How long have you been making wine?
Well, this is my 40th year, coming up, of winemaking. I started with big wineries and my ultimate goal was to have my own place.
So I’m guessing, with 40 years, you’ve always been involved in winemaking…
Yeah, I discovered wine when I was still in High School….
…as did most of us!
<laughs> Yeah! True. So I fell in love with wine from an early age, and my parents moved to Davis, California, and so everything fell into place from there! From the day that I stepped out of class, graduating with a degree in Fermentation Science from UCD, then BOOM that was it, I went forward into winemaking. I’m so old that people don’t even remember the wineries I used to work for.
When was Tom Eddy winery founded?
I left the corporate winemaking world in 1991, and started the Tom Eddy brand. And from the beginning, in 1991, my goal was just to make hillside, mountain-grown, Cabernet wine. We started with 200 cases in 1991.
And why are hillside grapes so special? Could you explain a little more about that. Is it just a cool marketing term?
No, no at all. When I moved to Napa Valley to work for a couple of large wineries, I discovered all these incredible mountain vineyards, and I kept finding out that these wines were, out of the barrel, so much better. There was so much more flavor, the structure was great, ageability, texture, and tannin all were perfect. So it turns out that grapes grown in the mountain, where you’ve got a higher elevation with colder nights, a thin, minerally, volcanic soil etc…the grapes have to work much harder! So they’re highly concentrated, with small berries; it’s just worlds apart in terms of character and quality.
So compared to fruit from the valley-floor, how do you find the wines to be different?
Well, fruit from the valley-floor tends to be fatter, juicier, fruitier, and softer, because it doesn’t have the structure of mountain-fruit. It also doesn’t have the tannin; so oftentimes, wines made from valley-floor fruit can be a lot more approachable.
Which isn’t a bad thing, right?
Yes, but I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted all the best components of grapes grown on the valley-floor, combined with the elegance of mountain-fruit. I want a wine that’s big and powerful and structured, yet elegant. So, one of the things we do that’s different with our wines is that we age them in oak much longer, in new French oak, with 3 years in the barrel and 2 years in the bottle. That gives us an “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach.
…and that leads perfectly into my next point. So would you say that your program of aging wines for an extended period is what differentiates you from most of the other wineries in Napa?
Oh, absolutely! And a lot of the guys, with today’s wine critics, they’re looking to make a huge statement! They release their wines in a very raw and powerful state, and in a blind tasting they get the big “wow-factor.” But these aren’t the wines that you want to lay-down and age. We have a derogatory terms for the those wines….<laughs>…but I won’t divulge that here…
Fair enough! What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in Napa over the last 5-10 years?
The influx of people coming from outside industries, with money, that want to make their mark. They have to have their own label…it’s an ego thing of course…and most of them have no experience or any kind of real passion for winemaking. They buy whatever grapes they can, they hire whatever consultant they can, and they have to make the biggest splash in the press that they can.
We went from 14 wineries in Napa in 1963, to 758 wineries today. What it does is that it drives the price of the wines up, because now everybody’s competing for the best fruit and having to pay more money to get it. Because of that, my growers are pushing me to charge more for the grapes. So what happens is that the small, craft, artisan winemakers are being pushed out. I don’t have to be a millionaire, but I have to survive.
I can imagine that’s especially tough for the small guys…
We’re a small family operation. We live on the ranch. We take out our own garbage on weekends. It’s a different world. The Chinese in particular are buying for image and prestige. They’re not buying because they have a passion for drinking wine. In-fact, some of the greatest wines in the world that end-up on corporate boardroom tables, at special meetings and events, are just thrown-back with a shotglass for a toast. I have the classic example, with something that happened to me:
I spent 12 years developing a vineyard on Pritchard Hill, that was going to be my ultimate reserve vineyard for the rest of my life, for a client that had a lot of money. And the client, was never as passionate about winemaking as me, but I helped him make a nice profit. In return, he let me buy some of the really special blocks of Cabernet and Malbec on this ranch.
So one day, he woke up; and because this guy’s a businessman worth a couple of billion dollars, said “You know….I really never loved ‘the wine thing that much’…let’s sell it.” Well, the only buyer that would meet his price were the Chinese. So they flew in, and within 45 days, the deal was closed, and that was it. They moved in their family to run it, they kicked everybody out. No more grapes. End of the story. No-one has heard from them since. They hired an International winemaking consultant, just so they could use his name…
Let me guess…Michel Rolland?
