Tag Archives: Vinification

Winemaker Interview – Bill Nancarrow of Goosecross Cellars

Winemaker’s Toolbox – Blending


When you talk with winemakers regularly as I do, you begin to expect being regaled about a passionate connection to wine and the industry. Bill takes you down a different path, focusing on the process and science of wine.  He dives right into conversation regarding the chemistry as if it were the only approach to winemaking.  In our conversation, we touched on building premium wines, his formative years in New Zealand and moving from his legacy at Duckhorn, to his future at Goosecross Cellars.

Before Duckhorn

Bill was raised in New Zealand and his early years were far from the wine scene.  He chose Hospitality and Resort Management as a career.  The training included an introduction to Wine and Culinary Program Management, his first exposure to the wine industry.  During his travels in South Africa, wine continued to intrigue him.  Upon returning, he was introduced to Nick Sage (currently with Eastern Institute of Technology Wine and Spirits) and Kate Radburnd (winemaker CJ Pask Winery) and their influence moved him to a full commitment to wine as a career. He worked with Kate at CJ Pask for five years learning the craft.  CJ Pask is in the Hawkes Bay region and focuses on Syrah and Merlot. New Zealand is well known around the world for quality Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but Hawkes Bay has a long tradition with warmer climate varietals.  Bill eventually made the decision to come to Napa and expand his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals.  He joined Duckhorn and soon became winemaker for their new label at the time: Paraduxx.

Duckhorn Vineyards

Bill’s experience at Duckhorn was steeped in the tradition associated with the brand.  Tom Rinaldi was the founding winemaker and had a significant influence, sharing and handing-off his passion for structured U.S. Merlot in an Old-World style.  We also discussed the style of Chardonnay at Duckhorn: acidic, minimum of oak, aggressive stirring of the lees and never a secondary Malolactic Fermentation.  A very specific style aimed at being fresh, with a bite and a rounder mouth-feel.  Bill was later promoted to Executive Winemaker and found his responsibilities were taking him too far afield from the winemaking itself.  The role included added travel and took him away from his young family too frequently.  He soon came to realize, this career direction was not a good fit.


Every discussion with a Merlot producer, eventually winds its way to the movie Sideways.  With Bill having been so connected to premium Napa Merlot for so many years, it was inevitable:

The Wine DOCG – “So, Bill why do you think there is so much lousy Merlot made in the U.S.?

Bill – “Merlot has been so over-planted in the U.S. in the last decade, that vines were turning up in horribly unsuitable locations.  I think Sideways had a positive effect on Merlot production.  The change in demand resulting from the impact of the movie led directly to vineyards in poor locations being removed and re-planted with more suitable varietals.”

I have heard this line of reasoning before.  Makes sense from the big picture perspective, but if you were a premium Merlot fan, it appeared tragic… For me it manifested in a personal cause never to accept the comment, “but, I don’t like Merlot!”  I have converted many a “Merlot hater” over the years.  Recent figures from the U.S. International Trade Organization show that 9% of all wine sold in the U.S. is still Merlot and it is the 4th most sold wine in the U.S.  This is down substantially from 16% in its heyday.  I still believe there is too much Merlot grown in locations like the Central California inland valleys and made into inexpensive red wine. Personally, I am a big fan of wine made from Merlot grown in the mountains above the Napa Valley floor.  If you love big, bold Merlot look to the Howell and Spring Mountain areas.

On Winemaking

In my experience, Bill is a departure from most New World winemakers.  He talks like a Bordeaux wonk: “Flavors look out for themselves in wine” and “focus on the structure”.   I can really connect with his point of view. In a warmer (getting warmer too) climate growing area like Napa, the fruit is going to be ripe and intensely fruity, but structure is not always easy to find.  No purist winemaker wants to add acid, or ferment reds with a large quantity of stems to get tannins…  If you focus on structure first in Napa, the flavors are more likely to follow on their own.  Although Bill feels Oak is important to “rounding-out” a wine, he tries to stay away from too much new American Oak and is not a fan of over-oaked whites, OR reds.

I like his thinking on a common wine style controversy: “Drink Now” vs. “For Bottle Aging”.  It is very difficult to make wines that can succeed at being both.  Bill firmly believes it is better to make the two different styles separately, rather than make a single wine capable of both.  This kind of approach can produce more consistency year over year.  Especially, when considering how vintage variation can effect wine style.

