As the UK’s Coronavirus lockdown came into place you could hear the buzz of wine importers working out not only how to keep their stock moving and supporting their growers (by being in a position to sell more of their wine), but also how to connect with their public. There are some who have been swifter out of the blocks than others, and there are a few gigs lined up that will be worth tuning in to, for those who might have more time on their hands, or who have drained Netflix or Amazon Prime of stuff worth watching already.
Importers need to be quite picky about what they present to us. The offer needs to be well thought out, not only to grab our attention but also to make us come back next time. Nekter Wines not only happen to be hosts for the first of these interfaces I have been able to join in on, but also they have come up with something that may be hard to better.
They kicked off a series of web-get togethers on the Zoom platform through an hour with Californian demi-god (only joking) Steve Matthiasson (with a little input from Jill as well). The idea was initially to taste Steve’s Linda Vista Chardonnay, but in fact the hour was spent mostly listening to a raft of interesting stories, and insights, from Steve himself as he sat in the Californian sunshine with Mount Veeder as a backdrop. Around thirty people sat at home, mostly with glass in hand, to join in, with ample time for questions.
If you don’t know the Zoom format, you are sent a link to a virtual conference where each attendee appears in a box on the screen. You can choose to look at this screen or focus just on one participant. So in this case I could have Steve up full screen as if we were having a Skype call, or I could watch the whole room with their assorted pets and reactions to the dialogue.
I apologise that the photos here fall below even my usual average, but they hopefully convey a bit of the atmosphere more than my words on their own.
I was originally just going to talk in general terms about the event, but Steve Matthiasson’s story is so interesting that it is worth regaling you with it in brief here. Steve and his wife, Jill Klein Matthiasson, farm around eleven hectares in Southern Napa, from their base near Oak Knoll. They own a couple of hectares and farm another nine on leases.
Steve doesn’t come from a wine background, although he remembers loving being up on a cousin’s farm in Canada as a child. He was quite open about the issues which led him to be unable to focus academically at school, but he loved being outdoors. As a ten year old he remembers Greenpeace coming to talk at his school (pretty liberal school I think) and being moved by their environmental message, and the wider environment remains at the heart of everything he and Jill do.
Somehow Steve ended up studying philosophy at college, whilst spending part of his time as a skateboarder punk (I would have loved to ask him about his favourite bands but I figured this maybe wasn’t the place), but he also worked as a community gardener. This led him to UC Davies (horticulture) and then to work on various organic programmes, where he first met Jill. He eventually ended up writing the Californian Guide to Sustainable Farming Practices, and as well as Matthiasson Family Wines, Steve is one of the state’s most highly regarded consultants, following the path of organic farming, low intervention and sustainable viticulture.
Jill and Steve
Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 – Steve is perhaps better known for his white wines than his reds (not that the reds are any less beautiful), and if you ask your average wine journo to name a Matthiasson wine they adore they will almost always point to the blend called simply “White”. This mix of French and Italian varieties (or Bordeaux and Friuli to be slightly more specific) has been described by Mr Bonné in his book The New California Wine thus: “More than any other wine, Steve Matthiasson’s white blend has changed the conversation about Napa’s potential and about the possibilities for white wine in California”. It has been that influential.
However, whilst Linda Vista is (thankfully) a little cheaper than the white blend (we are looking at £37 as opposed to £50 from Nekter), in some ways it demonstrates exactly the same ideas. This vineyard is rented by Steve and Jill, but it is right up close to their home. It sits on what could very loosely be called the lower slopes of Mount Veeder. We are only at around ten metres above sea level, but the soils and bedrock are the same as this unique mountain. Whilst most of the other well know “mountains” (Harlan etc) around the valley are volcanic in origin, Mount Veeder is made from deep ocean rock pushed up via the fault which cuts right through the Matthiassons’ neighbour’s property.
You can kind of see Mount Veeder, though the wide angle makes it look further away, but the blur in the foreground is certainly Linda Vista
Steve says that the marine soils give a brightness to the wine with apples and citrus when picked early. Another benefit aiding a certain brightness in this wine is the water retention of the clays, allowing dry farming for anyone who wishes to go down this route. Although too long and detailed to include here, Steve gave us a run-through of all the different flavours in his Chardonnay as it evolves through apple to, if allowed, finally more peachy and tropical flavours.
Naturally Steve picks to get these earlier flavours into the wine, but goes through the vineyard several times to get a range of flavours for obvious complexity. They pick during August and September, over two-to-three weeks, whereas bigger producers pick a whole vineyard in a day. Early picking was even more beneficial in years, like 2017, when fires raged around. With grapes safely (though not seemingly “safe” at the time) in the winery, they avoided the smoke taint others suffered.
The vineyard was originally planted forty years ago by Beringer and leased by the Matthiassons in 2011, but the Château Montelena Chardonnay which was the top scoring wine in the 1976 Judgement of Paris came from the same terrain. The lower end of the Napa Valley is much cooler than the north, perhaps by ten degrees in summer. This means a daytime difference of ten degrees (25° as opposed to 35°), and with noticeably chilly nights even in summer, allowing the grapes to benefit from significant diurnal temperature variation through preservation of their acids.
