It’s interview central here at Vin de la Table. Last week it was Ryan Williams of Ana Mandara, this week, it’s winemaker and owner of Terre Rouge and Easton wines, Bill Easton. Ah, but we are a blessed crowd. So many interviews, so little time.
One of the most notable winemakers in the Amador County, Sierra Foothills region of California (yes, they make wine there!), Bill Easton is a true wine professional. Not only is he experienced in the field, in the cellar, and in the tasting room, Easton owned his own wine shop, served as a European wine importer, and acts as a mentor to inspiring winemakers from across the globe. And he makes some damn tasty wines.
When I spoke to Easton he had just finished weeding, tuckering, suckering his vineyard, and setting up irrigation to battle with low rain yields in the fields.
We're familiar with each other because you were the first owner of the shop where I currently work. You owned the shop for seventeen years and made a name for it as a great place to go for small production California wine. When did you open Solano Cellars, and when you first opened the shop, did you think that someday you'd try your hand at winemaking?
I owned Solano from March 1978 to June 1994. I had been in the wine business since 1975, right after UC Berkeley. While I was at Solano, I also worked in Russian River Valley, at a winery, and I went back and forth between there and Berkeley. My heart was always in the production side, but the path I took was in retail, for a little capital accumulation. I started making home wine in 1980, and in 85,' I started the Terre Rouge label.
At that point, I didn't own a vineyard. I owned house in Fiddletown [small Amador County town], which is now my business office. I talked to local grower and convinced him to graft over vines to Grenache, Syrah , Mourvèdre, and Cinsualt. That was the beginning of the Terre Rouge project.
Later these were supplemented with historical sources- old plantings of Grenache that I suspect were used for home winemakers on east coast after World War II, that were eighty-five plus years old.
We later abandoned some of those vineyards because now we have better plantings. We experimented and now we are more sophisticated about vineyard sittings and terriors.
In what ways?
Well, we now know where some varieties are excellent. Light, sandy, loam soils are good for Grenache. Syrah likes volcanic soils and high elevation. And if you use different clones, you'll get a more different, varied syrah palate and flavors. Mourvèdre likes sandy soil. Basically, every site is going to give you a different grape expression.
What was the final push that lead you to owning your own vineyards?
I decided that I wanted to consolidate my life in the foothills. My wife Jane and I decided that we wanted to raise our son there. And I exhausted my interest in retail. I realized that my passion was the wine and terriors of Sierra Nevada.
Why Amador county? Why not Sonoma County?
It's the terrior. To start, the winery is in the Shenandoah Valley of California. This is where our Cabernet Sauvigon and Zinfandel are located, in granite-based sandy, loam soils. The winery business office is in Fiddletown. That's where we also have some Syrah and Viognier, where there are granite and volcanic soils like Côte Rotie. In these soils is where these grapes excel, as in the old world - France. Condrieu [a Viognier appellation in the Rhone Valley] is basically decomposed granite, for example. These are some of different terriors around us.
I was attracted to the foothills because they’re so many varied terriors and they are so similar to Rhone terriors [where many of the same grapes that Easton grows are centered]. That’s why Rhone winemakers like my wine so much. People complement me by saying that my wine taste like Rhone wines. They don’t have that overly fruity, high alcohol fruit like some in Central Coast or Washington. They’ve got a backbone. I think that you can grow wine more authentically like Rhone wines here than you can anywhere else in the United States.
Do you find the differences in lifestyle in Napa or parts of Sonoma affect the style of wine- the final product?
The kind of wine that I wanted to make is the number one thing; lifestyle is secondary. I really admire people like Josh Jensen at Calera, Paul Draper at Ridge, the Bennetts at Navarro, and Jim Clendenen [of Au Bon Climat] in Santa Barbara, with his mineral chardonnay. They are people who put the wine first. They put their passion for terrior before lifestyle.
Plus, around here it's quiet. Fiddletown is a really nice, quiet town. But there are also some great restaurants nearby, and we're close to cities like Sacramento and San Francisco. Living here is probably more similar to the more rural living around Howell mountain in Napa as opposed to living off Highway 29.
Who were your early influences when you started winemaking? Any of the people that you just mentioned?
Their inspiration was really in the way they approached their projects and terrior. As far as my mentors, I spent time in cellars in Europe. I spent a lot of time there in particular when I was buying wine for Solano Cellars. I went to France, Italy, Spain, where I spent a lot of time in cellars. I was also fortunate to tour with famous wine writers in Italy. I got to hang out, ask questions about philosophy and technique. I learned so much from these meetings and I've always been interested in winemaking in that way. I mean, even when I owned Solano Cellars, I subscribed to winemaker magazines.
When you starting winemaking, did any experiences from your wine shop/bistro days shape your winemaking style?
