Carrying on A Family Tradition- Meet Winemaker Brian Maloney

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Whether you drink at ton of it or not, you can’t be a San Francisco resident and not at least be interested in wine. Doesn’t matter if it’s the culture, the dramatic flare it brings when tossing it at someone you loathe, the taste, the status, its ability to provide an acceptable—yet solid—buzz in the middle of the day, or even the logistic business of; wine country is a big part of what makes Bay Area living so desirable for so many. To live here and not be the least intrigued by wine is like saying “beer schmear” to an Oregonian from Belgium. And if you really don’t like drinking wine, then you’ll at least enjoy being on the periphery of a real life soap opera that would put even the most incestuous of Dallas episodes to shame. Only instead of oil, it’s blood-red merlots, peppery pinots, and jammy zinfandels surging through the veins of the valley. From how it’s made to how it’s sold and bartered for, to the emotional and political nature of the intertwined inner dealings of growers, landowners, pickers, processors, bottlers, distributors and more; each with their own agendas, with their own fortunes at risk, with their own stake in North America’s $35 billion (per year) industry; an entire economy at the mercy of something as unpredictable and risky as chance itself—the weather. Fruit can be damaged and lost at the whim of an early Fall bringing rains before the harvest, one of many reminders that wealth is just as fragile as the grape skins from which it’s made.

Some say it’s Dionysus, or Bacchus, or the hand of god that has kept wine such a prevalent part of our culture for centuries. Others, myself included, just think it’s fascinating, because it’s one of a select few hobbies that marry empirical attention to detail with the capricious collective gut of the many hands that have their say in how the tradition of making wine evolves.

Typical of us here at Eastporkjew.com, when we want to learn more about anything, we go straight to the experts and assault them with questions. So in going a little bit further than our scratch beneath the surface and into some deeper soils, we sat down with Brian Maloney, Winemaker for DeLoach Vineyards and Bunea Vista Winery, to talk about California wines, his favorite wines, trends he sees on the horizon, and of course to learn more about his journey from Viticulture and Enology classrooms at UC Davis, to representing some of the biggest wine families in the US and France.

One-on-one with Sonoma Winemaker Brian Maloney

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EPJ: When did your passion for wine begin, and why?

BM: My Grandmother had some tremendous stories about growing up in Calistoga, the daughter of a winemaker, distiller and ultimately bootlegger. I’m not really sure when the passion began, but by the time I was ready to go to college, I had decided to major in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. What are some of those stories? Well, he had purchased land just north of Calistoga around 1904 and planted Petite Sirah. He was successful enough to expand his operation and purchase another piece of property right at the base of where Sterling Vineyards is located, but then prohibition hit and it was devastating to him and his family. He tore out sections of vineyard and planted prune trees, but the income off prunes was abysmal compared to wine grapes and with a family of six, it wasn’t enough to keep them fed. So he made wine and distilled brandy for several years during prohibition. He was raided unsuccessfully several times, by Federal Agents, but finally they found the hidden still and cellar under my grandmother’s room and destroyed it all and levied a pretty hefty fine for the time. He was forced to sell one of the properties and was never really able to recover from it. It definitely gave me a sense of place within the industry and a sense of wanting to accomplish and rebuild a presence that, to me at least, was unjustly taken.

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EPJ: What’s your most memorable “wine moment” thus far?

BM: Lots of them… winning Charlie Palmer’s Pigs and Pinot, drinking Chambertin with Jean Charles at 3am, falling in a vat of fermenting Pinot during harvest 06, getting to taste the Judgement of Paris wines at the reenactment at Copia in 2006… many memories, not quite one that stands out as “the” moment yet though.

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EPJ: Who’s your mentor, teacher, confidant, etc. in the wine world and how did you get connected?

BM: I’ve learned a lot from Greg LaFollette, one of the great winemakers of California and someone who very early in my career provided me with the opportunity to explore many things within the winery as well as becoming a great friend. My wife as well, Erinn, who works for Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, has been a constant supporter, resource and outlet for all of the crazy ideas that pop up during sleepless harvest nights, and I wouldn’t be here without her either.

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EPJ: How did you end up as the winemaker for DeLoach and Buena Vista wineries?

