The endless online thicket of posts is confusing and intimidating (more confusing and intimidating than wine!), so how to choose? I’m personally drawn less to knowledgeable individuals (though there are many), and more to conversations.

The conversation should be civil. It shouldn’t have that obvious stench of consumerism (as is so prevalent in every corner of the online universe). It should be among people who are actually interested in the conversation they’re conducting, rather than in promoting a certain wine or even more insidiously, posing as knowledgeable in order to boost their egos.

For this, I regularly turn to the former sommelier Levi Dalton’s long-format-interview podcast, “I’ll Drink to That.” What follows in my column today is not primarily a plug for his show; it’s an entreaty to anyone interested in deepening their understanding of what wine really is to find a way to eavesdrop on a conversation among wine professionals.

Dalton’s recent interview with Steve Matthiasson, a consultant and winemaker in Napa Valley, raised so many interesting issues and offered so many insights that its 75 minutes could serve as a kind of introductory seminar to a university course entitled What Matters in Wine.

Matthiasson’s wines are not sold in Maine. I’ve never tasted them. They sound like wines I’d love, but who knows? We can check out his website and order wines from there if we’re interested. The important things at this point are what Matthiasson values, and what he knows.

Climate matters. The drought of 2014 is worse than anything this generation of winemakers has ever seen. Matthiasson: “Part of the joy of farming is dealing with Mother Nature saying, ‘OK, I’m going to change it up again and you’ll have to re-adjust’… This, though, is: Is this going to put us out of business?”


The fragility of all this. The way we all get accustomed to consistency. The way we complain if price goes up without wondering if there’s a good reason.

Matthiasson bought crop insurance this year, for the first time. Everyone he knows is drilling wells as fast as they can. This is seriously scary, with all the big ramifications you can imagine for real people and real livelihoods. And for the quality and price of wine in the very near future.

Yields don’t signify what you think they do. Everyone says quality comes from lower yields. More nutrients, phenols and flavor compounds into fewer grapes give better wine. And so, according to Matthiasson, “viticultural strategy in California has been to restrict vigor: low-vigor root stocks, tight vine spacing, shallow soil preparation.”

Matthiasson rejects this groupthink, in part because it is not ecologically responsible. “It’s more sustainable to have more production per acre, (because) the unit of land has been taken out of a forest setting to make wine. Have it produce more, or let it go back to being a forest.”

And in many cases, low-yield wines are gustatorily irresponsible as well. They are more concentrated wines, “serious” and dark and potent, but is that the ideal? What about a wine that is more transparent, separate, open, flexible, filigree?

Matthiasson refers to a comment from one of his mentors, the famous Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap, that “overly concentrated wine is like the difference between watching fireworks and having fireworks right in your ear. … You feel the sensation, but you can’t see or hear anything. But if you dial the concentration back, then you can make out the beginning, middle and end of the wine, and hear the story.”


Sustainability is a bigger picture than we think. In addition to making wine, Matthiasson is a consultant to some of the best wineries in Napa and beyond, on issues of sustainability, pest management and long-term resilience. “Sustainability” doesn’t just indicate what kind of spray you use to defend against insects.

“These farmworkers,” he notes, “are essentially peasants. Being ‘illegal,’ they don’t have a lot of rights or a voice. That needs to be addressed as part of ‘sustainability.’ Wildlife habitat is another important element as well.”

Remember that the next time you see a USDA-organic certification on a bottle of wine (or bunch of broccoli). Unless we seek out the whole story, we will continue to be isolated from the conditions that support our lifestyle. An increasing number of people are paying attention to these concerns regarding food, but the awareness of wine consumers lags far behind.

Corporations are part of the family. “In California, at least,” says Matthiasson, “all Ag is one arm’s length from Big Ag.” Matthiasson finds welcoming and informed practitioners at very small-scale wineries, and at very big ones. The David-vs.-Goliath model is politically romantic, and it’s fun to align ourselves with the little guy, but it’s not agriculturally accurate.

Have high goals, but be practical. Matthiasson and his wife, Jill Klein Matthiasson, are avid home gardeners, food-politics geeks, and were local/farm-to-plate enthusiasts before any of us cared about any of that stuff.

But “we’re working within the system to do what we can.” This from a guy who was into punk rock as a kid and was drawn to Foucault and Derrida as a philosophy major in college.


“What has enabled us to develop and create our family farm … is having a day job. (This) will one day help us create the ‘vigneron’ lifestyle, which one day maybe our kids will inherit.”

For the Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay, for example, “The vineyards are leased from an owner who wanted to have a house there but not deal with the vineyards, so we can lease it at way below the land value. … So, now we can have a vineyard that we farm as if it were our own, even though we don’t own it. We sell two-thirds of the grapes – Far Niente and Chateau Montelena each buy a third – to cover our farming costs. Then, we take the fruit and press it at Domaine Carneros, because they specialize in white wines. … Then we move the juice to Napa Barrel Care, which is a big barrel storage warehouse, and barrel-ferment it. So, that is the most Rube Goldberg (operation), and so far away from a cave in Burgundy! Our hands are on the wine every step of the way, but … there is no cave in Burgundy. But if you’re creative and take advantage of opportunities that you see, you can make it happen.”

Remember that the next time some smart-aleck (me?) tells you that a European estate-made wine is necessarily purer than a domestic one because it’s made by one dusty old farmer on one acre, instead of 40 dusty young farmers at four different sites.

Like every other wine enthusiast, I want to know about exciting wines to drink. But I don’t want to learn about them in an isolated buyers-guide manner. I’d rather sit in on, and be a part of, big-picture discussions with people who know what they’re talking about because they’re out there every day. Whether you follow the blogs and sites that I do is unimportant. But please, come into the conversation.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:


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