A master of Zin, Renwood Director of Winemaking, Joe Shebl has been crafting intense yet balanced Zinfandel wines for many years. Joe has a degree in biology and chemistry from Sacramento State University. He later caught the winemaking bug from wines he tasted from the nearby Sierra Foothills. Soon after college he went to work in the cellar at Renwood Winery in Amador County. Joe worked his way through all phases of winemaking and would ultimately become one of the key players in winemaking in the region. Joe is currently Director of Winemaking at Renwood Winery, as well as owner of Fiddletown Cellars and consulting winemaker for Borjon Winery. He has served on the Amador County Vintners Board of Directors for a number of years. I recently had the chance to sit down with Joe and sample the new Renwood lineup of red wines, as well as discuss his style of winemaking, and was very impressed with the balance and intensity of these wines. Joe’s wines showcase a bright, vibrancy that Zinfandel can be when treated properly, there is an elegance to these new bottlings. I found him to be incredibly knowledgeable and approachable. Learn more about this awesome lineup of wines at
http://www.renwood.com/ Here is my interview with Joe Shebl, Director of Winemaking, Renwood Winery.
WWB: Can you talk about how you became interested in winemaking? How does your background in chemistry make you a better winemaker?
JS: I didn’t go to medical school but I considered going because I was pre-med at Sacramento State. Then the summer before my senior year of college I went wine tasting to Napa. I was taking all sorts of science classes and I thought that the winery lab was really cool. This was an outdoorsy profession and I love being outside. The blend of these two things and the science behind it made this a great fit. I came back and saw an ad for a cellar worker positon in 1999 at Renwood. I sent my resume in and showed up in a suit and tie for the interview. The winemaker at the time basically hired me on the spot. I told him I was going to graduate, then take a few weeks off and then show up for work. I basically fell in love with the job. I have held every position at Renwood from entry level cellar rat to working in the lab. Having had previous lab experience I was familiar with much of the equipment and knew how to use it. I finally made it to assistant winemaker at Renwood and then I left in 2009 to start my own brand.
I currently consult for 5 or 6 wineries in the area. In 2010 there was new ownership at Renwood and I became friends with the management. In 2013 they offered me the position of Director of Winemaking and General Manager which was an exciting opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I’ve come full circle at Renwood. This is a great position to be in and we have a global presence with this brand. My daily job here at Renwood is really fantastic. It is my responsibility to ensure that the wines are stable, safe and biologically sound. I think we have the best winemaking team anywhere. A lot of people are very tenured here. My assistant isn’t really an assistant, he is a winemaker. I interface with upper management and ownership. I take care of putting the winemaking and vineyard budgets together. This means a lot of spreadsheet time but that is part of the gig.
During Jan-May the job involves a lot of market visits, so I’m travelling to meet with people and tell our story. Being the head winemaker at Renwood, you are called upon to wear a lot of different hats and also find time to be a brand ambassador. We have a killer team and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. You have to be hyper-organized and that keeps me successful where I can leave for a week and feel confident that things are dialed in at home. Unless a meteor hits the winery we should be fine. We work on the blends and are always tasting not only our wines but wines of the world. We do competitive tastings all the time. We have a feel for one wine and then we might do something different with another one.
WWB: I recently had the chance to review your 2013 Renwood ‘Grandmere’ Red Wine (WWB, 92) which was a silky and seductive wine that will cellar beautifully. Can you talk about the winemaking and blending of this wine, as well as the 2013 vintage?
JS: That is usually one of the more fun wines to make because the blend is different every year. We watch the different lots mature over 15 months and then decide how each component will play with the other. Some years it might be more Zin heavy or Petit heavy or Syrah heavy. It depends on how they are performing in the blend. This year the Zin, Petit and Syrah percentages developed these harmonious nuances and is intensely fruit driven. But, this wine also has the complexity and weight and layers. My goal in mind is to produce wines that have energy and vitality and convey a sense of place. The vitality and the freshness is paramount. We want energy because these wines are alive. That is a fun thing to develop and share. Not a lot of wineries make this kind of wine.
The 2013 vintage, in terms of harvest, was a pretty typical year here in Amador. We had some consistent daytime highs and nighttime lows. We did experience a few heat spikes, one in early July and one later in July. Ripening was pretty darn optimal across all varieties and we saw the results in the bottle. The results were well-balanced wines with excellent flavors and textures. We also had (scientifically speaking) perfect numbers and set of parameters in terms of wine health. We have been lucky. 2011 was wet, but the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015’s have all been solid vintages. I think ‘13 was maybe a bit better than the others but across the board these have all been rockstar vintages. 2013 was a great vintage in general for Amador County a lot of the wines were just amazing. They all have this uncanny juiciness and freshness.
WWB: Can you talk about the range of aromatics and flavor profiles Zinfandel has as a varietal and how America has been infatuated with jammy, dense Zinfandel?
JS: I think America’s infatuation with Zinfandel is due to it being a marvelously adaptable varietal. It can produce a myriad of flavor profiles from jammy to bright, mouth-watering fresh fruits depending on the growing site, weather conditions, and winemaking techniques. We are always looking for the nuances or different aspects of our vineyards that highlight what we feel are some of the best characteristics of Amador County. We have blocks that accentuate the sense of place and region very well. We want to showcase the typicity of the variety as it grows here in the Sierra Foothills. I am always walking the vineyards and the key factor for us is picking at night during the coolest portion of the evening. This means harvesting at 2 or 3 in the morning. We are always very careful when destemming the fruit. We don’t crush the fruit. We actually put the fruit in the fermentation tanks as whole berries. We want the essence of the fruit to shine through, and to limit the bitter seed tannins. We co-ferment everything. We might do a short cold soak to get the most out of the variety.
We are also fermenting cool, at about 68 Fahrenheit, which contributes to the freshness. We also add a bit of sulphur to the fermentations, which is something that doesn’t kill the yeast but it stresses it a bit more. When you stress the yeast you get yeast that genetically produces more glycerol. This maintains the freshness but gives you tension and a mouth-coating factor without having high residual sugar in the wines. This gives you a sweet and sour balance but you retain the purity of the true fruit sweetness. We are very lucky in Amador County because of the diurnal temperature swings. We get 30 degree swings in a few hours and that is a recipe for producing marvelous tension and structure. That is what you get to enjoy in the glass!
WWB: When Renwood is not in your glass, what are some of your favorite California Zinfandels?
JS: I love Zinfandel and I obviously make it and drink a ton of it, but I am a sucker for good Napa Cabernets like Chimney Rock, Duckhorn, and Paraduxx, the rich stuff. I love good Bordeaux as well, one of my favorite producers is Cotie Roboef. I also really like Albarino from Uruguay and love the wines from Bodega Garzon. Barbera is a favorite and to be honest… I’m just passionate about very good, well- made wine in general. I never let myself be pigeon-holed into one thing because I like to keep an open mind to wines from all over the world. It totally depends on my mood. Last year I had a Black Rock Zin that was given to me and was great. I have a lot of winemaker friends so I keep my mind and my palate totally wide open. My buddy makes some exceptional Pinot Noir for Storm Wines which are always nice. My glass is rarely empty… as I love a myriad of different wines.