Bien Nacido is an awfully nice place to be in December, a time of the year when most of the rest of the country is in the deep freeze. I’ve been here when there was frost on the bare vines, and the wind off the sea—just miles away—was bitter. But that’s rare.
Today—yesterday, as you read this–as the sun sets in the west, the temperature is close to seventy-five. If you’ve ever visited this part of the Santa Maria Valley, you know how the hills (I think they’re an extension of the San Gabriel Mountains) bunch up on the east side, but the valley itself is a broad, open plain, with nothing to keep the maritime influence from blowing in from the Pacific. That is, of course, what makes it such a cool place (in both senses of the word), ideal for varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.
It’s a fine vineyard, Bien Nacido, one of California’s best. I looked up all my reviews over the years from wines with a Bien Nacido Vineyard designate on the label, and found about 300. The scores are quite high. About half are above 90 points, an astonishing record.
Young Nicholas Miller, whose formal title is VP, sales and marketing, runs the place. His dad, Steve, and uncle Robert planted the first vines in 1973, making them pioneers on this property that traces its roots back to the old Rancho Tepusquet Land Grant .
Now, of course, Bien Nacido is one of the most coveted sources of fruit in California. More than 600 acres are planted to vines, but Nicholas explains that “the vast majority doesn’t go into Bien Nacido Vineyard- [designated] bottlings,” but is sold off for anonymous inclusion in blends. This is to ensure a strict quality level for anything that bears the vineyard’s name. About 45 wineries currently source fruit from the vineyard; over the years, there have been far more. “There’s always some attrition of buyers,” Nicholas says, “but we’re always looking for up-and-comers, like La Fenetre, Tyler and Chanin.” Count among those up-and-comers Miller’s own Bien Nacido brand, which he started a few years ago. They bottle outstanding Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and as you might expect, Nicholas has no problem gaining access to the best blocks!
Nicholas inherited that passion of giving younger winemakers a chance from his dad and uncle, who built a small winery for a young Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate) and Bob Lindquist (Qupe) to make their wines. Both men are still there, tucked into a small valley on the property. Nicholas judges his family’s biggest impact on the Santa Barbara wine scene “has been to support small boutique winemakers.” This includes their two custom crush facilities “to host small artisanal producers to focus on this region.”
Bien Nacido Vineyard will celebrate the 4oth anniversary of its first plantings next year, an event that surely calls for some kind of party. Never content to rest of his laurels, Nicholas is now actively engaged in The Chardonnay Symposium, scheduled for July 19-21, 2013, at which I’ll moderate a panel. Nicholas is never content with the status quo; he would like to see Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County recognized as the world-class producing regions they are.
How do you manage all the travel?
I’m in South American 3 times a year, I’m in New Zealand and Australia twice a year, and I’m in Spain once a year. And the rest of the time I’m in California or on the street. An important part of what I do is selling wine in the street, in the U.S., because, when people ask me to consult, I always ask, “Where are you trying to sell your wine?” If it’s not th U.S., then I’m not the right consultant, because I make wines for the U.S. palate and the U.S. market, and that’s why it’s important for me to get out and work the streets, to hear changing opinions and changing philosophies of what wine is all about. That’s why I have an interest in having lunch with you, Steve, because I’m interested to know what turns your clock today.
How would you describe the U.S. palate?
The U.S. palate is becoming…it’s definietly changed. I hate to say it, but I think we’re becoming a little more British.
What does that mean?
The British see wine as a commodity, something they drink every day. The don’t see any relation between price and quality, whereas in the U.S. we do. So if somebody buys a bottle of wine for $50 in the U.S., it’s worth $50. In the U.K., it could be worth anything; it’s just a hit or miss thing. So in the U.K. people sell wine for 3 bottles at ten pounds. It’s like cheaper than water. Well, we’d go out of business in the U.S. if we did that, so at least, in the U.S. there is a relationship between price and quality, and I think the customer today sees that. But going forward, if we continue down the route of these large retailers who are trying to do direct, we will see more and more wines sold cheaper and cheaper, with no relation between quality and value. I think it’s important that we continue with the three-tier system, I think it’s important that we continue to make th best wines we possibly can, and not cheapen what we do, so it’s not a race to the bottom.
