The Randle Johnson Interview with MacDaddy Marc from Enobytes
A couple of weeks back I got an invitation from the folks at The Hess Collection Wines advising me I could interview Randle at Andina in Portland prior to his annual trek to Argentina for harvest and subsequent winemaking duties for Colomé, Hess’s Argentinean outpost in the rugged northern growing region of Salta, Argentina. We were to meet for the interview and then have lunch while the wines from Artezin, Colomé were showcased to a roomful of local high-profile restaurant and Wine Bar Sommeliers and Wine Stewards from upscale retail wine outlets. I thought Randle and I had met before possibly more than once but I was not completely sure until we got together for this for interview, and I was correct, we had met before. Unlike when I used to interview witnesses for the public defender’s office this outing promised to be enlightening instead of harrowing. Depending on the day, you can never be sure of which one I might be more inclined to enjoy.
I arrived a little early at Andina as they were preparing for a busy lunch. It seems Portlanders love Peruvian food in a fine dining setting, to a degree I have never witnessed before in any other American city. Not that there is anything wrong with that especially for Andina. While a lot of really good fine dining restaurants have fallen to the wayside during the three-year economic turndown, Andina has obviously garnered a lot of loyal guests who continue to return. I have consumed their food a couple of times prior to this occasion and thought it was good, but what I hear from most loyal customers is how great the service is. I will save any other comments for my review of this restaurant.
This piece however is about one of America’s best unsung winemakers who despite achieving accolades and awards one after the other somehow his name is not quite a household name yet, even among pretty serious wine aficionados’. I hope that this article will bring Randle a bit more limelight for his outstanding contributions to the wine world for the last thirty years. It would be safe to say if you have consumed California wines for a few years, chances are pretty good you have experienced the finely crafted products Randle produces at one time or another as you will find out after reading this interview. Hopefully it will prompt you to take a chance and try more of the wonderful wines this global winemaker makes available for your enjoyment on a daily basis.
Randle (Calafia Cellars, Napa) was kind enough to sit down with me on February 22, 2011 at Andina restaurant in Portland prior to the wine luncheon where he promoted to a roomful of sommeliers the wines of Colomé and Artezin which are both part of The Hess Collection Wines.
I understand you attended UC Davis in 1974. Are you originally from California?
Yes, I grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area during the heyday of social upheaval.
Back in those days, did you ever make it to Winterland in San Francisco for Music Shows?
Well being a white bread kid from the suburbs, my parents were very conservative and when the whole free speech thing started happening in 1964 with Mario Savio I did not yet have my driver license so I made it to the Fillmore and Winterland a few times but not on a regular basis. My parents knew what kids were up too back then and what was happening in Berkeley around those times and they were very leery of my attendance at rock and roll shows where marijuana among other things might be consumed. However, Country Joe McDonald (of Woodstock Fame) played at my junior prom and at the time he and Janis Joplin were in a thing, as they liked to call it back then. It was rumored Janis Joplin would attend and perform on the set. As it turned out she did not accompany him but he did sing a couple of love songs written for her that were never recorded. I did make to Winterland a couple of times but it was not a regular haunt for me in those days.
I heard that after graduating from UC Davis your first winery job was working with Phil Baxter at Chateau Souverain?
I actually started in the fields, learned what I could about rootstock, thinning, canopy management and irrigation management. At the time, very few winemakers knew anything about how the fruit developed. Then in 1976, I was pulled into the winery by Phil Baxter who was a very good mentor. He let me take over as the cellar master so I begun pulling hoses, racking barrels and all the other duties that come with that illustrious position. I was doing the nightshift on the centrifuge and Phil kind of took me under his wing. Then I was invited to some of the upscale tastings where I was allowed to sit next to Lee Stewart. I was also sort of a student of André Tchelistcheff I was lucky enough to travel to France with him a couple of times but that’s another story. I worked for Phil for two years and on the second year, we had a drought. Phil pulled me aside and said he was getting pressure from above and if we did not crush at least 800 tons of grapes that year he was going to have to let me go. We only crushed around 675 tons so I was let go and I went to work for Mayacamas and that was the beginning of my work on Mt. Veeder.
I understand you worked for Stag’s Leap Winery for a couple of years. While working there could you describe a memorable experience that inspired or influenced you to continue in the wine field?
You realize this is the other Stag’s Leap not the one Warren Winiarski made famous during the famous “Judgment in Paris” on which the wine movie “Bottleshock “was based. Carl Doumani the owner was quite a character. He had previously been the general manager of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His parents started the Casino when Las Vegas was still all dirt roads. He then went on to become a successful real estate developer in Santa Monica. The Chase family originally owned that property and the Castle otherwise referred to as the Manor House was restored by Carl Doumani. Right before I was hired, I spent a lot of time driving grapes from Rutherford to Sonoma and that is how I got the job. Carl was selling some fruit to Phil Baxter at Chateau Souverain when Carl asked about anyone who would be suitable to become his winemaker with an emphasis on Petite Sirah. We made four thousand cases (give or take a few) my first vintage. The quality of the product and the pride that ensued made it very apparent I would continue to make wine for a while.
What direction will you take at Colomé that would separate your winemaking style and philosophy from Artezin?
