Winemaker Q&A: Matt Taylor of Araujo Estate and Taylor Cellars

I've always thought, for some reason, that bee hives had to be white, but Araujo's hives are a terrific shade of pistachio. They reminded me of little droids lurking among the olive trees. Perhaps it was all of the barrell samples.

Matt Taylor is not only Araujo's vineyard manager and winemaker, but he's also the estate beekeeper. For some reason, I'd always assumed that bee hives needed to be white by default, but Araujo's hives feature a terrific shade of pistachio. They reminded me of little droids lurking among the olive trees, standing guard over the nearby chicken coop.

With the harvest of 2009 quickly winding down, I’ve made this winter my time to catch up with a few winemakers. Among the folks I most wanted to meet, Matt Taylor certainly topped my list, not only as the winemaker for the cult-favorite Araujo Estate, but also as a BioDynamic vineyard manager and the proprietor of a brand new Pinot Noir label. This week, I ventured up to Calistoga to meet with Matt, to barrel sample some Aurajo wines, and to tour the legendary Eisele Vineyard. Needless to say, my time spent at Araujo Estate was beyond insightful, and I always value my discussions with winemakers. The Q&A below highlights our conversation from that day…

• • •

ThirstyReader: I’ve found that when I talk with winemakers, or anyone who has really developed a passion for wine, that there is always an early moment that serves as an epiphany. Something strikes a chord and sets a person in a certain direction. Is there any specific moment that you remember that set you on this course?

Matt Taylor: The owner of Marietta Cellars was actually my best friend’s family, and growing up we would always go over there to go mushroom hunting, or to go pig hunting, or to go fishing, and we’d always come back and my friend’s father, Chris Bilbro, would always be drying out mushrooms or roasting a pig or making venison sausage, and even though we were kids he’d always put some wine on the table and cook things up for us, and we’d just have a blast. It became one of those things where that was the kind of life I wanted to live. I just wanted to enjoy life and wine and food all at the same time.

TR: Do you still find time to do a fair amount of mushroom foraging?

MT: Yeah, I just went out a couple of weekends ago and got a ton of porcinis.

TR: What you do with them all?

MT: Dry them up, cook them up.

TR: Nice. So with your early influences setting the stage, as you took steps to become a winemaker, I understand that you decided to attend Fresno State.

MT: I was working at Joseph Swan during one of my early gigs, and at that time, I had actually been accepted and enrolled at Davis, but two or three Davis winemakers told me to go to Fresno. They said that Davis was great, but that it was much more theoretical, and the industry really needed people who could finish school and know how to manage a pump and do all of those things, and not just tell us how to make wine.

TR: Interesting. I didn’t realize that was the key difference between Davis and Fresno.

MT: It still is. I have a lot of Davis friends, and they’ll all admit that Davis is very theoretical — great professors, great program. But Fresno has a full-fledged winery, they make a lot of wine, and so you get to work in a functioning winery, and make wine each day, and deal with all of the elements of the winemaking process.

TR: Fast forwarding to 2007, you became the winemaker here at Araujo, but you’ve actually been the vineyard manager here since 2005, and still hold that position. To have control over those two areas is surprisingly unique.

MT: Yeah. It shouldn’t be, but you’re right. How that all kind of happened was that my favorite wines were coming from Burgundy, where you have the vignerons over there, spending the entire time in the vineyard tending the vines and growing the grapes, and then taking them into the cellar, and I just wanted to mimic that. And that’s where a lot of my interest in BioDynamics stemmed. When I came here, I wanted to work in vineyard, and so they designed a position for me where I could assist Francoise, but also manage the viticulture. [Francoise Peschon, who was winemaker at Araujo Estate from 1996 through 2006, still consults with the winery.]

TR: What are the obvious advantages of being able to oversee the entire vintage of wine production?

MT: The main advantage is knowing those different vineyard blocks throughout the season, and seeing the stresses that they go through during the year, and how they react to different things. There is a different relationship, I think, with fermenting those wines, and how you approach them via winemaking. It’s no longer just a generic, block for block recipe. There’s a much more personal relationship with each block.

TR: The benefits of being the vineyard manager and the winemaker seem intuitive, but is there anything that would present a challenge?

MT: Well, you’ve got to work a hell of a lot more. It’s February to December, not just August to December. But it’s nice. And with BioDynamics, that means getting your feet out into those vineyards and getting to know those blocks.

TR: As you mention BioDynamics, I’m endlessly fascinated by this subject. It remains somewhat esoteric for me, although I have worked at a BioDynamic winery and I have read some of the books by Nicholas Joly. What was your introduction to BioDynamics?

MT: Well, the thing that never really sat well with me at Fresno State and Davis was that they were teaching “remedy viticulture” and “remedy winemaking” — if this happens, this is how you combat it, and if this happens, then this is what you do. And I just kept getting exposed to these wines that would pop up now and then that would just blow my mind, and this BioDynamic theme kept emerging: Chapoutier, Zind Humbrecht, and all these wines. And so I went to work in Burgundy, and that’s where it became evident that this was what I needed to do with the rest of my life.

TR: For someone who is new to this concept, how would you describe BioDynamics?

MT: It’s always been a challenge to find a short answer to explain to people what BioDynamics is. To the lay person, it’s basically über-organics, and taking into account that there are forces that we can farm with that stem back to indigenous knowledge and that extend back to using the stars and lunar movements. And all of this ties into the basic prep sets that were designed for BioDynamic farming.

