Sunday, May 3, 2015

Winemakers of West of West pt. 1

Q & A with Ryan Zepaltas 

How did you get into wine and winemaking? 
I was thrown into it the summer of 1998 when I moved to Sebastopol, CA from Eau Claire,WI. A family friend ran the cellar at La Crema and invited me me to work harvest for him. It sounded cool, although I knew next to nothing about wine. I fell in love with the buzz of harvest time before I learned to love wine.

Is there a varietal you wish you could grow in the west sonoma coast?
 Yes, I would love to plant with some Melon de Bourgogne and Cab Franc on a Sebastopol Hills site. I love Muscadet as an everyday wine, and it would be fun to push the envelope with Melon. Cab Franc is just super fun when done in an elegant style. We’d probably have to crop it too low to get it ripe, and it would be fiscally irresponsible, but we can always dream.

What do you think would be successful in the west sonoma coast that has not been planted yet? You don’t see much Sauvignon Blanc. I think it could be really interesting. Slower ripening, longer hang time could be interesting. SB is not taken as seriously in CA as it should be.

How do you make wine more accessible? 
We really have to push hard to consumers that wine doesn’t need to be intimidating. On the industry side, we cannot roll our eyes at questions that new wine drinkers might have when in tastings, or in our restaurants. It is our duty to help them love wine, and help chart a path for them if they are interested in taking their wine enthusiasm to the next level. We should not tell them what to drink. It is perfectly ok for someone’s favorite wine to be big, oaky Chardonnay.

Why is pinot noir worth the price tag?
It’s tough to put a great Pinot out there for the under $30/bottle because farming Pinot is expensive. The extra care that happens in the vineyard drives up our costs. But right now, Pinot Noir in CA over-delivers for the price at almost all levels above $20. We are coming off a string of decent sized crops, and good vintages. Additionally, the bar is so high right now for quality that wineries can’t afford to not put out high quality wine. The competition is so great. We have the research, weather, the land, and the talent in the vineyards and wineries.  There is so much great California Pinot Noir out there between $30-60. That is not cheap, but the value is there.

Do you find your region more difficult to farm than others, like Russian River? 
Low fruit set in and subsequent low yields at windy, cold sites can make it hard to make sense financially. 1 ton per acre sounds great from a marketing department, but that doesn’t always pencil out financially.

What is the role of the sommelier to you? Do they inform your process? 
From a winemaker’s viewpoint, sommeliers are our ambassadors in the restaurants. For small under-the-radar brands who don’t have a lot of marketing dollars, sommelier support is essential. They introduce our wines to new customers, and hopefully we end up connecting with a customer directly because of their experience with our wine in the restaurant. Having your wine on a restaurant’s wine list means nothing if the bottles are collecting dust because customer’s never heard of it, and no one is telling them about it.

I truly appreciate the feedback I receive from somms, writers, etc. as we are always trying to make better wines. At the end of the day though, I have to make wines that are true to my vision, and what my loyal customers have come to expect.

What would you like sommeliers to know in Chicago?
Being a Midwest raised guy, I would say that they should be proud to be in the middle of the 2 coasts. Create your own wine scene (which it appears that you already have) and chart your own path. Remember the classics, embrace the new wave and find that balance of taking care of the customer and letting your own personality shine through your wine lists without alienating your customers. Embrace all types of wines, but promote only great wine.

What are your favorite things to do in Chicago?
Skateboarding!?, Hot Doug’s (R.I.P.), Catch a show at The Empty Bottle or The Hideout, record shopping at Reckless Records, A burger at Kuma’s, Finding a dive bar with Old Style on tap.

What's your desert island wine?
I could live on Raveneau. In Magnum if you got it J

What's the single best bottling that you have done?
2007 Barton Vineyard (R.I.P.) Sonoma Coast PN. The wine made itself, and is still sturdy and fresh today. Zero adjustments in the winery, no blending, no filtering. If I was to enter some sort of “battle of the wines” this is the one I’d bring.

What’s your favorite single vineyard that you make? 
Not fair! Probably Suacci since it is such a unique site as far as the flavor profile goes, and I lived on the vineyard for a few years so I have a special connection with it. It is the most challenging site, and has the most risk/reward.

If you could get a drink or drunk with one person living or dead who would that be and why?

If I could time travel in this scenario, I’d like to hang with Levon Helm and the rest of The Band during their Woodstock days. From what I’ve read, those days sounded very heavy and wild.

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