 On Blending

In Bill’s view, vineyard designate wines can be somewhat problematic.  They can be very singular in their approach, missing the complexity of blended wines.  We talked about same varietal blending across vineyards and across individual blocks.  We also touched on varietal blending to add complexity.  You can hear the conviction in his voice during this discussion.  It is obvious this is his element.  When I asked him about his favorite activity as a winemaker, he answered immediately:  “in the winery, making the wine and blending for flavors/aromas.”   He says, he still has not made the “perfect wine” and it drives him to continue searching, experimenting and blending to achieve his goal.

 On Terroir

With a more scientific approach to wine, it was not a surprise to hear a more objective approach to the mystical French idea of terroir.  When posed with the question… after a pause, he noted, “There are probably no flavors imparted by soil in the vineyards.  The climate, environment and access to water are more likely to be important factors.”  I agree.  The supposed controversy surrounding terroir’s impact on the character of wine is ridiculous.  Terroir by definition is not just about soil, it is the complete vineyard environment defining the conditions under which the vine grows and ripens fruit.  There is too much empirical evidence supporting the specific influences to take the naysayers seriously.

 Goosecross Cellars

The winery was sold earlier this year to Christi Coors (Golden Equity Investments -no, not Coors Brewing Company) and the winery began looking for a Head Winemaker. Bill was soon selected as a great fit for the new ownership. Geoff Gorsuch one of the previous Owners and Winemaker for the past 28 years and Colleen Topper (Tasting Room Manager) will stay on for the first year, providing some continuity.

“A “house style” (style of wine a label is known for) can be a goal, to a degree, but not so much that it drives extensive winemaker manipulation, especially to mask vintage variation.  Wines must be allowed to express where they are from “, according to Bill.  “Manipulated wine can be too generic”… never the goal of a premium wine. Goosecross has 9 acres of estate vineyards off State Lane in Napa Valley and Bill is looking forward to capturing the location in the wines.  The soil is rocky and the terrain is hilly, creating micro-climates that can cause variation in the fruit profile.  He believes this area East of the river produces Cabernet Sauvignon with blueberry and/or violet aromas.  A unique characteristic compared to the balance of the valley floor.  We also talked about fighting the urge to make generic Chardonnay.  It sells well, but is missing any uniquely recognizable character. He prefers the very acidic, less manipulated style, which pairs well with richer foods.

Goosecross sales currently are 100% direct to consumer, but there is a plan to introduce a new label next year that will be intended entirely for the distribution channel, focused primarily on the restaurant trade.

 The Future

You can hear the energy in his voice when he talks about the future at Goosecross.  It seems Bill is excited about the challenge and ready for the opportunity to put his stamp on future vintages.  Good luck and I look forward to tasting your new wines!


Please note, while Bill spent many years with Duckhorn, he was not the winemaker in 1999 when this wine was bottled.



1999 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard

California, Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

After One Hour Decant

The alcohol is blowing off now. The nose is of black plum and blackberry, with a spicy cinnamon and clove character. Rather simple on the palate. The fruit is subdued, but in front still, with a mid-palate of powerful clove. The medium length finish is a mild, bitter dark chocolate. The bitterness becomes sour at the very end. The tannins are still present, but minimal and the acidity is still medium high. I was disappointed by the texture. The mouth-feel was a touch watery. This is a few years past its prime, but is not tasting oxidized yet. Still enjoyable and will definitely pair well with the beef that will be accompanying it.

After Two Hours Decant

The wine is still changing. The fruit is continuing to subside on the palate, but the flavor of sour strawberry is beginning to appear. The texture is continuing to evolve. The finish is lengthening and adding black pepper. The tannins are now a bit chewy. The acidity is becoming more prominent and the mouth-feel is building softness. Patience is paying off and the potential of this wine is starting to show. Amazing that a 15 year old bottle of wine can continue to evolve for two hours in the decanter!


