Thursday, March 25, 2010

Artisan Family of Wines: A Conversation with Winemaker Jeff Miller

When we did the recent review of Seven Artisans Meritage, it prompted Jeffrey Miller, winemaker for Seven Artisans, to contact us. Seven Artisans is part of the Artisan Family of Wines, which also includes Sly Dog Cellars and Red Cote. The winery has been producing wine in Suisun (pronounced "sue soon") Valley, California, a stone's throw from Napa, since 2007. It's a small yet up and coming wine operation with much to offer. We hosted a tasting recently to review four Artisan wines. We'll feature that story in the next day or two, but to provide some background, TWAV interviewed winemaker Jeff Miller. Here he provides a winemaker's perspective on the launching of a new wine brand and the Artisan Family of Wines.

TWAV: How did the Artisan Family of Wines come to be?

Miller: There were three of us, one a grower, one a wine marketer (Richard Burnely) and me, who became a grower and winemaker. Since we were all interested in having our own brands, we started the company and now have three brands: Sly Dog Cellars, Seven Artisans and Red Cote.

TWAV: Were there any particular challenges you faced leading up to the bottling and release of your first wines?

Miller: The winemaking part wasn't out of the ordinary, but starting a new brand is full of challenges. There are what seem to be a thousand decisions, ranging from the style of the wine, the variety, the blend, etc. but then there are decisions about the name of the wine and the look of the bottle. The effort seemed endless at the time; and since there were several of us, and everyone had an opinion, the work involved was overwhelming. For Sly Dog Cellars we actually circulated a number of names that we liked to get people's opinions on them and Sly Dog Cellars was the favorite. On the other two we didn't go to those lengths as it was just too much work. It's hard enough to get the wine together, believe me. You also wouldn't believe the time and effort dealing with compliance issues. Not at all sexy, but needs to be done. So that's what really stands out for me about our first bottlings.

TWAV: I'm interested to learn about your vineyards. Suisun Valley isn't well known to many of our readers.

Miller: Suisun Valley is just east and south of Napa Valley. In fact, one of our vineyards, Clayton Road Ranches, is only a few hundred feet from Napa Valley. It gets less marine influence than Napa Valley does, and therefore is hotter. It's an excellent locale for the Rhone varieties and Petite Sirah also does extremely well here.

TWAV: You have three different brands, do you have a particular approach or niche for each?

Miller: We did originally, but the lines have become somewhat blurred. Seven Artisans was and remains for our own vineyards. Sly Dog Cellars originally was not our own grapes, but recent bottlings have used our own grapes. At this point it would be fair to say that our Seven Artisans is intended for our upper echelon wines, Sly Dog Cellars for a mid-point and Red Cote as our value line.

TWAV: Petite Sirah is a very unique grape. What led you to plant this variety and how would you describe your Petite Sirah?

Miller: When planting grapes, I think it's critical to plant what works well in a particular location, not just what you think the market wants. Petite Sirah produces grapes and wines of stunning quality in Suisun Valley, so that's why we planted it. It also happens to be one of my favorite varieties. Petite Sirah is a very big, bold wine and ours is certainly no exception. It also tends to be tannic, which makes them very age-worthy (although I like to drink them young as well). I would also say our Petite emphasizes the dark fruit side of the flavor spectrum, with dark fruit as opposed to bright cherry, with some plum thrown in.

TWAV: Do you have a particular vision for your wines and winemaking?

Miller: My goal in winemaking is to do the absolute least in the winemaking process that I can. I don't say that because I'm lazy (though I am), but because when you have to do something to the wine, to some extent it means the grapes and the winemaking process failed to achieve the optimum on their own. To give you an example, we've fined our Petite Sirah to reduce the tannin levels, but tannins tend to be extracted later in the fermentation. So last harvest I pressed the wine off the skins earlier to hopefully reduce the amount of tannins, and avoid fining. There are some things that are just unavoidable, such as the necessity to add acid to many lots, but I'm trying to reduce the interventions in what the wine wants to do on its own to a minimum. Every time you do something to the wine, while it may be necessary, it also seems to take something away from the wine as well.  So I only do something to the wine if it really seems to need it.

I would like to say that I've never needed to manipulate my wines to any great degree, but there have been a few lots where we really had to work hard to make them the quality we wanted them to be. I'm thinking especially of our first Syrah, which we had to do a lot of blending in order to make it a wine I felt comfortable with. We made some changes the second vintage and it hasn't needed nearly the amount of work the first vintage did.

TWAV: Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

Miller: I'm a big believer that every person has their own individual likes and dislikes when it comes to wine for two reasons. First, our physical equipment is different. Some people can perceive certain flavors at much lower concentrations than others. Second, we simply like different things. Just as some people prefer bananas and others apples, different people like different types of wines. I would certainly say that people have a right to expect wines to be competently made, but beyond that personal preference is really what matters. So I encourage people to trust their own palates and not give undue weight to what other people, whose palates and preferences may be very different, have to say. I know I am amazed by the fact that if I'm pouring our wines, there's no consistency in which one of the wines people prefer.
Photo by Amy
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