INTERVIEW Heidi Peterson Barrett, La Sirena, Napa Valley, California
The Sommelier Journal
June 2008 Catherine Fallis, MS
For a woman who changed the face of California wine, Heidi Peterson Barrett is decidedly unassuming.
As we sat chatting on the deck of a coffee house in St. Helena, Calif., the light in her dazzling green-blue eyes danced with excitement. She was coughing from a second round of a nasty flu bug, but she was determined to hit the slopes again the next week. This is a woman who loves life, from painting and gardening to active exploration of mountains and ocean. She lives in Calistoga, Calif., with her husband Bo (winemaker at Chateau Montelena) and their two daughters, Remi and Chelsea.
Barrett has also made some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Past clients include Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valley Vineyards, Showket Vineyards, Grace Family, Jones Family Vineyards, Vineyard 29, Hartwell/Grace Vineyards, and Oakford Vineyards. She is currently the winemaker for La Sirena, Amuse Bouche, Revana Family Vineyards, Barbour Vineyards, Paradigm Winery, Fantesca Estate & Winery, and Lamborn Family Vineyards, and consulting winemaker for Kenzo Estate.
Though I had met Barrett professionally on several occasions, one of my early personal encounters with her was at the Los Angeles County Fair. She and I, along with her sister Holly, her father, Dr. Richard Peterson, and dozens of other wine professionals, go to Pomona every year to judge hundreds of wines. The fair puts us up at the Sheraton Suites Fairplex. One year, the hotel was undergoing a renovation, which it advertised by putting one of the new beds in the hotel lobby. After a long day of judging, we took a bus to the annual dinner showcasing all the winning wines from the previous year. Needless to say, the bus ride back to the hotel was quite jovial. When we arrived, some prankster called out, “How many wine judges can fit in a bed?” Within seconds, we were all throwing ourselves into a big heap on that bed in the lobby—Heidi included. It’s probably just as well that this incident took place in those good old days before YouTube.
You’ve been involved in the wine industry practically your whole life. Would you give us a brief history of how you got started as a winemaker?
You probably know me from my dad, as we all judged together at the Los Angeles County Fair. I grew up in the wine business, the daughter of a winemaker, so as a young kid I always followed him around to various wineries. That was my introduction, but then I really didn’t think about going into it until my junior year in high school, when it was time to pick a college. I’d already been working in a winery in the summers through high school, so it seemed like a natural choice to go to the University of California-Davis. I only applied there, fortunately got in, went straight into the wine department, and that was it. I just stuck with studying to become a winemaker and gearing my entire career toward that goal from day one.
How did you get involved with your first client?
Right out of college, Justin Meyer gave me my first job working for Franciscan and for Silver Oak, which was made at Franciscan in those days. I graduated from college in 1980 and went straight to work that fall as a cellar rat. I worked there just one crush, and then I got the travel bug to go and do another internship. I had done one in Germany while I was at Davis and learned a ton. Early on, you’re just at the information-gathering stage, trying to learn as much as you can from as many good winemakers as possible, and so I really felt like I wanted to continue that while I was still young and single. I arranged an internship in Australia for the spring of ’81, and I worked for two of the Lindemans wineries—one in Coonawarra, and Leo Buring up in the Barossa—so I was there for four months.
That would be the total opposite of Germany in all regards.
Absolutely, so it was a really good mixed experience. I learned a lot from both that I still use in my winemaking today. Then, coming back, it was like Groundhog Day—you work crush in the spring of ’81, then you come home and it’s crush again. I went back to Franciscan, this time not as a cellar worker, but as enologist, got bumped up to more lab duties and sitting in on some tastings, working with Justin a little bit more. Then I left and just kept working for different people: Jerry Luper at Bouchaine and Phil Baxter at Rutherford Hill that same year, and then, after the crush of ’82, for Jerry Luper again. Bo and I had both been his assistants at one time or another and learned a lot of good fundamentals from Jerry. I got stolen away from there in 1983 to become the winemaker for the Buehlers, so pretty quickly I got put into the hot seat to become in charge of a little cellar when I was only 25. Of course, all through college I had worked for my dad at the Monterey Vineyard, so I had a lot of good cellar experience by the time I was offered that job. I was at Buehler for six years or so as winemaker, and during that time had a couple of cute daughters, and saw the need to really change the style of winemaking I was doing. I wanted to figure out how I was going to be a mom, but still be able to make wine part-time. So I talked to the top consultants at that time—Chuck Ortman, Joe Cafaro; there weren’t very many in 1987. And Joe Cafaro actually said, “Well, I do have this one client—I hardly ever have time to go by there. Why don’t you come with me and see if it’s a match?” And that turned out to be Gustav Dalle Valle. What a fortuitous meeting! Gustav was struggling, trying to get his brand established. I joined him for crush of ’88 and inherited the ’86 and ’87, which needed a little repairing before we could bottle them. Moving forward, I really got to help him create his dream and put those wines on the map, which was so much fun to do. So I started gaining some momentum there, and then as my kids grew and spent more time in school, I started to build my business. I could take more clients, and then I started weeding out and finding really fun people to work with and really exciting vineyards to work with.