Doesn’t a company like Bronco play an important role?
Bronco is known for providing wines at a very good price and doing a good job at it. I totally agree with that, and it will be a sad day when Fred Franzia leaves this world, because I think he is one of the funniest, hippest, coolest, most challenging guys, and we need guys like that to continue to push guys like me, at the upper end, to realize that, you know what? At that price point, it is a commodity, but there is a value.
What’s your most expensive wine?
Under my own stuff, Goldchmidt Plus, which retails for $150.
What makes that wine worth $150?
Basically it’s about risk. There’s four things I do to this wine. It’s a thinner slice of a very high profile vineyard; that’s the easy piece. The second piece is, it goes into new wood twice, for two years each time, so it’s a four year, 100% barrel aged, 200% new wood. The third thing, and most important, is the way I drive the volatile acidity up. I used to work for Grange, and one of the secrets of Grange is, V.A. increases gradually over time in barrel, but if you can get the V.A. to increase quickly, in the first three months, you get a far more complex product in the same amount of time. […] The fourth thing is the proprietary thing, which is the way I extract the juice out of the tank. It takes me two days. I mentioned it to a small independent wine writer once, and the next day I got two phone calls from two other guys that had learned the technique as well, who said, Welcome to the club! Please don’t mention it again. So I can only make maybe one barrel from ten tons. So that’s the expensive piece.
When we think of these famous consulting winemakers, like Michel Rolland and the others, are you in that league?Do you get paid as much as they do?
Because most of my consulting is outside the U.S.
Could you join that league if you wanted?
No. I–well, I know all those people, obviously. These are friends of mine. I worked with Michel at Simi for 13 years. Andy Erickson used to work with us. Heidi [Barrett] is a good friend. I would have to base myself in Napa. I’m not really too interested in doing that. I would have to continue to work with very expensive properties to guaranteee a high-end demandy sort of thing. I’m more interested in making single-vineyard wines that are true to their terroir, and when you talk about these sort of blocks, there aren’t that many special blocks in the world that can produce wines of that volume and quality. When I think about that, a big block to me is like 400, 500 cases. You can’t make XYX wne at $2,000 a bottle and make 6,000 cases. You just can’t.
A lot of people do. But when some of these cult wineries hire these famous consulting names, what do they really get for $30,000 a day? Do they actually useful information, or is it for bragging rights?
I thnk those famous names provide a lot of authenticity in the trade. That’s reputation. So they’re using that consultant’s repuation to sell their wine through the system. That’s fine.
What one thing would you change about your job, if you could?
Ha! If I could change time, and make 48 hours a day rather than 24, that would be a hell of a lot more fun for me! But I’m having so much fun right now, meeting great people. I work with some of the best winemakers outside of the U.S., and personality-wise, dedication to wine, to focus–since I left the corporate world I’m getting to know more and more sub-terroirs than I thought I knew in the New World. So there’s not a lot I would change.
What’s a really new exciting terroir we’ll be hearing more about?
Something I’m interested in is southern Chile and more altitude in Argentina. In fact, I’m investing in a vineyard that’ll be the southernmost vineyard in Chile. We closed the deal and we’ll be planting grapes next Spring.
Nick Goldschmidt is one of the most prolific winemakers in California, or the world, for that matter. He’s consulted for dozens of wineries, and he also makes very good wines under his own labels, particularly Goldschmidt, 50, whose Cabernets I routinely score in the mid-90s, if not even higher. Nick, a kiwi, knows the industry inside out and upside down. We recently got together in Oakland for lunch. Part 2 of this conversation will run tomorrow.
What are all the brands you make now?
