Signs Of Life: What It Takes To Make Wines Of True Character (With Matt Powell of Draconis)

Vinted on July 14, 2011 binned in interviews, overachiever wines, sexy wines, winemaking

What Is The Job Of The Winemaker Today?

Simple question, right?  “Duh! To make wine!” you might be answering to yourself.  What could be more simple than that?

But real wine lovers, and real winemakers, know better; they know that almost no other query could be more complicated, opinionated, difficult, thought-provoking, or (hopefully!)invigorating to answer.

Which is exactly what drove me to ask it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after visiting hundreds of winemaking outfits of all sizes all over the world, it’s that no two winemakers ply their craft in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same ends in mind, or exactly the same attitudes.  But one thing in that world is consistent: the majority of those same people invariably have passionate stances on both the How and the What of their jobs as winemakers.  Theirs are the kinds of viewpoints that make for fascinating reading – and even more fascinating discussion and debate.

I wanted a techy interview, but one with passion, soul, and life . – in the hopes that it would fascinate, entertain, educate and maybe even get your wine blood boiling. To that end, I’ve staked the decks significantly in favor of passionate discussion by posing it to Matt Powell, the force behind Lodi’s Draconis Vineyards. Matt’s wines are focused and powerful – just like his viewpoints. He’s active on social media, is a big fan of comics, and takes his wine very, very seriously; case in point – visitors to the Draconis Vineyards at one point were greeted with the following message:

“I have no lists, clubs, or membership bullshit.”

Matt’s take on the job of the winemaker today? It’s just as straightforward, opinionated, and fascinating as you’d expect form the person who authored that welcome message, and who told me this about a recent vintage: “I tossed the entire 2009’s; weren’t good enough.”  A review of one my faves of Matt’s wines follows our interview. Enjoy!…

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1WineDude: What do you think is the role of the winemaker today?

Matt Powell: Not to be a total a**hole, and to remember that it’s the process of turning the juice into wine that matters most.  It’s easy to overthink it. Its easy to add sh*t to it.  It’s easy to screw it up.  But it’s really, really hard to just leave it alone.

There are so many tools in the winemakers kit today to modify, blend, and change the fundamental process that todays wine often loses its … character.  Filter, filter, filter, rack, rack, filter some more, throw in some sulfur and get a good score …right?

Bullsh*t.

Wine evolves from the process and needs to grow.  Often I feel winemakers, as good as some of them are (and you know who you are), by their very nature, are bound to create wine for today’s market; it’s all about turning the inventory and giving the customer some uber-high residual sugar blend with a really cool name …like “Flaming Porcupine blend … a mix of 18 different varietals grown in the mountaintops of Iceland, next to the volcano where sulfur naturally occurs, giving the wine its unique nose and protective features” …hey that sounds cool… I’d buy it (*sarcasm*).

Really though, I feel like the modern wine industry has lost its focus, that winemakers’ hands are constrained by corporate policies and shelf-life.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I totally understand it, and yet totally hate it at the same time. Sh*t, there’s nothing i can do about it except to try and play a different game myself.

I mean, like, what would Captain Kirk do?  I’m certain he’d take a different approach – but he’s smart enough to know that it’ll take the customer to force change in the industry and to the winemaker.  They just have to listen.

Ultimately, the winemaker has a responsibility to get back to the roots of wine.  Step it back a few generations and take a note from history.  Let the wine process evolve; don’t change it with equipment, chemicals, and blends. Try really hard to leave it alone making only the minimum necessary adjustments while listening to your customers’ desires.  Idealistic and unrealistic as that sounds, that’s what I believe and whatIi stick to.  Maybe someday, we’ll get there and the customer will have a much better selection of wine to choose from.

1WD: Is there really such a thing as non-interventionist winemaking?

MP: Probably not.  I have a hard time envisioning a completely non-interventionist winemaking process – I mean, there are things you have to do… that you just don’t want to leave out.  Like adding Sulfur; you need the sulfur to neutralize microbial activity – without it, bacteria and other microorganisms will hands-down ruin your wine.  This is especially true when taking a minimalist approach to the wine like I do … no filtering or fining means that the all the ‘character’ of the wine remains; but to stabilize the product i have to hit it with sulfur.  So in one respect, being almost non-interventionist certainly allows the wine to evolve in a livelier way, but on the other hand, it also does require that certain actions are taken to retain quality in the product.

1WD: Are there certain things that are “off limits” to you, things that you just won’t do to adjust or correct a wine under any circumstances?

