Have you ever been to Monterey? Done any Monterey wine tasting? Last month I had the luxury of doing both and discovered the delight that Monterey wine is. I also had the opportunity to meet several winemakers in Monterey to learn about their wines and the region as a whole.
I am honored to have Jeffery Blair of Blair Vineyard agree to participate in Carpe Travel’s Interview with a Winemaker. While I learned a lot during my stint in Monterey and from Jeffery when we spoke, I discovered so much more through this interview. I hope you do too.
Interview with a Winemaker: Jeffery Blair, Blair Wines
Tell me a bit about the history of the winery. Who started it? When was it started? What was the impetus for starting the winery?
In 2007 I started Blair Vineyards with my four siblings by planting our first grapes on Delfina’s Vineyard named after our matriarch and beloved grandmother. I knew the potential for wine growing in the area, given the success of vineyard estates in the Arroyo Seco and neighboring Santa Lucia Highlands’ appellations.
With the first harvest in 2010 (from vines that were only three years of age) I knew I had hit the Mother Lode with Delfina’s Vineyard as the fruit had enough quality and complexity to make a great wine without the need to bring fruit in from an older vineyard. It is unusual to make such a structured wine from so young a vineyard. Many said it couldn’t be done and I was crazy to attempt it but then I’m not really good at following the safe and easy path.
When you think about all the work that goes into making a bottle of wine, how much is in growing the grapes vs. vintaging?
Great question. How do you separate these two and put them in proportion of importance. If I grow great grapes I can make three wines: Great, Average, or Shitty. If I grow shitty grapes I can make one wine, Shitty.
When I let the terroir of the vineyard speak to its potential and pay attention to the signals Mother Nature provides me from pruning of the vines to bud break and all the way through the harvest and then let the grapes speak for themselves I should be able to make the best wine of the vintage. I can influence the outcome in the winery through methodology and science but I can also screw up a great wine with too much manipulation or just bad skills. In the end a great wine is definitely made in the vineyard and my sole purpose as a winemaker is to give it guidance not interference.
This attitude is probably based on the fact that I grow wine, yes I said wine, meaning that tonnage per acre is the farthest thing from my mind. A wine grower produces grapes to put in a bottle and it doesn’t hurt that I grow grapes in the most perfect region in the entire world, and if I let it speak for itself it will be spectacular. I purchase some of my Chardonnay and all of my Pinot Gris at this time but I don’t purchase the fruit from just any grower. This is important as I need these growers to be as passionate about what they do as I am about using their fruit.
My 2012 Chardonnay and Pinot Gris have many 90 point scores and medals and I would be a fool to think that the fruit did not play its role. At the same time this same fruit was used by others with less success so I need to give my team involved in the making of these wines a great deal of credit also.
I must accept that the bottle is made in the vineyard but I also believe it is perfected in the winery.
Are there certain varietals you find more challenging to grow and/or produce than others?
Ok ranked in the order of difficulty to grow and/or produce I would rank the five most difficult in the following order:
1.) Pinot Noir
2.) Pinot Noir
3.) Pinot Noir
4.) Pinot Noir
5.) Pinot Noir
What types of varietals do you grow? Produce? How many cases?
We started Blair Estate by producing only Pinot Noir as we wanted to start small and with the varietal that best fits our terroir and winemaking philosophy. The clonal selections for this first planting were: Clones 115, 667, 777 and Pomard 4. Our inaugural 2010 Delfina’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco was only 258 cases. After a phenomenal success with our 2010 Pinot Noir we decided, in 2012, that it was time to expand our portfolio. We so by increasing the 2012 Delfina’s Pinot Noir to 481 cases, adding 248 cases of Pinot Gris, Arroyo Seco, Meador Vineyard and a Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Roger Rose Vineyard at a production of 202 cases.
Our Chardonnay has a 90 point score from Wine Enthusiast along with 2 other 90 point scores and a gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle. The Pinot Gris has garnered an “Editor’s Choice” and 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and a silver medal from the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 2013 will see the addition of an Estate Chardonnay from Delfina’s Vineyard along with a very exclusive wine we will call “The Reserve”.
“The Reserve” is the result of a foray into Delfina’s Vineyard, early the morning of harvest, tasting fruit from different rows throughout all the clones, selecting the best rows based entirely on the complexity and intensity of flavor on my palate.
Then in Vintage 2014 we plan to add a very small and distinguished desert wine made from our 192 vines of Muscat along with a dry Rose from Pinot Noir sourced from the best fruit in Delfina’s Vineyard.
2015 will see us harvest the first fruit from our new 3.25 acre addition to Delfina’s Vineyard consisting of Clones 943, 828 along with DRC wood sourced out of the infamous Domaine de Romanee-Conti Vineyard in Burgundy France, possibly the greatest Pinot Noir Vineyard in the world.
What is unique about Blair Wines?
Our uniqueness lies in the fact that our vines are pummeled daily by 20 mph winds. As we all know, or should know, when a vine is hit by 14 mph winds the vine completely shuts down. This allows for the vines to build acids, including extreme levels of malic acid and adds to hang time during veraison and ripening which results in an increase in the intensity and complexity of our wines. Some claim that when we utilize this so called “hang time” during ripening it increases our alcohol but in reality if 1 degree brix of sugar is equal to an increase of 0.62% in alcohol and completely phenolic ripe grapes increases brix at about 0.15 brix per week what is the worry?
