Steve Matthiasson is using Delectable:
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We caught up with one of our favorite Delecters: Steve Matthiasson. He is the winegrower and winemaker San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné calls the “Quiet radical.” “Everything he touches,” says Bonné, “turns to delicious. Attach a dose of ego to his work, and you’d easily have another Napa rock star on your hands.”
We agree. No matter how many accolades he receives from peers and critics alike, Steve remains unwaveringly thoughtful and humble. Equally excited by the classics and the vanguards, Steve’s endless wine curiosity make him a perfect tastemaker to watch.
I was first introduced to Steve when I was a harvest intern for Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project. The entire Scholium team fondly called him Steve-Everyday-Matthiasson, as Abe inevitably mentioned him at least once every day. “Everyday” is indeed a fitting moniker. It could just as easily refer to how often his hands are in the dirt. Or how often one could drink his wines. And certainly to how down-to-earth he is. While Steve may not have a hint of pomp, he does get a ton of press: he was named a 2012 Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine’s Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle, is referred to as “one of the most interesting California producers” in New York Times Wine Editor Eric Asimov’s book How to Love Wine, and is a major player in Jon Bonné’s forthcoming tome The New California: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. I asked Jon to share some insight on Steve’s role in today’s wine world:
I’m absolutely convinced Steve will change the face of viticulture in California. There are lots of people who can farm well, and there are plenty of winemakers who want to make wines that show more restraint and sense of place. Steve is that rare person to prove the potential of California’s new guard by his work in the field.
It’s people like Steve, along with the John Kongsgaards and Ted Lemons of the world, who are putting intellect back into winemaking. Theirs is more than great farming. It’s moral work. It’s a realization that undoing the excesses of the past isn’t simply about proving a point. It’s a demonstration of a true love of the land. And in Steve’s case, it’s as populist as you’ll ever get in Napa. — Jon Bonné
Photo: Julia Weinberg
Steve and his wife Jill are integral parts of the Napa wine community I live in. We’ve shared countless meals and bottles. We’ve become friends. I’ve become keenly aware of their impact on the wine world, yet I didn’t know exactly how it all happened. So I sat down with Steve and as is his nature, he shared:
Julia: How did you get started in winemaking?
This is not a short story, and it starts with pictures of a wheat farm. Expansive, rolling green vistas that light up Steve’s eyes.
Steve: Every single year, without fail, we were down in North Dakota visiting my aunt, cruising around the farm, climbing up on tractors. Farms to me are all about the farm edges. Barn and equipment, I just loved that shit. If I could pick something, that’s what I wanted, to be a farmer. But easier said than done. I was like ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ so I didn’t do anything. So I majored in philosophy and worked as a bike messenger. And I got into gardening. As a bike messenger, every single morning without fail I would be at my community garden plot. I was already into wine, cause I was into Jack Kerouac when I was in college. Having a jug of wine in the park is a big part of life.
I would drink the Buena Vista Chardonnay, cause on the back it said what foods it went with. That was a great afternoon- go to the park with a blanket, hunk of cheese, bottle of Buena Vista. It was either that or the Hearty Burgundy – which actually was probably not that bad – high acid, picked at low brix. You could put that in a bottle now and it could be a wine geek wine.
Steve: My friend mentioned this school UC Davis that was an agriculture school. I went up to the library and looked at the course catalogue and was like ‘Holy crap! There’s a whole department of soil science. A whole department of plant pathology. How can I get into that place?’
On his first day at Davis, intending to study International Agricultural Development, Steve met with his assigned advisor, soil scientist and sustainable agriculture pioneer Bill Liebhardt. When asked what he wanted to get out of Davis, Steve replied “I want to learn how to farm.” Bill replied “you’re not going to learn that here, you’ve gotta go work on a farm.”
Steve: And so, ok - I immediately took a leave and did an internship in Merced doing the technical side of a sustainable ag project that Jill [Steve’s now wife] helped organize. I worked on vineyards as well as orchards. So that was a huge education in California agriculture and vineyards.
Steve returned to Davis, ended up with his masters in Horticulture, and started working for a agricultural consulting firm. For the next 10 years, Steve worked on other peoples’ land - including budding over Ribolla Gialla the legendary George Vare had brought back from Friuli. Steve had never heard of the grape before, and had certainly never tried any Ribolla Gialla wine.
Steve: I didn’t know anything about Ribolla. I was like ‘how are we going to grow this thing?’ Now it’s like, let’s do Trousseau Gris, that was not going on in 2001. It was ‘let’s do Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc. And if you’re crazy, Zin or Syrah.’
In 2005, Steve traveled to Friuli and met Enzo Pontoni, the man behind the rare and celebratory Miani wines. Miani is Steve’s inspiration for his flagship Matthiasson White Wine.
Steve: He’s an awesome dude. Super down to earth, great farmer. It’s one foot new world, one foot old world. They are pretty clean, they have some oak, they definitely have a foot in the new world, ours does too. It’s not a super funky, super old school. We’re trying to straddle and find that balance point.
