Sunday, April 03, 2011

An Interview With Eric Miller author of The Vintner’s Apprentice and Proprietor/Winemaker of Chaddsford Winery

Tell me a little bit about your personal history and its relation to your wine today:

My dad, Mark Miller, bought one of the oldest vineyards in the country in the 1950’s and began to replant it with European stock. The equip was outdated and work hard so it didn’t take long for my brother and me to begin looking for an income elsewhere. When two hurricanes in a row knocked over most of my dad’s vineyard he asked me to take a break from playing the clubs and coffee houses of LI and the Catskills. I desperately needed to dry out from my excesses and a labor force was born. Benmarl was licensed in 1971 and soon was awarded Farm Winery license Number 1 as the result of my dad’s and a few others lobbying for favorable lower licensing fees for the small NYS artisan winery. By 1976 Frank Prial wrote a big article about us, and we really took off. In 1971 most of New York State was making sweet and grapey sparkling wines and ports. I only remember back then that Everett Crosby (High Tor Winery), Dr. Konstantin Frank had any interest in dry table wines. We had lived in Burgundy, and my father drank almost exclusively dry table wines from Burgundy. That’s what I grew up with. That was the state of the art back then. Making sweet wines was “not progressive”.

Today my winery makes 30,000 cases. 60% of wines we sell, mostly through distribution, are mostly lighter, sweeter styled wines. And it’s funny, because every wine I make gets its full attention in the cellar the greatest part of our sales efforts are invested in dry main-stream whites and reds. Most of these higher-end, delicate and complex wines are sold through the winery tasting room. I simply do not have the marketing dollars to compete in the wholesale market with California. Further, those opulent wines produced in arid climates like CA and Australia are in fashion today.

Does “local” help?

Things are changing. Today local is becoming desirable . Local has always been important to me. I learned that living in Burgundy when I made the mistake of asking for a Bordeaux at a restaurant. Aside from the fact that all the foods had evolved to taste best with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was an insufferable affront to the chef and his mother to not appreciate what came from the area. Whether or not the other local farmers and cheese-makers don’t return the favor, I don’t care. I eat locally grown vegetables, I look for locally grown meats and locally made cheeses. I’m always pairing my wines with those and working on preparations that suit the delicate elegant style of wines we grow in the east coast.

Let’s talk about your thoughts on wine quality, Pennsylvania and east coast winemaking...

I’m part of the Brandywine Valley (PA) Wine Quality committee as well as a more loosely knit mutual admiration society of east coast winemakers. We range from Canada to the Carolinas to meet, taste wine and discuss faults, howl and share notes. Recently Mark Chien (PA’s Viticulturalist) put together a wine symposium for eastern winemakers. We had dozens who brought their cabernet sauvignons and cabernet blends. They came from great vintages and lesser ones requiring super-human effort in the vineyard and cellar….Andy Erickson from Screaming Eagle was imported for the day. We tasted each other’s wines. To my delight one of the attendees conjectured that the California’s were too concentrated, and too heavy, and overwhelming. He called them “cocktail wines” because they might be challenging to pair with delicate dinner preparations. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I considered them to be drop dead delicious and told him to try dinner in California where they seem to have it down)

It’s important that there is an eastern palate developing for lighter styled wines, with good fruit, brighter acidity, and soft tannins. We need more local chefs to make foods that go with our wines. And I think it’s so important to match our wines with our local foods.

Are we developing an eastern palate?

I guess, some one’s drinking our wines. We just did a vertical tasting. We opened a 1998 Pinot Noir. It was our generic Pinot Noir and it held up beautifully. There was a cherry pie, wilted flower and signature slight sandlewood character to it. Medium body, barely noticeable acidity, Burgundy in style. Interestingly enough, sadly, our 1999 was over the hill. Can’t wait until I know enough about my region to expect those kinds of surprizes.

How has your outlook on winemaking changed or not changed?