MP: Oh yeah.  I learned the hard way that I won’t add adjust the acids of my wines.  I also ferment to complete dryness.  I’m not a big fan of the over alcoholic “bold” residual sugar-based wines and prefer a more refined and elegant end result.  Lots of people have suggested I leave half to 1% RS in my wine, but I won’t do it … I feel like it covers up what the wine is supposed to be.

1WD: Do you think the technical tools offered to winemakers today do more good than harm?

MP: A difficult question to answer – I feel that technology has its place in the wine process; for instance, without technology we wouldn’t have modern cultivated yeasts or required additives like DAP; this in itself, has helped wine become better over the last 30 years.  However, I feel there are winemakers out there that depend too much on technology to guide them and end up doing more harm than good.

A lot of times, the wine may be technically correct but doesn’t have … life; no character or personality.  Tinkering with the process may fix one factor (like the acid levels), but it’ll certainly throw the rest of the wine off simply because the fruit arrived in a certain way.  That is, the fruit showed up in its optimal state as dictated by its microclimate.  Adding extra acid will automatically change the ratios of the other goodies in the juice…  So, I guess to answer your question and in my own opinion, technology should be used as an accent, nothing more …unless your making a million cases – then you’ll need robots to make your wine…


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2007 Draconis Petite Sirah “Classic” (Lodi)
Price: $28
Rating: B+

For the price, this wine is pretty much unbeatable.  Draconis pumps out a spicy, meaty take on Petite Sirah that is utterly without pretense – and it’s about as faithful to the variety as you can get while still managing to offer up a wine that feels complete, and doesn’t drop off precipitously in its middle stanza. It’s also a drop-dead sexy wine in its deep, dark, midnight-blues-infused color and silky but not flabby mouthfeel. PS, with no BS indeed!

2008 Draconis “French Oak” Zinfandel (Lodi)
Price: $28
Rating: B+

The QPR on this wine is ridiculous. A wizardly-crafted, wicked combo of deep, dark-berry fruit, spices, and sweet oak. Normally this amount of oak could feel off-putting to me, but here one gets the clear impression that a few years in the bottle will integrate that fruity/spicy/oaky core into something wonderfully hedonistic and even more supple than it is now. If you must open it early, please do so with a full rack of ribs and about an hour and a half of pre-dinner decanting time booked in your schedule.

Both tasted as samples.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Albert


    Great interview! Matt is so right about the overprocessing going on in winemaking…. Having said that, I'd like to get my hands on some of that Flaming Porcupine Blend. Sounds like a real showstopper! Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Albert!

  • Pietro


    "…required additives like DAP" – huh? This is not required anywhere in the world and DAP is frowned upon by many modern interventionist winemakers, even those in warm climates. Total thumbs up for not adding acid though – great last paragraph, and great interview

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Pietro – hopefully we can get Matt to chime in on the DAP comment.

      • MattP


        DAP is used as a nitrogen source for the yeast. Without (in certain instances), the yeast will stress and produce too much H2S … your wine will end up smelling like pigshit. (sorry Joe). Not required for certain, but more of a … 'insurance' against stinking wine … and i've seen it used many, many times in the past; but like you're implying – it's a choice.

        • 1WineDude


          THanks, Matt – no worries about the descriptor :).

    • Pamela Heiligenthal


      I think Clark Smith says it best, re: DAP, "If you feed the yeast Twinkies, they won't eat their oatmeal".

      • 1WineDude


        Pamela – HA! That is awesome.

  • Olivier


    Great post. Finally a discussion about wine character and personality, and I would love to push that discussion father. I absolutely believe and agree in Matt's winemaking philosophie. But here are a few questions for Joe and Matt: (1) Does "personality and character" mean uniqueness of the "terroir/grape" association as I think it does? (2) Does TRUE character and personality mean a winemaking process that respects and emphasizes the unique flavor(s) that a particular "grape/terroir" has to offer? (3) And if that's the case, what would Matt say his "Draconis Petite Sirah" unique personality and character is compared to petite Sirah from other terroirs?
    Finally, I'd love for Joe to elaborate more (maybe with Matt in an other discussion) on the sentence "it’ll take the customer to force change in the industry and to the winemaker. They just have to listen." Thanks again Matt and Joe for the great topic of discussion. Hope to read more like this in the near future. I'll go buy myself a Draconis today and try to figure out what Character and Personality means for Draconis and Lodis' wines.