TR: I know that a lot of wineries chose to outsource those BioDynamic prep sets. They’re not actually filling cow horns with manure and then burying them through the winter, and taking that super hands-on approach. Do you create any of your preparations here?

MT: All of them.

TR: Really? Where do you get all of the materials to do this? Aside from the cow horns, some of these BioDynamic preparations involve a stag’s bladder and some pretty far out materials.

MT: Well, we order the cow horns in bulk and they last a long time, but we get the manure from our cows here on property. In terms of some of the other materials, we’ll usually get together with another winery and order a BioDynamically-raised cow for slaughter — last year we partnered with Opus One. And so we’ll keep the mesentery and the intestines, and then divide the beef among the two wineries. For the stag’s bladder, I’ll usually try to get a stag on the property here each year —

TR: Just go out and hunt one?

MT: Yeah, just hunt one. And I’ll keep the gall bladder, and then make venison sausage from all the rest. And all of the other preps we can grow, the dandelion, the chamomile, the nettle, valerian, and yarrow.

TR: So you’ve been at Araujo since 2005, and that’s the same year the winery achieved its Demeter certification. Have you noticed any changes in the vineyard as BioDynamics has begun to exert its influence?

MT: There have been a lot of changes. I think that the biggest thing that we can tout is the vines’ resistance to stress. Prior to going BioDynamic, in 1998 we had a scorcher of a year and a lot of leaf burn happened. Since then, we’ve had some pretty hot years, 2006 being one of them, and the vines would go through these stressful events and maintain their same color, and that was a big wow factor. Plus, we’re seeing more earthworms and better soil structure, and I think the vines are becoming more and more balanced year to year.

TR: I assume you probably must do more than just manage the vineyard. Are you the beekeeper and everything else around here?

MT: Yeah, I take care of the bees and harvest the honey, and I oversee the harvesting of the olive trees and getting everything set up for olive oil. We also have a balsamico project and I manage that.

TR:I think a lot of people may not realize that vines themselves are self-pollinating, so are the bees here to facilitate everything else?

MT: If you look at bees and their colonies, they touch every surface of that vineyard and bring it back to that hive, and I think that’s pretty special. The honey they produce really represents the entire property and it all kind of sharees the same wavelength.

TR: In terms of the Eisele Vineyard here at Araujo, what is some of the history with this property? I read that the vineyard was first planted to Riesling and Zinfandel during the pre-Prohibition Era, but it has clearly evolved since then.

MT: The vineyard was planted to Reisling and Zinfandel in 1881, and then in 1964 it was replanted to Cabernet. The Eiseles purchased it in 1969, and Milt Eisele really wanted to see his name on a label, and he convinced Paul Draper at Ridge to make the 1971 Ridge Eisele Vineyard Cabernet, and it was one of the first vineyard-designate wines in the United States. I think the only other two at the time were the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab and the Ridge Monte Bello. In 1972 and 1973 the grapes went to Mondavi — we think for the Reserve, and in 1974 Conn Creek made an Eisele Vineyard Cabernet, and then in 1975 that began the long relationship with Joseph Phelps, which made an Eisele Vineyard Cabernet until 1991, except for two years, where the grapes actually went into Insignia. From 1992 on, its all been bottled as Araujo Eisele Vineyard.

TR: Let’s switch gears from Cabernet to Pinot Noir. You’ve just released a wine under your own label, the 2006 Matthew D. Taylor Michaud Vineyard Pinot Noir from Monterey County. I suppose it marks a return to your early days at Joseph Swan and your influences in Burgundy.

MT: Pinot is kind of my bloodline, and Bart Araujo got tired of hearing me talk about Pinot, so in 2006, he said, “You know what, why don’t you make some Pinot?” And I said that sounds great, but he said, “There’s one condition: I want you to find the best Pinot vineyard in California that you can find.” A few places jumped out at me, I really love Hirsch and I really love Savoy vineyards, and I really love the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino area. But I think what kept resonating with me was that I thought of Michael Michaud, and I love his Chardonnay. I felt like his Chardonnay was probably the most Burgundian Chardonnay in the United States. I visited him, and he had some Pinot that was coming into its seventh or eighth year, and I tasted a vertical with him, and saw the development, and decided this was the type of Pinot I wanted to make.

TR: What sets this vineyard apart from some of the others?

MT: Michael sells Pinot and Chard each year, and what he sells for Pinot are his Dijon clones. But he has one area that has Swan, Chalone and Pommard clones and that’s what he uses for his wine, with whatever Dijon is left over after selling. What’s nice is that I told him that I really wanted to use those other clones, and he’s been nice enough to split those Pommard, Chalone and Swan clones, and with the Dijon, I’m able to make a blend of everything, which is how it should be.

TR: Some of the discussion regarding clones can get a bit heady but I can’t really resist. Are there any particular attributes that each clone delivers?

MT: Well, it depends on where they’re grown, but I would say that Dijon clones have much more of that Russian River strawberry and cherry jumping out of the glass, while Pommard tends to hold a little more backbone, and Swan seems to have the best of both worlds. Chalone I haven’t had muchg experience iowth, it’s just one of those clones that have been down there forever and has acclimated itself there.

TR: What’s the long-term approach with the Matthew D. Taylor label?

MT: Being that I’m able to make my wine here at Araujo, I don’t want to overstep my boundaries. I get one tank per year to keep production at a safe level, which for me was 150 cases in 2006. I’m doing a small amount and I’ve priced it at a point where, upon release, I think a lot of people recommended that I could probably be selling at a lot higher price. But I really wanted to allow people to get behind it and support it, which means no critics.

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