The process is actually very simple: pick a great vineyard and stay out of its way. That’s why I don’t call myself a winemaker, but, sort of tongue-in-cheek, a “Fermentation Facilitator”. It’s my job to provide stellar grapes with an optimum environment in which to shine, and nothing more. This is not to say that I am strictly a “no intervention” winemaker. Quite the contrary. Winemaking, to me, is understanding a vineyard or appellation, and making key, but subtle, adjustments that help to accent the best qualities of that particular fruit so the vineyard can shine through the wine.
I source fruit from classic, interesting, sought-after vineyards, because I tend to shoot for more delicate, restrained wines in the end. I like to let the vineyard, the weather and the grapes dictate the process to me, not vice-versa, so my winemaking process is a fluid one, adapting to seasonal changes in order to let the wine express the characteristics of that particular season. I have no desire whatsoever to make the same wine year after year. Because of this, in cool years the wines will showcase austerity and acid. In hot years, they’ll be bigger and more fruit-forward, and so forth.
I’m a fan of character. I like earthtones. I like unique, multidimensional.
Fruit is handpicked in these here hills. The only tractor you will see at Split Rail vineyard is being driven by a retired farmer, who calls it his diesel rocking chair. And he’s just drinking wine on the thing and delivering grape bins to the flatbed.
I like to whole cluster press my chardonnay, and I always ferment it in barrels, where it will stay on its lees until it’s happy. I destem my pinot 80-100% most years, but sometimes in Corralitos and Bonny Doon we get to harvest in late October or early November and we have nice, lignified stems that allow for a whole cluster fermentation, to some extent.
I’m a fan of letting native yeast from the vineyard ferment my pinot noir. That’s not to say that all my wines are native yeast wines, but I do tend to incorporate native fermentation into the process whenever possible, alongside some go-to Burgundy yeast strains. Some bins I ferment native, others with a particular Burgundy isolate, and others with another Burgundy yeast… often blending all of them in the end, prior to bottling. I typically ferment in small half-ton bins or 1 ton Macrobin 48s after a brief cold soak, with hand punch downs performed only a couple of times per day. I’m not trying to extract too much color from the skins. I don’t care if the pinot is light-colored. Burgundy usually is.
Like my yeasts, I like to layer up my coopers for pinot noir, using French and Hungarian oak from several different coopers and with varying toast levels, to enhance pinot noir’s characteristic complexity of bouquet and flavor. I cut no corners when it comes to barrels. The barrel’s job is to accentuate and/or tame the intensity of character we find in Santa Cruz Mountains fruit, while my job is keeping a vigilant eye on delicacy so as not to over-oak the wine. How? Well… I taste it constantly. Bummer, right? Tough job, but someone has to do it. The minute I see the oak in-balance with the fruit, the wine is bottled either unfiltered or only coarsely filtered.
I’m not a fan of overblown, flabby, oaky chardonnay. I’m also not completely in the “more is better” camp when it comes to acid. With chardonnay, “more is better” can apply to virtually no aspect of the wine. Balance. I feel that chardonnay was meant to have some measure of oak in it, in most cases. The right amount of French oak accents the acid backbone and softens the acidic edges so you can really taste the wine’s mineral/acid core. Think of French oak in Chardonnay as a key that unlocks the door to new flavors. In some years, when acids are off the charts, I bring in a bit more French oak. In others, I tone it way back. The goal is to keep the core intact. Yet, to showcase the difference a bit of oak makes (and to appease the acid-lovers out there), we do have some fun making our TANK’D® unoaked chardonnay each year…
Still with me? Made it all the way to the end of this? Congratulations– go pop a cork, turn on some good acoustic music and savor the moment.
Thanks for caring.
John Benedetti, owner and “Fermentation Facilitator”