BM: I was hired on for harvest 2003 by Dan Cedarquist, the winemaker at DeLoach at the time, as harvest intern. At the end of harvest the DeLoach family sold the vineyards and winery to the Boisset Family of Burgundy, so you could say I came along with the property. I got to know Jean Charles Boisset as he reoriented the site and the style of the wines, and I felt it was a good fit for me personally, and then as the company grew and my skills developed further I was provided with the opportunity to take on a larger role first under Greg LaFollette as his assistant winemaker and later as director of winemaking when Greg left in 2008. When the Boisset Family purchased Buena Vista in May of 2011, I was able to convince Jean Charles that I could lead that project as well as develop out one of the best winemaking teams in California, and I think that we’re showing that as a success with what’s in the bottle and barrel.

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EPJ: Seems like rosé is the new darling at the dance, where as pinot noir was the “it” grape for the past few years, rosés have become the world’s new obsession. What’s your favorite varietal to work with when making a rosé?

BM: Pinot noir allows a lot of flexibility in style, from crushed and pressed to saignee style [pronounced “sonyay”], giving you a whole range of colors and feels of the wine. When we make our rosé, the kaleidoscope of colors that we produce is pretty cool to look at and have the ability to work with.

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EPJ: I’m sure your wines are like children and you love them all the same….but if you had to pick just one, which would be the wine you’re most proud of and why?

BM: The Estate wines have a very special place in my heart, having been here for the last vintages off of the vineyard that Cecil DeLoach planted and then seeing the changes and effects that our team was able to put into place by improving the viticulture and having access to some of the most exciting plant material in the world and finally being able to make the wine, put it in a bottle and see people enjoy it… there’s nothing else like it.

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EPJ: Buena Vista is one of the oldest wineries in Northern California…is that a lot of pressure or no big deal at all knowing how many great wine makers have walked those halls since 1857 when it opened?

BM: There’s been a tremendous amount of pressure to get things right at Buena Vista. There’s a long history of great wines and winemakers, but also a more recent past where its history was essentially locked away. Being able to reopen the doors to the cellar and restart winemaking at the historic site was an imposing task at the onset, but we’ve had great support from not only our team, but the entire community of Sonoma, and having that kind of community support behind you makes a task like this incredibly rewarding as well as providing access to help to make it shine.

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EPJ: What can you do to steer a wine to its desired finish once it’s in the barrel?

BM: Taste it. Taste it again, and get to know it. I feel that once I understand a wine, how it’s developing and conversely how it’s not developing, the key to guiding it in the correct direction will reveal itself. Often the changes in elevage [French for raising] needed are natural ones, i.e. rising the temperature to encourage struggling ferments, lees stirring to add body and combat reduction, etc. On occasion we look at blending early, especially if we have a particular lot that’s struggling, but usually patience and understanding is the key to getting the wine to go in the right direction, and you cannot understand a wine if you only taste it rarely.

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EPJ: Do you have a favorite varietal of wine to work with? If so, why?

BM: Pinot noir is the most challenging and engaging of varieties to work with. There’s a wildness to its growth and development that makes every other variety seem tame by comparison. It’s the varietal that stretches your mind and takes you to new places. It keeps you up at night, and that’s why most sane people don’t consider working with it.

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EPJ: Is there a grape varietal you’re dying to work with? If so, why?

BM: I’ve had the great fortune to work with many varieties while working with Jean Charles Boisset…I’d say if anything the one thing I’m dying to work with is Burgundy, but unfortunately our harvest and the harvest in Burgundy overlap and as such the opportunity hasn’t happened. But yeah, would love to make some Corton Charlemagne and Musigny…

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EPJ: As the “wine guy” in your circle, I’m sure everyone’s always looking for you to pick out the wines for the meal. Do you have any tips for a good way to hone in one or two wines on a wine list when you haven’t brought a bottle of your own?

BM: This does come up from time to time and it can be fairly complicated, especially if you’re at a place you haven’t dined at before. I usually shy away from things I know, so asking questions of the somm or hopefully educated server can offer some great insight on what they feel is working well. Beyond that, I often look for somewhat off the beaten track appellations within more famous areas, i.e. St. Aubin’s instead of Meursaults or Nebbiolo Langhe’s instead of Barolo’s. Usually when wines like that are on the list, they over deliver for value in comparison to their higher priced brethren. I also always like to scan for back vintage offerings as well. There’s nothing like finding a gem that everyone skips over because it’s not from the last few years.