Under my own brands, I have Goldschmidt, Goldschmidt Plus, Forefathers, Boulder Bank from New Zealand, Pompano from Argentina, and then my daughter’s Cab, from Chelsea; those are all under the Goldschmidt portfolio. Then under Goldmark I have Fidelity, Yardstick Napa Valley and another New Zealand brand. I have plenty more brands than that, too. Then I consult for, in Chile, 15 wineries, in Argentina 4 wineries, and in California, Don [Sebastiani] & Sons, Blue Rock in Alexander Valley, Ehret Family in Knights Valley, and Passalaqua in Russian River Valley.
You’ve also worked for a lot of people in the past.
Yeah, Simi was first. Through Simi I ran Blackwood, Ravenswood, Estancia and Franciscan. Then when I left Simi, I went to run Allied Domecq, which was Clos du Bois, William Hill, Gary Farrell, Mumm, Buena Vista, Callaway and 8 other countries for them.
That’s one of the most extensive curriculum vitae I’ve ever heard.
Well, and then it became Jim Beam, which was Geyser Peak, Wild Horse and when I first started at Simi I ran Ruffino, Cloudy Bay, Green Point and an Argentine winery.
How come you never settled down in one place?
Because you keep getting bored! All I wanted to be was the winemaker at Simi, but through one thing or another, through attrition or my ability to kiss ass appropriately, I got promoted! [laughs]
How long have you been doing this?
My first vintage was in 1982, in New Zealand.
How has the business changed in the last 30 years?
From a production standpoint, people no longer start at the bottom. They come in sort of midway, through the universities. I mean, I‘m a university graduate too, but I started on the cellar floor, in the vineyard, and worked my way up into winemaking. I didn’t come in through the laboratory. But the biggest change, I think, is culture. We talk about quality, we talk about value, we talk about place, but culture is also really important. And by that I mean, when someone gives me a glass of wine and they ask me what it is, and I can’t even tell you what country it’s from, I got a problem.
Because if you’re making Cabernet in Chile, it should be uniquely different from what we’re growing in Australia, Argentina, California, France. And the personality can only come from the cultural aspect. So when I travel around the world consulting, I don’t stay in hotels. I stay with the winemakers, with the family, I play with their kids, I eat their food, I drink their wine, I hang out with their friends. Then through that, you get an understanding of what’s important to make Chilean Cabernet [or whatever]. It’s not simply getting on the phone, picking something at 26 [brix], making 15 % alcohol with a pH of 4.0, and an acid of 5.
Are you talking about the so-called Internationalization of Style?
That’s become a problem. And it’s removed distinctiveness of appellation within country. So if you understand the culture of that country, you’re better able to put a stamp on “That’s a Chilean Cabernet, or an Argentinian Malbec,” or whatever it is.
What about alcohol levels in all that?
The higher the alcohol, the bigger the removal of terroir.
So what do your alcohols tend to run in your Napa and Alexander Valley wines?
That’s still high, though.
Yeah, but relatively not. I mean, if I’m going up against great Chilean Cabernets at 16 alcohol, Argentina 16, Napa Valley, high 15s…
Do you feel any pressure to bring your alcohol levels even lower, say, under 14?
No. Not at all. But in New Zealand, I do. I mean, if I’m making Pinot Noir, my Pinots are 13, 13.5, my Sauvignon Blancs are 12, 12-1/2, which is a hell of a lot lower than most other international winemakers.
Part 2 of my conversation with Nick will appear tomorrow.
It’s news when a bigtime chef like Paul Canales leaves his longtime restaurant, Oliveto, after many years. It’s even newsier when his new stomping ground is Uptown. This gritty and fast-blossoming neighborhood (which happens to be where I’ve made my home for 25 years) is the new restaurant capital of the Bay Area, as low rents, an urban-core feel, and the availability of localized ingredients (not to mention the cuisines of almost every country on Earth) draw adventurous chefs to this side of the Bay. I met up with 51-year old Chef Paul (whose food at Oliveto I’ve enjoyed for many years) at his new Duende. Set to open in September, right now the inside of the space consists of raw concrete and piles of dirt. But, as Chef [who also is a performing musician], explains the floor plan, I get excited.