Correct. And that’s it. I lost something I worked on for 12 years. And I know what’s going to happen. They’re probably going to turn-around in 10 years and decide farming isn’t for them, and move on.
Can you tell me the property?
It’s on Pritchard Hill. A property next to Colgin, Ovid, David Arthur, Chappellet, just a prime property. So now I’m on the lookout for a new mountain-vineyard property.
I was reading-up on your website, do you own your own winemaking facility, or are you still using a custom crush?
We’re using a custom crush facility at the moment, but we’re building a winery, which is pretty exciting! We started many years ago, and had to fight-off a lot of pressure from the neighbors on the Sonoma-side that didn’t want us to build, and we couldn’t convince them in court that it was a small family winery. We finally got a permit. We’ve got the vineyard in, we’ve got the roads finished, and this year we’re starting the cave. We hope to have it finished before this harvest. We’re going to make wine right outside the cave door.
Are you going to open it to the public?
It’ll be very private. By appointment only. You know, since 1991 in Napa Valley, they passed a law that any new winery must be “by appointment only” and cannot be public.
Is that right? I didn’t know that! I’m learning a lot here…
What happens, as a consumer coming to Napa, you don’t notice it. If you knock on a winery door and ask for a tasting, the winery has to say: “Yes, but you need an appointment.”
And the consumer will say: “Well, it’s 5:10pm right now, what time can I make an appointment for?”
The winery will say: “You can make an appointment for 5:10pm,” and then let them do a tasting that way. It’s pretty silly, but it works.
For guys like me, we don’t want a tour bus pulling in to our winery, looking for a tasting. We want people that are passionate about wine, that understand wine and who will buy wine that will come to our ranch. Remember, we have to live here. This is our home. We try and screen people a little-bit. If I’m not here, they can’t come up, because I personally want to take them and show them around the vineyard.
Ok, I want to know your secret…what questions do you ask to screen people?
We ask them about 3-4 questions. First, we’ll ask them how they found out about us. If they can’t remember, they’re out. If they say they bought the wine at the grocery store, and the wine was 10 years old, and they got it for $19 and it was the best wine they ever had, then they’re out.
We’ll also ask what wine you drink, and if you reply “Sutter Home White Zinfandel,” then you’re out.
The last question we’ll ask is: “How big is your cellar?” If they reply with “3,000 bottles,” we’ll say “Well, we’ll send a car to pick you up.” <laughs> If they say, “We don’t have a cellar, but we have 2 wines in our refrigerator,” then chances are they’re not serious about wine.
It’s not that we don’t enjoy people; but as I said, we live here and it’s like having house guests 24 hours a day.
I know your main focus is Cabernet, but do you have any plans for any new wines?
Once we get our new winery open, I plan on doing a Chardonnay…mainly because of pressure from my wife. I’m going to make a Chardonnay to keep our marriage alive!
You’re a smart guy!
<laughs> It’s a real secret program that I’ve been hiding for years, and it’s something that I hate to even tell you because it might not happen!
Years ago I made sparkling wine, in the true Champagne-style, for a big company. I actually made a batch for our wedding, and disgorged it right before our wedding. Did everything by hand. So I’m thinking it would be really special to make a Champagne-style sparkling wine.
If you were going to make wine anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
New Zealand, without any hesitation. I’m already doing quite a lot of winemaking there already. Any winemaker that has been around in California will eventually end-up making Sauvignon Blanc, so it seemed like a perfect fit for me. I got to know several Kiwi winemakers over the years. Guys who are working in California for big companies. They helped me connect with some grape growers back in New Zealand. We got a growers license and a permit from the government, and we’ve been making wine there and shipping it back over here. I love New Zealand.
Last question, your favorite food and wine pairing?
We’re doing something tonight actually, in time for the Super Bowl. We take a flank steak and marinade it for 24 hours in lemon and lime juice and garlic. The acid gives it a little “zing.” It pairs perfectly with an older Cab, because the tannins can cut the acid from the marinade, but you’ve still got the meat coming through. It’s a beautiful combination.
Hey! I love Chardonnay! (But I love my hubby more ;-)
My Dad just gave me a Tom Eddy bottle for Christmas! I might try it with his flank steak recommendation. Love this interview.
Ha! He’s a good guy!
Cheers Kevin. I thought it was very insightful!