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Interview with a Napa Valley Winemaker Part 1

By - Posted on 09 May 2011

Napa Valley winemaker Dean Sylvester has been in the wine industry for almost 40 years. He started out selling wines in Upstate New York then headed out to the West Coast to study the art and science of winemaking. Dean received his degree in Fermentation Science from University of California - Davis in 1979 and has been making wine ever since. For the past 12 years, he has been the winemaker at Whitehall Lane in St Helena. Three of Dean's wines are rated in the top five in the World from The Wine Spectator Magazine. He recently sat down with Open Journey to answer some questions about wine, winemaking and Napa Valley.

Photo of  Winemaker Dean Sylvester and Open Journey Staff
Photo of Winemaker Dean Sylvester and Open Journey Staff © Basha Cohen

Why did you become a winemaker?

I grew up in apple country and one day I took a trip with my wife to an apple farm. It was during harvest, which would be October, and the place was packed with people like me, tourists, buying apples, apple cider and donuts. I saw that the whole family was involved - the kids were running around helping in the orchard and in the barn, along with their mom, dad and grandfather. I thought "This would be a great kind of atmosphere to raise a family." I was selling wine at the time as well as into drinking it and the ideas just came together.

What do you look for when you make wine?

I'm looking for wines that taste good. That's obvious, but I am looking for that. I'm also looking for wines that are in balance. I want some wines to be ready to drink right away and others that can be laid down to age for awhile. I'm looking for the parameters and ingredients that can create that process and scenario.

How do you know when you've got a good vintage?

It all has to do with weather. Once the grapes are planted in a vineyard and grow up on their trellises, if the same farmer grows them, really the only thing that changes from year to year is the weather. When I say the weather, it's from when the grapes start growing, which is usually around mid-March, to the time they're picked in September and October. If the weather throughout that period is ideal, if it's not too extreme during the growing process - too cold or hot, too rainy or dry, too windy - it's going to be a good vintage.

Photo of Whitehall Lane Barrel Room, Napa Valley CA
Photo of Whitehall Lane Barrel Room, Napa Valley CA © Minami Cohen

What do you like best about your job?

I like that I get to work inside and outside and that on any day it might go either way or both. I like the smells of my job - the smells of the vineyards and of the winery. I like that there is science, craft and art all blended together. I like that throughout the year I do different things at different times. It's not the same thing every day. I like the lifestyle and I meet a lot of interesting people. Ultimately, at the end of the year, I like that I have something tangible to show for what I did all year. Even after we sell the wine I can still watch it as it ages, I'm still in touch with it.

What is the most difficult aspect of making wine?

The most difficult aspect of making wine is the capriciousness of it and those times when you don't have control over the process. The weather is the one thing we don't have any control over and when making the wine problems can arise for seemingly no reason. Wine is a living entity and it can sometimes veer off into unplanned directions for inexplicable reasons. They don't always behave the same throughout the process, including growing the grapes.

Photo of Dean's Lab at Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley CA
Photo of Dean's Lab at Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley CA © Minami Cohen

What is one aspect of your job that might surprise people?

People often think because I make wine I have a better palate than most. I think what surprises people is that I don't believe that to be true. The difference in our palates is what I call 'palate memory'. Meaning, I don't think I can taste any better than anyone else but because I’ve been making wine for so many years and tasting it at all stages my palate remembers what a wine will taste like in a month, two years or eight years if it tastes like this now. I've got this file cabinet in my brain so that when I taste something, I can know what's going to happen with this range of flavors, aromas and everything else. My actual tasting ability is no better than anyone else's. I just have a lot of information that's attached to my palate compared to an average wine drinker.

What is your favorite wine that you've made and what makes it your favorite?

Throughout my career the wineries I've worked at have been mostly Cabernet oriented wineries and I've made a lot of really good Cabernet. When I make a reserve style Cabernet from a great vintage and it turns out just right, I'm really proud of that. But what I like the most is when I make a really good Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a tricky wine to make and I probably drink more of it than any other kind.

Photo of Whithall Lane 2007 Pinot Noir, Napa Valley CA
Photo of Whithall Lane 2007 Pinot Noir, Napa Valley CA © Basha Cohen

Does one year or one vintage come to mind when you think about one of the best Pinot Noirs that you've made?

Yes, my 2007. It's a beautiful Pinot Noir. It's what I call my 'go to' wine at the moment. If I'm running out to lunch or dinner with somebody, I often will bring a bottle. People seem to really enjoy it and, if I just like my wine that's good but, if I drink one of my wines with other people and they like it, it makes it even more enjoyable for me.