My out look on winemaking has definitely changed. In 1982 I went to guys who had good reputations as wine grape growers in this region. I used to say to the grape growers, just do what you have been doing. Don’t vary. I watched how the viens grew, the trellising, in-season cultural practices, taste and looks of grapes and seeds. I figured “I’m a pretty good mechanic, I’ll do the best I can with what they grow and learn about my natural raw material.” And I did that for the first ten years.

Then in the early 1990s I began to be more manipulative. I started working more closely with the growers. I lost a few who didn’t like my imposition. I brought in Lucy Morten, the well known vineyardist (featured in my book), and we started planting our own vineyards. We changed our trellising style so we could better manipulate the canopy and reorient the vine toward the fruit composition I want. You can always do stuff in the lab and cellar, but as a result of spending more time in the vineyard, we do less in the cellar and make better wine.

I like to say I arrived ignorant, interested and observant, and I remained just so for years. Then I started turning the lights on. Saw over years what would happen if I removed leaves, shoots and clusters. Developed an understanding of timing based more on the vine’s activity than the calendar. I started understanding the region better. The effects of our ancient complex soils, warm nights, humidity. It all starts in the in the vineyards.

What else about wine quality?

What a revelation. I was listening to NPR. They were talking about microbiology and something called “quarum sensing”. My interpretation of that 2 minute spot was that if good bugs in the wine are in the majority the bad guys don’t get to be in charge. You see, when I first started making wine I saw disaster in every bug outside of the yeast and malo-lactic bacteria I added. I would get the young wine off its sediments and filter ASAP. I was afraid of a bacterial infection.

I knew how to use a microscope, plate for bad bugs and measure unwanted bi-products; but when I learned how to test for Nitrogen in the grapes and nutrients needed for healthy fermentations I gained confidence that a healthy wine will self-sustain with minimal or no interference. Now I rarely even add sulfites until spring. Today there is a lot less movement and manipulation of the raw wines.

How do you feel about oak?

“I’ve become a connissuer of oak,” he laughed. I like vanilla. I make Pennsylvania wine, I like Pennsylvania oak where a strong-flavored but graceful barrel character is complimentary. It’s great with the big fruity spicy Chambourcin we grow around here, but definitely overwhelming for delicate varieties like Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Pennsylvania just passed a law saying there were no restrictions on bringing in fruit from outside the state. Any thoughts on that?

I moved to this area because with the number of frost free days and sunny hours it seemed like we could make substantial wines from grapes grown in this area. Do I have a problem with other winemakers using outside fruit? No. That’s not my idea of fun. I mostly use grapes from this climate so I can learn something, justify my own vineyard and support local growers. But as a wine enthusiast I don’t care, as long as I know what I am drinking and it tastes good.

Anything you want to say about your book? The big thing about the Vintner’s Apprentice is what my friend Kevin Zraly recognized when he said “this book is the first book on winemaking that keeps the romance of wine balanced with the technical aspects of this art”. Definitely not a text book, it’s for the kind of person with a passion for wine who shops at Whole Foods and the fresh local markets. It was a catharsis writing this book. I got to exchange ideas and get the inside scoop from the gods and demi-gods in the wine industry. It’s like you know how they say it’s done but how do they really do it?

There were some revelations. Like speaking with the charming MNL Pauline Vaultier, Ch Ausone, St Emilion. My big question to her was now you are out of school and have worked around the world at some great wineries and that you are at the reins of one of the crown jewels of Bordeaux, what changes are you planning? The shock of her simple statement echoed thru my brain like the Grand Canyon when she said something like: I have no plans to make big changes. My family has been growing wine on this property for 300 years and I wouldn’t want to destroy that.

Made perfect sense except that in contrast to that attitude some of us in the New World without 300 years of experience are constantly analyzing our grapes and wine, generating data, running trials, experimenting with various oaks and wood treatments, have a myriad of dramatically different options before us! I like to drink as many wines as I can and share as much as I can.

For me, wine and all its iterations is fun. The writing in this book reflects more my wife’s skill as a writer. She is true writer capable of changing the way information is written to suit the needed medium. I would tend to be more technical than she. She let me put in interesting details like how a cork is grown and processed but she made it a photo essay.