Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Chad Melville of Melville Vineyards speak about his winemaking process. Only, Chad eschews the word "winemaker." He views himself instead as a "wine grower." Chad and his family do as little winemaking as possible, relying on Mother Nature for most of the flavor. Melville favors whole cluster fermentation and stem inclusion whenever possible, which adds earthy, green tannins to their reds. Their Chardonnay isn't aged in new oak or buttered up with malolactic fermentation. They only use old oak barrels, which allow the wine to breath and come into contact with the environment more than steel, but don't impart that heavy flavor of new oak. The result is a crisp, acidic, mineral-y Chardonnay that more closely resembles a Sauvignon Blanc than the grape my grandmother drinks. Chad understands that stem inclusion makes wines "less approachable." But he feels it is important to make wine entirely rooted in the land, with as little outside influence as possible. He even makes wine with wild, local yeast!
To my further surprise and delight, despite the fact that Melville doesn't use pesticides and does everything right, they don't tout their sustainable status. Chad hates the word organic! Yes! He says it no longer means anything. Ok, so we hate the word for slightly different reasons (I don't like a word that makes me feel guilty for spending less on toilet paper. Believe me. I would like to be able to spend more on toilet paper). But still, a man after my own heart.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the talk, other than that Chardonnay, was when Chad discussed a question he often gets: "Are you guys trying to be Burgundy?" to which he replies, "We're not a cover band." Sure, he uses old world farming and winemaking techniques. He produces elegant, earthy, cool-climate wines that feel far more French than Californian, even though he's less than two hours away from LA. But the wines he and his family make (grow) are distinct, truly their own. They farm down to the tiniest plots of land, making different wines from different slivers of sections of a row of a vineyard. Where wild yeast is used, each fermenting tank is its own wine, because the yeast is random and will impart a distinct and additional set of aromatics on each tank.
So I would agree with Mr. Melville. He's not a winemaker. He is an artist.
Pick up a bottle of Melville Vineyards at The Wine House or better yet, have a visit!