    • MattP


      Thanks Olivier for the kind words. Part of the fun i have with Draconis is simply the breaking of rules. Deep in the wine industry are unsaid rules of how to make and produce wines. I wish to be clear, these rules are generalized and work quite well for a goodly number of people. However, since i tend to ..er .. break rules, i found that 'leaving the grapes alone' provides uniqueness that can sometimes be lost in a wine that has been filtered for stability (amoungst other things). Terrior is often expressed in the grapes provided the end product isn't masked by changes or adjustments to the process. the character and personality that Joe and i refer to is a direct result of leaving it alone. My wines sit in the barrel for the better part of two years … not moved, fumbled, or touched in anyway. In fact, i really like to see my barrels dirty … spiderwebs are a certain plus in my book.

      Petite Sirah is such a wonderful grape. Very close to Cabernet in it's ability for intensity and length of life. I've had many wonderful Petite's from other vendors from all over the state – my own, well … for obvious reasons i am personally too biased to comment. It certainly demonstrates the traits of region though.

      Finally, and i can only speak for myself (Joe can comment) but it always starts with one customer to force change. But i have certain liberties that a lot of wineries don't have … so i can take more risk than others. Which in itself allows for 'different' types of winemaking and stylistic wines to be developed (albiet riskier to make) – this gives customers more opportunity to try similar varietals, but made in unique and different ways. Taking the customer feedback and directly rolling it into the process can do nothing but improve it for everyone.

      • Olivier


        Thanks Matt for the quick reply. I guess where I struggle with a bit as a wine lover and wine consumer, is with the unbelievable number of wines coming from everywhere and for which it's really difficult to understand the real differences one has over the other one. 2,000 wines on the shelves at the wine store, no clear explanation about the flavors of the wines, inconsistant tasting notes between winemakers and experts due also to a lack of standardized vocabulary (especially one oriented and tailored towards consumers), points which reflect the palate/liking of an expert, but no mine, etc, etc, etc. Which is why I like to think that we could find a way to express wine personality and character that are unique to specific winemaker because of their specific grape/terroir association, and mostly because they don't try to mess with the wine as you so delicately put it. I like wine because of where it comes from, the history and culture associated with it, because the winemaker has struggled to find the perfect combination, process to emphasized a certain uniqueness that other winemakers (even if they wanted to) couldn't reproduce. Now the challenge is how you clearly explain, communicate and market this uniqueness to consumers and help the "lovers" of that unique flavor you so work hard for to discover, buy and adopt. In other terms, how a small but amazing passionate winemaker (anywhere in the world btw) who's decided to create a unique wine based on the true value of its grape and terroir, but not to the liking of the Parker's, WS, other experts, find its audience (the consumers throughout the world dying to find this particular wine matching their personal taste preferences)? To be continued I guess… It sure doesn't work today, so something is going to have to change ;-)

    • 1WineDude


      Olivier – regarding "Does "personality and character" mean uniqueness of the "terroir/grape" association as I think it does? "

      I think o some respect, it does mean terroir/grape association, but to me it's far more important to have a combo of high quality and uniqueness. That doesn't necessarily come from terroir, but most of the time it does, I think.

      I receive a large number of wine samples, and a many of them fit somewhere in the "C+/B-" range; which aren't worth mentioning too much unless they are really offering a great QPR. Otherwise, most of them are similar, and many can be downright boring. I am NOT saying that C+/B- wines are all like that, I am saying that too many wines are like that – fairly-priced, decent, good quality, but taste like one another.

      When you hit a unique wine that is well-made, you will know it. It will jump out at you, even if the wine itself is not "flashy." It will stand out to you, and it may give you feelings that are difficult to describe. For me, they are like miniature moments of falling in love for a few minutes! :) Sounds corny but that's as close as it comes to describing it for me…

      Do those wines always get B+/A-range ratings from me? Not all, but many do. For me, that's where the magic starts happening,and when you get wines with decent price-points in those ranges, now you're talking!

      For me, that doesn't *have* to go hand-in-hand with terroir or particular grape varieties, but it often does, because the more clearly the grape and the land "speak" through the wine, the more interesting a "person" it is to meet, and maybe to fall in love with, for a few minutes – be vinously promiscuous! :)

      Cheers!

