Winemaking: a Lifestyle, or a Profession?
Spending a brief hour with Todd Anderson introduces you to a world that spans decades of Napa Valley winemaking history, introduces you to big personalities, samples a unique view of the industry and paints the Napa wine scene with the broadest of brush strokes. This interview produced so much material, I found it challenging to capture in one piece.
World from Todd’s Window
Todd relishes his reputation as an industry “bad boy” and fashions an anti-hero image in a world of successful traditionalists. He shrugs off the big money and stiff, formal world of European influenced wine culture and views himself as the ambassador to the every-man… spreading the idea that wine can lead to a richer, fuller life. In Todd’s world, life is all about good food and wine, sharing it with good people and enjoying the lifestyle that accompanies it. Grasping how this view affects his perception of the industry is a key to understanding him. He is a complete contradiction, as he maintains an unpretentious, down-to-earth persona amidst the culture of big-money clients… tagging along to share his “wine provides the best life has to offer” experience. Todd has taken up the gauntlet, determined to convince the average wine drinker to justify a personal wine cellar and teaching them how to build it… with the idea that wine can add fun to your life until the day you die. You don’t hear the word “fun” very often associated with wine. I thought it was an interesting choice of words.
Todd was introduced to fine wine by his father, learning to appreciate Bordeaux and Burgundy from his collection. Although he developed a palate for these wines during his younger years, it didn’t occur to him that it could be a profession until much later. He began his career out of college as a trained geologist working in oil and gas exploration. After being promoted to a desk position, he found himself longing for the outdoors and the idea of farming occurred to him. He had grown up on a farm and understood the profession and the lifestyle. So, finding 40 acres of prime Napa Valley land 32 years ago, Todd took the plunge. With a 7 year interest only loan, he planted vines and started growing wine grapes, planning to farm only. As the vineyard matured, he made the decision to produce wine and fortunately, his first Cabernet Sauvignon release was a critical and financial success. As the financial pressures began to ease, he began to hit his stride.
Early Napa Years
According to Todd, those early years were the golden age of Napa winemakers. The big growth in U.S. wine consumption and Napa’s quality reputation was just building. Many of these wine personalities are considered iconic today, but during this earlier period, they were just fellow winemakers building the Napa brand. Todd reached out to many of the early Napa winemakers for advice, crediting Robert Mondavi with a major role in his development. In those early days, Napa had not yet found its soul and most winemakers were imitating the best practices from Bordeaux, France. Todd felt the Napa wines produced back then were more austere, lower in alcohol and the fruit was consistently harvested (in his words) “under-ripe”. He made the decision to ignore these French sensibilities and credits himself with being one of the first few to start embracing the big extracted fruit, high alcohol Napa style that has become typical of California. We discussed Robert Parker championing this style and how a few early Napa winemakers and a single critic succeeded in changing the wine world forever…
As a geologist, Todd’s first approach was to evaluate the soil and determine the effect on the vines at root level. He found his acreage to have roughly 5 different soil types. This led to the planning for five separate vineyard blocks. As he experimented with the vines, he developed the optimum trellising strategies and vine orientation (to the sun), while choosing the appropriate dry-farming versus irrigation approach needed for each block to produce premium fruit. Later he came to understand, vineyard management was only one piece of the puzzle to producing premium wines.
Todd’s description of winemaking reminds you of a conversation with a race car driver, or pro hockey player – literally, whatever it takes. I had a difficult time accepting this thinking initially. Modern wine training walks you through a kind of formula, based on historical evidence and the wine chemistry being taught in recent years at UC Davis. Todd’s approach had me thinking back to my training quite a bit. I came to understand his view: producing the best quality in any industry will eventually be recognized. Todd has a personal philosophy about life he calls the 50-40-10 rule: 50% of people are happy skating through life, 40% are satisfied with no personal motivation… it is the final 10% that are driven to succeed. The commitment to competition with that 10% is what generates success. This attitude requires constant experimentation and examination, searching for strategies and techniques that produce superior quality. He feels the flavor profile of any vintage can be adjusted through vineyard block blending and winemaker manipulation. This winemaker-centric view of wine production focuses on the winemaker’s experience and knowledge as the key to understanding how to produce the balance, structure and mouth-feel consistent with a superior final product. Todd spends very little time in the lab, although he admits to doing some testing, he says it rarely dominates his decision making. He never makes the harvest timing decision solely based on brix, or acidity level. He sets wine conventions on its ear by harvesting at pH levels of 4.0, or higher in some years. Extremes (low, or high) don’t faze him, if he can taste the potential for balancing the fruit extraction, acidity, alcohol and texture in the final product. Todd attributes two secrets to the success of the ACVV and Ghost Horse labels:
- He is always tasting… from harvest to barrel aging. That is, tasting with the experience and knowledge to work with each vintage, making the right decisions at each step along the way…
- The key to a successful wine is focusing on mouth-feel.
