When did you become interested in wine and producing your own wines?
My interest in wine started in the late 1960s, when I began drinking mostly Californian wines. Then, during a year-long sabbatical at Oxford University in 1975, I started seriously tasting wines. I joined Halifax House, one of the Oxford wine-tasting societies, and became a member of Wolfson College, one of the graduate colleges at Oxford. Being a member granted me access to the Common Room and the right to buy “bin ends” (an amount of wine that is no longer sufficient to feed the entire senior faculty at a sit-down dinner) from the college, which allowed me to purchase some very good wines at very low prices.
In 1976, I toured the wine country in France with letters of introduction from several of the Oxford colleges that had been buying wine from France since the 13th century. I tasted some of the best wines in the world during my time there and my interest in wine grew.
So, when I returned home from sabbatical in 1976, I started looking at opportunities to begin making wine myself. I knew some colleagues who were already producing wine and made my first bottle of Cabernet in 1979. It was terrible.
What types of wine do you produce now?
Over the years, my son (and full partner) and I have tried making several kinds of wine, experimenting with Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, and others. Now, though, we focus on three wines: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Since the early 1980s, I have been getting vine grapes from an Italian family in the Sonoma area of California, specifically from the Dry Creek Road area. We mostly make wine from Sonoma grapes, though I occasionally use grapes from the Sierra Foothills. I buy about 1,500 pounds of grapes when I start, and I end up making about 400 bottles a year. In the wine cellar at our house, we have seven barrels of good-quality French oak. We have an older wine press – the basket-style that has been used in wine production for 800 or 900 years – but we also rent a more modern steel press during production.
As far as the flavor profiles, we are not interested in subtlety. We want full-bodied, flavorful wines. A common critique of our wines is that they are “not too subtle,” to which we reply, “That’s right!” The worst thing you can say about any of our wines is that they are “smooth.” It drives my son and me crazy. We want a big bang and a big mouthful.
How did your son get involved in wine-making with you?
He saw my passion, and he got drafted. He has a very good palate, and we work well together. My daughter, a graphic designer, has also helped in this venture: She designed our bottle labels. And my wife gave up the cellar in our house when I got interested in wine and turned it into a wine cellar.
From vine to bottle, how long is the production time?
The one thing you need in wine-making is patience. Nothing happens fast. And, depending on the time of year, you can work around the clock or just once a week. Right about now, in the early spring, I put in about one morning a week in the cellar; we’re “topping up,” which means making sure that everything is moving smoothly as the wine is resting in the barrels. Harvest in August, September, and October is the busiest time; we have to get the grapes, then stem, crush, and process them. All of it takes a fair amount of time.
Every year brings its own challenges. This past year was particularly difficult because of the drought in California, as well as the heat wave that preceded the harvest. The conditions made for a level of concentration that we had never seen before. With a line of such complexity and concentration, the yeast had trouble fermenting, so we had to use our ingenuity to try to solve the fermentation problem. We’ll have to see how the 2015 Zinfandel turns out.
What do you enjoy about making your own wine (other than the end-product, of course)?
Producing my own wine gives me the chance to influence the style of grape and other factors so I can manipulate those variables to get a wine that meets my tastes. I can work with the grape-grower to find a type that assures a certain amount of sugar and acid; I can choose the specific yeast for the specific wine I want; I can select the length of fermentation and storage that will give me the type of wine I want.
Of course, we are always at the mercy of the grape crop every year. That’s tied to the weather, water, and so on. So, there are certain factors I can control, but a lot is totally out of anyone’s control.
What skills do you use in producing your own wines that you also use in your career in hematology?
When I went to medical school, I had to do some chemistry, and that is certainly something I call on in wine-making. During the production process, I often have to adjust the acids or yeast to achieve the flavors that I want – and an understanding of chemistry is very helpful.
Passion is something I bring to both my work in hematology and wine-making. Passion is a necessity in wine-making. You have to spend time on it, and you have to learn peculiar things you never thought you would. For example: What are the appropriate yeasts and grapes to use? Where are they grown? What type of cork should I use? What size barrel should I use? What wood should the barrel be made from? Where do I even buy barrels?
I have to keep learning all the time.