Let me start out by brining to light my start in Argentina was an association with Bodegas Norton in 1996. We (Hess Collection) were the sole American Importer for four years and also with Mont Gras. The connection is with Donald Hess’s friend Daniel Swarovski of the collectable crystal fame. In 1995, I mainly helped them in their production with small cooperage. Those were the days when Paul Hobbs and Nicolas Catena started using small barrel cooperage as part of their regimen and Bodegas Norton saw this and wanted me to come down to work with American and French oak to see how it would influence the wines. The big difference is the altitude – Mt Veeder is compared high for Napa standards.
In traditional European wine culture, regions usually strived to make wine that matched the cuisine of the region, with new world wines that are consumed on different continents. Does your winemaking style reflect the origin or the destination when it comes to food? Or do you even consider that aspect?
Yes as a matter of fact when I speak about food and wine to consumers, I try to stay away from geeky wine terms and instead speak about wine and food pairings using words like the yum-yum-factor. I insist that on every back label of wine that I make, my suggested culinary suggestions appear. Sometimes I get grief from the marketing and label team complaining I should keep it to only two pairings but I think they are important enough and I will include whatever I think is important.
Before you went to Salta, Argentina what did you think it would be like?
Well, after spending as much time as I did in Mendoza, I was familiar with Argentina but up north in Salta where Colomé is, it’s quite different—remote, vast and beautiful.
After you arrived, where there significant conditions that existed that you had not contemplated?
Well one of the things that I had not dealt with before is fall frost. I had dealt with spring frost but never fall. It arrests everything but the wine is fine. You just deal with a Brix level a little less than you may have wanted. Now my big discovery both in Mendoza and to the north was own rooted vines are not so bad after all, if we did not have phylloxera to worry about. In North America, I would use Vitis vinifera because it makes pretty good root stock contrary to everything you may have heard before. That is probably the most significant difference at Colomé.
Many US wine drinkers who will only buy Organic produce do not know at 10k elevation hardly any insects exist negating any need to use pesticides. If there was any marketing angle, I think the American audiences might like to know about and Argentina Wineries do not exclaim loudly are the growing condition disparities compared to other regions worldwide. Do you have any comments on that subject?
Believe it or not, there are critters and insects up there but the ants get a treatment similar to the pesticide Round-Up which is actually an enzyme that does not kill the ant but the fungi that attracts them. We do have birds, bees and wasps and those are dealt with in a mechanical method rather than chemical. We have four ranches up there and Colomé is the only biodynamical one. For powdery mildew, we use a solution that is the same used in Bordeaux. So there is a little use of non-organic product in some of our ranches but nothing that would compare to California non-organic viticulture.
What is your biggest challenge in your current role at The Hess Collection?
Well l I guess my biggest challenge over the years are cool climate varietals. By that, I mean getting Cabernet ripe. Mt. Veeder has two factors that make it hard to reach ripeness and that is the elevation and the other are the cooling breezes of the bay. In Argentina, Salta being at such a high elevation we struggle with the same issue and one thing we have discovered is that Cabernet Sauvignon will not grow at anything above 7500 ft.
Do you know the condition of the fruit you have to work with for the 2011 Vintage in Salta?
No, it is too early to tell.
If not, when will you know complete harvest information and what can we expect from the fruit?
Harvest starts around April and goes as long as May 10th and because we got our annual three inches of rain in February instead of January harvest will be a late one.
What is the average yield per acre on vines grown at 6k-8k ft elevation? Reds vs. Whites?
1.5 -2 ton per acre on reds and Torrontés is a cross of Muscat of Alexandria and the mission grape and it produces 10 tons per acre.
If climate and location wasn’t a consideration, what grape would you grow?
Mont Gras and Viu Manet produce Carmenere from Argentina but I would always want to make Bordeaux blends, second only to Petite Sirah. We have been experimenting with Pinot Noir and of course Bonarda and Tannant are local favorites.
What makes Mt Veeder so special?
My association with Mt. Veeder is a great story and well here it goes. I just sort of fell into it by happenstance. A friend of mine called me in 1977 and said I have to leave, can you come and take my place. It was 1977 and Bob Travers (of Mayacamas Vineyards) called everyone who worked with him a cellar master and reserved the title of winemaker for himself. It was during this time I started realizing a few vintners like Bob were working with longer phenolic ripeness periods and harvesting at 25brix. Then I got some ideas of my own and started and fermenting more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon and I had this idea that softer tannins was what some of the wines were missing. It was a turn that turned out to be the right one.
Does your experience on Mt. Veeder have any significance to your success in Salta?
When I first went to Mt. Veeder, it was totally different from what I was used to. It was primitive up there—very primitive, a lot like my first trip to Salta. The primitiveness was a challenge I had overcome before. The other was production in a cold climate.
Do you miss the days before every move a winemaker made was scrutinized by anyone with a keyboard?
No, not really. Communication and critique only makes us better.
Marc: Well Randle I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today—it was a pleasure. It will be my mission now to bring more attention to Colomé and Artezin as they certainly deserve it. In fact, the entire Hess Collection of wines is a diverse group with excellent wines at every level.
Randle: Thanks Marc, I enjoyed the interview. You had some good questions and it’s always nice to speak with someone who has been around the block a time or two.
Marc: Yeah, there’s not too many of us left. Someday I will get down to your place at Calafia Cellars
Randle: I look forward to it.