A Wine Adventure
Kale is one of those lucky winemakers that enjoys the advantages of living in two worlds. With a solid gig at an established winery (Pahlmeyer), he can pursue commercial success in the safety of traditional expectations. On the flip side, he also manages a side project where he can experiment with his professional passion. I imagine this makes for a rather busy lifestyle…
Exploring the diversity in the world of wine is clearly his passion. Our conversation was dominated by his focus on:
- Investigating a broad array of wine styles.
- Understanding different varietals and the impact of various terroirs on each.
- Learning winemaking techniques that add interest to these elements.
I came away from the interview wanting to make wine myself, but then again, I am a tinkerer who loves wine too. I will need to catch-up with Kale again. I was too interested in his explorations and did not get a chance to discuss the industry and his more conventional endeavors.
Kale works hard to capture what the fruit offers in these wines. He also feels it is important to honor the Owner’s (Jayson Pahlmeyer) vision and respect the history and legacy of the label. Our discussion regarding white wines at Pahlmeyer took us down an interesting path. Kale is definitely working to create distinctive and diverse styles. Previously, as winemaker at Cliff Lede, his Sauvignon Blanc was fermented in stainless and cement and not always aged on the lees. He felt it was the right decision, based on the approach of the winery and the fruit. At Pahlmeyer, they are making 100% barrel fermented Chardonnay aged in 100% new oak. They use aggressive stirring of the lees during fermentation, age on the lees and even swap the lees across different batches, depending on the flavor character. They also include a secondary malolactic fermentation to soften the wine even further. The resulting wine is an opulent, rich, soft, textured Chardonnay. Kale prefers not to filter wines, if possible. Pahlmeyer produces roughly 15,000 cases of Napa origin and 7,000 cases of Sonoma origin wine.
He has two special projects with Kale Wines. Both mirror his adventurous side:
1) The Alder Springs Vineyard is at higher elevation in the cooler climate Mendocino area. Typically the type of location better suited to Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, but instead this area struck him as a great location to make Syrah. Production – roughly 150 cases annually.
If you are familiar with the Northern Rhone area of France, the setting for this vineyard will compare more closely with Cote-Rotie AOC, than Napa. Kale is looking for the Northern Rhone influence, but working to accent the style with winemaking techniques that can offer a fusion with the New World. Currently, he is using whole cluster fermentation to add a fruit-forward aspect. For those who have not experienced Cote-Rotie wines, a typical profile would be: lower alcohol, floral, rich black fruits, savory meat and olive tapenade with a heavy texture that can approach oily. The great Northern Rhones are spectacularly complex with a structure and balance that can rival great Bordeaux.
2) A warm-climate Southern Rhone style wine from Sonoma County? Not sure I have seen GSM (or the like) there. While Bordeaux, Burgundy and Puglia style wines predominate in the area, Kale found a location that he feels can support his vision: Kick Ranch Vineyard. Again, he is attempting to revise perception and convention. Production – roughly 200 cases annually.
Quality is difficult to achieve with a Southern Rhone style. It is a real fight to provide the right structure and balance. There are a few significant challenges:
- Finding the best vineyard location that offers warm to hot days, but also cool to cold nights.
- Controlling the canopy management (pruning strategy) to ensure just enough, but not too much sun.
- Managing the availability of water to the vines.
Warm-climate fruit typically has a big, soft character… and if you’re not careful, the end-result can be grape juice, instead of wine. This style in particular seems to require a winemaker actively working on the farm helping the vineyard manager to develop the right level of tannins and acidity. With the wrong fruit, this style requires manipulation and additives to make it more enjoyable.
Kale has signed contracts with both vineyards which will allow him more control and input into the canopy management and harvest strategy. Growers typically harvest fruit in a single pass, usually when brix (sugar level) is highest. In contrast, if a winery can harvest select rows, or blocks individually, or choose to pick one row early and another late, it will add substantially to the complexity and structure of the wine. Without this approach, it is very difficult to achieve a balanced wine in a warm-climate setting.
His favorite part of the job is the time in the vineyards… working with the vineyard managers to develop the right strategy to support Kale’s vision for the wines. He believes his greatest challenge is improving control of the process from the vineyard to the winery through to aging. Each vintage is his effort to leave a personal touch that defines the wine. The idea is to highlight characteristics that make the wines interesting and represent their place of origin. He is not looking to develop a “House”, or “Winemaker’s” style. Each vintage celebrates the diversity of each growing season and each label represents a range of character and profiles. In every instance, the only consistency is striving for structure and balance.
Kale’s approach to wine can be summed up in a single sentence… “In the case of every wine, I try to achieve the most interesting profile I can, in each style.” I look forward to future tastings, where my palate can enjoy a real adventure in wine, without leaving my seat!
A Pahlmeyer Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview
This wine was bottled before Kale became winemaker. I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:
2004 Pahlmeyer Winery Jayson Red Blend
California, Napa Valley
Wine Tasting Note:
Initial taste is hot and alcoholic, watery and missing fruit. After a 90 minute decant – the wine has evolved into a beautiful aged Cabernet Sauvignon blend. The alcohol has blown off, the tannins are soft and dusty and the blackberry and black currant is in front. A definite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience! This is the third 10-15 year-old premium Napa Cab I have tasted this year, and the experience has been similar. These older Napa cabs need time to open… The nose is still hot, but the fruit is prominent, with leather and loamy earth. The palate is fruit forward now, but is typical of an older wine: missing the fresh fruit, but not oxidized yet. The mid-palate has leather, oak, spice and earth with a medium-long finish of dark chocolate. The acidity is high and the tannins are very soft and subdued. The structure is solid, but the balance is a touch off. A few years earlier and the additional fruit might have offset the high acidity and alcohol. I found this enjoyable paired with a meat and cheese plate…
Had to add this postscript:
After 4 hour decant – Oh my gosh! The fruit is turning red and becoming sour raspberry. The tannins have completely resolved, but the wine is moving towards a velvet texture. The acidity has calmed down. A great example of a balanced profile. Just fantastic aged red wine! Is there enough fruit to put another 3-5 years of bottle age on this, I hope so… I have one last bottle…