Serious Eats: Drinks
In the Winery with Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards, Paso Robles, CA
Editor's Note: Anthony Yount, the winemaker at Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles, is only 25 years old. But he's crafting exceptional wines from the sustainably farmed grapes grown on the Denner estate in the Templeton Gap. On a recent press trip to Paso Robles, I had the chance to meet Anthony and taste some samples from the barrels that he'll blend to make this year's wines. Here's a bit of our conversation (with my impressions of the wine at the end.)
When did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?
I can't say there was one particular moment when I knew, but I can say it was one driving factor: there are very few jobs that allow one to drink beer at work, and winemaking is one of them. I suppose the event that really drove it home for me was working my first harvest. The long hours, dirty tasks, and camaraderie create a perfect storm for me. On bad days I constantly remind myself "The absolute worst day I can have in the cellar or vineyard is still much better than the best I can have in a cubicle."
A lot of people still haven't heard of Paso Robles; or if they have, they don't really know what the Paso winemakers are up to. What do you think people don't realize about the region?
I think most people still feel that Paso is a bunch of hillbillies making wine. In reality, most of the winemakers who excel here are truly visionaries pushing the limits of how wine can be made. Even though most of us still dress like hillbillies.
At Denner, you sell 90% of your wine directly through the tasting room and wine club. Does that allow you to make a different type of wine than if you were selling most of your bottles into national distribution?
Yes, I think this affords me greater flexibility in winemaking than selling exclusively through distribution. When wines are sold through distributors, the people making the immediate purchasing decisions are neither the end consumer nor are they as numerous. While this is not always the case, it does tend to narrow the range of wines that are accepted. By selling through the tasting room, we have thousands of consumers walking in our front door every year. This really allows me to make wines of multiple styles and find a large enough group that enjoys each style.
A number of other winemakers also make wines in the Denner facility. Do you run ideas by each other? Beyond Denner, is there a community of young winemakers in Paso?
There are 7 winemakers who work out of our facility. It is an incredible incubator for ideas. However, we are all so different that what we learn most is that there are a million ways to skin a cat.
In Paso, we are rarely segregated by young winemakers, or even winemakers for that matter. You'll find me sitting at the bar at Artisan with my local produce monger or butcher as often as you'll find me with a winemaking peer.
You've said your wine is feral-fermented, rather than fermented using only native yeast. What does that mean, and why do it that way?
I prefer the term feral—"Native yeast" is a suspect term to me, since other winemakers in our facility use cultured yeast. Who am I to say which are my workhorses?
To be honest, I have never done a scientific trial comparing feral ferments to domesticated ones. My reasoning behind their use is much more philosophical: Wine is unique in that it is the only beverage that is appreciated for its time and place. I think the use of feral yeast enhances a wine's identity and sense of place. The combination of yeast and bacteria inhabiting our vineyard and winery are both unique to us and constantly evolving.
Ripe stems also contribute to the flavor of your wines—how do you decide when to use whole clusters rather than just the grapes?
I'm reluctant to throw away stems when they can be used as part of my ferment. As a result, I may have a tendency to overuse whole-clusters in my ferments. The decision to ferment partially or (more often the case) completely whole cluster occurs in the vineyard on the day of the pick or on the sorting table. Smell and taste are the driving sense as opposed to sight. I feel we are often fooled by brown stems tasting green or green stems offering really interesting characteristics. I am sure my enology professor is shaking his head right now.
In a recent article in the LA Times, you said:
I think the grapes that will be [Paso Robles'] benchmarks are Mourvèdre and Grenache There's a lot of Syrah here, and we can make slutty Syrah—it's ripe, people like it. But when you compare the Syrah we can do here to the Syrah in the northern Rhone, it's not the same. The Mourvèdre [here] can be world-class.
Care to elaborate on what 'slutty Syrah' means?
I probably should have said that Paso Syrah can be very approachable Syrah. Perhaps this is a better way of describing it: If my friend is trying to set me up with his girlfriend's best friend (for the sake of this example her name is Paso Syrah) on a blind date. Naturally I ask, "Is Paso Syrah hot?"
My buddy is never going to answer, "She has a great personality." But she may not be the one you proudly bring home to your mother.
Rather than 'slutty Syrah,' which grapes do you think Paso winemakers should focus on? Which wines do you think Paso Robles will be known for in coming years?
I think Paso will continue to excel with blends. There has been lots of talk recently about Grenache and Mourvedre's success in the region. I feel we will continue on that trajectory, but never rest on our laurels. Paso's youth and renegade attitude will continue to explore new varieties and techniques. I see Spanish and Portuguese varieties making more appearances in our blends.
You've blended the whites at Denner for this year. How do you they look? What will you be hoping for and aiming for when you blend this year's reds?
There have been arguments about when was the last time we had a cooler year than 2010. Most of the old-timers are fighting between 1930something and 1972, either way I wasn't alive yet and 2010 was darn cool. The resulting wines are very elegant unlike the incredibly rich 2008s and the "bombastic" 2007s. The 2010s are concentrated, flavorful and suspenseful. I believe they will be wines that continue to evolve and show more nuances over time (though they'll also bring immense pleasure upon release.) The 2010 whites are the kind of wines that beg you to pour another glass and open another bottle.
You also have your own label, Kinero Cellars. How would you describe the difference between those wines and the Denner Vineyard wines?
Kinero is an additional creative outlet for me. When someone hires you to make wines for them, there is always a specific goal with those wines. While I would never work for someone whose goals I don't share, there are always limitations of style.
Kinero allows me free creative and experimental license to make, market, and sell wines that are a pure expression of me. Currently, the Kinero wines are exclusively whites. I also heavily experiment with fermentation, storage, and aging techniques. So the appeal of the Kinero wines is a little narrower than those of the Denner wines.
If money were no object, and nature cooperated, what wine would you make in your dreams?
Either Boones Farm Strawberry Hill or 2007 Clos St Jean Deus Ex Machina.
Tasting Denner Wines
Anthony's wines are rich and supple, bringing out the best in grapes that ought to become more familiar to wine lovers. His Meyer-lemon and vanilla scented Viognier (2010) balances smooth richness with just enough acidity. There's apricot and butterscotch in the finish, but it's a bit more potent than we'd like. We'd pair this wine with shrimp or a light pork preparation. We preferred his fragrant white blend Theresa (2010), a supple, honeydew-laden mix of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. It tastes like poached pears, orange blossoms, and lychee, with a mineral/slate backbone and enough acidity to cut through a Thai curry or scallops served with a cream or butter-based sauce.
The 2009 Ditch Digger is a lush, bold blend of Rhone varietals: grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, counoise, and cinsault. We tasted anise and black pepper, brambly blackberry cobbler and sweet oak. Serve lightly chilled with seared duck breasts or mild spring lamb with mushrooms. Most of the time, though, we'd prefer to drink the 2009 Grenache, which is a bit more structured, balancing blue and black fruit notes with fresh acidity. It brings together dusty black cherry notes with fennel and cloves in a super-smooth sip.
I must admit, I was thoroughly seduced by Denner's gorgeous vineyards and facility—wine club members have an exclusive clubhouse for (complimentary) wine tasting by the fireplace, and the scenery is hard to beat. If I lived closer, I'd have trouble resisting a membership, even though the price is steep.