As a lead-up to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference, we continue the series featuring the wines, wineries, and winemakers of Santa Barbara County. In this installment in the ‘get to know the winemaker series,’ we visit with Paul Wilkins, winemaker at Alta Maria Vineyards.
With deep roots in California agriculture — his father and great-grandfather were family farmers in the Central San Joaquin Valley — Paul Wilkins seemed destined for a life in agriculture.
Feeling the pull back to farming, he changed departments to study Fruit Science with a concentration in Viticulture and started to explore the mid 1990’s Central Coast Wine Industry.
Paul started his wine career before graduating from Cal Poly when he landed an internship with John Alban of Alban Vineyards, which developed into the full-time Assistant Winemaker. He remained at Alban through the 2004 vintage before departing to begin consulting on Native9 along with a few other start-up and established wine brands.
The following year, Paul and longtime friend from college James Ontiveros (who is also the proprietor of Native9), founded Alta Maria Vineyards to focus on small-lot, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from the Santa Maria Valley. And, in 2010, Paul founded his own Rhone variety brand called AUTØNØM.
The 2014 vintage will mark Paul’s 19th vintage as a California winemaker.
Describe your winegrowing philosophy?
My winegrowing philosophy covers all styles of wine. Coming from Alban Vineyards, people have assumed I’d stick to ripe, reductive styles of wine. That may work for fantastic Los Alamos Valley Syrah, but that doesn’t work for great Santa Maria Pinot Noir. My techniques respect the variety and the region the grapes come from, taking into consideration the soils, climates, topography, etc. ‘Classic’ is simplified way to describe it, but you can throw ‘respectful’ in there as well.
How has the wine narrative in California, and the larger wine world, changed since your first vintage?
There are more outlets for people to express what they think is right and what they think is wrong about wine. The blogosphere has broken down the walls of the old wine publications, which ruled the industry for decades. I don’t get invested in what is said through the new medium, as I frankly don’t have that much time, but I love to see the change. I think the blogosphere is helping grow our industry in ways that it couldn’t do itself because the sanctimonious establishments inherently stymied the industry.
What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see ended?
I approach people who are new to wine and who may have misconceptions much the way I was taught, with the urge to help them learn. There is great satisfaction in helping new wine enthusiasts. The phrase ‘this might sound like a dumb question‘ is so cliché. Once it is explained, wine is one of the simplest things on earth. I don’t believe in the mysticism of wine that is created by imprudent marketing; but I don’t discredit wine’s ethereal and euphoric effects either.
The Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) is a fast-paced, wine-soaked weekend with many wines, stories and experiences. What would you like WBC attendees to know about you, your wines, and/or your winery?
Come to our WBC14 Blogger’s Afternoon at the Alta Maria Vineyards Tasting Room (2933 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos) on Wednesday July 9th, between 12pm and 5pm and we’ll share all that we have.
Details of the Alta Maria Vineyards Blogger Afternoon can be found here: http://calicoastwinecountry.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/alta-maria-bien-nacido-vineyards/
What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?
I don’t have one. I will say that Chardonnay has become one I respect more than I ever have. Learning its nuances and how amazing it can be made changed my attitude towards it. But each varietal I work with excites me in different ways: like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir for its grace and elegance; Syrah, for its power and fortitude; and Grenache, for its sneaky good tendencies even when it comes from vineyards or regions that make no sense.
What vintners or regions do you look to for inspiration (and favorite wines)?
My very, very short list would be Rhone, Burgundy, Bandol, Loire, Austria and Italy. Rayas, Guigal, Beacastel, Clape, Dujac, Leflaive, Tempier, Dagueneau and Knoll. Piedmont producers are too numerous to list.
What is the worst (wine related) mistake you’ve ever made?
I can’t recall the exact electrical specs, so please forgive me, but plugging a 240v 3phase mono-block mobile bottle filler/corker into a 480v single-phase receptacle with an entire bottling crew and three days of bottling to do. That was a $15,000 oops when I had only two vintages under my belt.
What wine do you not currently make but would like to? (or, what variety do you not currently grow but would like to)?
Barbera, Dolcetto and/or Nebbiolo. I think there will be an increase in the planting of these varieties on the Central Coast by serious farmers — by people who know what great Piedmont wines taste like. I have been told I “need” to make Viognier and Roussanne by some of those who are close to me. We’ll have to wait and see on those as my standards are pretty high — I cut my teeth on Condrieu and Beaucastel’s Vieille Vigne Blanc and I haven’t found vineyards in California that can match those two yet.
What did you drink last night?
A tank sample of Alta Maria’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. I commonly will keep samples of our un-bottled wine to try with dinner. It helps me gauge their range and how they adapt with food.
Thank you Paul for sharing your time with us. Look forward to meeting you on July 9.
Alta Maria Vineyard