Cult Winemaker, Kistler, Strives for Finesse
on 14/01/11 at 9:47 amWine
OUT here in Sonoma County south of the Russian River, where a rolling ocean of vineyards surrounds a few surviving Gravenstein apple orchards, the growing season is typically long and warm. Grapes customarily bask in the ripening sun until they practically burst with sweetness. The challenge is to prevent the grapes from ripening too much.
Last year was different. Until the heat spiked at the last minute, 2010 had been one of the coolest seasons on record. Nobody knew if the grapes would mature enough. That meant trouble. Or maybe a lucky break.
“Everybody was worried about getting things ripe,” said Jason Kesner, the assistant winemaker at Kistler Vineyards. “We had the acid, we had the color, we had the flavor, but we didn’t have the typical California sugar to match up with it. We had the tremendous opportunity to make wines at lower alcohol levels. It was the holy grail we’d all been asking for.”
Really? For more than 30 years, restraint was not a quality remotely associated with Kistler. In the 1980s and ’90s, as Americans developed a ravenous thirst for chardonnay, Kistler set a standard of quality with its powerful, oaky, voluptuous wines. Using grapes from small lots in prime vineyards in Sonoma and the Carneros, it was among a handful of California wineries that pioneered the use of Burgundian techniques, like fermenting in small oak barrels.
American critics raved about the wines, placing them at the pinnacle of California chardonnay. More quietly, Kistler was also lauded for its pinot noirs.
As Kistler’s lush, exuberant style was widely emulated, it became one of the first modern California cult wineries, its wines available only in restaurants or to long-term customers. It was a model for today’s mailing-list avatars of the full-blown California chardonnay style, like Aubert and Peter Michael. Indeed, some producers began making even more powerful wines so overflowing with flavor they made Kistler’s look almost sedate.
But with little fanfare, the Kistler style has changed in the last few years. Following the evolving tastes of Steve Kistler, one of its proprietors, rather than the pressure of economic necessity, Kistler has stepped back, striving for finesse and energy rather than power.