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Interview with a Napa Valley Winemaker Part 2

By - Posted on 13 May 2011

Here is part 2 of our interview with Napa Valley winemaker Dean Sylvester. In this section, he talks with us about California wines, what makes some wines so expensive and how he got to be such an accomplished winemaker.

Photo of Barrel Room at Whitehall Lane
Photo of Barrel Room at Whitehall Lane © Minami Cohen

How does one become a winemaker?

There are a few different ways. You can get a job at a winery and start at the bottom, work hard and learn the ins and outs of the craft, work your way up and sooner or later you could be a winemaker. A lot of people do it exactly that way.

Another way is to go to school for it and there are a few colleges around the country that specialize in winemaking. You then take the knowledge you gain there and you go to a winery and start at the bottom anyway. But you have a head start from people who don't have that education behind them so you learn a little quicker and you get your foot in the door faster too.

The third way is to be born into a family that owns a winery. Even though that sounds obvious, it's true and a lot of people start that way. Their parents own a winery and they grow up it.

Those are the main ways. On any of those approaches, the main thing you need is an interest in drinking wine. You wouldn't be in the industry if you didn't have that.

What distinguishes California wines from others in the world?

Forty years ago or so the Californians, having the American mentality of 'we can do it better', questioned a lot of the traditions that came from Europe over the last couple hundred years. They decided to try things that hadn't been part of the tradition including irrigating vines, using refrigeration during the fermentation and cultured yeast. These are all processes that pretty much came up through California and now are used worldwide.

California also has an amazing climate. There are certainly some great spots around the world where great wines come from but they are smaller locales. The entire state of California grows great grapes. It's the way that the state is located on the west coast of the continent that affects the climate. The soil types that were deposited here thousands of years ago make it perfect for grapes, as well as other types of agriculture.

Photo of Whitehall Lane Wine Ready Packaged and Ready to be Distributed
Photo of Whitehall Lane Wine Packaged and Ready to be Distributed © Basha Cohen

What makes a wine expensive?

To a certain extent, some wines cost more than others to make. It all depends on how and where the grapes are grown. The cost of the farming can vary from vineyard to vineyard depending on what is being done there. The cost of the land is a factor as well.

In the winery, the amount of work that needs to be done to make the wine will also affect the price. While white wines go through the system quickly, red wines take longer and require more work. Red wines usually cost a little more than whites. The bigger red wines like Cabernet need expensive barrels which is why they are typically priced higher.

So the raw materials and how much work goes into the wine will set a certain part of the price but ultimately it’s what the market will bear. Some wines are very expensive just because they are in high demand. To some extent it is true that more expensive wine tastes better than cheaper wine, but that is a broad stereotypical answer and is certainly not always the case.

How has the recession affected the wine industry?

There has been a major effect on the wine industry because of the recession. Wines have gone way down in price on the shelf. The fact that you can buy what used to be expensive wines for a fraction of what they once cost is a big change in the California wine industry. People can now buy higher quality California wines for lower prices and that, in turn, has affected the wines that were coming in from out of the country from places like Australia, Chile and Italy. The places that have been importing wine into the US are having a harder time finding space on the shelf because their wines used to sell for less than the domestic ones.

This might sound great for California wine but what’s happened here is that, because prices are lower, profit margins are lower. There are a lot of wineries struggling to make their bank payments and so forth. They have to price their wines so cheaply just to sell them because people can’t afford to buy expensive wine.

And the truth is that California wine, Napa wine in particular, was expensive. It was the right price for what people could afford at the time, but the profit margins were high. So now the wines are coming down to the prices that probably make more sense but a lot of wineries are having a problem making a living with those profit margins.

Photo of Dean Sylvester and Open Journey Staff on Whitehall Lane's Receiving Dock
Photo of Dean Sylvester and Open Journey Staff © Minami Cohen

When the recession ends and the economy has evened out do you think the California wine industry will be better off than it was before?

I think the California wine industry will be better off at the end of the recession. There are people in the industry who think that wine is too expensive, that you don’t need to make those kinds of margins, that it should be more of a lifestyle and that it shouldn’t be for entrepreneurs only. We believe that people will continue to drink California wine because it’s delicious and it will still be affordable. Nobody’s happy about the recession, obviously, but some good may come of it.

Tell us a little bit about Whitehall Lane.

Whitehall Lane was started in 1979 by two brothers who came up from LA. They were serious home winemakers for many years and decided they wanted to do the real deal, so they came up to Napa Valley and bought the property. They built a small mom and pop style winery and operated it in that way until the late 1980s when a Japanese gentleman bought the winery. He operated it for about four years with one of the brothers still on as general manger. Then he sold it to the present owners in 1993. The current owners are a family from San Francisco named Leonardini. Tom Leonardini, his wife and two of their children are involved in running the winery.

The winery itself has been added on two or three times and the production has increased since the early days. It still would be considered a small winery but it’s definitely at the big end of small by Napa standards. It is still family owned and I’ve been the winemaker there since 1998. We’re a well known Cabernet winery in the Napa Valley for collectors and we’ve gotten a lot of great press over the years.

Photo of Private Tasting Room at Whitehall LaneWinery
Photo of Private Tasting Room at Whitehall Lane Winery © Minami Cohen

What is your work history? What has been your working experience?

I started by selling wine in the early 1970's at a wine shop in upstate New York. At the time, like a good child of the 60s, I was drinking Boones Farm Apple or Ripple or something along those lines. But within a year of starting at this wine shop I was drinking some of the finest wines in the world. I then decided I wanted to make wine so I moved to California and enrolled at UC Davis in the winemaking program there.

Part of my financial aid at UC Davis was working an on-campus job. There happened to be a position in the campus winery so I was not only in the program education wise but I was also working at the winery there. My first three years of making wine were at the university winery. I graduated in 1979 and went to work in Santa Cruz at a place called Bargetto Winery. It’s an old family winery that’s been there since repeal of prohibition. An interesting thing about that place was that besides grape wine, we also made many kinds of fruit wine. We made wine year round there. Even in the wintertime we were making wine out of frozen fruit.

I worked at Bargetto for a year and then moved up to Sonoma County to work at Balverne Winery. When the winemaker I was working with at Balverne went over to Napa Valley in 1982, I followed him. I worked as his assistant at Newton Vineyards for almost 10 years. I then went to Chimney Rock Winery, also in Napa Valley, worked there for three years before going up to a small mom and pop winery in St Helena called Mario Perelli-Minetti Winery.

An interesting aside about Mario’s Dad: He came from Italy to make wine in the late 1800’s and was an important figure in the development of the California wine industry. He made wine in Mexico for awhile, in fact one of his partners was Pancho Villa. He was an important enough guy in the California wine industry that they have his oral history at UC Berkeley because they wanted to hear his story before he passed on. He turned 100 in 2009 and he’s still out there.

I made wine for Mario for three years and then came to Whitehall Lane January 1st of 1998 and I’ve been here ever since. 2009 was my 34th harvest in a row and I can’t imagine what September and October are going to be like someday if I’m not making wine. It's a wonderful job and even after all these years I still really enjoy it.

Photo of a Napa Valley Vineyard © Minami Cohen

If you would like to learn more about Whitehall Lane or tour their winery, please visit their website.

Gorgeous Photos! I'm from California! It makes me miss home!
Phil Done


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