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California's Next Super-Consultant

CONTINUING our interview
Mark Aubert, winemaker
for Peter Michael and Colgin

(Click here to return to previous page)

APJ: I hear you’ll be making your own Pinot Noir....

MA: And Chardonnay!

APJ: Where will the grapes be coming from?

MA: It’s a Sonoma Coast vineyard. We’re going to have 2 or 3 cuvees each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. From only the finest, rarest clones. And only from the Sonoma Coast appellation. I’m not looking at Carneros -- nothing but the Sonoma Coast.

APJ: You regard the Sonoma Coast as the promised land for Chard and Pinot?

MA: It sure is. And I want to be an established player in these Sonoma Coast wines because there are going to be some gems out there. You’ll be seeing vineyards with Grand Cru quality red and white Burgundy varieties. We have not yet seen the best wines.

     Marcassin has hit the mark. Helen Turley and a few other people are going to have the most collectible wines in that area. If you think Flowers is good, you haven’t seen anything yet.

APJ: I do think Flowers is good!

MA: It is good. There’s going to be better. Because the clonal material that we’re using in some of these vineyards is better, the spacings are tighter...

"You can count on Helen Turley to be on top of the heap for at least the next 5 years..."

APJ: When does your first wine come out?

MA: I’m not going to have a wine to sell for 3 or 4 years. The vines are still very young.

     You can count on Helen to be on top of the heap for at least the next 5 years. There’s no way anybody’s going to knock her off the top.

APJ: Why?

MA: She's got a great site on the Coast, her yields are minuscule, her clones are superb, her winemaking is technically perfect. Everything’s right on track.

APJ: So your first vintage will be...?

MA: It should be 2002.

APJ: What kind of quantities can we expect from Aubert Wines?

MA: It will be significant. You’ll see 500-case quantities of 2 or 3 different wines. Enough to get out to the right hands.

Part 4. Growing up in 1970s Napa Valley

APJ: Let's jump way back in time now. How did you get here? What made you get into the wine business to begin with?

MA: Well, I kind of grew up in Napa Valley. My family moved here in 1970. My dad bought a drugstore in Calistoga.

     I was eleven years old or so when we moved out here. Grew up in St. Helena. Went to one grade of elementary school, and then junior high and high school.

"We didn't drink beer, we drank Champagne!"

APJ: What was it like being a teenager in Napa Valley?

MA: Even back in the 70s it was pretty affluent. And well, different in other ways too. We didn’t drink beer -- we drank Champagne!

APJ: Champagne? What kind?

MA: Veuve Cliquot orange label. That was my favorite. We also drank Cabs. Some really good Cabs.

     My Dad didn't have a problem with me taking a bottle from the cellar, as long as I promised not to drive. Like in France, wine was part of your family lifestyle. You had it with meals. It was like that. It wasn’t about alcoholism. Of course, Napa Valley has changed incredibly since then.

     I had a very close friend who was the nephew of Charles Carpy, who owned Freemark Abbey. My friend’s mother was Carpy’s sister -- and she was a partner. So we always had Freemark Abbey wine. The good old stuff. ‘72, ‘74 and ‘69 Bosches.

     One of the most profound wines I ever had from Napa Valley is the ‘68 York Creek Petite Sirah from Freemark Abbey. I would bet it’s just as profound now as it was 20 years ago. God was it good!

     Must have been back in 1978. It looked like used motor oil, it was so black. And as teenagers, we probably loved it because it had 14.5% alcohol. But it was the best wine to have with a barbecued steak.

     I remember having quite a few wines like that along the river. All my friends seemed to have properties along the river. You’d be out there at sunset, in the moonlight. Beautiful.

APJ: So when did you decide to make wine your career?

MA: In 1980. My parents were horrified. They wanted me to be an engineer.

     Silicon Valley was taking off and wine was in the dumper. Basically my parents had a gun to my head. "Don’t go into winemaking, because there’s no money in it -- and no careers."