As a wine drinker, it’s easy to think of Steve as a winemaker. But that’s just the culmination of his efforts. He’s a farmer first and foremost, a grapegrower, a vine-tender. The wines are simply the reward of the vineyard, and their quality a direct reflection of the farming.
Steve: What I try to do with the wines… Here’s the problem – almost everything you say about wine sounds like a cliché. So I was going to say that [our] wines are very distinctively true to their place. If you’re a rosarian, the flower is the point of it – of course the whole process is the satisfaction – but it’s about getting the flower. With wine, the different vineyards and the different varietals – the flower is the wine. It flowers in the glass. So that’s the thrill, working on it and finally pouring it the glass and you go ‘wow.’ The winemaking side is pretty straightforward. It’s the reason that the wines do show their place is that they are made pretty simply. So then the thing I get really excited about is the discovery of finding out how these wines are going to flower in the glass.
It can be easy to overlook the fact that the Matthiassons make a number of very classically informed wines. What often gets the most attention is their adventurousness with obscure varietals. In a state where over 93% of vines are planted to just 10 major varietals, Steve is farming and fermenting an eclectic array of these outliers: Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano from the Vare Vineyard, Refosco and Schiopettino from his backyard vineyard, plus Aglianico, Vermentino, Arneis and Cortese. Almost as if there were no other option, he’s doing it all with the Zen mind, the beginners mind.
Steve: The Refosco has been really fun because you don’t know what that’s going to be like. I’m really excited about the Schiopettino right now. I’ve never even seen a Schiopettino vine before. We made an Aglianico last year, and the Vermentino for Tendu. And it was great because it tastes like Vermentino. So that was thrilling to see oh wow – this actually tastes like Vermentino. So many varieties in California don’t taste like where they are from. But I think that doesn’t need to be the case. If you show some restraint in when you decide to harvest them, and how you make the wine, the classical core of that variety is there.
It’s very difficult to do here in California because it goes against our American nature. We’re in the land of abundance. It’s not like any of these old world wines have any corner on the restraint market. It’s not that they are more restrained, they can’t get it any riper.
Steve’s sense of adventure is pervasive, it’s how he farms and certainly how he drinks. What he puts in his glass is another sign of that Zen mind, there is no dogma and no presumption, just a genuine opportunity to learn. Steve and I both recently attended famed importer Louis/Dressner’s portfolio tasting. In many ways the international counterparts to the California new wave Steve is a part of, the winemakers and wines there were an eclectic and inspired bunch.
Jill: You know how they say dogs look like their owners? I’m trying to figure out how to visually depict wines and their makers.
Steve: Yeah, cause they fit the personalities of the people. If I have a wine I really like, I try to reach out and say, “hey you wanna trade some wine?” I try the wines and I think they must be cool. I like really crazy, impractical, opinionated, idealistic people. And so you can get that in [the Louis/Dressner] wines. That’s why that tasting was so fun, those wines are so different from each other, so singular and distinctive. The personality comes through and what comes through is that these are some big personalities. And I love that.
The result of all this exploration and learning for Steve is that his perspectives on wine feel less like mere opinions and more like the truisms he’s discovered in his journeys. He knows what excites him, and he knows why. It’s a pretty amazing reminder of the rewards of open-mindedness.
Steve: We just did a big Nebbiolo tasting. You know the somm from Aquerello, Giampaolo, he’s a fountain of information on Barolo. And he said they don’t even get why we like it that old – they want the tannin. And Burgundy is like that too, they drink them young in Burgundy. It’s a pretty rare wine for me to like it more than 12 or 15 years old. A lot of wines, somewhere in that 7-10 year range is a sweet spot. You still have some of that primary fruit, but it’s getting interesting and deep and complex. Once the fruit is gone, it’s a pretty rare wine that I’ll like.
An old wine to me is like being with an old person, they’re not that fun to hang out with, they talk slowly, they smell, it’s hard to talk to them because they can’t hear you. But you sit there and you do it because it’s your duty and because it’s pretty cool that they’re still around. And if you’re patient, you can glean a little bit. That’s kind of like old wines.
What excites me… well, wines made by friends are #1. If it’s made by a friend, it tastes better. For domestics, wines made by people I want to be friends with. I try the wines and I think they must be cool. I’m really interesting in meeting that guy Hank from La Clarine Farm. I’m really interested in seeing what we can do here in California. You know the 7% Solution [a recent tasting started by Idlewild Wine’s Sam Bilbro celebrating California wines from those “minority varietals”] – it was really cool –there’s finally a community coming together. It’s getting to be exciting to try things that people are doing.
Steve and Jill have a house rule about Delectable: they only post the wines they like. And that’s also true to who they are in the wine community. It’s not that there aren’t wines to criticise and practices to shun, it’s that their energy is better spent being champions for what they do believe in. All good reasons why I look to them for how to live and what to drink.
Text: Julia Weinberg