How would you describe Duende?
It’s a restaurant, bar, wine shop, music venue.
You were most recently where?
For how long?
Fifteen years, and executive chef the last 7-8 years, something like that.
So why Uptown?
Well, I wanted to go where the action was! I wanted to go where people were more like me. And I wanted to be able to create a more relaxed, accessible vibe than what I’d been able to do before. And I wanted more diversity from my creative side and also from a guest side.
What is happening in Oakland culinarily that people don’t know about?
People misunderstand Oakland. The thing that’s great about Oakland is you can be whatever you want. There’s no overriding dogma. We pull from all the dogmas in the Bay Area, because there are definitely a few of them around! But Oakland is definitely its own thing. It’s very much a do-it-yourself esthetic. Kind of reminds me of punk in the late Seventies, or classical music in the Fifties with [John] Cage, that kind of scene. And Oakland’s like that. It’s kind of a Brooklyn moment here. You see amazing stuff, like Hawker Fare. That’s a really cool Siamese vibe. [Hawker Fare is the new restaurant of Michelin-starred Commis’s owner/chef James Syhabout, also in Oakland.] Go to True Burger [also in Uptown, from the former sous chefs at Bay Wolf], or to Plum, where Daniel Patterson’s [from San Francisco’s two-Michelin starred Coi) doing his thing. There’s so many places that are not trying to fit one esthetic. And yet, it’s all coming from markets, it’s all happening, all the stuff we think about Bay Area food is built in. People are leading with their creative experience and expression.
Duende won’t open until late summer or early fall, but what is your thinking about the menu?
We’re going to use Spain as a cultural touchpoint, but that includes south of France, over towards Italy, down in North Africa, over to Turkey. So Spain is a melting pot for the Mediterranean. [Chef is of Basque descent, by the way.] It’s also not going to be museum food, like “Let’s do the greatest hits of Spanish cooking,” because who gives a shit about that? What I care about is the meal, that the menu is very flexible, and it allows people to eat as little or as much as they want, and it gives me maximum flexibility to make smaller or larger plates that express what’s happening in the markets and on the farms.
Now, we just had lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants, Ensarro, which you hadn’t known of, and you loved the food. How would you incorporate a discovery like that into Duende’s menu?
Well, first of all, all good cooking is the same, in the sense like, those [Ensarro] guys know their food, they know how to cook their food, they know how to season their food, but to me, what made that better than any Ethiopian place I’ve eaten, ever, for how many years, thirty? was that there was someone with a point of view creating that food. And so when you taste that green salad, it’s not like some vinaigrette or whatever. That salad was bright, and exciting, tucked into the middle of a beautiful plate of injera [flatbread] and all this other stuff. That was cared for, that salad. It wasn’t just kind of like, “Oh, this is the way we make Ethiopian salad.” So in that sense, there’s a lot of translation, because there’s someone who had a point of view and cared about it. Also, that kid, Solomon [our host] is very passionate. He wanted us to taste certain things. That [beef] tartare? What was so cool about it is, Ethiopia and Italy are pretty tight, culturally. And to me, that was very much like an insalata di carne cruda you would get up in the Piedmont, except that influence of the Ethiopian spiciness, which was beautiful. But he never lost the flavor of the beef in that. The trippy thing was there was this other flavor, and at first it seemed a little off, like “Something’s wrong here.” And it was a little bit warm. It wasn’t cooked, but a little warm. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me, it was butter!
Clarified butter! Which was the coolest thing, because it was that caramelly kind of flavor. So I might say, Wow, I’ve never done a warm, raw salad of any sort. I’ve never had anything like that ever before. And I’ve made so many types of crudos: fish crudos, lamb crudos, goat crudos, beef crudos. You name the protein, I’ve done it. But to have it in that context, where he warmed it and used a different kind of fat, and he created a whole new experience–that was unique.
Finally, what about the wine at Duende.