I know blending is one of your secret weapons. Did you learn techniques from Justin Meyer or any of the other winemakers you worked with early on?
I think more of that came from Germany, believe it or not, from a really good winemaker named Alfred Hoffman. In 1979, I worked in Southern Germany, in Württemberg, where they make about half red wine and half white wine. I lived with his family. He took me under his wing like I was one of his daughters, and let me work in all different areas of the winery. This was a huge coop. He knew I was there to learn, so he would just bring me in to a big blend trial or acidity trial or sugar trial. I really credit him with that lightbulb going off for me: that balance is balance no matter what flavor, variety, or color it is, or what component you’re working on. Either it is balanced or it isn’t. In German he used the word rund, which means “round,” and he would say, “Here’s rund, here’s nicht rund.” And he’s right! That’s a simple thing you can fix with winemaking, so a lot of it is learning how to recognize flavors and either enhance them or discourage them, and how flavor chemistry works—how different components layer together to make a really elegant, mouth-filling, delicious wine. So I kept little tidbits from lots of winemakers along the way, and then just formulated that into my own set of stuff that works well for me. A lot of it is just good common sense: if it tastes good, it is good. It’s pretty simple.
You’ve cut back a bit on consulting in recent years. What were the reasons for that?
I’ve always settled in on a steady client list of about eight wineries that I’ve been winemaker for at any one time, and then maybe a couple where I would be a consultant for other winemakers. But I really saw the need to focus more on La Sirena. I started it in 1994, but on a very small scale—just a couple hundred cases—and sold it quietly on the side. Nobody really knew I had it. So I thought, 10 years later, I need to be a little more vocal and a little more visible, do a few tastings, meet with some buyers, do a couple of winemaker dinners, maybe a distributor tasting here and there as time permits. But to do that, I couldn’t have so many wineries to make wine for. With production, I have to be here all the time; I can’t travel. So I’m trying to bump La Sirena up to the top of my list, which makes sense since it’s mine. You know, go figure! We always work on our own stuff dead last. So now I’m trying to make that a well-known, coveted little wine estate in Napa Valley, and focusing on all the wines that I love. I would love to build a little winery of my own one day.
My number one favorite thing to make, of course, is Cabernet. I’m a Cab girl all the way. It’s probably what I’m best known for and have built a lot of my reputation on. Then I wanted to have a second red wine. I started making some Sangiovese for La Sirena early on, in 1994 through ’99; it was really a fun wine to make, pretty successful, but the vineyard was sold, and I think the popularity of Sangiovese died out, so I switched over to Syrah in 2000. I love Syrah—have always loved the Rhône wines—so I branched out into bringing up some fruit from Santa Ynez. Besides the Santa Ynez Syrah, I make a Napa Valley Syrah, and then a third one that’s from our little home vineyard in Calistoga, called Barrett Vineyards Syrah. They’re all really distinct and beautiful in their own way. I think the Santa Ynez is a little more red fruit, juicy, lively, just a friendly, easy-to-drink kind of wine. Napa shows what Napa does best: big, bold, black fruit, but very velvety and silky as well. Every time I taste that wine, it reminds me of the structure of Cab—which makes sense because I make Cab very much the same way—but with the flavor of Syrah. And then the Barrett has more of the Rhône-like smoky, meaty, pepper tones, and it’s a little beefier than the other two, coming from a very steep little terraced vineyard in Calistoga, at the foot of Mount St. Helena. So I thought it would be fun to show off one variety made by the same winemaker, but grown in different areas. I’ve poured it that way at tastings—starting with Santa Ynez and working our way up to Napa, and then possibly the Barrett, though I don’t have very much of that. You can see the wheels turning; it’s a really good tasting. And then the other wine I make—right now, it’s the only white wine I make—is the dry Muscat. It’s such a fun wine; I don’t know if you’ve ever had it.
Yes, I reviewed it for Great Boutique Wines You Can Buy Online.
