Part 1: An Interview with Ryan Zepaltas

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I am pumped to bring you this interview with Ryan Zepaltas of Zepaltas Wines. As you may recall, I chose the 2006 Zepaltas Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast as my wine of the year. Ryan graciously responded to my request for an interview and I really enjoyed the style and substance of his answers. I hope you do too...

Q: So, the first I became aware of your wines was part of the Wine Spectator article on the "Hot New Dozen of California Pinot Noir" back in September, 2007. Your 2005 Zepaltas Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast La Cruz Vineyard received 95 points. That's a huge number. Same question I asked Paul Clary- how did you find out about the rating and what was your initial reaction?

Ryan Zepaltas: I was at my desk at Siduri working on something, and my boss Adam Lee called down to me on the phone and told me that I better get ready to start selling some wine. I didn’t know what he meant. Maybe we fired somebody, and I needed to go on the road for Siduri. Then he said “95 points on the La Cruz- ya little bastard!” Then he proceeded to read the review from the WS. My initial reaction was “Bullshit!” then I was overcome by relief! I thought I’d now maybe be able to pay my grape bills and not go out of business! Things were scary before that since Zepaltas Wines had zero momentum at that point, and I was on our second vintage of making wine sans-cashflow.

Q: I loved the way you so openly stated on your website that you feared the "Sophomore Flop" with the follow-up vintage of this same wine. Wine Spectator gave the 2006 La Cruz an 87 which isn't to say that other wines haven't done well since (your 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir got 91 points and at $39 is actually the most affordable wine you produce if I'm not mistaken). Knowing that folks from Wine Spectator will be reading this piece, what do you make of the La Cruz going from 95 to 87? Did they get it right?

Ryan: Well, with scores you have to take them with a grain of salt-both good and bad scores. You can’t act like you’re the next Sine Qua Non if you blow it out of the park on a wine, and you shouldn’t commit hari kari if you have a bummer vintage especially if you did everything you could to make the best wine possible that year. In the end I was happy with the way the wines turned out in both vintages, I actually thought the 06 was a superior wine to the 05 because my gut feeling is that it will age better and it has more layers and texture. The 05 was a bit soft too early for my palate, but Laube loved it. My feelings weren’t hurt though. I think as long as I have a good overall batting average between all the reviewers (Tanzer, Burghound, Parker, Wine and Spirits, Spectator, etc.) from year to year, I am doing something right. I am fortunate enough to have built a following for my wines that I don’t live and die by reviews. My goal at the end of the day remains to make wines that I want to drink- at home, with food & a little age on them. Getting back to the 06 vintage..... It really hasn’t been the best-received vintage for lots of producers. A lot of winemakers got slammed on the 06s, but I think their wines will need time to show their true colors. There is a lot of tannin in 06 pinots (which I like) and they tend to be very shy. There is not a lot of “bright fruit” in many 06s. I don’t think that 2006 was “vintage of the century” by any means, but there will be some nice surprises in people’s cellars in a couple years.

Q: Is there a technique you could describe to us non-winemakers that helps give your wine its unique characteristics? What is one little thing you pride yourself on that might be expensive and time consuming that people might not realize you do?

Ryan: First and foremost it is sourcing- where are your grapes coming from? I love cool, windy sites that help prolong hangtime to increase fruit complexity without pushing sugar ripeness through the roof. It seems like the acid hangs around better in cool sites, and the yields tend to be lower which produces more powerful flavors. In the cellar I try to use about 30-40% new oak so I don’t kill the wine with vanilla and burnt toast flavors. I like to showcase the vineyard, and its flavors. I think that oak should be more of a cradle for the wine. The main technique to me is nailing the right time to pick the fruit. Most winemakers that I know regardless of style use the same techniques in the cellar. As a winemaker your goal is to be a good babysitter. If you start with good fruit and don’t do anything stupid you should end up with a decent wine. I pride self on running my program like Vince Lombardi would. I like to do lots of labwork to monitor the wines at all stages, and I probably keep too many records. I believe in keeping the cellar tight and shiny- no scum, no clutter. Topping every other week is key. There are lots of winemakers who claim to be “non-interventionalist”, but that can often translate to “lazy-ass” I was told early on by a legend in the biz “man makes wine, God makes vinegar.” I always liked that line. You can’t neglect your wines at any stage.

Click here for part 2 of this interview.

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