Saturday, May 28, 2011

Meet the Winemaker: A Q&A with Martin Estate's Frederic Delivert

Martin Estate's eight acre Rutherford vineyard and the winery nestled among the vines have never looked better, and large amounts of credit are due to Martin Estate Winemaker Frederic Delivert (pictured at right, with Meadowood Resort's Master Sommelier Gilles de Chambure). The French born and trained enologist with a Masters in agricultural sciences has been slowly transforming the property since his arrival several years ago. It always amazes us that Frederic managed to improve upon wines that were already excellent to begin with. Of course, he credits Petra and Greg Martin with much of that success, saying "they have spared no expense in order to give me the tools to achieve such prestigious levels."

Frederic took some time away from the vines - where he and vineyard manager Josh Clark have been t-budding a few blocks with new Cabernet clones along with some Petit Verdot - in order to answer a few questions about his winemaking genesis and what makes the vineyard at Martin Estate so extraordinary. We invite you to pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of wine, and get comfortable.

1. First, tell us about your winemaking background, both here and abroad.

I took extensive courses on winemaking and viticulture during my college years while completing my Masters in Agricultural Sciences. Each school year included an internship requirement, and I used them to immerse myself in the wine industry. I worked my first harvest in 1991; this year will be my 18th. In France, I worked predominantly in the southwest regions and the Languedoc. When I relocated to Northern California, I knew that when it came to the best soils, climate and what we Frenchmen call terroir, the Napa Valley was the preeminent AVA (American Viticultural Area). Over the last two decades, I have worked for five different wineries in this valley.

2. Were you raised in a winemaking family? What was the genesis for your love of wine, and when did you decide to enter into the winemaking profession, which is not as luxurious as it is often portrayed.

I was not raised in a winegrowing or winemaking family. I grew up mostly in the countryside, where wine was always a part of our culture. My friends were from farming families; their parents had a block of vines from which they made their own wine. It is essential to realize that wine is an everyday drink in France. It is always around. Don’t ask me what is the legal age to drink over there…

Growing up surrounded by farmers, I fell in love with agriculture. And, the more I studied the wine industry, the more I realized it mixed a variety of intriguing aspects – farming, science, marketing, art; even the barrel programs and elements of packaging from the corks to the labels and glass. Of course, I always enjoyed drinking the final result, too.

3. How did you meet the Martin family? What drew you to them and to Martin Estate? Why did you decide to leave a more corporate winery atmosphere for a small estate winery?

I met the Martins through a common friend. A small estate affords you the opportunity to concentrate on the entire process, from vineyard to bottle. It was important for me to be able to put my feet back into the vineyard. The roots of a good wine are good grapes. In fact, 75% of winemaking happens in the vineyard, yet so many positions offered to me did not include any real vineyard work. In order to make world-class wine, the vineyard needs to be spectacular, and the perfect example is Martin Estate.

Managing a small single vineyard estate allows us to have complete control of our fruit. Because the vineyard is literally steps from the winery, we can intensely observe all facets of the growing season. We don’t have to rely upon someone else’s farming standards, which means we are never surprised by the condition of our fruit. The viticultural practices we perform – when and how we prune our vines, our irrigation methods, the decision to green harvest each year – in order to raise the quality of the grapes are crucial to the end result. Martin Estate’s size is ideal for this intensive style of winemaking; in many ways it is an extended garden. I can go from vineyard to winery in a couple of minutes.

Last but not least, Petra and Greg Martin are as committed as I am to making the highest quality wine, and have spared no expense in order to give me the tools to achieve such prestigious levels.

4. What is it that makes the Martin Estate vineyard so special?

First: the fact that we have only the first generation of vines on the property. I know of no other Napa Valley property that can make that claim. Second: the size, which makes it a true boutique winery. Third: the rich history of the property, that inspires me every day I drive through the gate. How many people can say they work in a 19th century chateau where Georges de Latour made his first wine, on grounds that in the 1850s belonged to Captain George Yount.

5. What are the greatest joys in working for a small, family winery?

Human size, flexibility, tight relationships. The peace that comes with knowing I have everything under control.

6. What are the greatest challenges?

When something unexpected happens, things can get hectic very fast; we are a small team. That is when the tightly knit relationships and flexibility prove invaluable, as everyone is committed to staying after hours and helping each other, even if it is not in his or her official “field.”

7. What is your winemaking philosophy?

Getting the healthiest grapes to perfect maturity, and then using the tools that have proven their value to get the best expression possible from these grapes.

8. The French word “terroir” is so difficult for the layman wine drinker to define. How would you best explain “terroir?”

Let’s keep it simple and say that I consider it to be the combination of your site and its unique soils with the weather you get – but I would also like to add myself, as the human factor, to the package. Without the winemaker, terroir is just terroir. But what you taste in a Martin Estate wine is the terroir I bottled. Am I making sense or have I left you confused?

9. Just a little but I see your point. Since your arrival four years ago, Martin Estate has made some major changes in the way wine is produced – barrel fermentation, concrete tanks, state of the art sorting equipment for harvest. Can you tell us how these new pieces have affected the winemaking process?

While it is true that the only thing you really need to make a great wine is great fruit, I believe certain pieces of equipment and techniques can further enhance its quality. My main thought behind any change on the production end is that it has to benefit the wine’s quality. I also take into consideration the fact that we are a small company, so if it makes some tasks more efficient, that is a definite plus. Finally, the pieces have to be visually appealing, as preserving the aesthetic of this 19th century property has always been essential to the Martin family.

Let’s look at some changes I made and how they affected the winemaking :

- We now use clippers for our hand harvest, instead of the usual picking knife. We pick the grapes into small bins (30 lbs each versus half a ton in the past). This means the grapes don’t get damaged by hasty pickers, or crushed by being piled on top of each other. They arrive on the crush pad in pristine shape, and we don’t have oxidation problems or juice running off and getting lost.

- The advantage of our new state-of-the-art sorting system is tha it allows us to only put berries in the fermentation vats; any piece of leaf, stem or raisin has been thoroughly removed. The table allows us to process the fruit faster, too, so we don’t have grapes sitting in the sun for hours. Because our equipment doesn’t require light to properly sort the fruit, we are able to start picking our grapes at night, so the grapes come into the winery cool and fresh.

- We custom designed French concrete tanks, and the insulation and micro-oxygenation they provide, gives us a softer and fruitier wine. Because they were custom made in France to my specifications, it gives me the tool I need to accomplish my goal of making Martin Estate the best new world wine, using old world techniques.

And these are just a few examples. Since my arrival, we have improved our barrel program, which is now 100% French oak, as well as the wine chilling capacity, which allows us to perform cold soaks. But you better stop me right here, before I become too technical. May I suggest we have a glass or our wine, and let it speak for itself?

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