Local Winery Watch: Putah Creek Winery
It’s two o’clock on a damp Saturday afternoon, and I’m in the production building of Putah Creek Winery; in one hand I have a notepad, in the other, a glass of 2009 Chardonnay, fresh from the barrel.
The lemon-lime colored wine is hazily translucent, and has a bright, tropical flavor- it’s only about 6 months old, but to me, it already tastes good. Could it be an award winner? I don’t know, but Gene Glaeser and Jeremy Bivins do. And they’re not telling.
Gene and his wife Cathy are the owners of Putah Creek Winery, a South Davis based operation that sits amid 20 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards. Up the dirt road a bit, near the family’s house, are 35 additional acres of the Glaeser’s grapes. The vineyards, originally used to produce grape vine cuttings, were planted in the late 70s, but Jeremy, Putah Creek Winery’s resident vintner, suspects many in Davis don’t know they exist.
“People didn’t think grapes from our region could make a decent wine,” Gene says. “But you can’t just tell people your wine is good, they have to taste it.” If their slew of recent prizes is any indication, Gene won’t need to do much convincing.
In 2009, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition awarded Putah Creek Winery a silver medal for their 2006 Tannat (a tannic red often used in blends). This year Gene and Jeremy walked away with two medals: a silver (for the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon) and a bronze (for the 2007 Barbera). Gene gestures to the vineyards behind me; the Barbera vines are grown right outside the door, about 50 feet from where we’re standing.
The winery, a small, unobtrusive building with corrugated metal walls, a peaked roof, and exposed cement floors, overlooks a landscape lush with grass, grapevines and oak trees. (“You should see it in the spring,” Gene says.) Inside, wooden barrels of wine stacked on racks three high tower above us (nearly all of them are full). In the back, one of Gene’s four employees operates a small device loaded with a thick roll of labels; each bottle is filled, corked, and labeled by hand.
Today’s job involves tasting through the 2008s; not bad work for a Saturday, but as Gene likes to say, “it’s a full-time job on the side.”
I set my glass of chardonnay on a table next to a heavy-looking piece of red equipment. It’s slightly larger than a sewing machine with a long handled lever attached to the right side: a capsule spinner, Gene tells me. I watch as he places a cylindrical tin sheath (the capsule) on a corked bottle of wine, inserts the head, and pulls the lever. The machine whirs and rumbles, and in seconds the capsule is shrunk around the top and neck of the bottle. When production time comes, they repeat the process, one by one, for every bottle of wine.
“It doesn’t get any more boutique than this,” Gene chuckles. Recently, they’ve been fine-tuning conditions for their white wines: experimenting with yeast types, fermentation techniques, and aging times. The goal, though, is to keep the process natural, and the style fruit-focused.
“It takes more effort,” Jeremy says, but he works to intervene as little as possible. “It’s important for the whites to express everything in the environment.”
We taste our chardonnay again, and, for a moment, Jeremy considers the flavor. “It’s still evolving,” he says, “If you had tried it a month ago, it would have tasted very different. There are still a lot of immature flavors.”
So, how will they know when it’s done? To Jeremy, it’s simple: “When it has a flavor profile we like.”
Is it really so straight-forward? “Some winemakers like to tinker with their wines, but the real secret is patience,” Jeremy explains. Gene nods in agreement.
I’m curious about what he means by ‘tinkering’, so Jeremy rummages through a cabinet and brings out a small, ziplock-sized bag of powdered potassium carbonate. It’s completely full, with an opening just large enough for Jeremy to extract a pinch. He sprinkles it into my wine, mixes it, then hands the glass to me.
The chemically modified chardonnay tastes completely different- less sweet, less tropical, not as good.
“It’s one way to tweak the flavor, but the downside is you lose some of the fruit.” Jeremy continues, with a wry smile, “Minimalist style is better for a reason.”
It’s a philosophy Gene shares, and one reason their partnership works so well. Gene and Jeremy have been making wine together since 2006, but Gene has been farming for decades. He was drawn to grapes because he believed he could differentiate himself from other farmers through his growing practices.
“If you’re growing corn or soybean, the only thing that counts is the harvest yield,” he says, “No matter how good of a farmer you are, there’s no feed back- the bottom line is quantity, and it doesn’t matter how you achieve that.”
“But with grapes you can taste the difference from one crop to the next, so you really learn how to become a better grower. Finish, fruit-forward, mouth-feel- all those terms became absolute to me when I started making my own wines.”
Jeremy brings out three new glasses – we’re moving on to our second barrel tasting: the 2008 Syrah. After we sample, Gene shakes his head and takes my glass, warming the bowl in his hands. “It tastes so much better a few degrees warmer,” he explains. And he’s right. To Jeremy, the Syrah’s flavor is fruit and sweet oak, but there’s a touch of concentrated bitterness that he hopes will soften over the next few months.
“We’re still hunting for that elusive gold,” he grins. I ask if they know when they have a medal-winner on their hands.
“Oh yeah,” Gene nods sagely, “We know.” Two of their new wines are showing promise, but when I ask which, they exchange coy glances. “ We don’t want to let it out of the bag just yet,” Gene smiles. “It’s going to be a surprise.”
Twice a year Putah Creek Winery hosts an open house that showcases their wine and vineyards. The next event is May 8th, 2010; they will be pouring twelve different varieties of wine and serving hors d’oeuvres. Tickets are $10, or free for their wine club members.