I would agree that industry standards for lab data as a justification for harvest timing too narrowly confines the wine style of the finished product. Taste a vertical of Anderson’s Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. You will experience this philosophy in action. When I asked Todd about the importance of allowing vintage variation in the wine, he said it is only important in how it impacts the winemaking decisions that follow. This led to the topic of the much-maligned 2011 Napa Valley Vintage and a surprising discussion…
Todd’s description of his experiences with the 3-Tier Wine Distribution System in the U.S. amazed me once again. The extent to which our politicians feel the need to interfere with wine and beer sales is hard to fathom. 2011 as a cooler year in Napa, produced a difficult vintage and horrible press. The critics were all publishing “no buy” recommendations for 2011 Napa Wines and driving weak demand in the marketplace. As a result, spirits wholesalers with exclusive contracts to distribute ACVV wines to specific regions (by state statute) were passing on the 2011 Napa vintage, but would not allow the sale of product through alternative distribution partners. How do you run a business when an entire year’s inventory is sitting in storage? I understand that demand drives our economy, but for a winery, survival depends on customer loyalty to work through these more difficult years. 2006 in Napa was characterized as another poor vintage year by the critics and I loved many of the wines produced that vintage… if the winemaker was willing to adjust their style and work with what the fruit could provide. I have tasted many lighter, elegant and silky textured wines from that vintage – Ladera’s Cabernet Sauvignon from 2006 comes to mind. Unfortunately, I have not tasted ACVV wines from 2006… This whole discussion leads to the importance of the Direct to Consumer (DtC) Channel for many wineries. Wine clubs and email lists are the life blood of wineries selling in this $50 – $100 per bottle range. One of the important benefits of the DtC channel is the loyalty and personal investment in the brand these customers tend to have. If the 3-Tier System does not change, Todd may be forced to distribute all his wine via the DtC channel someday. I would guess many other wineries are facing a similar decision…
Another of Todd’s passions is the super-premium category. He felt the need to prove that he could succeed in this top-end price range. For many years, he disagreed with the “old guard” in the Valley regarding accessibility to these “cult” wines by the public. He was of the opinion that these producers did no service to the Napa Valley area wine community. While the exclusive nature of these wines is understood and all are on supply allocation at a cost that is prohibitive for most… he believes the public should still be able to taste them on-premises. This viewpoint eventually gave rise to the motivation for establishing the super-premium Ghost Horse label. Its success was a surprise for many in the industry, but for Todd, he never had a doubt.
This idea of public accessibility to super-premium wines pushed our conversation to the wine bar business model. His frustration with this segment of the industry was very evident. How can the industry graduate mid-tier buyers to the premium wine category, if these wines are not available to taste? I agree whole-heartedly. If I could taste Sassicaia, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Harlan Estate, etc. at $50 – $100 for a 2 oz. pour… I would do it on special occasions and I think many others would too. The misguided idea that wine bars and restaurants need to cover their bottle cost with the first glass is idiotic… It was then that I brought up the Coravin. Todd says ACVV was one of the first wineries Coravin approached to test the device. We both agreed, the Coravin solution should be changing the wine service industry and were perplexed by the slow adoption.
Todd is all about people and the wine experience. He does not just make wine, he lives the wine lifestyle. He enjoys making friends and opening his world to different experiences and ideas and of course, all of this is enhanced by the shared enjoyment of wine. He offered an impassioned justification for spending a percentage of income on wine and the importance of buying at least a ½ case at each purchase (sampling as it ages). He then stepped up the intensity a notch and spoke of the life-changing affect a well-stocked cellar can have on quality of life. I have to admit, this guy is a very effective spokesman for the wine lifestyle.
He enjoys travel promoting his wines and meeting people at the winery. Todd insists wine tasting appointments at the estate be friendly, welcoming and make wine accessible to the general public. He has had visitors cancel their plans and spend the day at the winery, getting caught up in this “life is better with wine” experience. Having been to one of these tastings, I highly recommend a visit. It is well worth your time. The wine is very good AND Todd is an interesting fellow. If you enjoy Todd’s approach, he recommends David Arthur Vineyards as another winery in Napa Valley that embraces a similar approach to the public.
Reputation to Uphold
He admits to playing up the reputation a bit, but mostly this is just who he is. The flamboyant style is enhanced by his big toys inclination, the car racing and penchant for long hours of partying. In fact, he touched on an obscure group of winery owners that decided to drop out of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, because it promoted exclusivity and a high-brow image. They call the group GONAD, an acronym for the “Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory”. One day soon, I need to do more research on this group (future piece?). Drop GONAD into Google and you will get a few tid-bits… Todd has a high regard for this rebel cause and frowns on the stuffy, French aspirations of many of the producers in the valley. Providing a relaxed, unique wine experience is his goal at the winery and is also his view of the American Wine Experience. He absolutely loves the fact that his name has been the title of some of the longest running threads appearing on Robert Parker’s bulletin board.
There was more. I didn’t dip into the stories much… One day, I will have to sit with Todd, sample his wines, discuss more of his past and explore his passion for wine in greater depth. Todd, keep up the good fight! Someone should be changing the perception of wine in the U.S. – wine is NOT only for special occasions and formal dinners!
P.S. – As I do more of these interviews, I have come to learn, it is the people who market wine that create the aura surrounding the product. Many winemakers in Napa are also growers and ultimately farmers at heart: down-to-earth people missing the pretentiousness of the service side of the industry. I really enjoy these people and look forward to meeting many more!
An Anderson’s Conn Valley Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview
I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:
2007 Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
California, Napa Valley
Wine Tasting Note:
Drank over a four hour decant. Nose after pour was full of menthol and alcohol that almost masked the other more subtle notes of black plum, currant and tobacco. The acidity was very high… a definite food wine, needing the accompaniment of red meat, or ribs. The texture filled the mouth with chewy tannins that were soft, but a touch rustic. The wine was definitely a good candidate for an extended decant. After one hour, it was still showing big alcohol and menthol – overpowering a black cherry and raspberry palate peaking through. After three hours, the alcohol had blown off and subtler notes appeared. The fruit had moved forward and the plum and currant were now dominating. The menthol became just a subtle after-taste. The mid-palate was full of tobacco moving to a long finish of dark chocolate that was a touch bitter and lasted forever… This was a premium Napa Cabernet showing its chops. For those that love the Napa Cab experience, this is an excellent example of one of the best. Another 1-2 years in the bottle and this wine will be hitting its peak. A suggested optimum drinking window: 2016-2018.