Friday, June 21, 2013

Sequoia Grove Winery: Michael Truijlllo, A Forte With Fermentation

"Fermentation is a more important discovery than even fire."

With a jolly smile, Michael Trujillo, the President & Director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove Winery wanted to emphasize his passion for winemaking, using a bit of hyberole to make his point. That passion was evident in much Michael said at dinner earlier this week at Grill 23 and Bar.

I was invited, along with two other writers (James Campanini, editor at the The Lowell Sun, and Anne Banas, executive editor at Smarter Travel) to meet Michael Trujillo for dinner and get the opportunity to taste three of his wines. Joining us was also Mark Carnucci, a manager for the distributor Kobrand Fine Wine & Spirits. Michael was personable, charismatic, open and passionate.

It was a very pleasant evening of excellent conversation, food and wine. To Michael, the importance of wine and food cannot be underestimated, as he feels it permeates many aspects of our lives. He is also pleased to think that 90% of the wines that come off his bottling line will lead to happy occasions. Wine is most often a source of pleasure, not despair, so it plays an important function in our lives. We all can use a bit more joy in our lives so why not let wine bring us some?

Let us start with a little history lesson. In 1979, the Sequoia Grove Winery was founded by Jim Allen in the Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley. The vineyard consisted of 22 acres and Jim consulted with some legendary winemakers such as Andre Tchelistcheff and Tony Soter. In 1982, Michael Trujillo started working with Jim and by 1991, Michael would also start his own small brand, Karl Lawrence, which he continues to produce. In 1998, Michael became the Assistant Winemaker at Sequoia, though the 1990s were a challenging time for the winery. In 2001, Jim retired and the Kopf family, who had been partners since 1985, took control of the winery and they placed Michael in charge of winemaking operations.

Michael grew up on a Colorado ranch and stated that he spent much of his early years behind the wheel of a tractor. He credits his father with instilling in him a strong work ethic. He is also very proud of his Spanish heritage, being able to trace his ancestors back to the mid-1500s when they settled in the area of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In response to one of my questions, Michael said that no one has ever inquired about his heritage, and he believes he is one of the few winemakers with a direct Spanish ancestry. Michael also mentioned that he currently is on a kick, seeking out value Spanish Tempranillo wines.

Since Michael took charge of winemaking operations at Sequoia, great change has come to the winery. For one, in 2003, Molly Hill, a UC Davis graduate, was taken on as an assistant winemaker and would eventually, in 2008, become the winemaker. Another important step, in 2006, was the acquisition of the 48-acre Tonella Estate Vineyard, which they replanted with select Cabernet Sauvignon clones. Tonella's first harvest was in 2010, and it is allowing Sequoia to transform from a winery which once purchased about 80% of their grapes to a winery which will soon be using about 80% estate fruit. The original 22 acre Sequoia vineyard is planted primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon, about 85%, and the rest has Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

To Michael, purchasing such a large percentage of grapes put them at the mercy of inflation, as well as the vineyards who might or might not choose to sell them grapes in any particular year. For more independence, and as a potentially cost-cutting measure, he knew that growing more of their own grapes was necessary. However, he doesn't want to use 100% estate fruit, as he wants the flexibility of being able to purchase grapes to help in his blends. His vineyards are not the best source for all types of grapes, so he would prefer to buy other grapes from where they grow best.

Their vineyards are fairly organic, though not certified, as Michael has issues with certification laws. He understands that such laws are often too broad, that federal definitions allow much leeway, allowing for some practices that others might not consider to be organic. Michael also feels that the Rutherford region has the best microclimate for Cabernet Sauvignon, and that Rutherford Cabernets reflect its terroir. Famed winemaker André Tchelistcheff once said that "It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet." You will find some famous vineyards in this AVA, including Beaulieu Vineyards, Caymus, and Grgich Hills Estate. To Michael, the typical Rutherford Cabernet is silky, fruit forward and with a dusty/earthy element to it.

Michael's personal philosophy is that "everything in our life comes back to wisdom and experience." This is applicable to all aspects of life, including winemaking. He values his mentors in the winemaking industry and now possesses 30 years of his own experience. He continues to perfect his winemaking style each year, and states that much of what he does is by feel and taste, based on his lengthy experience in the field. He may used technology at times, but is not wholly reliant on it and believes he could still make great wine without it.

One of his greatest lessons was provided by Andre Tchelistcheff, who use a tea brewing analogy to make him understand the process of fermentation. Andre took Michael to the top of a fermentation tank, explaining how the process is similar in respects to steeping tea. As you steep your tea, you constantly taste it to determine when it is at its optimal flavor. The same goes with fermentation, that taking it continually will allow you to know when it is ready. You don't need a slew of scientific instruments to tell you when your wine is ready.

Michael believes there are not many bad wines on the market any longer, but he also feel that far too often there is "too much frosting on the cake." He means that there is too much manipulation of wine, which obscures its sense of place. Part of that problem he attributes to the 100 point scoring system, which tends to lead to bigger, overmanipulated wines. To Michael, a "great wine is about balance" and it is those balanced wines which will age the best. His goal is to produce wine with a sense of place, that shows the varietal and which possess a sense of balance.