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Winemaker Interview – Jim Duane of Seavey Vineyards

Wine – Liquid Sunshine


Napa Estate Wineries Along the Mountain Roads

After 20 years of my wife and I working our way through the 600+ wineries in Napa Valley, we have learned a thing, or two. One of those hard-earned gems is: if you want to find consistently big, complex Cabernet Sauvignon, follow the Napa mountain roads. While the valley floor locations like the Rutherford and Stags Leap areas (AVA’s) produce great cabs too, the most structured wines with highly concentrated flavor profiles are found along the roads to the top of these mountains: Veeder, Spring, Howell, Diamond and Atlas. Our original Seavey Vineyards visit was while on one of these mountain journeys up to Howell Mountain.

Hillside Vineyards

I ran into Seavey wines about five years ago through the purchase of their 2000 vintage Signature Cab from an online retailer. I mention the source in passing, to highlight the additional avenues available for discovery of great wines. When you understand your palate well enough to purchase wine without tasting, sources such as online retailers, flash sites, brokers, and auctions become very viable options. Follow this link for more info on the topic: “What a Waste of Wine & Money?” When you are able to identify and clearly describe wine characteristics you enjoy, it becomes easier to choose wines from critics’ notes and reviews. These hillside locations produce a fruit flavor profile that seems to be a good match for me and it may be for you too. The vineyards are planted on very poor soils, making the vines work very hard to ripen the fruit. The result tends to be highly concentrated flavors.

The Experience

Wines seem to be catalogued in my brain based on memory of place and experience. I enjoy this quirky aspect. When visiting wineries, this idea brings me closer to the whole wine concept of terroir and helps me think of each wine as a living thing with its own evolution. Understanding the “feel” of an estate winery is important, if you want your tasting experience to be memorable. Your first impression at Seavey provides a welcoming atmosphere of farm animals and dogs with beautiful vineyards as a backdrop. The world just seems a little slower here. The employees you meet are relaxed and welcoming. This is quite different from the busy, large production wineries on the Napa Valley floor. The second you drive up, you get that family winery feel. Appointments are necessary, but anyone can call to join them for a paid tasting and potentially get a chance to meet Jim, or Art & Dorie – one of the current second generations owners.


The founders of the winery and first owners were Bill and Mary Seavey. The original vision for this property purchased some 30 years ago was to create a semi-retirement ranch/farm escape destination. Bill was a corporate lawyer out of San Francisco looking to slow down. Having done some legal work for a local Napa winery, he arrived at the idea of purchasing some land in a scenic spot where they could raise a few animals and grow wine grapes. When you visit the property now, it still reflects some of that original founding idea. This is a very down-to-earth organization, at a very rustic and scenic site.

Quality vs. Quantity

Seavey produces less than 5,000 cases of wine per year. Tiny production compared to the big brands, but in the world of commercial wineries, this means an opportunity to focus on premium quality. When the focus is not on vineyard yield and volume of wine produced, each vintage can dictate its own best vineyard management and harvest strategy. This allows Jim to follow his passion… focus on the vineyards, improve the quality of the fruit and help nurture the wine to express not only location, but also reflect the quintessential, big Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon the winery is known for.


Jim and I had an opportunity to discuss winemaking, the winery and his life recently and this is the story.

Jim’s Background Before Seavey

Jim is one of those lucky people who had a pretty clear picture of where he was headed at an early age. Growing up in Utah, he was exposed to an outdoor lifestyle and was taken by it. So, when his father encouraged him to follow his passion, it moved him toward a profession that would allow him to work outdoors. His love of plants and botany then led him to a BS in Biology from Gonzaga. The undergrad years had him immersed in a party lifestyle and experimenting first with brewing his own beer and then later homemade wine. Conveniently, this pursuit also seemed to be of great interest to the women in his life at the time. It offered plenty of motivation to continue exploring winemaking as a profession. It was during these years, that Jim also came to realize winemaking could offer him the path to the outdoor life he coveted.

After graduating, he escaped for a few years, enjoying some youthful adventure working in the vineyards down-under in New Zealand – before returning to buckle-down and complete his degree in Viticulture and Oenology at UC Davis. Jim credits Alan Tenscher (winemaker at Franciscan) as being his first real inspiration and mentor.  His time spent assisting Alan with research on Pierce’s Disease was where he found his passion for vineyard management. Jim spent his winemaking internship at Robert Mondavi and then a lengthy apprenticeship at Stags Leap Cellars, before accepting the position as head winemaker at Seavey.