APJ: What does your dad say now?

MA: Never hear about that anymore! No, he’s very proud.

APJ: Where did you work before Peter Michael?

MA: In 1988 and 1989 I worked at a family winery called Monticello. I made their first lees-stirred Chardonnay, back in 1988. We made some super wines that year.

APJ: How exactly did you get your job at Peter Michael?

MA: Helen Turley hired me. I met Helen in the late '80s over at the All Seasons wine shop in Calistoga. It was an exciting place back then. Carried all kinds of neat wines and some very savvy people hung out there.

Part 5. Plotting a wine revolution
at the "University of All Seasons"

APJ: Tell me more about those times.

MA: Well, Helen's husband ran the place. John Wetlaufer. And if you know him, you know he's a self-taught-wine-genius type of guy.

     The best thing about All Seasons is, John would bring in wines that were interesting and educational to winemakers. So he'd have the greatest white Burgundies, red Burgundies...and he'd have the rarest and the best Napa and Sonoma products.

     The place was just like, well, the University of All Seasons. You'd go in there and before you know it, you'd have the Parker guide out, you'd be talking about wines, tasting, arguing. There was always something open to taste. It was a small wine shop, but there was always something interesting to taste.

     John would open -- everything you'd want, basically! There would be Grand Cru White Burgundy open, there would be great Cabernets from Napa Valley open. It was always a fun place to talk.

"It became a winemaker hangout. Tony Soter...David Ramey...Steve Kistler...Bill Smith...you name it, they were in there."

     It became a winemaker hangout. I used to buy lots of wine there. And taste lots of course. It was really fun. A great place to network and meet other winemakers.

APJ: Who else used to hang out there?

MA: Let's see. Tony Soter...David Ramey...Steve Kistler...Bill Smith...you name it, they were in there.

     All Seasons was the place that people were going to. And it had a really friendly academic atmosphere. It was a place to learn. And argue! I was in a lot of arguments with other winemakers.Winemakers are always the biggest critics of themselves.

     There was no other place like it in Napa Valley! Nothing like it in Sonoma, either -- nothing I ever heard about, anyway. You think of all these great wineries in Napa Valley and you'd think there would be all these great wine shops. And shoot, there was only one.

     And now there are none, really. All Seasons is not the same as it used to be.

APJ: Wish I had been there! But let's get back to you. It's the late eighties, and you met Helen Turley at All Seasons.

MA: Yes. She had been consulting at Peter Michael since 1986. She said "Why don't you come visit me there sometime." So I did. And I remember seeing the place and thinking, "Wow, what a beautiful little winery!"

     But she had already hired an assistant. A fellow named Chris Howell, who's now at Cain cellars.

     Then Chris left in early 1990. And so Helen just called me and said, "Would you like to come work for me?" And I said, "Yeah, I can do that!" That was the smartest move I ever made.

Part 6. How to make a great unfiltered Chardonnay:

APJ: Wasn't Peter Michael a pioneer of natural yeast, unfiltered, lees-stirred Chardonnay?

MA: Yes. But I had already done lees-stirred Chardonnay at Monticello.

APJ: How different was it to go all the way -- to unfiltered, natural yeast, no safety net?

MA: Easy. If you follow the simple evolution of how a wine is made, nothing can really go wrong. You have to watch the residual sugar, but once it ferments dry, it's not going to do anything.

     Oh yes, the natural yeasts behave a little differently. However, once the sugar is gone, we know the yeasts are going to die. Their life cycle is complete. They fall to the bottom.

     Malolactic is trickier, but the end result is much the same. We force the malolactic through with a little heat. And we culture our own bacteria. Once they're done, nothing is going to happen. The wine is stable.

     After that, whether or not you want to polish them up with a filtration is your choice. But biologically, nothing bad can happen with these wines.

APJ: How about red wines? Any difference?

MA: You bet red wines are different. You can have a problem with brettanomyces in your Cabernets, if you’re not careful. The residual sugars are extremely critical in Cabernet-based wines.