I had been thinking about making something in that family of florals—Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat. I love those flavors, which is why I went to work in Germany in the first place. I loved Riesling and Gewürztraminer even as a kid growing up in high school—those spicy, almost tropical flavors—and the perfumey quality of Muscat is just so enticing. So I thought, well, you see dry Riesling, you see dry Gewürz, why don’t you see dry Muscat? It doesn’t always have to be a dessert wine. I decided that I really wanted to figure out how to do it, and I looked and looked for a good fruit source. For about five years, I looked all over the state. Then, coming home from crush in 2003, I saw my neighbors in Calistoga were picking that day, and so I pulled over just to be friendly, and I stuck my head in the gondola. They were picking this Muscat, and it was so perfumey. It was like, “Oh, my gosh—how can I get some of this? Is there any way I could get a couple of tons just to play with?” It was all contracted to Bob Pecota for his dessert wine, the Moscato d’Andrea that he made for many years, and they said, “Let’s talk to Bob and see if he’ll let you have a couple of tons,” and he did. So two days later I was bringing in some Muscat. I just bought 2 tons the first year, made 127 cases, and it was delicious. It was really fun to introduce something new to the market. The next year I went back and bought 4 tons from my neighbors, and the next year, too. So now that Bob is out of the wine business, I took over that whole contract, and now I buy about 10 tons, or enough to make about 600 cases.
That’s still not much.
No, it’s not much, but it can go to some restaurants, a bit on my mailing list, and even a little bit goes out of state. And it’s a fun package. I’d seen that blue bottle when I was training in Germany and thought, “How can I use that?”
Not for Screaming Eagle.
No, I can’t put my Cab in that! People aren’t going to get it. Then there’s the problem of what you call it. I didn’t want to say just Muscat Canelli; it’s the variety, but it doesn’t give you any indication of what style it is. So I just called it Moscato Azul, azul meaning “blue”—it also has a blue synthetic cork—and then on the label, put “Dry Muscat Canelli.” I’ve had really positive comments about that, but it was a little gutsy, I have to say. The first year, I thought, “What am I doing with this blue bottle?” You know, you’ve just got to take that step and jump off the cliff once in a while.
Do you feel you have a personal style of winemaking that you can identify in different wines across the board?
I try to make wines that are really balanced, true to type, very much concentrated on purity of fruit, but in a bold, elegant, silky style. That’s what I try to bring into the picture: making them really balanced and just purely delicious across the board. Nothing really sticks out; nothing angular. But they’re not wimpy, either. They’ve got some pizzazz. A few times when I’ve done seminars where people will gather a lot of the wines I make, tasting through them side by side—which I rarely do—you could see the individual footprint of the different vineyards that I work with. None of the wines are the same. But really, my job is to bring forth the true potential of any given little block of vineyard, and what is its best use. Whether it’s Zinfandel or Merlot or a blend from a little estate, I just have to customize it to figure out how we’re going to get there. I work with some really steep hillside vineyards, I work with some valley floor fruit, I work with stuff from Oakville, stuff from Calistoga, east side of the valley, west side of the valley, a lot of different exposures, and there’s no way you could make any of them taste the same. So much of that is just dictated by working with great fruit. I work with some of the best vineyard managers in the business, and they are great at what they do. We overlap a little bit when it comes closer to harvest—they pass the baton to me, and I take over in the winery. So each one is tailored to what’s possible.
You’re known for supple tannins.
Yes, exactly. A lot of that is done with customizing when you pick and when you press. It’s working with extraction, trying to keep the purity of flavor and purity of fruit, and then enhancing that with oak-barrel aging that is also matched to the type of wine. If it’s a bigger, bolder wine, it can take a little more new wood, racier barrels. And if it’s a softer wine, then not so much. Depending on the wine, it could be as much as 60% new, or as little as 10% new for something like Sangiovese or Zinfandel. There are so many details that you just get a feel for by doing it for a long time.
What do you mean by “racier barrels”?
Barrels that have toasted heads might have a little more character. You can get some that have more of a medium-plus toast level that are going to give you a little bit more smokiness, or stronger caramel flavors, for example. I typically like to mix and match the barrels; I usually have three or four of my favorite coopers. It’s just another way to add complexity and layer in interesting flavors—like cooking, where you’d use a pinch of this, a pinch of that, different spices.
Do your clients say, “I want this particular style,” or do most of them just say, “Work your magic”?
They pretty much just turn me loose, which is the best. Early on, when you’re in the proving-yourself phase, of course, you know they’re looking over your shoulder a little bit. But as time went on, pretty soon they just said, “She’s got this, don’t worry about it, turn her loose.”
How does Amuse Bouche fit into this profile?
Amuse Bouche is a partnership between myself and John Schwartz—I am the winemaking partner, and he is the marketing partner. It is typically a Pomerol-style Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend that varies a little bit each year. His idea was to try to make a sort of cult-style Merlot, which hasn’t really been done so much in this country. I wasn’t sure it could be done, but I was enticed by that. So we looked at a number of vineyards, and we walked into this one and said, “This is the one; we could probably do it with this.” My good Cab Franc that I use with my Cab goes into that blend as well. It has a really enticing, pure-cherry nose, and it’s super-silky—a really mouth-filling, delicious blend.
You’ve been a leading figure in the “cult wine” phenomenon. Any concerns or regrets about that?
