A man not needing any introduction, today we have one of the most exciting interviews I have done for Washington Wine Blog. Ed Sbragia is one of California’s iconic winemakers. An innovator from the start, Ed played a huge role in transforming Beringer into one of major world players for not only their entry level wines but their high quality Private Reserve Cabernet and Chardonnay bottlings. I have long admired these wines and absolutely love the aging potential of both wines. A delight to talk wine with, about a week ago I sat down with Ed and talked about his illustrious career, as well as his namesake winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards. I think you will very much enjoy hearing his story in wine. Here is my exclusive interview with Ed Sbragia, owner and winemaker of Sbragia Family Vineyards.
WWB: What was it like stating out at Beringer?
ES: Before starting at Beringer, I was in graduate school and had the chance to meet Mr. Myron Nightingale, who was one of the iconic winemakers in the wine industry at that time. He had been working at Beringer for 30 years. I was really impressed with Beringer’s location and the winery, particularly the direction the winery was headed. I found out that Callaway winery had hired Beringer’s assistant winemaker. One of my friends was the enologist at Beringer so I decided to apply for the winemaker position because my friend said he wasn’t interested. I got the job and started in 1976 and didn’t start my own winery until 32 years later.
At the time, Beringer was a winery of about 40,000 cases, a moderate size for a Napa Valley. They had gone through multiple Beringer generations and when I started there, had been sold to Nestle. This was avgood thing for me because Nestle wanted us to focus on making high-end wines, and I began buying grapes out of Howell Mountain with plans to buy more grapes from the best locations in Napa. We hired Bob Steinhauer in 1979 to be our vineyard manager and then from then on we were able to build the premium vineyard sources we wanted. In retrospect it seemed like Camelot! Beringer was a great place to be and I used mostly company owned vineyards with some great outside growers to make our wines. I believe we made some great wines while I was there.
WWB: How did you start the Beringer ‘Private Reserve’ label which became one of the iconic wine brands in California?
ES: That is a good question. At the time we owned a vineyard called ‘Chabot’ located on Glass Mountain, previously called the Lemon Ranch the first year because it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lemon. What was great about this vineyard was its 30-year old vines. We were very excited about this. We put it in the bottle and let it age for a year and a half. Initially the Private Reserve was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t get any Cabernet Franc until the mid-80s so it was 100% Cab until 1986. I was able to select wines from the best sites and blend them together, which was a fun challenge for me! We were making Chardonnay from the beginning of when I started and that didn’t really come to be Private Reserve until later in my tenure. We made our Private Reserve Chardonnay from Oakville AVA vineyards.
The idea behind the Private Reserve Chardonnay was my understanding of how great white Burgundy was made. These wines were aged in new barrels for 18 months and had batonnage, so we started doing the same thing. I liked the way the wine turned out and essentially the technique was fun. We experimented with new barrels when most people were using only stainless steel, making some less than spectacular wines from being aged in stainless steel. The Burgundian barrel fermentation and battonnage technique created incredible flavors and textures. We learned that you can greatly enhance the Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, barrel aging and lees stirring, as all of those things make the wine richer and give it more complexity. The wonderful thing about sitting on the lees, is the Chardonnay becomes extracted with a lot of character from the wood and the malolactic fermentation - you ended up getting a balanced wine that ages beautifully. That was how Private Reserve Chardonnay started. The thing was, I was not trying to make a French wine but I was using Burgundian techniques that had worked across the world to make great California wines. I still do that with my Sbragia wines.
WWB: How did you finally decide to start your own winery, Sbragia Family Vineyards?
ES: I left Beringer as winemaker emeritus in 2008 and did a few things for them for a few years thereafter. I also had the chance to work in Asia with Beringer before I left and that was great. Demands in terms of my own winery took over and my son, Adam, who is a really talented winemaker, started helping out a lot in the winery. So right now I am not working as hard as I used to, which is nice. It was a scary thing starting my winery, yet I got a lot of support from Adam who worked for me at Beringer. They also helped sell the wine for me for a while, providing national marketing and sales support.
We left them in 2012 but Beringer has always treated me well. It was finally time for me to start my own winery and Adam helped make this decision easier, as he’s turned into a great winemaker. Sbragia became a family winery for me and I always wanted to work with my family. My youngest son, Kevin, is working as a bookkeeper and Adam is now responsible for all production and winemaking. All family members have worked here at various times, and my wife, Jane, works all of the events with me and Adam. We are very excited about celebrating our anniversary soon, 15 years here at Sbragia Family Vineyards. And I’m very excited about a new project Adam launched this year called Home Field, a red blend from Dry Creek vineyards. The name Home Field refers to him growing up in and knowing all the best vineyards in Dry Creek valley.
WWB: I have always been highly impressed with your Sbragia Chardonnay lineup and I recently had a chance to taste through your new releases. Can you talk about your incredible new wine, the 2015 ‘Gamble Ranch’ Chardonnay (WWB, 94) a wine with tremendous richness and texture?
ES: I am very familiar with the Gamble Ranch and crafting great Chardonnay from that site. The Gamble Ranch Vineyard has deep clay soils, almost black soils. I have been crushing these grapes since the 1970s. These are old vines and they have produced truly outstanding Beringer Private Reserves. I continue to acquire this fruit from the Gamble family for Sbragia Family Vineyards - 2015 was a drought vintage with small berries and concentrated flavors. Gamble Ranch produces grapes with bright citrus and apple characteristics. The barrel fermentation adds layers of butter and also nutty tones. With time you develop richness and the flavors, oak, richness and acidity all integrate beautifully. This is how I wanted to make that wine, a delicious wine for our customers and friends. I personally best enjoy the Gamble Chardonnay when it gets older and the caramel, butterscotch and creme brûlée flavors emerge.
WWB: What is your cellar like?
ES: I have lots of Beringer wine from my many years as winemaker there. I also have Burgundy and Bordeaux in my cellar, which I relish for special occasions. I tend to sip the Gamble Ranch Chardonnay often and I love the Monte Rosso and the mountain fruit - I always have loved that wine! We make a wine out of Howell Mountain fruit that I like a lot; it’s a slightly bigger wine then the Monte Rosso. I also enjoy Italian wines and worked for Gabbiano as a consultant for many years. I had a great time working with the winemaker there and I have many of these wines in my cellar. I tend to drink wines from Sonoma and Napa, as well as a lot of my Sbragia wines because I need to check them out and watch their progress as they age. My favorite old Bordeaux in the cellar are the Chateau Pichon-Lalandes and Chateau Lynch-Bages wines.