As part of Washington Wine Month, we continue our interview series with a very talented winemaker from Sleight of Hands Cellar, Keith Johnson. Keith is originally from the Pendleton, Oregon area. He moved to Walla Walla to study winemaking and is a graduate of the famous Walla Walla Community College School of Enology. He has had the great pleasure of learning under superstar winemaker, Trey Busch, head winemaker of Sleight of Hand Cellars. The winery has grown exponentially since starting in 2007, as Busch and his partners have created a remarkably successful winery in a very short amount of time. For those of you that have not tried the releases at Sleight of Hand, they come highly recommended. Sleight of Hand (http://sofhcellars.com) has built a reputation for creating powerful red wines that capture the essence of their vineyards. I recently had the chance to talk with Keith about his experiences working at Slight of Hand, the importance of vineyard management, as well as discussing one of his highly compelling new release wines, the 2013 Sleight of Hand ‘The Psychadelic’ Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah (WWB, 93) (http://sofhcellars.com/product-details/0339/2013-Psychedelic-Syrah). Keith was an incredibly friendly guy that has a huge talent, which is evident in his new releases. Learn more about Slight of Hand at sofhcellars.com Here is my interview with Keith Johnson, Production winemaker at Sleight of Hand Cellars.
WWB: Can you talk about how you first became interested in winemaking and your first experiences in wine? Any experience in particular that got you hooked on the world of wine?
KJ: I first became interested in wine while working at a tiny Italian restaurant (since closed) in my hometown of Pendleton Oregon. The owner and chef loved wine, and he was pretty well versed in Napa Cabernet as well as having a keen interest in Walla Walla. We would often open a bottle at the end of a busy service while cleaning up and I just started delving into it more and more on my own as well. I then spent about a year selling beer and wine for a distributor where I had the opportunity to taste more broadly, and really research wine and wine history. I fell in love with the mystique and the culture of wine and wine making, which led me to Walla Walla and the WWCC Enology and Viticulture program in the summer of 2009.
WWB: What are some of the key winemaking elements that you have learned under Trey Busch?
KJ: Trey is probably the most talented “intuitive” wine maker that I know of. Working with Trey has really taught me to trust intuition and your own palate, which are just as important in winemaking as the more technical aspects. I really believe that this leads to more distinctive and personality filled wines, which are what we strive to make. I have also learned from Trey that less is typically more when it comes to handling high quality fruit. If your raw material is great, which ours always is, keeping out of the way as much as possible always leads to better results.
WWB: What are some of the challenges in working with hot vintages that have persisted since 2013? Can you talk about some vineyard management and winemaking that you do so that the wines maintain structure?
KJ: The most important factor in handling a hot vintage is to work closely with our vineyard managers. In hot years, properly managed vineyards are going to have a greater impact on the ultimate wine quality than anything we do in the cellar. Insuring that your vineyard sources have the correct balance of canopy and fruit is essential. I think a lot has been learned in Washington the last few years about vineyard balance, particularly as it pertains to dealing with heat. Also, in the vineyard, picking decisions become even more important in hot years because things happen much quicker than in a cooler or average year and before you know it, you are looking at overripe, shriveled fruit, which is never what we want. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, we really try to be careful with our extraction in the hot years. With the often thicker skins that we see, the tannin profile of the wine can get away from you very quickly. So we try to keep our ferments a little bit cooler and we tend to utilize gentler cap management techniques, which for us typically involves more punch downs and fewer pump overs. Then, the other key to extraction management in the cellar is your pressing decision. When ferments are starting to get close to dry, we are very vigilant about tasting daily or twice daily to insure that we don’t take our tannin profile too far.
WWB: I was very impressed with your 2013 'The Psychadelic' Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah. Can you talk about that wine and how you were able to maintain the level of balance, fruit and terroir?
KJ: For the team at Sleight of Hand, the key to proper balance in Rocks District fruit is whole cluster fermentation. The grapes coming from “the rocks” have naturally very high pH, which gives us a very appealing, lush mouthfeel. The problem is that the high pH can also leave the wines coming across as flabby or even a bit cloying. With whole cluster fermentation, we find that the addition of stem tannin can give the wines a nice “lift” on the palate which balances nicely with the lushness of the wine. The other aspect of making wines from “the rocks” is that you really want them to express the savory terroir which is the hallmark of the AVA. At their most extreme, some rocks wines take the savory profile so far that the fruit is lost. We find that we can maintain a nice balance between fruit and earth by making the correct picking decisions, letting the wines ferment with spontaneous yeast (yes, this makes a huge difference), limiting the amount of oxygen the wines see post fermentation, and by aging barrel for a shorter period of time which helps maintain freshness and individuality.