The vineyard also has a direct link to the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, thus benefiting from the famous morning fogs and afternoon sea breezes which flow in towards Oak Knoll, just north of the town of Napa itself. All of this helps the vines to be mostly free of disease. Powdery mildew is the main problem, for which they are developing natural oils. Clove oil works as a good weedkiller. Pests can cause problems, mainly mice, for which it is necessary to spray the oil around the base of the vines because the rodents are less prone to nibble where they can’t hide, but they leave the cover crops between the rows.
The wine is deliberately made, as you can tell, in a style which emphasises brightness and freshness. The wine is certainly easy to approach in youth. So, picked early for Napa (the Chardonnay is usually all in before neighbouring farmers begin with theirs, even taking account of that long picking cycle), and made in neutral used oak, we do not have the Napa Chardonnay cliché. It’s a wine of purity, a nice line of acidity usually making it difficult to place this as Napa, yet with the undoubtedly ripe fruit which the Californian sunshine usually guarantees.
The questions asked by those on-screen were all interesting, especially when Steve was asked to talk about influencers on his winemaking and indeed philosophy. Naturally Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap, and for whom Steve worked for during eleven years, was described as his mentor. Winiarski had himself learnt at the hand of Californian Wine’s great originator, André Tchelistcheff. Paul Draper of Ridge also gets a mention.
In the “where have you enjoyed visiting” category, Hiyu Wine Farm in Oregon’s Hood River Valley gets a prominent plug. This is one of those “if you know, you know” kind of producers, and I’m certain many readers “do”. I’ve only had one opportunity to taste some of their truly amazing (and expensive) wines, and I can see exactly why Steve would give them name check number one.
So what was initially going to be a quick plug for what are going to be an entertaining series of hangouts at 8pm on a Friday evening has turned into a bit of a Matthiasson fest, but that surely demonstrates just how fascinating the whole experience turned out to be. It felt like being in a virtually private conversation with a winemaker who I personally admire above all others in the State of California.
If you would like to get involved in future Zoom get-togethers with Nekter Wines, contact them or watch out for their social media posts.
Nekter supremo Jon, our evening’s host
…And More To Come…
Lots of people are getting in on the act. I will just mention two here right now. Many of you will have read my article about a recent tasting of Basket Press Wines carried out for Plateau and Ten Green Bottles in Brighton. Basket Press will be hosting a series of Live Instagram sessions called “A Glass With…”, every Tuesday starting this week at 4pm. The idea is to create a platform where people working in wine and interesting amateurs can learn mainly about the wines of Czech Moravia. The first “glass with” guest will be sommelier Alexandre Freguin, winner of the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year in 2018. Alexandre has visited Moravia, and is well placed to talk about the wines, the producers and the terroir. Follow Basket Press Wines on Instagram to discover more about these obscure (to some) wines I keep raving about.
If you need your diary to fill up further, something equally as interesting is going down with Newcomer Wines in partnership with Kiffe My Wines. Every Wednesday at 3pm these importers will host three of their Winemakers in conversation on a theme. On Wednesday 1 April they will have Michael Wenzer, Franz Weninger and Pierre Menard talking about preserving heritage grape varieties, specifically Furmint. Future discussions in the following weeks will centre on how to become a winemaker via a career change, slow winemaking, winemakers who do it all from farming to marketing, and on 29 April, winemaking as an intellectual, physical and political pursuit.
This last conversation will include the heavyweights of Tom Lubbe, Rudolf Trossen and Claus Preissinger, but other weeks you will listen to luminaries including Christian Tschida, Milan Nesterec, and Jutta Ambrositsch among my favourites. Watch out again on social media and via merchant newsletters.
One final plug, with 1 April in mind is for LittleWine (littlewine.co). LittleWine will launch as a platform for education, using words, film and audio, on the subject of a sustainable future as seen through the lens of sensitive, low intervention, grape farming and winemaking, or as the originators put it, mindful farming. The full details of the site will appear on release, but it looks as if a certain amount of content will be available free of charge, with documentaries and producer profiles behind a paywall, but the subscription of just £24 per year looks reasonable to me. The teasers I’ve seen look very professional (understatement), and I’d like to wish Christina and Dani the best of luck for the launch. I hope we don’t crash the site on its launch day because I know a great many wine fanatics worldwide will want to check it out.
A final note on the Covid-19 situation. A friend recently complained that Majestic Wine’s web site was not reachable and Waitrose couldn’t deliver and he had no idea where to buy some wine, until I pointed to a local indie merchant who was making deliveries. I even sent him a list of suggestions within his price range. At this time both small importers and independent wine shops are in need of cash flow. Interestingly, some of those wine shops I know have been very busy, but of course that initial peak in business may tail off once people have a case sitting in the wine rack. Equally, larger importers like Les Caves de Pyrene and Indigo, who you may know better as wholesalers, are making their magnificent portfolios available to the general public
I know these people are not charities, but I would ask anyone who is able to consider carefully the suggestion that we spread the love around the specialists, especially the smaller ones (including Nekter Wines, obviously), whether they have bricks and mortar premises or work out of a room in the suburbs. If we help them make it through, we will benefit in the long run…from having a wider and better range of wines to choose from when we hopefully come out the other side. My impact is small, but together we can keep hold of our wonderful, vibrant, wine industry. The one silver lining of all of this is that many wines which usually only find their way into restaurant lists are now made available to us mere mortals. That’s a thought to leave you with.
Stay safe and drink magnificently.