Happy Monday to you all! Today we have another exciting interview from a very big producer of Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. A winemaker with a passion for great Pinot Gris, Spencer joined King Estate for the 2012 harvest and in two short years has moved up the ranks to winemaker. Spencer has a background in marketing and has previously worked at Ravenswood before going back to school and working on an enology degree at Lincoln University in New Zealand for three years. He then returned to Ravenswood, serving as contract winemaker. In 2009 he took an assistant winemaker position at Bargetto, the oldest winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he met his wife.
Spencer talked about his interest in aging Pinot Gris, which was really cool considering the recent King Estate retrospective that I enjoyed a few months back. Spencer was first drawn to wine through fine dining and has found his niche making high quality Pinot and Pinot Gris in Oregon. I think you will really enjoy hearing about his journey in wine. Here is my interview with Spencer Spetnagel, winemaker at King Estate.
WWB: Can you talk about your first winemaking jobs? What was it like working at Ravenswood in Sonoma during that vibrant period?
SS: I moved to Sonoma, CA in 2004 for my first Harvest. I had just finished my Undergrad work (Marketing) in Atlanta. I had decided during the last few semesters of school that I was going to move out West and try my hand at making wine. I got interested in wine from waiting tables in fine dining in Atlanta during University. I knew I was never going to be able to work at a cubicle. Being so closely tied to Mother Nature really appealed to me… Now to the actual Harvest. I moved everything across country to be a seasonal intern for Ravenswood. I decided that since I was moving my whole life out there that I was going to work so hard that Ravenswood would have no choice but to offer me a full time position at the end of Harvest. As soon as the fruit started rolling in that year I knew I had made the right career choice.
I loved the long hours and extremely physical work that it takes to make it through a Harvest successfully. I loved the team atmosphere of everyone being tired and drained, but working together for the benefit of the wine. The smell of Fermentations and barreling down fresh wine into brand new barrels is extremely intoxicating for me. Ravenswood was a phenomenal atmosphere to learn from. They had a great team that I loved working with. Since I came out West with no real idea about winemaking I decided to stay at Ravenswood for 3 years to see the process from start to finish for a few vintages (they offered me a position after Harvest). Over the next few years I tasted more wine, met more winemakers and learned as much as I could in Sonoma and Napa. I was hooked. After that time I knew for sure that I loved the industry and this was going to be my career. Then I decided to go back to school to get my Oenology/Viticulture degree. Instead of going up the road to Davis I decided to see a completely different side of winemaking and decided to attend Lincoln University in New Zealand. Partly to travel, partly to learn about cool climate winemaking and work with new grapes for me.
WWB: How much more complicated is it working with Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir than Zinfandel?
SS: I worked for the first time with Pinot Noir and Gris down in New Zealand. Pinot Noir is quite a finicky grape in that as far as red grapes are concerned it has quite a thin skin which makes it quite susceptible to disease pressure during the growing season. That is compounded by the fact that most growing regions for Pinot Noir can have more frosts in the spring and more wet conditions closer to Harvest, since it is grown in cooler climates than what Zinfandel needs.
Zinfandel on the other hand is pretty thick skinned grape and is much more hearty as far as withstanding disease pressure. Couple that with the fact that I was working with Zinfandel in California, where rain events at time of Harvest are extremely rare, The Zin grape was easier to grow and ripen fully.
Oregon is a phenomenal growing region for Pinot Noir, specifically because of the Climate, but in years like 2011 disease pressure can wipe out huge amounts of your fruit before you ever get the grapes picked. I have been quite lucky since I moved up to Oregon. We have had numerous warm, almost too hot, summers and the rain has stayed away during most of Harvest. So I’ve had the pleasure of working with lovely clean fruit throughout my Oregon career. The threat of inclement weather during any Harvest is always in the back of my mind though.
Once the grapes have survived Mother Nature and are in the winery the changes in complication slow down. You treat the Zin and Noir grapes differently as far as Cap Management and barrel regiment, but as long as the fruit was ripe and clean, winemakers should become glorified babysitters. You don’t have to do too much to the wine when you start with fantastic grapes.
