“You’ve got to make the wine the vineyard is asking you to make.”
It has become a cliché in the wine world that great wine is made in the vineyard. It’s been years since I’ve heard someone claim otherwise. That suggests a potential problem for the thesis that winemaking is an art. Managing a vineyard is, after all, farming, and although farming requires great skill and knowledge, it’s probably not an art. But spend a few hours talking to Dierberg’s winemaker, Tyler Thomas, and you will gain a whole new perspective on farming. Of course, Tyler’s obsessive attention to understanding, at a granular level, what his vineyards tell him is not farming in any ordinary sense. Since arriving at Dierberg in 2013, Tyler has been mapping his vineyards block by block, row by row, paying close attention to how each section performs throughout the growing season. With the mix of soils, elevations, and aspects to the sun that mark the hilly terrain near Santa Barbara, a vineyard is not a homogeneous field but a patchwork of distinct plots each with their own potential. Unlocking that individual potential is Tyler’s overriding goal.
What happens in the winery is, of course, not irrelevant. Tyler would be the first to admit that his capacious, well-equipped winery gives him the room and equipment to vinify blocks separately giving him extensive control over the final blends. He will happily talk about fermentations, oak programs, pump overs, and all the other winery activities, but what he really wants to talk about are vines and their peculiarities which befits someone with a background in plant physiology. His encyclopedic, still-developing knowledge of what every vine is likely to do in a particular vintage bears a strong resemblance to a composer’s choice of which instrument should play a particular melody. He’s also one of the most thoughtful winemakers I’ve met, sliding easily from talk about viticulture to ruminations on the purpose of wine or the importance of what he calls “human terroir” , the level of understanding and commitment that his staff brings to the job everyday.
Dierberg was founded by Jim and Mary Dierberg in 1996. They began making wine in Missouri as the owners of Hermannhof Winery, one of the oldest wineries in the U.S. Seeking a climate better suited to vinifera grape varietals, and after searching through France and Napa for promising vineyard property, they settled in the Santa Barbara area planting two vineyards in the coastal valleys and their Star Lane vineyard in the much warmer Happy Canyon, about 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean
They produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from their Santa Maria and Drum Canyon properties, and Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc from their Happy Canyon location that is also the site of their state-of-the-art winery. All their wines are single vineyard, estate wines and as Tyler describes them, are “built on a backbone of freshness, some sort of tension or supple quality.” (Here is my review of their Santa Maria Pinot Noir and their Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc.)
I recently spent several hours visiting with Tyler at the winery gathering information for a book about the creative aspects of winemaking. Much of our time together was devoted to driving around the perimeter of their Star Lane vineyard before tasting through their lineup of stunningly beautiful wines.
I should mention that Tyler doesn’t think winemaking is an art because, he claims, wine lacks the the expressive range of painting or music. As noted, he’s comfortable engaging in abstract philosophical discussion. Whether winemaking is an art is an argument for another day. However, the reference to the artistry of vineyard management is all mine. At any rate, the word “aesthetic” comes from the Greek word meaning “perception.” Tyler’s approach to viticulture perfectly captures the degree to which viticulture and winemaking is an aesthetic practice. That is the main take away point from this portion of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
It took very little prompting from me to get Tyler talking about the philosophical aspects of winemaking:
Tyler: I ask myself these kinds of question about what’s the purpose of wine because it really helps me to do my job. Part of my job is to cultivate, with the Dierberg family, what our goals are. When we open a wine together that we produce from these properties 5 or 10 years down the road, we need to know if we were successful. The purpose of wine is to bring pleasure. It’s not art because it’s limited in expression. It’s not supposed to express melancholy. It’s about pleasure and about the property. If you don’t like the wine you won’t ask where it came from.
DF: What attracted you to this property?
Tyler: When I considered coming to Dierberg, I thought they had a special property. The question I asked myself was would it be possible to craft a wine hedonistically but that had a differentiating intellectual component that was also compelling, that was driven by the property itself. So how do you figure that out? How do you determine whether the flavor profile was something we did in the cellar say vs. what was coming from the property”? So one thing I advocated is that you really have to study the site based on what the vines are telling you, the physiology of the vines. I drive around looking for why is that darker green pattern in the center of that yellow pattern. It is hard to segment it when the block originally has been designed to be just one big vineyard. My role as the first generation with these vines is to study that, separate it if we can, so if we do have the opportunity to replant or redesign we can advance our quality because we can redesign more appropriately for the soil type.
