Tag Archives: Winemaking

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Stephen Dooley

 

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

Burgundian traditions

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.    

Planning for Unified

Courtesy of unifiedsymposium.org

This week the entire country decends upon Sacramento, CA for the 2018 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium. This is, by far, the largest wine focused trade show in the US. All the suppliers for anything having to do with grapes or wine are in attendance and one can easily just attend the exhibit halls and not see the entire show space. I like to attend the talks though. It starts on Tuesday with the Keynote luncheon. These talks are separate from the show itself which starts Wednesday but it never fails to be inspiring and full of good information. Tomorrow’s speaker is Gina Gallo of the winemaking giant Gallo. Gina is known to have been one of the driving forces behind repositioning the company towards higher end wines so her insight into the industry I’m sure will be interesting. After last year’s luncheon with wine writer Eric Asimov, I walked away with close to 10 pages of notes. To save my hand, I’ve brought my SurfacePro this year and fully anticipate getting some good information again.

Another one of my favorite highlights is the “State of the Industry” talk which kicks off the main part of the symposium on Wednesday morning. Having any one of the speakers present their information to you would cost you well beyond the price of an admission ticket but the panel of people that they assemble for this gives a very detailed look at the state of the industry in California. Although global issues are touched on it is a CA driven talk but there are always good parallels to be gleaned. Since CA makes up 90% of the wine industry in this country, knowing where CA is going gives good insight into where the market is going.

The rest of the day is split into “tracks” with multiple sessions being held at the same time for viticulture, winemaking, and marketing. It never fails that I end up wanting to go to two or three talks the happen at the same time and need to make a game day decision.

Thursday tends to be a lighter talk day with less in depth subjects so that usually ends up being my trade show day. You MUST go to the trade show with a plan. Inevitably, one will run into a bunch of friends and colleagues and it will take three times as long as you expect to cruise down each aisle as you find people to catch up with you haven’t seen in years.

The social aspect of the show cannot be discounted either. Planning one’s dinner and after party schedule is almost as hectic as planning what you want to see at the show itself. The bars at the two main hotels, The Sheraton Grand and the Hyatt Regency, are guaranteed hang out spots for after late night activities. I have often wondered if they prepare for this week like generals preparing for battle. Getting a room at one of these hotels is a feat in itself since they are snapped up within seconds of being released. I felt it was a major accomplishment to have gotten a room at the Hyatt for this year’s show. I’ve never been on top of it enough to have booked one of these rooms before without being a speaker.

However you look at it, Unified is one of the key meeting of the minds of the US wine industry. Regardless of your geographic location, there is a wealth of information here for anyone who wants it.

Photo from UnifiedSymposium.org

Harvest Update 2017 – And That’s All Folks

It feels in some ways that this has been a super long harvest and in others it fells so short. We had the rain on and off for the week in early October but since then the weather has been beautiful. Riesling has been very strange this year. There was a large crop and that led to many vineyards stalling out in the mid-teens for Brix and moving very slowly. The best growers as always managed to produce beautiful fruit regardless.


The barrel fermented Blaufrankisch is settled into barrels (for aging this time) and going through ML. It looks very promising. We finally picked our Riesling for 240 Days last week and it is getting ready to go through primary fermentation. The 240 Days Rose looks and smells like pink Sauvignon Blanc which is super interesting and delicious. It just finished fermentation and will get sulfur this week. Also on my list soon is getting the 2016 Cabernet Franc out of barrels and blended.

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I know the snow is coming soon and with it a slow down in my travels but greater focus on what is happening in the winery. The start of the 240 Days of winemaking is upon us!

As a side note, I’m excited to announce my blog has been named one of the top 100 wine blogs on Feedspot, was listed as one of the top 10 wine blogs on 10Greatest.com, and I did a quick interview with the WSET out of London.  Find that full article here.  All in all it’s been a great week!