Back in the mid-1980s when I was about 15 years old, traveling around France with my parents, we happened upon a small town called Vézelay in southern Burgundy. The very snooty and wonderfully cliché French sommelier was serving us Burgundy pinot and saying, in this beautiful French accent, “Do you smell zee earth? Do you smell zee fohrest floor?” I’m like, no, it smells like wine. I’m not into it. And then he haughtily brought us a sip of a wine called Condrieu, which I’d never heard of, and shared that sip with us. And it was fragrant and floral. And he said, “Do you smell ze peach and ze apricot? Do you smell ze ‘ay?” And I did. I later learned that Viognier Condrieu is one of the most obvious varieties, and I think anyone can smell those characteristics in that wine. But I felt like I knew something, like I had an edge over someone else. And it gave our family this idea: Why don’t we explore wine a little bit more? So we left Burgundy literally the next day and went down to these fabled vineyards of Condrieu to learn a little bit more about it.
People shy away from Burgundy because of the price or some sort of preconceived notion that it’s for snobs or collectors. That certainly kept me out of Burgundy for years! It wasn’t until a trip a few years ago with fellow vintners that I realized, oh my God, I can’t believe I missed out on drinking these wines for so many years! There are amazing village-level wines here. It’s a variety, it’s a region, it’s a wine worth people’s attention—an AOC Burgundy can really knock your socks off.
In Burgundy, the tapestry of the vineyards, the churches and city halls and town centers — it’s all so perfectly curated that it’s like walking through the Wild West land of Disneyland. In Burgundy, you never have to search for wine. Burgundy just breathes wine, sweats, exudes wine. It’s everywhere, and it’s been that way for millennia.
Syrah would be somewhere between Bono and James Hetfield, one of the frontmen for Metallica. Bono’s on heavy repeat for me during bottling because I always start the day with “Beautiful Day.” I need that when I’m sanitizing my bottling line! So I just fire it up. Bono’s such a classy rocker. I grew up loving Metallica, and Syrah is very much a heavy metal, funky, non-perfect variety.
Pinot noir would be the Grateful Dead. They can be jazzy, bluesy, rock…pinot is the same – it’s this seamless, never-ending world of wine with so many varieties, and there’s really only one red grape in Burgundy, yet it makes a myriad of different wines. Great pinot, great Burgundy pinot in particular, just has this smooth sensibility, especially as it ages.
For me, wine is a multi-sensory experience. First, it’s visual: When it’s just starting to ferment, it starts to present itself as this beautiful potential beverage. Then comes the aroma: A wine needs to be profoundly aromatic to hold my interest. And then, finally, you taste it for the first time. Within your palate, it should touch everywhere, it should be in balance, it should taste fresh and alive. It should taste like it has a future. Usually within the first few days of fermentation, I can get an idea of how great a wine is going to be, and then there’s a sort of giddiness, and also a fear factor. You don’t want to screw it up! It all starts in the vineyard, and it ends in the vineyard. Once we get it into the winery, we’re just trying to stay out of the way and not screw up. Unlike making beer or cheese or being a chef, with wine you only have three months, even less, to bring all our grapes in and start the winemaking process. It’s a daunting task each and every year. And that’s what makes winemaking so amazingly fun and inspiring. No two years are alike.
Traveling the world and tasting the world is one of the most important things any winemaker can do. You need constant inspiration. You need to taste grapes from all over the world, even if they’re not wines that you make, or ones that you’d stylistically try to emulate. They’re still inspiring, and there’s something to learn in every glass.