Steve Matthiasson & The New Wave of California Wines, Part II
Steve & Jill Klein Matthiasson (photo credit)
At the end of a dead end street in Napa, there’s an illusory driveway with a road in place of a home. Continuing behind a row of track housing, the gravel leads to the Matthiasson estate – an early 20th century farmhouse on stilts, an avocado tree beside a barn, 3.5 acres of vines on 7 acres of farmland – an oasis amidst urban sprawl. “At my house we have Refosco, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Ribolla, all in the same soil. And the reason I’m there is because it’s the only place I can afford,” said Steve Matthiasson and laughed. “I’d take a dump yard,” and laughed again. “It becomes very careful farming, getting the vines to think they’re in a world class site.”
And while Steve compared the current “new wave” of California winemakers to the underground indie scene in our last post, the punk rock posture is easily transposed into vineyard practices.
“To begin with, the key principle of American indie rock wasn’t a circumscribed musical style; it was the punk ethos of DIY, or do-it-yourself. The equation was simple: If punk was rebellious and DIY was rebellious, then doing it yourself was punk. ‘Punk was about more than just starting a band,’ former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt once said, ‘it was about starting a label, it was about touring, it was about taking control. It was like songwriting; you just do it. You want a record, you pay the pressing plant. That’s what it was all about.'” – Michael Azerrad Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991
A self-taught winemaker, who’s a university trained agriculturist with a M.A. in horticulture, Matthiasson consults on a number of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. “When I finally got my own land, I had a sense,” said Steve. “For 20 years, I’ve gone from vineyard to vineyard, talking about everything – tractors, labor, ground water, etc. Farming is so knowledge intensive and with winemaking it’s the same way. I spent time in the cellar with winemakers, prepping filters and tanks…From cellar to cellar, you taste the wines and get a sense of the process. You taste the fruit in the field, taste the wine, and make a connection.”
In the Matthiasson Vineyard (photo credit)
Working with varietals that are almost non-existent in Napa, such as Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano, both of which found their way into his White Blend, Matthiasson said, “I’m not trying to make great wines of Friuli, I’m trying to make unique wines…It’s [about] what Ribolla is going to do here. There are certain flavors that are a part of Ribolla no matter where you grow it.”
The dry-farmed Sauvignon Blanc vines from Ryans Vineyard, which makes up 59% of the White Blend, are planted with native grasses whose roots dig six feet deep into the earth, “so the vines experience the [same] stress that they’d experience on the Mauro Hillside site in Friuli.” Employing a trellis with four canes, Matthiasson slows the grapes’ ripening, so that “the sugar doesn’t spike on you, and we can let them hang…if we didn’t have the native grasses, the sugar would shoot ahead.”
“The breakthrough realization that you didn’t have to be a blow-dried guitar god to be a valid rock musician ran deep; it was liberating on many levels, especially from what many perceived as the selfishness, greed, and arrogance of Reagan’s America. The indie underground made a modest way of life not just attractive but a downright moral imperative.” – Michael Azzerrad
“The wine world has created a thing with special sites. If you have a special site,” said Steve, “you have to perpetuate a myth.” And while he concedes that terroir is important, Matthiasson believes that 95% of soil is mediocre, that “climate is the most important thing, but if you have great soil, then that trumps everything.”
As a world class site, the Red Hen Merlot Vineyard at Dry Creek is a 100 acre property where Matthiasson leases a small corner on rocky soils, where the owners wanted to build a reservoir. With “these great sites in the world, you can’t mess it up,” said Steve. “If you keep the vines healthy, the wine will turn out right.”
Allowing that a key part of wine making is making wines that are right for the terroir, Steve admits that he could “oak the crap” out of his Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay, to “get a lot of money, but [then] it’d be contrived opulence instead of natural opulence,” much like a blow-dried guitar god.
Living modestly as a moral imperative, the Matthiasson family thrives on sustenance. Jill Klein Matthiasson works with local farmers and serves on the Napa Farmer’s Market Board, teaches “cooking from the garden” to school kids, and plays a leading role in cultivating the Matthiasson lifestyle.
“This is central for us,” said Steve, “to put our heart and love into the grapes. The Zen idea of transmitting goodness into wine through work, so that it nourishes you as you drink it.”