“Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.”
This famous quote from the late Robert Mondavi was remembered during a small wine tasting in honor of what would have been his 100th year. Robert, who was legendary in the development of California wine, has affected many people during his lifetime, both directly and indirectly.
Stuart Henry, Winemaker at Ravenswood Winery, was one of these individuals, having spent time as a harvest intern at La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi. There he made small batch Moscato, Barbera and a Super Tuscan style California blend. While he didn’t work alongside Mr. Mondavi he grew very familiar with his wines and his methods of harvesting and producing.
After his time interning at La Famiglia, Stuart moved on to Beringer Vineyards as a Wine Chemist turned Enologist, before becoming Assistant Winemaker at Charles Krug Winery with Peter Mondavi. In 2007 he became a Winemaker at Ravenswood Winery alongside founding Winemaker, Joel Peterson.
Stepping away from his booth during the Vancouver International Wine Festival, Stuart took a moment to have a chat with me.
You majored in Italian and Winemaking at UC Davis, was there a pivotal moment in your life where you decided this is what you wanted to do?
“My family was in the winemaking industry, so I grew up with it as part of my life. My father went to Davis, majoring in Biology and then transferring to winemaking once he realized that it was an option.
I went in to winemaking as my only major, which was unusual as most people were doing it as their second major.
As a junior I had some time in my schedule so I decided that I needed to learn a language. I took Spanish in high school but I didn’t retain anything so I chose Italian instead, because I really enjoyed Italy while travelling Europe after high school. I loved the language right from the start of my studies and ended up taking more and more classes. I realized that if I took a lot my senior year that I could do a year abroad for University, so I added it as a major and moved to Padova for a year to take classes before finishing my major. I haven’t used any Italian since I finished, other than the occasional tourist that comes in to the vineyard.”
Joel is the “Godfather of the Zin”, do you have that same passion for Zinfandels?
“I do. Zin is a very expressive grape so it’s fun to make a lot of because it can be very different from one site to the next. I think Joel was ahead of his time in finding Zinfandel and making that his focus. Also, there aren’t many other varieties that you can make just that variety and have the same range of expression.”
White versus red. What are the major differences during production? And why is it that right now at Ravenswood you are producing all red, but one Chardonnay?
“I find that white wines are like cats, and red wines are like dogs.
You can go to work and come back and a dog is happy to see you, it loves you just as much as when you left, whereas a cat is resentful and spiteful and carries a grudge. I grew up with cats, and you come back from vacation and you’re happy to see the cat but the cat doesn’t want to eat, and might not sleep on your bed for a couple of days.”
And in wine language….
“Making whites and reds are very different because whites require a lot more attention to detail.
It takes a lot of patience for white wine and a lot of attention to detail because the flavours are more fleeting. Temperature is important and maintaining those flavours requires the tanks to remain cool or the barrels to be kept in a cool room. Red wines, on the otherhand, go through Malolactic Fermentation (ML) often, so they need to be kept warm until the ML is finished before being stored in a cold room.
Towards the end of harvest we might take a day off and give our guys a rest for the weekend and not pump over the wine’s fermentations on one day. We’ll be back to it on Monday and give it a little extra time of pump overs. Same with topping up, you can miss a topping by a week or so and the wines won’t fully be affected negatively, whereas with white wines if you’re making Chardonnay and you miss a stirring or you don’t top them, the wines react and it’s noticeable.
Joel’s thought process is that making white wines, even if it is a small batch or a couple hundred cases, makes you a better winemaker because you can be a little sloppy with red wines.
With Chardonnay especially I find it goes through this death and resurrection, where you love it after it’s done fermenting when it’s really bright, fresh and fruity. Then the fruit kind of goes away, it gets a little oxidized and the fruit comes back after it’s stirred and it’s sulphured and has some time.
We (Ravenswood Wines) make some taste room only white wines that never leave in any kind of distribution. Those wines are fun but nerve-wracking for me. Many of them are made and bottled within a few months of each-other so there is very little window for me to blow it. I’m paranoid during harvest that the cooling is going to get turned off or I’ll miss the window to stop the must, so the alcohol and sugar balance won’t be right.”
What’s your favorite wine right now?
“I think my favorite wines right now are Rhone, either Grenache or Syrah or blends of those varieties. Although, I have been tasting a lot of Chardonnays at the festival and in general.
We make a small amount of vineyard designate Chardonnay, and I feel somewhat inadequate making that wine. It’s great to make a lot of one thing, like Zinfandel, because you really feel like you know how to work with the different vineyard expression and sites. When we just make one Chardonnay a year, I can’t really play with different barrels or try tank ferment versus barrel ferment because there is just one lot of Chardonnay. I’ve been tasting a lot of different Chardonnay and talking to a lot of people about what to do, what kind of barrels to use, and if they put it all in barrel for fermentation, or if it is a combination of barrel and tank fermentation. That’s been fun for me.”
Any advice for aspiring wine-makers?
Make, and drink, as many different varieties of wine as you can.
Especially in California, but I think it’s true in the New World in general, we make primarily the Bordeaux and Burgandy varieties of wine, which do well in those regions and specific areas outside of those regions. But a lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example, are grown in places they aren’t well-suited to; they’re grown because that’s what is going to sell.
I think tasting wines from around the world, trying different varieties, and having a chance to make a few tonnes of Tempranillo, Verdello or Albariño is beneficial to an aspiring winemaker.
I think that consumers are beginning to get more adventurous, it’ll be a slow road but there is a fad right now of white blends and red blends in California. Traditionally consumers have looked for varieties they like, and buy those varieties, shying away from those they don’t recognize, like Viognier or Grenache Syrah.
A friend of mine makes a Syrah in Napa and he had a hard time selling it as a Syrah, so he took the same wine and bottled it as a red blend and it sold better. It’s a bit sad because it’s a beautiful wine, but I think people are just more open-minded when it comes to a red blend, the way they have expectations around a varietal.”
In addition to being a Winemaker Stuart is also a computer whiz. He used his science and web skills to create a website called WineAdds, to assist winemakers in calculating additions, thus speeding up the process.
For more information on Ravenswood’s “No Wimpy Wines” check them out online.