Not really. I didn’t set out to do that. It just happened that a lot of the wines that I make are small-production, very much handcrafted, very high-quality, and somehow that whole “cult wine” category was formed around those wines that were highly sought-after and rare and delicious. So I think that’s a compliment, honestly. I guess the only negative is that they’re not really available to all, that some people get frustrated because they can’t get them—yet I think you can turn that around to a positive spin, that at least it gets them excited about wine, and something to shoot for, but meanwhile they’re going to be trying a lot of other wine, building their knowledge, and, in general, creating more excitement about wine. I think the “cult wine” thing has actually been good.
How has the California winemaking industry evolved over your career, and where do you see it heading?
The big change I see is that we have so much better equipment now in the winery, and also better viticultural practices. Everybody knows more: the viticulturists know more; the winemakers know more. And we have better equipment that really reflects that—things like a crusher-destemmer. We used to call it the shredder-masher. I mean, they used to just tear the stems apart, and you’d get all these green flavors. There was no sorting, really. You’d try to pick clean, but leaves went in. Now we are so careful with sorting, and that has really cleaned up a lot of stuff in the winery. The crushers are much more gentle. They gently pick the berries off—you can almost call it whole-berry if you want, it’s so gentle—they carefully remove the stems, and they don’t crush the seeds. It has almost eliminated the need for fining, which is interesting because going back to the ’80s, everybody fined. You always heard either, “How many egg whites per barrel?” or “How much gelatin?” Now, we’re able to control tannin levels because we have better equipment. We have better pumps; we have hoses that don’t weigh 1,000 pounds. The old hoses used to be so heavy you’d need two people to drag a 50-foot length of hose, with your body on about a 45º-angle tilt, full force, with someone on the other end dragging the other half. Now these lightweight little flexi-hoses make your life so much easier in the cellar. We have better fittings. Even better boots—you know, we all wear these Australian work boots now. They’re so much more comfortable than those old rubber boots. These breathe, and they’re waterproof. We have better lab equipment. Pretty much every single area has improved. I also think the coopers have gotten better at what they do. They know more about toast levels in oak, and they’ve been able to fine-tune that very carefully, so you can really dial in exactly what you want for flavors now, which is really new. I think there is more of that coming.
Do you see a continued growth in organic practices?
People are going more toward cleaner and more organic practices in the vineyards, which is great across the board. Most people actually do farm pretty organic, but few actually go to the trouble to be certified organic. There are going to be some conditions where it doesn’t make sense. You do what’s good for the environment because it’s the right thing to do, but if you need to use any sort of chemicals that are going to save your crop or save your livelihood, you would do it. So they just farm as clean as they can, and it shows in the wines—when you see the grapes come in, they’re beautiful.
Do you consider how wines are going to pair with food as part of the winemaking process?
No, I don’t think about that when I’m making wine. I’m just trying to make the best wine I can, and I think an offshoot is that delicious wine goes with delicious food. For example, I make the dry Muscat, and as it’s fermenting in the tank, I’m thinking, “Wow, I can’t keep my head out of here. All this pineapple and passion fruit—it smells so good. This is so much fun.” But I’m not thinking, “OK, I need to make shrimp tacos with mango salsa” or whatever. It’s really part of the sommelier’s job to match up those combinations.
So how can a sommelier get some of your wine?
They can call us. I think one of the misconceptions is that people think, “Oh, it’s a Heidi Barrett wine, we can’t get any, so we won’t even try.” It’s not as hard as they think. I do have limited amounts of wine available, though, so it goes quickly. I’d be happy to sell it to them, and I would love to get more restaurant placements and new accounts. It’s something that I’m definitely working toward as I cut back on other clients to focus more on La Sirena—especially the Syrah, as that is a new niche market. I think the popularity of Syrah is really increasing, and as people taste my lineup of Syrahs, they’re really excited about them. The Cab sells out the fastest, because everybody wants the Cab. And the Muscat, too. I love it when buyers get to know the wines and realize they are going to be consistently good year after year. Sometimes they just say, “Send the next vintage; we know it’s going to be good,” and that is so great when you get those who always want to have it on their list.
Would they be able to visit the Revana Winery where La Sirena is made?
Yes, by all means, special appointments are possible. And there are also tasting notes on our website. There are fact sheets if people want to print them out and incorporate them into their wine lists. That’s another useful tool. I also want to have an area on the site where people can download and print a label.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the sommeliers and future sommeliers of America?
They are the last link between us and the consumer. They are really my representatives. I really appreciate their care in presenting my wines, as I can’t be there to pour them myself every time. I also appreciate that they are so knowledgeable about what they do, and that they help steer their customers toward some of these wines that they may otherwise never find.
La Sirena Wine
P.O. Box 441
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 695-9781Cell: (707) 695-9781