James Frey, winemaker and owner of Trisaetum Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon has a very impressive resume in my estimation. In addition to producing several high-scoring cuvees of Riesling and Pinot Noir each vintage, including the first domestic Riesling that really knocked me out, he is also an accomplished painter, displaying his vineyard-inspired artwork in a gallery adjacent to the tasting room. So James was a natural choice to provide some insight for my book project on the art of winemaking.
I am grateful to James for taking the time to respond to my questions about the creative aspects of winemaking.
1. Describe your “aha” moment when you first fell in love with wine.
Wine wasn’t around my family table growing up, so I came to wine in my twenties…and fell in love with it when my honeymoon took a detour (on a whim) through Napa.
2. What motivated you to get into winemaking?
3. What did you do before you got into the business of making wine?
I worked in Corporate America for two different Fortune 500 companies as the head of Brand and Advertising at both of them. While I loved the challenge and the people I worked with, it was never truly a passion of mine. My passions were what I did on the weekend: be with my family, make wine in my backyard and paint. So I decided at the ripe old age of 39 to leave corporate America behind and devote my full energies to those things I was most passionate about.
4. How does that background help you make wine?
My corporate career did very little to help me make wine. A strong background in business certainly helped make a winery…which is actually a rather complicated business.
5. You are also an established artist. How does that background help you make wine?
You need science to make a good wine. You need to understand botany and chemistry and physics; wine doesn’t just make itself. There’s this romantic notion that you throw a cluster of grapes into a bucket and come back in 12 months and it’s a beautiful bottle of wine…it just doesn’t happen like that. So you need science to make a good wine…but you need art to make a great wine. Great wines cannot be manufactured in a lab; they come from your palate. They come from years and years and years of tasting…and years of blending…and years of experimenting.
6. How is winemaking similar to painting in terms of the creative process?
You start with an idea of want you hope to create…but then it morphs and changes as mother nature does her thing…and so you have to go with it. My best paintings grow organically; same with wine. The more you try to control and manufacture either, the more staid and simple the painting or the wine becomes.
7. Do you have a philosophy of winemaking—a style that you’re aiming for? How would you describe that?
I don’t really. I have wines that I like (those with life and energy and balance)…but each of those descriptors are based on what my own palate perceives. So my philosophy ends up being making the wines I like that are true to the vintage and true to the varietal.
8. At what point in the winemaking process do you decide on what you’re aiming at regarding style?
You taste, taste, taste…and make small tweaks in your approach depending upon what mother nature gives you in a particular vintage. It would be a shame to overly manipulate the wine.
9. Does your goal, the profile you’re aiming at when you set out to make a wine, change during the winemaking process? If so, how?
Yes, I always make small tweaks in technique based on the characteristics of the vintage. Oregon has great vintage variation, so you have to both embrace that every vintage is going to be different, and not get too wedded to some formula for winemaking.
10. Do you think of wine as expressing something? If so, what?
Wines express both a short-term and long-term memory. The short-term memory is what happened during the vintage (hot, cold, wet, dry, early, late, etc…). The long-term memory is what happened millions of years ago when the site and the soil were created. My grapevine’s roots grow through millions of years and layers and layers of soil…and that root system’s job is to bring aspects of that site into the wine.
11. Do aesthetic concepts such as elegance, harmony, character or finesse play a role in your decision-making process?
I think those are all important words for wine.
12. How does knowledge of winemaking help recognize aesthetic properties (e.g. beauty, elegance, etc.) in a wine? Perhaps a different way of putting this question is “what does a winemaker taste that an ordinary consumer would miss?”
I’m not sure we taste anything different…we just do it more often so may be quicker to form our opinions on a wine
13. Do you consider winemaking an art? (I know definitions of art are controversial but don’t worry about having a precise definition, unless you want to give one)
Absolutely. See my answer to question 5. You can’t make great wine in a laboratory…you different wine than me.make it in the vineyard and with the palate of the winemaker. It’s why a different winemaker using the exact same grapes I use would end up making a completely
14. To what degree do the conscious decisions you make in the vineyard and winery produce the intended result. Or in other words what role do chance and luck play in winemaking?
Mother Nature will always have the potential of changing your intended result and you have to live with that. Given a “typical” vintage, the conscious decisions in the vineyard and winery have an enormous impact; there are a vast number of different wines you can make from a single vineyard…especially with Pinot Noir and Riesling.
15. Could you comment generally on the sorts of things that winemakers have little control over?
16. In what sense is making wine a creative activity?
There are scores of decisions your make during a vintage that can produce a different result—in the vineyard: when you prune, organic versus conventional, leaf pulling, fruit thinning, when you pick, etc… in the winery: whole cluster or destem, stainless steel or oak, native or cultured yeast, cold soak or extended maceration, enzyme or natural, new barrel or neutral, what forest for your oak, time in barrel, filter or not, fining or not, etc…
17. At what point does imagination come into play with regard to winemaking?
The best winemakers in the world have incredible imaginations.
18. How important is originality to you. Is it important that you make a wine with your distinctive stamp on it.
Yes, it’s important that I’m making my own wine and not trying to replicate someone else’s wine.
19. In typical cases, how close does the finished product come to your original vision, and how do you balance the desire to let the grapes speak for themselves with achieving your intended style?
That’s very vintage dependent.
20. Terroir has become a buzz word. How important is terroir to you?
In making Pinot Noir and Riesling, the site is tremendously important. In my opinion, no other two grapes in the world do a better job of taking what’s in the soil and what’s at the site, and putting in into the glass. We celebrate the fact that our three vineyards produce three incredibly different wines…even though we farm them the same way, ferment them the same way and age them the same way.
21. How important is tasting to the winemaking process?
It is the single most important thing we do.
22. Does the sort of tasting you do in the winemaking process require imagination?
23. What must a wine be like to be beautiful?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.