Maître-de-Chai

United States - California

The new “not-so-old” California?

Much has been written about the “new” California, the young radicals re-thinking California’s myopic focus on Chardonnay and Cabernet (check out Jon Bonné’s excellent book The New California as a key document of this movement). There has been a long-overdue exploration of California’s possibilities, with curious heroes like Albariño, Ribolla Gialla, Trousseau and Valdiguié flexing their muscles.

There is, however, another group, looking to the “not-so-old” California for inspiration.

But yes, we’re going to have to define what exactly we mean by “new” and by “old.” It’s all relative.

20150301 Lodi Pitts Winters 2

The admittedly over-simplified version of California wine culture goes something like this. In the late 19th century California was a potpourri of grapes and vines. Most vineyards were planted willy-nilly and mostly with grapes you’ve either never heard of or that don’t currently get a whole lot of respect. The “field blend” was king. This is what I suppose you could call “old California.”

Mondavi’s trip to Europe in the 1960s is an easy marker for the state’s shifting gears, refocusing on what was considered the “serious” wine culture of Europe. This is what some have called “the golden age of the Golden state,” the beginning of the rise of the grapes we all love to hate (and/or love): Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

I suppose we can call this the “middle” of California winemaking?

If the excesses of ripeness, alcohol, new oak and other technologies perverted the reputation of these classic European varieties, turning off a large swath of the winemakers and drinkers alike, there are some now looking back to the wines made before all this manipulation. It turns out there were some very good wines made in the 1970s and 80s. We are talking about the Chardonnays of Stony Hill and Mayacamas, the Mondavi I Block Sauvignon Blanc, the Chalone Pinot Noirs and the structured Cabs of Corison, Diamond Creek, Dunn, Mondavi and Togni, to name the most obvious.

It might just be that in the pursuit of the very old or very new, we’ve thrown out that whole middle. It might just be that Chardonnay, Cabernet and the others, while not being the original or the only or the best or the most serious grapes of California… well, they still might be pretty damn good.

And thus we get to the most exciting part of Alex Pitts and Marty Winter’s project: they not trying to do anything exciting at all.

The two founded Maître-de-Chai (pronounced “MAY-truh de SHAY” though you can go ahead and say MDC) in 2012 as a homage of sorts to the “middle,” to this famous Renaissance in California wine. The focus is the classic varieties, without the excesses, without the manipulation. Yes, you can have Chardonnay in California without stratospheric alcohols; you can have Pinot Noir with elegance.

You can even have your Fumé Blanc with mineral and tension. You can have wines that age gracefully.

Neither Alex nor Marty are “professionally” trained winemakers; in fact they met as chefs in the kitchen of Sonoma’s Cyrus restaurant under Douglas Keane. The winemaking is hands-off – nothing added, nothing taken away (it’s worth keeping in mind Alex is still the assistant winemaker at Scholium Project). All fermentations are carried out by natural yeasts, sulfur is kept to a minimum, most wines are bottled without fining or filtering.

As with many younger growers MDC does not own vineyards, but Alex and Marty do have close relationships with all the growers they work with and in some cases they do the work themselves. Case in point: the Herron vineyard in the geeky Sonoma Mountain AVA. This is a one-and-a-half-acre, cool-climate site with 65-year-old vines. They control the farming here and it is worked organically. (The Sauvignon Blanc from Herron is bonkers and hits retail shelves at about $20.) The Kierkegaard Chardonnay comes from the Stuhlmuller vineyard in the Alexander Valley; the site is also farmed organically. The Stampede vineyard, made famous by Morgan Twain Peterson and Chris Cottrell at Bedrock Wine Co., is full of own-rooted, dry-farmed Zinfandel planted in the 1940s. For MDC, the reference Zinfandels are Paul Draper’s finessed renditions from Ridge.

Great wine is made from great vineyards, from great grapes – that’s so obvious and so overstated that it already feels trite. As Maître de Chai, “masters of the cellar,” Alex and Marty acknowledge the supremacy of the vineyard and their own rather limited role.

Let the vineyard do its work and don’t *** it up in the cellar. That’s the master’s role.