These winds make us the coolest and latest ripening region in Monterey County and creates a unique situation in which our flavors come late in the ripening process but when they hit they rock and are off the chart. Find me a summer evening over 50 degrees and it will be the exception to the rule.
Are you filtering any of your wines? Why? Why not?
At Blair we believe in both filtering and fining all of our wines because we want the stability it gives us in our finished product and the clarity that the wine will achieve. I understand there are those who say filtering diminishes the quality and strips the wine of some of its flavor intensity. I would disagree with this as there is no real evidence of it and based simply on the principle that if I make a great wine from the time I prune to the time it goes in the bottle I don’t need to blame failures on filtering or anything else.
Wine is always changing, a living thing that if treated right is a beautiful thing, but if allowed to run amuck can become very ugly really fast. At one time I also believed that filtering stole flavors but then I realized I have tasted to many great wines made by great winemakers, far more astute than myself, that have been filtered and they rock the roof off of the house. So with that said if filtering does very slightly effect wine quality then one must ask do I want to go to all the effort of making a great wine, filtering it to add stability or do I want to risk what may take place with the wine after bottling if I don’t filter.
A lot of people confuse Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. How are these wines different and how are they unique to Blair Wines?
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are two diametrically opposite styles of wine, as different as being female or male, if they are made true to each of their respective styles.
Unfortunately they are lumped together on wine lists and in wine competitions as being the same simply because they are made using the same grape which unfortunately confuses the wine public.
Aside from the difference in the process of making the two wines and where these processes originated there is the difference in the intensity and flavor profiles of both wines.
Pinot Grigio is made to be a clean and crisp expression of the Pinot Gris grape, with no disturbance of the lees in the process of making it as not to increase the robustness of the wine as this style was perfected in Italy where food reigns supreme, they expect it to be simplistic and one dimensional for that reason. In other words they don’t want the wine to compete with or overpower their cuisine.
Whereas Pinot Gris is a style perfected in Alsace France and is intended to be a big robust wine with rich and spicy fruit aromas and a nice balance of fruit and acidity on the palate.
True Pinot Gris is as true to the grape as you can get and this is achieved by a method called Sur Lie which simply means aging on the Lees, but the secret of the complexity and richness of the wine comes from a method called Batonage, stirring of the lees in order to force the wine to uptake the flavor of the lees. Lees are merely dead yeast that steal our flavors when they convert sugar to alcohol and other particulates such as tartaric salts and proteins originating in the winemaking process that tie up the flavors.
When we Batonage the barrels we bust up these dead yeast and other particulates and take back the flavors that have been stolen from us. If wine is made from the Pinot Gris grape in the Italian method and style then it should be called Pinot Grigio and if it is made in the “True” Alsatian method & style then it should be called Pinot Gris and they should be treated as two different wines. We do not lump Grenache and GSM together even though the major grape in both wines is Grenache.
This wine is not unique to Blair Wines, but it is an expression of the uniqueness of Blair Wines to the Arroyo Seco AVA. We believe that with the correct clone of Pinot Gris planted in the cool zone of the AVA this grape, made in the style of Alsace and using Batonage, will show clearly what our beloved AVA is capable of, notes of Pineapple, Apricot, Peach and Green Apple with beautifully balanced acidity.
Where do you come down on the cork vs. screw top debate? Why?
I have always heard the argument of “give me a wine that can be drank young and you can put a screw cap on it, and for those that need aging use a cork”. There are also those that say “screw caps are as good at aging wine as a cork, so let’s save a tree”.
My approach is slightly different as I think that a wine that can age and will be poured in a nice restaurant or at a special meal needs a cork, it is about presentation and tradition. I do believe that “good” screw tops are adequate closures and for inexpensive wines they work well. I also have paid close attention to the trials being ran by screw top manufacturers that are showing that a good quality screw top can age a wine as good as cork and in the future maybe even better.
More importantly as I grow my brand my wholesale wines for by the glass at wine bars and restaurants and in my tasting room will definitely carry screw tops or be in kegs. But for that bottle of Blair Wines that someone buys in a store or by the bottle at a fine restaurant I will always use cork. This is not a decision made lightly as I have watched those that use screw tops on all their wines, what they will tell you is that cost of goods is cheaper with screw tops and that has a huge influence on their decisions.
As for the save a tree concept, to me it is a simple assumption: If you make your living from the land; be it from harvesting vegetables, harvesting beef, or harvesting cork from the land if you are not smart enough to care for your resource you will be gone long before the resource is gone. Cork is a renewable resource, albeit slowly renewable, but like the forest of Burgundy from which I source my barrels their guardians don’t take their obligation to either of these magnificent trees lightly.
Besides your wines, what are a few of your favorite wines?
Shafer Hill Side Select, Heitz Trailside, Tondre Santa Lucia Pinot Noir, a whole lot of Testarossa wines, Talbott Diamond T Chardonnay, Siduri Wines, Blue Rock Wines, Bjorn Wines from Howell Mountain, Penfolds Grange, Chateau Y’quem, MacPherson Viognier (from Texas of all places) and many others..…….I just love wine.
Have you done any Monterey wine tasting? Ever tried Blair Wines?
Elaine Schoch (pronounced the German way – Shock) is the editor and founder of Carpe Travel as well as an award-winning travel writer, wine judge, certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 and certified American Wine Expert. She is married to The Husband and has two kids, Princess One and Two – who’s interest and knowledge in wine is quite extensive. Not to mention the stamps in their passports.