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EPJ: Any of your wines aside, what are two or three you’d recommend blindly to someone (IE: someone you’ve never met before), and why?

BM: Assuming they’ve had a bit of wine experience to start… LaFollette Sangiacomo Chardonnay, because it shows how intensity in chardonnay truly comes from the technique and not the barrel, Carver Sutro Petite Sirah, because Napa Valley isn’t just all about Cabernet, and the terroir expression of Calistoga really shines through in this old vine PS, Dutton Goldfield Devil’s Gulch Pinot noir, because California terroir is still being explored and discovered, and even our backyard (Marin County) has some pretty outstanding sites that not many people have discovered.

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EPJ: If you had a crystal ball and could predict the future, what wine trend do you think is on the rise?

BM: Reexamination of terroir. The original appellations as set in the AVA system are fairly meaningless from a descriptive point of view. The Russian River Valley is probably the poster child of this where everyone and their friend has stretched the border so that it no longer really has a sense of one place. While some areas have done a better job than others, I think you’re going to see more and more winemakers describe their wines in terms of specific geographical influence, without regard to the technical name of the AVA. I’d love to see either the removal or outright redrawing of most of the appellations in Sonoma, as with a few exceptions, most aren’t very helpful in explaining the type of wine that you’ll find there.

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EPJ: Any advice you have for someone just starting out as a vintner?

BM: Lot’s of advice… 1) get an internship as sugar sampler: it gives you a tremendous perspective on ripeness and fruit development across different clones, blocks and sites. 2) work in a cellar… cleaning it; everyone wants to work with the grapes, they want to taste them, they want to touch them, fondle them, there’s an innate desire to be part of the process, but in reality the most important steps at the winery come before and after the grapes and wine are worked with, getting an appreciation of how to clean and what you can clean and what you need to clean are much more important than popping a berry in your mouth to see if its sweet or the seeds are crunchy. 3) Learn to taste, and learn how others taste… tasting is such a primal, intimate sense that we don’t often feel comfortable or have the ability to properly describe it, joining a group in which you taste and discuss what your tasting is a very illuminating experience, and it doesn’t just have to be wine, taste chocolates, taste cheeses, taste fruits, taste meats… expand your horizons and your palate will expand with it.

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EPJ: Where do you see yourself in 15 years?

BM: In the same house, with the same wife, at the same winery, making the same wines… but hopefully with some great additions happening to all of the above.

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EPJ: What’s your favorite movie of all time?

BM: Godfather, Citizen Kane, The Empire Strikes Back.  Love each one for a different reason, but all have an overarching theme of struggling for greatness with the consequences of that struggle playing out… something I think any winemaker can appreciate

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EPJ: Where are you from originally and how did you end up in Sonoma Valley?

BM: My father’s family settled one stream west of Buena Vista in the 1850’s, in fact Gehricke Road (where Ravenswood is located) is named after my great-great-grandfather, so we’ve been here a while. He came from the Rhineland area of Germany and set up shop as a rancher and butcher, following the California dream.

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EPJ: Viticulture programs….worth the time and money, or do you just need to jump in and get your experience on the job?

BM: Yes to both. The V&E programs will give you a tremendous understanding of the physical and theoretical makeup of making good solid wine, but it won’t tell you how to make a great one, that’s where experience and individual passion are really needed in order to make something shine.

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EPJ: Imagine this, you’re holding a glass of unknown red wine and the winemaker is standing in front of you….what’s the first question you’d ask him?

BM: What’s the story?… wines (really anything worth anything in life) has a story, and without the context of the story, any pleasure derived from the wine is ephemeral.

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EPJ: In your opinion, is there a rivalry between Sonoma and Napa winemakers? Or is it just the difference between cultivating fruit into heavier Bordeaux style reds and buttery whites from warmer climates (Cabs and Chards) over cool coastal reds and whites (Pinots and Sauvignon Blancs)?

BM: There’s no rivalry, I’m pretty sure every winemaker in Napa is jealous of the quality and personality of the fruit that we see in Sonoma…