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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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11.18.08

Q and A with Winemaker Steve Rogstad

Bites: News and Miscellany, Grape Pun: All Things Wine


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stever

Steve Rogstad is a winemaking wunderkind. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, the man knows a thing or two about the grape. What does come as a surprise however, is how charmingly different his demeanor is compared to the prissy wine snob we’ve all inevitably had the displeasure of dining with. His cool-dude ‘tude, rounded out by the funky tie-dye T-shirt he was sporting when we met, made this California native an enigmatic lunch companion. In town for Chicago’s Pinot Days event taking place on Navy Pier, Steve managed to squeeze in a few hours of his day to sit down with me and discuss his prized wines (Cuvaison wines), the effect media has on wine trends, and a discussion of the Pinot Days wine event in Chicago.

So you’re in town for the Pinot Days event. Tell me about the importance of highlighting this particular grape?

Pinot Noir tends to inspire passion in people. Pinot is one of the most versatile varieties out there; it’s far more versatile than a Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon). At Cuvaison, we’re not known for our Pinot. I’m very passionate about it and I’d like to increase the acreage and production of the wine. I’d like to familiarize people with our Pinot. It’s important to get our face out there as a Pinot producer and show the consumers that we make it. Ultimately, I’m trying to advance the cause of Pinot Noir.

What are your procedures when you travel to these different events? Do you have a separate agenda for marketing your wines to different customers, say restaurateurs?

Sometimes it’s really helpful to show wines to restaurants and sellers. That decision, of who to show though, is up to the heads of the wineries. They make up their minds about traveling and selling. Some wineries care more about the travel and the marketing then they do about actually being present on the vineyard and being apart of the growing process. Sometimes, we’ll do trade meals with eight or nine sommeliers from different locations and they get to taste our wines. It’s a way for me to repay the restaurateur by giving them different wines to try and different opportunities. I’m showing the wines to a bunch of people at once, and I can tell you that I’ve developed a big respect for salespeople.

What sparked your interest in winemaking?

I really got interested and took it seriously in Paris. I studied literature in college, and after I graduated I went to stay with a friend who had an apartment there. In Paris, they have big trade tastings where large-scale purveyors sell directly to Parisians. The way wine is sold and marketed there, it’s much more approachable and less intimidating then here in the states even. While they do have more rules and regulations, they have no idea what varieties they’re drinking; they drink by location instead.

Tell me about your wine studies?

I first heard about wine classes at U of C Davis (University of California, Davis) from a friend in eastern Washington. I moved to California, went to Davis, and met the professors. It was essentially a biochemistry program, and I was working part-time the whole way through. The university has a pilot winery program and they encourage you to take time off work to study there. It’s kinda funny; once I got interested in wine, I wanted to make it, whereas most people want to possibly be a sommelier. All my sommelier friends are jealous I get to taste wines directly out of the barrel. You get a much deeper knowledge of your particular region and varietal.

What prepared you most for entering the world of winemaking?

While I was at Davis, I did my first internship at Cakebread Cellars. After that, I applied for and got accepted into an internship in Beaujolais, where I got to do yeast experimentations. I worked with a new strand of yeast in a six-month industry trial, which was very exciting. After coming back to California, my schedule allowed for me to do an internship at my friend’s winery in central New Zealand. That’s a little pocket of the world that’s gotten a reputation for Pinot. This set me up to be a winemaker eventually. You’ve learned all the theory at this point, but you haven’t done the real thing; you haven’t run a winery.

How did you climb up the career ladder to get to where you are today as winemaker at Cuvaison?

After graduating, I first got a job at a winery where I did the laboratory and enology part. At a smaller winery, you get a fuller picture of the whole process. I did that for a few years, and then became an assistant winemaker. Most serious winemakers work collaboratively with their growers so they know what they’re using and what they’re going to make. My role now is in overseeing the vineyards and the winemaking. I’ve been doing that for seven vintages now- we think in vintages. Just like some chefs want to open their own restaurant, some winemakers want to open their own vineyard. But in my case, I don’t own Cuvaison.
Cuvaison is located in Carneros, in northern California.

What is the vineyard history?

Cuvaison has been around since 1969, when it had 19 wineries. It was started by two Silicon Valley locals who thought it’d be a fun idea to make their own wine. Well they ended up selling their property to Thomas Schmidt from Switzerland. Cuvaison shifted with this Carneros winery purchase. The terroir is well suited for Chardonnay, which is the main wine we make, followed by Pinot Noir. In 2000, we started growing grapes in single blocks, which made it much easier and more manageable to grow and cultivate. Our Chardonnay is 50 blocks, small clusters of tiny berries, which concentrates the fruit flavor and showcases the spice. Carneros was also the first place to make Pinot stateside in the ’50’s. Ever since French Champagne houses bought properties in Carneros to make sparkling wine, it changed the profile of wines coming out of the region and it changed peoples’ perspective.

What is the growing region like? Any weather obstacles?

The central valley of California gets very hot and it sucks the air through the golden gate bay area and over Carneros. This makes for a really long growing season, much longer than in France, where the season peaks for a short period and then falls off. When rain falls during our growing season, like it has recently, people freak out- we’re not used to it. This made for early budding, which was then followed by really cold weather for two months. There were 3 nights where we had to protect the vines from the frost. The winters have also been a little warmer. We’ve all ready provided grants to scientists to predict the long-term effect of global warming.

You’ve been to many wine events and conventions all over the world. There’s one, however, that is not open to the public and is exclusive to winemakers. Tell me about the Steamboat convention in Oregon.

The Steamboat convention I’ve done many times. It’s an annual Pinot event that’s been happening for 20, 30 years. It’s a four-day event that started with guys from Oregon and California who wanted to get together, taste wines, and act as a self-help group. The idea behind it is to remove winemakers from their homes and bring them together to help each other. They tried it one year outside of Steamboat, in California, but it didn’t work. They wanted to keep it in Oregon where it was more secluded and no cell phone reception. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s very serious. Each day, we’re tasting blind from eight in the morning until three that afternoon.

You became the winemaker of Brandlin Vineyard, a mountainous offshoot of Carneros along Mt. Vedeer. What has the experience been like for you these past few years upon inheriting this family estate and being the only one to produce wines from there?

Chester Brandlin agreed to sell the winery to my predecessor, John Thatcher, because of his old age. I was driving through the winery one day at work and John (Thatcher) called me. He said, after 25 years, he was gonna be leaving Brandlin. Because of my history making wine in Carneros, they called me. I got to build a new winery and develop his property. It was a pretty great opportunity for me. I’ve been the only one since then to make wines off that property, and it works for me too cause I can ride my bike to work.

In working with Pinot Noir and seeing the popularity effects the movie Sideways had on the wine, do you feel the media plays a major role in wine trends?

People once used to get geeked out in specifics of what people thought of wine from the media. Before Sideways came out, there was a sea of mediocre Merlot, just getting pushed out there. That line, “no more fucking Merlot,” really resonated from the movie, but the grape didn’t suffer too much. The media made it safe for people to buy Pinot. It used to be it wasn’t “safe” for men to order it, and it would definitely not have had its own page on a wine menu.

One Comment on "Q and A with Winemaker Steve Rogstad"

marshall guerra

Went to Couvaison over the summer. Loved the wines. Great Sauvignon Blanc.



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