How did you get into wine and winemaking?
Going into college I had no clue what I wanted to do. During my freshman year at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) I took a viticulture course where we made some wine and I caught the winemaking bug. From there it was a bit more circuitous route, going from wine retail to restaurants as a somm before ultimately learning the craft in the trenches (fermentors) at wineries like Biale, Torbreck, Williams-Selyem, and Marcasssin.
Is there a varietal you wish you could grow in the west sonoma coast? What is it?
As winemaker for Skinner Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills (El Dorado), I work with rhone varietals exclusively. I really love making Mourvedre. Seeing how Syrah can express itself on the extreme coastal sites, my interest is piqued about Mourvedre out there. However, since it is one of the latest varietals to ripen, it would be a real risk financially to grow. Unless of course you want to make rosé out of it most of the time, which could be delicious but not a great return on investment. Especially when you can fetch a pretty penny for Pinot and Chard.
What do you think would be successful in the west sonoma coast that has not been planted yet?
I think Grenache and Grenache Blanc could do really well out there…especially the white. Both are more suited to warmer climates but I think the Grenache could produce some delicate and pinot-like wines, while the Grenache Blanc’s acidity would stand out to produce a fresh and food friendly wine. Now I just need some dirt and a few million dollars. Anyone?
How do you make wine more accessible?
I try to keep things simple. Wine is about friends, family, food, and fun. If you can keep that perspective, I think it goes a long way towards breaking down the barriers that intimidate consumers. It really is okay to drink Cab with seafood and Pinot with ribeye. Don’t stress about it but also be open to trying new wines or pairings and learning about new producers, varietals, or regions.
You could ask that question about a lot of wines. Ultimately wine is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, whether it is box wine or 1st growth Bordeaux. Thankfully you can find really good Pinot in between both of those price points and that’s were I play more often than not. Pinot has the ability to take you to a place very few varietals are capable. Occasionally it can be life changing but more often than not it is simply delicious. Sadly it is rarely either of those when found under $30 a bottle on a shelf. Fortunately there are a lot of great examples in the $30 - $60 range. Some of the finest examples in the world can be found for less than $150. Last time I checked you can’t say that about Cabernet. Let me know if you need any suggestions.
What is the role of the sommelier to you? Do they inform your process?
Coming from a sommelier background, I feel that the role is to be a storyteller. By bridging the gap from the table to the vineyard with a tidbit or something unique about the wine or producer can make the dining experience greatly enhanced. If you can make the guest feel a connection to the people behind the bottle they are drinking then you will gain their trust and they will want to come back again. And you’ve shared a little about us which makes the wine so much more personal. Most of our loyal customers have come to us after being introduced to the wine by a sommelier.
What would you like sommeliers to know in Chicago?
We appreciate what you do for the little guys. It’s easy to phone it in with name dropper brands, high scores and crowd pleasers. Trust your palate and don’t be afraid to break from the norm. By norm, I’m not saying to add a page of orange wines, rather to find artisanal producers in all categories including mainstream varietals like Pinot. Think of your tiny butcher, baker, or cheesemaker and apply that to wineries. They are working with very common products but putting a hands-on and oftentimes sustainable and responsible purpose to bacon, bread, and goat cheese. It takes time, effort, and passion to seek out small producers dedicated to the craft…and for that we are grateful.
What are your favorite things to do in Chicago?
I like taking in the local food, wine, music and sports scene whenever I get the chance. Last year I got to go to Wrigley Field and stumbled upon a Jay Farrar (Son Volt) show which was killer. There is a lot to do in Chicago…such a fun scene. I enjoy getting a feel for its culture and vibes whenever possible.
What's your dessert island wine?
Champagne. It goes with everything you can find on the island, especially sandy beaches and perfect surf.
What's the single best bottling that you have done?
Tough question as i’m so close to them. Better question for you perhaps. If pressed, I’d have to say my first vintage of Cerise — 2009. It was the culmination of 20 years of pursuing a goal to make my own wine and it was so gratifying to see it come to fruition. Not sure if it is the best, but certainly the most sentimental. And quite likely the best to date. It was a killer vintage and the wine made itself. It made me think to myself "well this is easy…what took you so long Chris.” I wish it was that easy every year.
What’s your favorite single vineyard that you make?
Probably the Campbell Ranch in Annapolis. The site is so remote and bad ass. After nearly vomiting from the windy coastal roads, you pull up to this site carved out of pine and redwood trees. Often enshrouded in fog, you can smell the sea air in the rows and you just know you are in a place that was meant for Pinot Noir. The fruit itself is so pure and vibrant. I like it so much that it goes into most of our wines (Campbell Ranch Vineyard, First Born and Sonoma Coast). Anytime you have an airstrip running through a vineyard, you know you are isolated and on the right path for Pinot.
If you could get a drink or drunk with one person living or dead who would that be and why?
FDR. My great aunt married his son, so i’ve always had an interest and distant connection to him. I have some White House relics from that era like wine and champagne glasses and I’ve always wondered what kind of amazing people may have drunk wine from them. Churchill? Carnegie? Rockefeller? FDR brought us from the depths of the worst recession and through WWII. I’m sure he would have some stories to tell over a beer or cocktail or both.