APJ: Why? What's the connection?

MA: Well, brettanomyces is a yeast that gives you the barnyard, sauvage quality in a wine. And brett likes residual sugar. It can get into your wine when you have even a very low residual sugar level -- a level that can't be detected by the human palate.

     If your wine smells fecal, you can bet the wine had at least 1.5 grams residual sugar. If you get down to about .7 or .5, you're fine.

APJ: You almost make natural fermentation sound easy. But did you have that same confidence back when you started at Peter Michael?

MA: I had to get it fast. I worked with Helen for about 4 months and then she took me aside for a talk.

     She said she was pursuing Marcassin, she was establishing her own vineyard on the Sonoma coast and she wanted to be a consultant. She told me the time was right for her to leave -- and that I’m it.

     So she left. And I thought, "Oh my God." I had never done natural yeast before. But it turned out fine. All I did was follow what she did in 1989, 1988 and 1987 at Peter Michael.

APJ: Which was...?

"Basically, you do nothing..."

MA: Basically nothing! We put the fresh juice in the barrels and the only thing we added was a little sulfur dioxide. And away you go.

APJ: That’s it?

MA: It was a bit nerve-wracking at first. I’m sure I lost a lot of sleep. But in 1990 the fermentations went really well.

APJ: Others didn’t?

MA: Others weren’t as easy. Each one can put its own strains on your emotions.

APJ: What happens when it’s not easy?

MA: Well here’s an example. Some of the ‘97 Chardonnays from the Mon Plaisir lots fermented for 6 months.

APJ: Half a year?

MA: Yes, they go all winter and they just keep plugging along. October, November, December, January, February...and they stop fermenting around March.

     But now they’re bone dry. And they’re some of the most compelling wines I’ve ever made. The ‘97s are incredibly complex. Especially the Cuvee Indigene, which also took forever to ferment.

APJ: Are all the Peter Michael Chards naturally fermented now?

MA: Not yet. You see, Helen initially only did a few barrels of naturally fermented wine -- of Indigene -- per vintage. Two barrels in 1987, two barrels in 1988 and four in 1989.

     She was just getting them started, developing the wild yeast population in the cellar. If she had stayed on, she would have done a lot more, of course.

     We made a big increase in 1990. Fermented a lot of Chard and Sauvignon Blanc natural. And we're still building it up.

APJ: Why not do it all naturally?

"We feel the cellar only has so much natural yeast in it now...so we're still at about 70% naturally fermented."

MA: Well, we feel the cellar only has so much natural yeast in it now. It's a young winery, only ten or so years old. So we're still at about 70% naturally fermented now.

     Not 100% yet. It will be 100% in another few years. But feel there may not be enough yeast in the cellar right now. Anyhow, that's our model, and we live by it.

APJ: Speaking of all these different Chardonnay cuvees, how did the Peter Michael Pointe Rouge get its name? That’s their top-of-the-line Chardonnay, right?

MA: I named it, but the story behind it goes back to Helen. She had special barrels in the cellar that had little Avery red dots on them. She wanted a quick way to identify the barrels that she thought were really, really good. When she liked one, she’d stick a red dot on the barrel hoop.

     Well, I took that thought one step further and put it on the label. Pointe Rouge literally means "red dot."

Of course, we stopped using red dots on the barrels a long time ago. Each barrel is specially coded now.

APJ: When do you make the classification for Pointe Rouge?

MA: Usually around March or April of the next year. By that time, character is emerging and we can tell which ones will be the best.

     The Pointe Rouge lots all come from a very exclusive part of the Gauer Ranch. Where the vines are the oldest, exposure is the tallest and the clone is the best. It’s "Upper Barn 48." It’s the same area where one of Marcassin’s best cuvees gets its fruit.

APJ: Where does the fruit for the Cuvee Indigene come from?

CONTINUED on next page. Click here to go to there...

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