Gris is very similar to Noir as far as growing is concerned, but since you pick earlier the disease pressure can be less intense. Frosts and wind/rain can be issues in the spring. And since we make white wine from it there is no cap management or barrel regiment.
WWB: I recently had the opportunity to do a retrospective of Pinot Gris bottlings from 2005-2012. I was very impressed with how some of the older bottlings matured. Can you talk about the aging ability for the varietal?
SS: The first thing I would point to is the acid content. Acid has long been known to preserve whites for long aging. Acid is something we do not lack in Oregon, especially in our very own King Estate Vineyard. Our vineyard is quite a cool site, even by Oregon standards. The elevation in our vineyard ranges from 800’-1200’ and I think the elevation definitely helps keep our vineyard cooler with larger diurnal temperature variations, which help develop more flavor and retain the acid content.
The second piece to the aging puzzle that I would point to is our Sur Lies program. Once Fermentation is finished we leave some Lees in the tanks of Pinot Gris. We stir these tanks on a weekly basis to keep the Lees suspended in the wine. There is a dual effect here. Suspending the Lees gives more contact with the wine. This process can help increase mouthfeel and even soften some of the sharp edges that the high acid content can have. The other effect we have is that the contact between the Lees and the wine increases the mannoprotein content which also helps in the long aging ability.
Pinot Gris is not often thought of as an ageable grape, there are areas of the World where it has been used as such for a long time. My favorite representation of this is the Alsace region, which makes plenty of Pinot Gris built to age gracefully.
WWB: The 2012 'Domaine' Pinot Gris (WWB, 93) was a highly impressive and dense bottling of Pinot Gris. Can you talk about this fantastic release wine?
SS: 2012 was a welcome warm, clean vintage after the more difficult vintages of 2010 and 2011. All fruit that came in was ripe and disease free. It was warm enough though that holding onto the traditional acid content while allowing the flavors to fully develop could be a touch of a challenge. Again, enter our site. Being higher elevation and having larger diurnal temperature variation than much of the Willamette Valley. This allowed our grapes to ripen a touch slower than the rest of the Valley allowing flavors to fully develop while still retaining a nice fresh acidity. All of the fruit that year came in extremely clean with hardly any disease pressure. Our Domaine bottling is always picked from our favorite lots of wine in that vintage and once it is blended together it has the longest time of Sur Lies. All of those aspects came together to create a fantastic wine that is built to withstand the test of time. We pick the cleanest and best grapes/wine from our vineyard, with the most Lees contact to richen, soften and lengthen the body of the wine, along with our sites ability to hold onto nice acid, even in warm years. Combine all of this and you get the end product which is a brilliant representation of what a World Class site can do to craft a World Class wine.
WWB: What are some of your other favorite producers of Oregon Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir? What are some of your favorite producers of wine from around the world?
SS: A few of my favorite producers in Oregon are mostly Pinot Noir driven. Soter, Beaux Freres, Antiquum, Antica Terra to name a few. There are plenty of others that are making gorgeous wine, but these were the first few I thought of. As far as other Pinot Gris producers, I don’t actually search out Pinot Gris when I taste. We taste other Producers in competitive lineups, but I taste so much Gris at work I don’t tend to drink it once I am away from work. I do drink King Estate often enough when I need a Gris with dinner. I feel like King Estate has been setting the standard for Oregon Pinot Gris long before I arrived and I hope to continue that tradition while I am here.
As far as favorite producers worldwide, I like well-made wines of most all varietals. So I drink French, Spanish, Italian, there will always be a special place in my heart for New Zealand since I lived there for a few years, Chile, Argentina, Australian, Washington, Oregon, and CA, plus more. I couldn’t begin to name all my favorite producers from each region. Variety is the spice of life. And there are brilliant winemakers around the world crafting phenomenal wines of all varietals. I have definitely not tried all of them or even most of them so to pick a few is really difficult for me. Unfortunately/Fortunately I always tend towards the wines that I cannot afford to drink on a regular basis.