      • Olivier


        Thanks Joe. I concur, too many wines taste the same without "real personality". And I share 100% the rest of your comment. So the question I'd love to dig into would be: How to figure out and emphasize the unique characteristics of your grape / terroir? How to avoid making a C+/B- wine without personality as you stated in your comment? If your grape / terroir doesn't offer any real unique characteristics (which means that either the winemaker hasn't figured out the best grape varietal to grow, or that his terroir doesn't offer any thing special), does it mean the winemaker is condemned to produce C+/B-, or does it mean he's now forced to cheat by adding stuff, modifying things, etc. I guess in the end, if I wanted to become a winemaker and produce a wine of true character, what would be the things that would be the most important to have or get? I'll leave you with this question ;-)

        • 1WineDude


          Wow, Olivier – that is some question! :)

          I do believe that it takes great fruit, from great soil in a great location, to make truly great wine. That doesn't mean that fruit from lesser sites cannot make interesting, characterful wines, however – it just means that it would be very, very difficult to make great wine.

          Ana analogy: I am 5'5". If I practiced basketball for 10,000 hours, you can bet that I would do things on the basketball court that you would NOT expect a 5'5" guy to be able to pull off. But would I ever be an NBA star? No way. I'm just not starting out with enough of the raw material to achieve that kind of greatness in basketball prowess. BUT… I could still play an awesome game and show creativity in my approach, and have fun with it, and master some aspects of it. By the way, in reality I suck at basketball! :)

          I think the same is true in any endeavor, including winemaking. With a lesser site/fruit/etc., you would almost certainly have to employ some manipulation, but probably less than you think you'd need if you were also having a say in what should/shouldn't be done in the vineyard. If you're good at what you do, you have a chance to let creativity – and therefore uniqueness, and character – shine through.

          I suppose if I gave a stack of old crayons to Picasso, he could still have made an awesome picture. His best ever? Almost certainly not… but I'll bet it wouldn't have been too shabby, either!

          Cheers!

          • Olivier


            I love your response Joe. It makes total sense. Thanks a lot for the analogy examples. As a suggestion for further posts, would be nice to dig into detailed info (taste/aroma/flavors) that differentiate wines of true character and C+/B- wines. I have my own idea, but listening to others and getting examples would be great and very educational. Best and good luck with your panel at the blog conference.

            • 1WineDude


              Thanks, Olivier – great idea on the post topic, I will certainly give that some serious thought! Cheers!

  • Meredith


    We get a lot of our grapes from Lodi, and the pHs are usually very high–around 4, give or take a few points. How do you get by without adjusting the acidity? I would think it would make it difficult to keep the stable, as well as cause a flabbiness on the finish??? Thanks, Matt. I'm always interested to learn how other winemakers do their thing

    • MattP


      Hi Meredith – you are correct that the acids can be a bit troublesome from time to time – but, i tend to harvest a bit earlier than most. I have lower sugars as a result (of course it really depends on the amount of heat we get) which leads to my lower alc wines … the syrahs run from 12 to 13.5%, the petites mid 14% and the Zins are low 14's. Sometimes it's a crap-shoot … but honestly I wouldn't trade the cyclical heating and cooling effect that Lodi gets from the delta breezes. Drives the fruit just right …

  • MattP


    BTW, my acids coming in usually range around 3.5 pH. Not Napa, but pretty good considering.

  • Meredith


    Hey Matt, I just tried to go to your website, but there is nothing about the wines or how to buy them. What list do I have to be on to get them? Hahaha! Just kidding, couldn't resist :) Thanks for the reply

  • laarnie


    It's a very informative article for me. I wonder how the wine would taste if they will use robots. I think the old and natural way of wine processing is still the best. Preservatives will just alter the taste and so the quality.

  • 1WineDude


    Thanks all for the discussion! I've been traveling all day and I'm too exhausted after that (and after toddler-wrangling :) to do the questions justice, but will post more tomorrow here on the topics of personality/character in wines. Cheers!

  • Georges Wagner


    I could not agree more on the fact that only women and men with real character produce excellent wines. For counseling Robert Eymael, winemaker in the 6th generation at the Monchhof winery in Urzig, Germany, I became aware of their need to concentrate on the essential, their experience and on the prudent use of modern techniques. Its their only choice. Any wine factory can fabricate millions of bottles of average wine.

    • 1WineDude


      Georges – I've met some pretty boring people who make really good wine… just sayin'…

  • Brochure Templates


    I salute winemakers, they are really good in tasting wine. To think that wine making involves a lot of process. You need to filter it first and you do the tasting process and a lot more. This kind of job requires scientific knowledge!

  • Tammi


    Great interview Joe…Matt, I love your wines…keep up the great work and I will keep drinking it!

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