DF: As we drove across the ridge looking down the Eastern slope of the vineyard,Tyler described the intensive, ongoing mapping project he initiated:
Tyler: In this case going up this level of elevation is going to create different temperatures. When I first got here in 2013 and was driving around in July, veraison was just starting and, down at the bottom, it was 100% green and up at the top it was 80% colored. So you see the white paint? I went up and down marking off where I saw a difference in ripening or vigor–smaller canopy, smaller leaves, looked more stressed–and I basically created a big circle in the middle, which we now call the midsection. See the darker green at the bottom? That is probably due to thicker, richer soils, a little more clay down there, a little better water holding capacity and cooler during the spring so it breaks bud later. While those have broken bud, those are just starting.
And so this is now 6 different sections. After several years of making observations, we now have a name for each block. That really embodies what we’re trying to do with the whole property.
DF: On the differences between new world and old world winemaking?
Tyler: Star lane is owned by one family. We put single vineyard Star Lane on the bottle. But if you know anything about growing grapes you know this is not one property. If this were Bordeaux or Burgundy there would be all kinds of crus. Unfortunately we don’t think that way in the new world. I went to UC Davis but was working for a Burgundian guy using California fruit, so I got this great complement to my original education by having a European mentor to create a different lens with which to view what I had learned. So we take a similar approach at Dierberg. We know this ‘’low 1” block. We know how it comes in, we know how it ripens and we know whether it’s as valuable as the top. It’s generally not as valuable. In good years it is, but in some years we leave it out of the blend.
DF: So I imagine this gets complicated at harvest deciding when and where to pick?
Tyler: The top section is particularly difficult. Because of low vigor I had to come pretty far down, but in this middle section they’re much farther behind. So then they [the pickers] have to walk all the way down during harvest to get the ripe fruit. We make several passes through the vineyard at different times during harvest.
When you get to where the saddle of this ridge is, there is more clay, more energy in the soil and that’s affecting this whole left side, the ripening pattern. It definitely gets riper faster because of drainage and sunlight pattern. There is a shadow in the morning because of this hill that you would think would create less ripening. But for whatever reason it ripens faster. I think it’s the low vigor of the soil where the yellow pattern is. There is not a lot of water holding capacity. I think some of the soil has been scraped off. The very top section was one of the first cabs we picked this year. This bottom section was picked 3 weeks later, maybe even more and not entirely to brix. It had the same or lower brix. We get lower sugar 3 weeks later! That’s’ the plant telling you something. And so we’re just following what it tells us.
My old mentor, the one I mentioned when I got out of school, used to say “you’ve got to make the wine the vineyard is asking you to make”. Now there’s a whole lot of assumptions there. You can say that and we say we all know that. But it takes years to figure that out and understand the boundaries and the spectrum of what you can experience over time.
This block is a microcosm of what we do with all of them whether it’s divided by variety, or within block divided by variety, or observations about the block, and its all driven by a goal. It’s not to create differences for difference sake. I would prefer not to do it this way, but we feel obliged to do it this way until we create more understanding. By the end of harvest we have over 100 different lots in the cellar.
The monks and the various producers in antiquity were making selections and they had to be studying it. They knew there were certain areas that did better than others.
DF: How important is the science and the numbers when deciding which direction to take a vintage?
Where we have the advantage, once we see the differences we can analyze the soil, do some soil cores and see if that’s driving it. If that isn’t it then maybe it’s the temperature or maybe we have irrigation problems. But even when you look at the chemistries in the cellar, our understanding is still really basic. No offense to the scientists out there who have worked very hard to give us greater understanding. I can measure the tannin and know that this gives more tannin than that but it still doesn’t create the entire sense of what the wine is. I can measure the sugar, the acid, the PH, the malic, the amount of nutrients for the yeast that are there and my color and my tannins. Those numbers can be all the same but the wines are so different that the numbers aren’t driving the whole story. So you have to rely on tasting, your observations, and your experience.
That’s why we talk so much about our house palate prevention program. It’s easy to like the wine you’re making, too easy. You also don’t want to be so critical that you can’t sit down and enjoy a glass of wine but you’re your own worse critic because you don’t want to miss something. You’re relying so heavily on observation to understand the properties of your wine. You’ve got to make sure your seeing them accurately. It’s hardest for the winemaker to be the most objective person in the cellar but it’s the most important. And you have to work at it, tasting other peoples wine and empowering your team to be honest about what they’re tasting.
DF: How common is this detailed approach to understanding your vineyard? Do most wineries take this approach?
This close analysis of the vineyard is not as common as you might think. People are too quick to conclude that they’ve got it. Its really more mental work. I try to mentally touch every wine I have every day
Many thanks to Tyler for an informative and thoroughly enjoyable visit to this wonderful location. If you’re new to Dierberg wines, get thee to a wine shop.