So we’re going to definitely have some Spanish wines. We’ll have some California wines. What we’re looking for is distinctive wines that work with food, as opposed to wines that are like beverages. We’re not tasting for the classic things people talk about in some wine circles, where it’s jammy, or big fruit, or whatever. It’s more about distinctive wines. Many natural wines we’ve been tasting are amazing. I think we’re trying to find wines that people maybe haven’t tried, but are not so far away from something they’re familiar with that it just creates havoc in their mouth. Like if people like Rombauer, fine; people do. But if we have something that is unique and interesting, we’d like to offer them that experience. So we want a highly curated list. And sherry is a really amazing wine.
And [partner] Rocco [Somazzi] has been pairing sherry throughout a dinner, and it’s crazy! And even sherry cocktails; we’ll do that kind of vibe as well. We’ll find out along the way things we don’t know today, so that will be part of the fun.
Duende, http://duendeoakland.com/blog, 468 19th St., between Broadway and Telegraph, in Uptown Oakland. Opening September 2012.
Wilson Daniels arguably has the greatest winery portfolio in America. The St. Helena-based sales and marketing company’s wineries are too numerous to list (here’s the link), but includes a little Burgundy producer you may have heard of: the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Ray Chadwick joined Wilson Daniels in 2010 as president and ceo, after having been CEO of drinks giant Diageo, where he grew that company’s portfolio considerably, including acquiring Rosenblum Cellars. In 2008, Wine Enthusiast awarded him our Man of the Year Wine Star Award.
SH: You came out of retirement to head Wilson Daniels. Why?
RC: When Diageo downsized, in 2009, for me, it was retirement. But Wilson Daniels is a great company. France is at its core, and I love France.
What do you do as president and ceo?
Sales, marketing and finance all report to me. And I’m involved in the day to day business, traveling the country, meeting with distributors, going to trade fairs, seeing our people.
How has the Recession impacted Wilson Daniel’s sales?
It affected much of our business. Sales of high-priced wines did slow down, particularly in restaurants. We moved funds into short-term tactical activities, like coupons and other ways to move the product. There were notable exceptions, though, like D.R.C. and Leflaive. But business has improved every year since 2009. In the not so high price points, the leading indicator is restaurants, and there, it’s getting better and better.
How does a brand get into the Wilson Daniels portfolio?
Well, we do get a lot of interest from people. I’ve said “no” to a number of people where we just didn’t think it was the right fit. The wines have to be of superb quality, share a longterm vision with us, and the economics have to work out. We typically work on a margin basis. And it also depends on who shares the marketing expense. If we market the wines, we need a higher margin. In the end, I make the decision, with my management team.
How do you market?
We have our own sales force around the country, and P.R. and marketing teams here that develop plans with the wineries for special events, winemaker tours, exceptional events like D.R.C. tastings.
Does the introduction of the Drew Barrymore Pinot Grigio indicate you’re now interested in celebrity wines?
It is our first celebrity wine, but we didn’t approach it as that. Drew has an interest in wine, she found a high-quality producer she’s interested in working with, and she’s available to go out and promote it. But we don’t have a goal of trying to introduce celebrity wines. This opportunity presented itself, and it made sense.
Last year, Wilson Daniels introduced a line of inexpensive wines. Why the low price, and why now?
As an importer, we’re comfortable representing brands at different price points. There’s a good strong market for the $10-$18 price range, like Kendall-Jackson, Coppola, Sterling Vintner’s Collection, Rod Strong, J. Lohr. So Wilson Daniels represents great value at that price point.
On the Wilson Daniels website, you have many reviews from such magazines as Wine Enthusiast. Is the role of critics in marketing wines as powerful as it has been?
I think critics have been and continue to be very important for consumers who like to rely on that. At the same time, as American wine consumers become more comfortable in their own skin, they’re learning to trust their own judgment.
What is your view of the importance of social media in marketing wine?
From where I sit, social media is an important way of marketing a brand today. We’re looking at ways to enhance our social media skills across the portfolio.
How do you decide which critics to send samples to?
That’s beyond my purview. It wouldn’t come across my desk.