For people who want to know more about winemaking, what do you recommend?

I would recommend taking a class - an appreciation for wine class is a good place to start. At first you'll learn about wine itself but in most of those classes there will be winemaking portions.

There are also tons of great books out there that you could read. I don't have any specific book recommendations, I would just find one that is interesting to you and start there.

Going on winery tours is a great way to learn about wine and wine making in an interactive atmosphere. You'll see and hear a lot of things that will give you a basic feel of how it's done, especially if you visit during harvest, which I recommend.

During harvest a lot of wineries are looking for help and you can get what's called a 'harvest job'. You'll get to do a lot during harvest with no experience. They'll throw you right into the middle of it. You might get laid off at the end of harvest but if you go back the second year they'll hire you back because they know you know what you're doing. If you do that a couple of times, they see you're interested and a lot of times you can parley the experience of a couple harvests into an actual winery job.

Photo of Stainless Steel Barrels, Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley CA
Photo of Stainless Steel Barrels, Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley CA © Minami Cohen

Tell us about the harvest process.

As a winemaker, the first thing I do during harvest is walk through vineyards where I know the grapes are starting to get close to ripeness. They are already delicious by that point but are not ready to be picked. I walk through a vineyard with a baggie and pick a random sample of the grapes, one berry at a time, until I have half a baggie full of grapes. In the meantime, as many grapes as I'm putting in the baggie, I'm eating to taste how ripe the grapes are. On any given day during harvest I eat hundreds of grapes.

At the winery, I squeeze the baggies of grapes and analyze the juice to see what the numbers say about the acidity and sweetness. I use those numbers as guidelines and when I'm in the range of the numbers I want, I spend the last few days in the vineyard just tasting grapes. When they taste right, it's time to pick them.

We pick the grapes on the day I feel they are ready. With white grapes, the first thing we do is get rid of the stems with a machine and then squeeze the grapes. We take just the white grape juice and it goes into either a tank or to a barrel. We then add yeast and start fermenting it.

With red grapes, again we take the stems away and this time we pump the grapes, skins and all into a tank. The juice of red grapes like Cabernet, Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs, is clear as water so we let the juice steep with the skins. With red grapes, it's the skins that have all the color and flavor. So the skins and juice steep together and then we add yeast to that and it ferments. When it's done fermenting, we drain the wine out of the tank and squeeze the grapes to get the last little bit of wine out. The harvest is pretty much over at that point. Of course there are a lot of little details in there but that's basically what we do.

And how long does that process take?

Harvest takes about two months to ten weeks. The actual time from when we pick the grapes to when it is wine is about two weeks for each batch. It's that quick. The fermentation doesn't take long - the red fermentation take about ten days to two weeks and the white fermentation about two or three weeks.

What are the steps from harvesting to bottling.

After harvest, once the wines ferment, the whites are either in stainless steel tanks or in barrels. The wine that's made in tanks ages for three to five months and then it gets bottled. After fermentation, the white that is in barrels, which is mostly chardonnay, gets aged from about seven to ten months before it is bottled. The red wines, right after fermentation, go into barrels. If it is a light red, like a Pinot Noir, it might get bottled as soon as just before the next harvest. If it's a bigger, heavier wine like Cabernet it stays in the barrel for about two years.

Photo of Whitehall Lane Vineyards, Napa Valley CA
Photo of Whitehall Lane Vineyards, Napa Valley CA © Minami Cohen

What is the best time of year to visit Napa?

The best time of the year is when you just got paid or won the lotto and you're coming up to buy wine. Other than that, there are two times of the year:

The first is during harvest because there is a tangible excitement in the air around the entire valley. It is just alive with energy in September and October. It's exciting to not only be at the wineries but to be at the restaurants, shops and just out and about talking to people. You also get to see a lot of the harvest process. There are machines out in the vineyards along with the pickers, which is incredible to watch. There are grapes coming into the wineries and usually if you're on a tour there are grapes to eat out of the bins. Last year was my 34th year of doing harvest and I'm still not tired of it. It's my favorite time of the year.

The other great time to visit Napa is late January to early March. At that time of the year the mustard is blooming and it's amazingly beautiful. On top of this wildly bright yellow mustard, the hillsides are lush and green from the seasonal rain. Also February is a relatively slow time of the year for the wineries and the winemakers so if you're up there to talk to a winemaker, that's your best chance. It's a beautiful time of the year.

Want to learn more about winemaking and Napa Valley? Read Part 2 of our interview with Winemaker Dean Sylvester.


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