Michael's winemaking style is more Old World except that he brings in some California sunshine. He finds some Old World wines to be too rustic and wants to take advantage of the fine California weather. It would be a disservice not to take advantage of what California weather brings to the vineyards. Michael believes that his forte is fermentation, and that with white wines, everything happens within those roughly ten days of fermentation.

His goal is to "build a house brick by brick," to allow the winery growth to be slow and steady. He wants his customers to be able to expect consistency from year to year. He does not want to become the next Screaming Eagle, but rather would like to be the next Silver Oak or Cakebread, two brands which he feels followed that slow and steady pattern.

The biggest challenge he faces is getting people to taste his wines, to get to know his brand. Michael feels that his wines over deliver for their price and are as good as any other high-end California Cabernets. He feels his wines are competitive on the market, and continue to improve each year. Because of this, he ensures that the winery tasting room remains unpretentious, that it is a welcoming place for all.

Michael is not a fan of the "one man critic," preferring when wines are assessed by panels or groups. His best advice for consumers is to "build a relationship with a local retailer." Consumers need to be open minded, willing to take recommendations from their retailer so that they can learn about the wine types and styles they prefer.

Sequoia wines are currently exported across the world, and Japan is one of their best foreign markets. They have chosen not to aggressively court the Chinese market, but see lots of potential in the international market. Within the U.S., they obviously are strong in California, but they also do very well on the East Coast. Currently, only three of their wines are available for sale in Massachusetts through Horizon Beverage Company and I got to sample all three. Michael, like most California winemakers, noted that the 2012 vintage was great, and will lead to many great wines. However, though many winemakers say 2011 was a challenging vintage, Michael feels that his 2011 vintage red wines are close to perfection.

We began with the 2011 Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Chardonnay ($28), which is produced from 100% Chardonnay which spent 10 months sur lie in 35% new French oak barrels. The wine underwent minimal manipulation and no malolactic fermentation. Michael stated that the French use malolactic to tame the acidity in their Chardonnays but that California wineries don't need to do so, or only to a minimal level. However, French chardonnay ages much better than California and Michael feels that keeping a California Chardonnay for five years might be pushing it. He also feels that California really doesn't need to age their Chardonnay, that they shouldn't try to be something they are not.

The wine is produced in more of a French style and possesses a crisp and fresh taste with appealing flavors of apple, lemon and melon, with elements of toast and minerality, especially on the finish. It has a bit of richness to it, and Michael suggested it would pair best with oilier fish, or seared scallops as the caramelization would work well with the wine. I had some oysters with the Chardonnay, and it wasn't the best pairings due to the brininess of the oysters. It was still a tasty wine, with sufficient complexity to make it interesting as well.

For my entree, knowing we had two Cabernet based wines ahead of us, I went for the beef, a 100 Day Aged Ribeye. An excellent hunk of steak, it possessed a strong and savory taste, full of flavor and a perfect companion to the red wines.

The 2009 Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) is a blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 6% other Bordeaux varieties. The wine spent about 20 months in 45% new American oak barrel and has an alcohol content of 14.2%. It is their "workhouse," wine, the one of which they produce the most each year. This dark purple colored wine possesses an alluring aroma of subtle black fruit and spice, and on the palate it presents as silky and elegant, with delicious flavors of black cherry, ripe plum, subtle spice, vanilla and hints of leather. A well balanced wine, the smooth tannins lead to a lengthy and satisfying finish. Paired with the steak, it was a worthy companion. Impressive and highly recommended.

One of their higher end products is the 2008 Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cambium ($140), whose name refers to the layer, the growing layer, of a tree between the bark and the wood. The blend, which varies year to year, is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. Though the blend often would qualify to be labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, Michael wants the flexibility to go against that blend if he feels it is warranted. 2008 was a challenging vintage. This wine spent 22 months in 100% new French oak, was aged two years in the bottle and possesses an alcohol content of 14.4%. This wine is intended to compete with wines such as the Caymus Special Selection.

This inky dark wine has a more intense aroma than their basic Cabernet, with rich black fruit, dark spice and hints of mocha. Again, it is a silky, elegant and well balanced wine with complex and deep flavors of ripe plum, black cherry, blackberry, vanilla, toast and subtle, and almost elusive, hints of other flavors that tantalize your palate, including an underlying earthiness. The tannins are smooth and well integrated, the finish is incredibly long and pleasing, and the wine impresses with its intriguing complexity and depth of flavors. It also was a superb accompaniment to my steak and I am sure this wine would impress most wine lovers. It is pricey but is worthy of a splurge for a special occasion.

I ended the evening with some Famous Coconut Cake, accompanied by pineapple sherbet and coconut dulce de leche. This sizable slice is large enough to share with another person or two, and was moist and flavorful, with plenty of coconut, satisfying my love of coconut.

It has been maybe ten years or so since I last tasted a wine from Sequoia Grove, so it was enlightening to taste them again after all of this time. The wines clearly have improved greatly and Michael's vision and philosophy seem to be pivotal to those changes. Sequoia Grove, led by Michael, is now producing impressive California wines which are competitive to other established brands. I recommend that my readers check out the wines of Sequoia Grove, and acquaint yourself with some delicious and complex wines which don't conform to the big and bold Cabernets that far too often dominate the market.

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