Interview with Sandra Bell from Bell Winery

On Thursday October 15th, 2009, Sandra Bell with Bell Winery, Yountville, California, arrived in Jacksonville. Interview conducted at The Grape at St. Johns Town Center

The Bell Winemaking Team: Sandra Bell 2nd from left, winemaker Anthony Bell far left.
Kris Chislett Name?
SHB: Sandra Hewitt Bell

KC: Occupation?
SHB: Wearer of many hats for Bell Winery! [Laughs] I actually take care of 6 markets for Bell and also hospitality and marketing at the winery.
Bell Winery
KC: How did Bell Winery come to be?
SHB: Bell winery really came to be from the Cabernet clonal work that Anthony did for Beaulieu Vineyards starting late ’79. This came straight after he finished his Masters at the University of California Davis. He was given the task of improving their Cabernet. At that time, there was no grower relations programme for BV. There was no reflection on the fact that the raw product (grapes) supplied to the winery were the most important part of the winery operation. At that point it seemed that the winemaker was some kind of “magician behind the curtain” and Anthony did a great deal to change the conversation about quality wine back into the vineyard.
He did that by planting 14 different Cabernet clones that were available to Cabernet growers at the time, including several plants that were discovered along with a Professor of his that were found at an abandoned field station in the town of Jackson, California. Jackson as a town had donated a substantial portion of land back in 1882/83 in order for the University of California (which at that time was only Berkeley) to do an agricultural test study.
Anthony had taken clippings of some of these origin vines back to BV. These old vines weren’t producing a great deal of fruit, but they were certainly alive and kicking! That was the groundwork, the work itself was making wine from these 14 different Cabernet plants and letting the people at BV taste the resulting wine. Over the course of several years, a consensus arose that out of these 14 clones, 3 clones were exceptional, and 1 was extraordinary.  All of the vines were color coded in order to prevent “midnight research” (i.e instead of putting the names on the vines, they used simple color codes to differentiate, in order to prevent other wineries from taking cuttings for their vines).
Cabernet clone 6 emerged as this superb wine, it was a plant from that original Jackson vineyard. This was the 1st time that Cabernet clone 6 had been grown since it was introduced to California some time in the 1860’s. That was the bedrock of Bell.
Anthony left BV in 1994. In 1998  we acquired what is now Bell winery. Along the way we acquired some Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier. We are know a 12,000 case winery, but of those 12,000 case the Clone 6 is still the backbone.

KC: What are the biggest challenges that you have seen over the last 2-3 years, bearing in mind the current economy?
I think that there are a couple of major challenges, the first one would be that with communication/technology/media as it is. Lots of people are now talking in a peer-to-peer way about wines, in a very powerful way that wasn’t happening 10 years ago. A huge number of people were mainly relying on “fine media” and glossy print.

KC: From magazines such as Wine Spectator?
SHB: Exactly! I think that is changing enormously with social media. I also think that we have winemakers that garner media attention to shape the taste of how wine will be made, not just in their own little area, but globally.
So I think to some  extent wine is losing its voice in certain parts of the world. I mean, does a wine region lose its voice when an expert from some other part of the world and says “No, you need to handle your fermentation this way, you need to do this, this and this!” Corporate winemaking. It serves to have one broad, flat palate.

KC: You mean like through involvement of winemaking consultants such as Michel Rolland?
SHB: Yes! It’s like shaving the rough edges off everything….

KC: Making California, taste like Australia, taste like France taste like…
SHB: Yes! Exactly! I don’t want everything to taste the same! Wine is a product of a specific place, specific soil structure, specific weather patterns, specific grapes and it’s a shame to lose that.

KC: What are you doing different at Bell either in your vineyards, or in your winemaking facility that you are especially proud of?

SHB: I think that we really do try to honor the sense of place, and honor the sense of grape. I believe that Anthony, because of who he is, he makes wine differently than anyone else in California.
He began his life in South Africa, his father ran the Gilbey’s plant. So by the time Anthony was 18, he had already experienced Sherry production in Spain, winemaking in Bordeaux, and Anthony was really shaped by the wines that his dad brought back from France. I remember raiding his fathers cellar in South Africa, and we snagged a bottle of ’53 Margaux for my 50th birthday in 2003!
My thoughts are that if Anthony was growing up this way, his points of view on wine and winemaking are not going to be the same as winemakers who grew up in California post-1976. Winemakers that are fiercely California-centric, and fiercely proud of it. I don’t mean to use the word amateur in a negative way, but it’s more like having a lack of history and a lack of awareness of what else wine can be, the California idea when it comes to wine that everything that’s bigger is always better. Bigger alcohol, bigger color, bigger flavor, bigger-bigger-bigger! Anthony’s wines are always smaller, more graceful, I think they always focus on varietal trueness and Anthony steps aside, he has very little ego and I don’t think that you find his fingerprints all over the wine, he lets the vineyards speak.

KC: I think that’s the first think I noticed about your wines, it’s been a while since I tasted them, and I forgot that they weren’t the typical Californian “in your face” style. If anything they are more leaning toward Bordeaux stylistically.
SHB: It’s always funny when I go out into the market doing tastings and people say “Oh, another California Chardonnay/Cabernet!” There’s a gracefulness where Anthony tries, I think, not to say “…here’s me, and here’s my wines!” I think his mission is; “Here’s the wine. Do you like it?”

KC: Favorite food and Bell wine pairing?
SHB: Ha ha! Bell Chardonnay with Seared Scallop over….[she closes her eyes]….we take red onion, sear a little bit of bacon, toss it up, sear the scallop and use a drop of this beautiful Thai oil, on salad greens. It’s delicious!

If you aren’t drinking Bell, what are you drinking?
SHB: Oh gosh! Hmmmm…

KC: …because I’m sure you drink your own wines every day!
SHB: We drink our own wine a lot! We split a bottle every day. I would say that we are often stunned with Albariños right now. Anthony is particularly taken with Italian wines, to the point where he tells me that if he could be reincarnated, he would come back as an Italian winemaker. Over New Years and Holidays we are particularly fond of Black Velvets, and we also adore Billecart-Salmon Rose Brut.

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