Mary Baker: Winemaker Dan Panico and I have over fifteen years of experience in winemaking, winery hospitality, and winery management. We were once gainfully employed by larger wineries and enjoyed paid vacations, 401K plans, and free travel to national wine festivals.
Having thrown all that over for artisanal winemaking, and limited production, vineyard designate wines, we can now proudly state that we are a microwineryÃ¢â‚¬â€with a microbudget.
In addition to my winery and marketing duties, I occasionally help Dan on the crush pad and in the vineyard. When I’m not dressed in farmer fatigues and rubber boots, I enjoy lecturing on wine appreciation and food-and-wine pairing. In my spare time, I am working on my second cookbook, a collection of essays, a novel, and a pilot for a cable television cooking show.
Our winery blog is a way for us to connect on a personal level with our customers and fans. When I visit our local farmerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s market I enjoy talking with the vendors and learning about their families, their farms, their passions. It makes dinner more enjoyable to know something about the people that grew the food on our table, and I think people feel the same way about wine.
Simon Owens: As a small winery, where do most of your wine sales come from? People visiting your winery on wine-tasting trips?
MB: We sell about sixty percent of our wine production directly to the public and to our private wine club. We sell another forty percent to select restaurants and retailers throughout California, and on a very selective basis in Florida, Colorado, and the Carolinas. We are only open to the public four days a week, and we are in a comparatively remote areaÃ¢â‚¬â€by choice. At one point we were leasing a tasting facility near the heavily traveled Highway 46 West in Paso Robles, but we decided to open our vineyard and home location to the public instead, and limit the number of hours we are open. Exactly as we predicted, the number of visitors dropped dramatically, but those people who do find us and visit are serious about evaluating our wines. We are also able to spend more time interacting with our visitors, and I think this gives them a better sense of who we are. When they visit our farm, they can dally on the swing under the 100-year-old black walnut, look at the vines, and throw balls for our springer spaniel. We are also a certified wildlife habitat, surrounded by very rugged oak and bay-studded hills, and pastured ridges. Our visitors and customers come to know us as people, and remember us in our working environment. It builds a lot of loyalty, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s important to us. Our customers are our best ambassadors.
SO: How easy is it to differentiate between good and bad wine? Does it reach a certain point when the quality gets so good that it’s impossible to rank one wine above the other?
MB: Even winemakers and wine writers disagree on that! As you learn more about wine, you will learn to recognize and avoid some of the most basic flaws. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll also learn more about concepts like balance between the fruit, oak, tannins, and acid. After that, oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s enjoyment of wine becomes very, very subjective. Some people prefer certain varieties, like pinot noir or cabernet; some are fans of certain regions of the world; others prefer a styleÃ¢â‚¬â€like fat, succulent and dark; or gentler and more nuanced, with a crisp acidity that goes well with food.
And yes, I do think that at a certain point, the fusion between a vineyard and a winemaker is as good as any wine can get. If you care to spend $900 for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, is it worth $900? Certainly no other wines in the world taste exactly like DRC, but is every other wine inferior because it costs less? No. DRC commands these prices because they can. And the more something costs, or the rarer it is, the more a certain set of people desire it. Is a wine consumer less sophisticated because he or she chooses to spend $30-$60 on a bottle of red wine, instead of $400 a bottle for a cult California cabernet? Definitely not.
Personally, I think cult collectors are unimaginative. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the adventurous guy (or gal) who stashes away the as-yet-unknown winemaker productions for cellaring, and can pull them out fifteen years later when the winery is well known who can really gloat.
For those thinking about starting a wine collection, I suggest starting with pleasant, easy-drinking, and affordable wines from a wide range of grape varieties and global regions. Be an armchair traveler. Learn about the wines and the regions they came from. You can learn a lot of fascinating geography, history, political science, and romantic intrigue that way. When you identify a favorite, buy a few extra bottles, but continue to explore. As your tastes mature, push yourself to buy some slightly more expensive, cellar-worthy bottles. Buy at least six bottles of something you wish to cellar, and open a bottle every year or two. This is the only way to learn how wines mature. (Wines and women mature, by the way, they never age.) YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll begin to see that many fleshy, alluring young things become flabby as they age mature, but quite often the awkward, somewhat sharp selections become more interesting with age maturity. This is because red wines require acidity as well as tannins to preserve the fruit flavors of the grape.
As an analogy, everyone loves a sweet, ripe strawberry or plum, but when they get too ripe they taste mushy and flat. Without a little acidity, fruit does not have that fresh, just-stolen-from-the-tree flavor. The best jams and preserves depend on acidity to preserve that summery experience. Without some acidity, cellared wines simply turn to dust in the bottle. So a young red that tastes a little one-dimensional and sharp in its youth may become quite beautiful as it matures. But only personal experience will teach you your preferences and timing. (It helps to get your friends involved in wine as well, because then you can help them evaluate their older bottles.)
SO: After the movie Sideways came out, there seemed to be a backlash against drinking Merlot. Do you think Merlot is an inferior red wine?
MB: I think the backlash is pretty superficial actually, occurring among people who donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really purchase wine regularly, or who have not yet embraced the thrill of variety. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d say half of our customers eschew merlot (and probably would anyway), and half taste merlot out of contrarian curiosity because of the movie. (Those who were negatively influenced by the movie are obviously unaware of the inside jokeÃ¢â‚¬â€that MilesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ cherished bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc!)
Merlot is definitely not an inferior variety, but in its most elegant expressions it can be a somewhat austere, prim, yet voluptuously plummy wine that needs softening, like a beautiful and overlooked spinster.
Many Americans tend to gravitate toward wines with a distinctive, recognizable character, like the cherry/cinnamon/stone profile of cabernets, or the strong raspberry/peppercorn of zinfandels, or the blueberry/smoke/licorice profile of syrahs. By comparison, a merlot needs more study to recognize its finer qualities. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also unfortunate that many wineries treat merlot as a simple table wine, and are guilty of producing thin, cloyingly sweet, or acidic and one-dimensional versions.
SO: What are the five blogs everyone should be reading (besides your own)?
You can find Mary’s blog over here