Winemaking Style

Seavey has been producing big, bold Napa cabs since their first vintage exactly 25 years ago. Jim joined the team as Head Winemaker in 2011 and has been committed to maintaining that reputation with a very specific eye on improving quality through improved vineyard management. Personally, I am a big fan of this kind of thinking. Jim is constantly tinkering with ideas to improve fruit quality. His current focus is canopy management. Pruning each individual vine to achieve just the right amount of leaf structure to shade the grape clusters. This is labor intensive, time-consuming work and one of Jim’s favorite activities at the winery. Jim’s fanatic attention to perfect sunlight conditions for each block of vines is what ensures the proper ripening of the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit and the development of varietally correct flavors. This is the same idea that led Galileo to coin his famous phrase 500 years ago: “Wine is sunlight held together by water” – or the similar title of this piece: Wine – Liquid Sunshine.  Managing the leaf canopy differently in cooler, or more shaded areas and consequently adjusting harvest time for individual vineyard blocks can be a powerful tool in developing varied flavor profiles in the fruit. A similar diversity in flavors can also be achieved by managing the canopy differently in vineyard blocks with poorer soils, or those with varying water availability. Blending the fruit and/or wine made from different blocks can add complexity, but equally as important, it can also allow a more consistent profile from vintage to vintage. This technique can allow the winemaker to develop a “house style” for the winery by identifying individual characteristics of each block and blending the fruit each year to achieve the complexity and structure required. Seavey has 19 different blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, all in varying growing conditions. Some wineries that perform this kind of block blending will call the resulting wines a “cuvee”. This is a departure from the “vineyard designate” philosophy that other wineries may employ.

Jim works hard to coax more concentration out of the fruit. When you are making a wine intended for bottle aging, one of the challenges is to create a fruit profile that can balance the high acidity and tannins needed for that kind of structure. Personally, I prefer wines where the winemaker pays special attention to texture during the “building” of a wine profile. Tannins can present in coarse, or fine profiles and have a big  impact on whether a wine has the potential to be either velvety, or silky in texture as the tannins resolve in the bottle. I really appreciate that Jim has this in mind and is shooting for a “milk chocolate” consistency.  According to Jim, Seavey is producing wines that should achieve their best presentation when bottle aged for 10 years, or more. Jim works with the well-known winemaker Philippe Melka as a consultant to the winery.

Marketing & Sales

Marketing is critical for small family wineries. When like Seavey, 80% of your sales are direct-to-consumer (source – Jim Duane), finding your audience is critical to success. Some small wineries struggle with this effort. Seavey was fortunate enough to be one of the early small production Napa producers, building a following with early big scores from Robert Parker, Jr. Although, today’s Napa has twice the competition compared to those early days and it has become even more important to understand the demand and continue to tailor product to capture it. Many wineries succumb to the allure of “popularizing” their flavor profile to improve marketability. Most that make that decision, do not succeed in changing their identity. Seavey has done a good job of understanding their core customer, but it will be important for them to stay in touch… 25 years of making wine represents generational changes and feedback will become more important than ever.


A Seavey Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

Caravina is Seavey’s second label. Intended to be somewhat more fruit forward, but still structured for aging. This wine was bottled before Jim became winemaker. I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:


 2006 Seavey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Caravina

California, Napa Valley

 Wine Tasting Note:

This is a monster cab. If you are a big Robert Parker fan, this is his kind of wine. Initially, the nose was hot and a bit funky with a very closed flavor profile. For an 8-year-old cab, this wine is STILL drinking very young. After 3 hour decant… Much of the alcohol has blown off now, but is still present. The nose has plum, blackberry, a touch of herbaceousness and menthol. It has a very complex palate of typical Cabernet Sauvignon flavors – black fruit, leather, tar, graphite, dark chocolate and oak. The wine shows a very long bitter chocolate finish. The age has resolved the tannins somewhat and they are now medium-high, but still a bit grainy. The wine is very acidic and would be best drunk accompanying a rare steak. The texture is full, fleshy and soft. This needs more time in the bottle to come together. I am looking forward to popping the next bottle after several more years. This wine has plenty of structure to hold up into the next decade. A suggested prime drinking window might be 2017-2020.

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Filed under California, Napa Valley, Winemaker Interview