the wines and really enjoyed learning more about them.  There’s always a danger that these weekends will devolve into crowds of drunken people meandering from tasting room to tasting room looking for a cheap buzz.  I didn’t see any of the normal signs of that this weekend.  It was pleasantly surprising to see the enthusiasm of our guests and that they were so hungry to learn about wine.  It’s never a trial to talk to people who are sober and excited about trying your wines.  Our barrels were both 2009 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves, each a single vineyard; one from the Asti Estate and the other from Stuhlmuller Vineyards in the southern Alexander Valley.  Wine Thief in hand, I described the differences between the different ends of the Alexander Valley and pulled endless samples from the barrels for people to taste.  As always, the Stuhlmuller was the more open fruit of the two vineyards because the Estate stays very closed and tight for the first 24 months and only opens up towards the end of the barrel aging cycle.  Both wines were VERY young as we age the Reserves for 2 years in barrel and another year in bottle before release.  Anyway, it was great to chat with everyone and stand out on the patio on such a nice day. 

The remainder of the weekend was spent out in the vineyards finishing our pruning and pulling our catch wires apart.  The vines are weeping like crazy and we had to be extremely careful because the buds have become very easy to knock off.  Bud break is not far away at all.  So far we are on target for a normal year of rain which is very exciting after so many years in a drought (not counting 2010 which was cool and wet).  Sunday brought a thunderstorm which I loved because it reminds me of the storms on the east coast and today is still quite overcast.  The forecasters in California call it “unsettled” weather. 

For the uninitiated, every winter the vines must be pruned to remove almost 95% of the growth from the year before.  This keeps them from becoming a crazy tangled mess that only a machete would be appropriate for.  It is also a figurative “reset button” for the vineyard itself.  It doesn’t clear all problems but it definitely helps.  Once the ground begins to warm up the vines start to pull up water and sugar reserves through the vascular system (this is the vine’s circulatory system).  The pruning wounds have openings to the vascular system and as the water begins to run up through the vine they begin to weep from the openings. This is the first sign of spring to me and it is once the vines have stopped weeping that we really see the first buds pushing for the new vintage. 

Next blog I’ll go into a bit of trellis design for vineyards since I’m sure some of you are scratching your head as to what catch wires are.