I try to make the best wine I can from the fruit I have to work with. I try to wine balanced wine that I like to drink. Two of my main things are that I make wine that appeal to my palate, wines that I want to take home and drink. I also try to make hedonistic wines, that after you have one glass, you want another. I tend not to make monolithic wines and don't focus on scores. My wines often make Parker's newsletter, and he's said good things about them, but I don't focusing on getting extreme scores.
Good friends of my family, Joanne, Felipe and Joseph Craig-Ferraz have a little house in Fiddletown. I found out a while ago that they have been renting out one of their rooms to burgeoning young winemakers who have come from different areas in Europe to learn from you.
I have a program that is my way of giving back to people who are passionate about wine. Or, it's also a program that allows people to find out if they are really passionate about wine, or passionate enough about it. From late August to November, people come from France. They often rent a room in that Fiddletown house, which is in an old brewery. It's kind of a French atmosphere, the interns like it.
How do these people find you?
They’re hooked up with me through winemaker friends. They make recommendations.
I've been to France, and even in Paris, there didn't seem to be as much exposure to smaller production California wine as there is here. If fact, Cali wine is hard to find there and pretty expensive. Most wine in shops was Gallo or Mondavi. That being, how did these Europeans find out about your winery? Do you travel to Europe on business?
There's not much a market for U.S. wines except at two or three wine shops, and at some restaurants in Paris, and in tourist areas. Most parts of France are still very regional with their wines. They drink the wines of the area with the region's food.
Something I am really looking forward to is going with ZAP next June to promote Zinfandel in France and other European places. We'd like to create more exposure.
How does it make you feel that people are coming from another country that has centuries more experience than our own in winemaking to work with you? Seems pretty flattering to me…..
What do they learn from you that they might not in, say, France?
[Laughs] They often come to learn English better. They come because people who want to be world class in wine these days, they want to have experience in California, not just their region. They go out to other places. They want to see how we are approaching wine, along with South Africa, Australia. They want to expand their knowledge of cellar and vineyard techniques everywhere.
FOOD AND WINE
We recently taught a food and wine class where we used your Terre Rouge de l''Ouest Syrah to show how a nicely fruited, well-balanced Syrah is an excellent wine to lean on when pairing wine to cuisines that most times aren't traditionally paired with wine. It was fantastic with Indian food and Moroccan chicken, for example. And, it was also showed well with a sharp cheddar- a cheese that can be finicky with red wine.
Is this news to you at all?
Syrah is such a luscious wine, but also it's spicy, gamey, with great garrigue. It likes spiced foods. One of best matches for Syrah is lamb. That's my top match, and it's great in a Moroccan style preparation.
What do you drink with your wine at home?
My wife is a chef, so we eat well. Last night, we had a Côtes-du-Rhône with leftover chicken sausages with fresh squash from Red Bluff. Another night, we made some pizza dough and topped it with tomatoes, pecorino and had a salad. We don't always drink our own wine. We drink lots of French, and Italian. Recently we had a Corbières with lentils and greens with jasmine rice and pine nuts, and a salad. We're well fed!
Jane is a really talented cook- she started the bistro at Solano Cellars after returning from Europe. She started it simply with quiche, meats, and fruit. Then before we knew it she was cooking cassoulet, and braised duck legs.
At there foods at winemaker dinners hosted at restaurants that you commonly see paired with your wine, or have you had exceptionally good pairings at any of these events latley?
One of the best dinners this year so far was one at Plymouth, CA, at Restaurant Taste.
I’ll leave you here, Vin de la Table readers, with the menu that Taste was kind enough to send me. Food and wine for thought. I hope that you enjoyed the interview.
2008 Seasonal Dinner Series featuring Terre Rouge and Easton Wines at Restaurant Taste – Plymouth, Ca, Sunday, June 1, 2008
Grilled Jumbo Prawn Bites, Lobster, red pepper essence
2007 Terre Rouge Vin Gris
Crispy Soft Shell Crab, creamy risotto, spring peas, spring onions, fava beans
2005 Terre Rouge Roussane
[earned 5 stars from Easton for best pairing]
Roasted Diamond H Ranch Quail stuffed with mushroom duxelles, fresh cherry compote, savory goat cheese danish
2005 Terre Rouge Tete-a-Tete
Grilled Cedar Springs Lamb, caramelized fennel and eggplant caviar, grilled local asparagus
2003 Easton Estate Zinfandel
2001 Terre Rouge Sentinel Oak Syrah Pyramid Block
Toasted Almond Tuile, apricot sorbet, toasted coconut, caramel
2004 Terre Rouge Muscat-a-Petit Grains
Next month’s winemaker interview.... Laura Cantena of Argentina’s Luca Wines.