Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adam Lee leaves wine style decisions to the vines

Adam Lee
Last week Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee and I got into a lengthy discussion in the comments section of my blog about wine styles. Finally I sent him an email inviting him to do a Q&A on the topic. We spoke yesterday morning while he was on his way to look at a vineyard that wants to sell him some grapes, which would push him closer to 30 different Pinots Noir that he makes from California and Oregon.

Since our discussion last week started with the concept of whether or not winemakers should criticize each others' work, we addressed that as well. Spoiler alert: I think I'll define my writing style henceforth as "not like Stephenie Meyer." I also can't wait to get my hands on some of his 2011 wines.

Me: Is there a style of wine you're trying to achieve?

Lee: I used to think so more than now. We've had a slow evolution with making picking decisions. What we're looking at is the health of the vine and the health of the fruit. It's more based on what the vine's giving you than what the wine from this particular place is supposed to be. The vine doesn't give a damn about the type of wine you're making. It's trying to propagate itself, to spread itself out there by making more seeds. What we need to try to do is work with the vine to help it give the best fruit.

Me: Shouldn't your concerns be different from what the vine wants?

Lee: What we're trying to do is fashion the grape.

Last year we had two sections that both had tiny crops. Normally you'd expect them to ripen more quickly. But the vines themselves never shut down, they kept putting out leaves. The vine never put all its attention to the fruit. We actually had to let the fruit hang longer to get it to ripen. We can say this isn't what we want Rosella's (vineyard grapes) to be, but we can't put more fruit on the vine.

Me: In Europe people are obsessed with yield, but you're saying a smaller crop doesn't mean a better crop.

Lee: That's true. A smaller crop does make the fruit more concentrated, but in some years in California a smaller crop doesn't equal good.

Me: Do you have an opinion on what Santa Rita Hills wines should be like?

Lee: My experience in the Santa Rita Hills has been a lot different than what was talked about before. We have a lot of wind. We get small berries and small clusters and we have a lot of issues with tannins. One of the things we're concerned with is making sure the tannins are ripe.

The first year, 2000, that we got fruit from Santa Rita Hills I screwed up and picked too early and the wine was very tannic.

For me, in that area, tannins are the No. 1 thing we look at. We don't really see that in other areas that we make wine from. That's different from trying to get a particular brix number or alcohol number. We look at all of these lessons we've learned. I don't look at it and say, this is what California Pinot Noir should be, or this is what Santa Rita Hills should be. To me, that's what's bad right now, the idea that something has to be one way or another.

Me: Is it even possible for a winemaker to talk about what he's doing, and what other winemakers are doing, without criticizing anyone?

Lee: If you want to talk about your writing style, the easiest thing to do is contrast it with someone else: I'm not this, or I'm not that. I've been really cautious for the last couple of years to say, 'Here's what we do, here's why we do it.' If you talk positively about what you do, it doesn't necessarily criticize what other people are doing.

We're a country of dichotomies. We've got only two political parties. People often talk about what they believe in contrast to what other people believe. This is something I think wineries would be better off not doing.

Me: Sandhi is a winery that openly says, 'We're going to make wine in a lower alcohol style.' If you don't talk about style, how does a consumer know what to expect from Siduri?

Lee: It is difficult, which is why we have a big open house and we encourage people to taste. It takes some effort on the part of consumers to know what we're doing.

Just because you pick at 23 brix, that doesn't tell you what the wine's going to be like. It tells you what the alcohol is going to be, but not the acids, and not the flavors.

Me: Do you have an idea in your head about what a wine from each of your vineyards should be?

Lee: We've only made one great wine in our life. That was from the Hirsch Vineyard in 1999. I hope we make another great wine. People throw around the term "great wine" too easily.

People talk about drawing a perfect circle, as a representation of the concept of a circle. I don't know if that's possible with wine.

Me: So you're not on the side of lower or higher alcohol.

Lee: I don't think lower alcohol is better, and I don't think higher alcohol is better.

Last year we picked one vineyard at 21.7 but the pH was 3.8. It was low alcohol but low acid. The vines shut down. We picked another wine at brix of 33.3 and the pH was 3.3. Which of those was more in balance? The higher alcohol wine.

Me: What does Siduri mean, when you're talking to people in the market?

Lee: It's going to be difficult to say, especially when we get the '11s. We've got some bottlings that are in the 12.7, 12.4 (% alcohol) range that is very different from what we've done.

It's going to be challenging to tell people, this is what Siduri is. You're explaining a philosophy to people more than explaining what the wine is.

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Anonymous said...

Gray: I like your blog sometimes ... however you can really take the blue-ribbon in the Bitch Column.
This is certainly one of those instances.
Lee is authentic and candid and articulate and you provoke on dust-motes. Silly and contrived ones.
Not that Freud would have a field-day on your ass (he would), but you definitely have some serious toilette problems.

W. Blake Gray said...

Coward: What the hell are you talking about?

Anonymous said...

Adam is the head honcho of wine geek sense. I love reading his posts (and drinking his wines). We should all be so level headed and informed


Anonymous said...

Really well done article.
I like hearing him describe how important pH is to balance, and how a high alcohol wine might have more balance than a low alcohol wine.
Thanks for that great interview

Anonymous said...


Your 2006 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot was a bitchin' wine as well.

C. Bliss