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Q & A: Bill Knuttel
By Tina Caputo
Jul 5, 2011
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When it comes to wine -- and doesn’t it always? -- nothing says “4th of July barbecue” like Zinfandel.  Despite its Croatian origins, Zin was made famous in the modern world at the hands of American winemakers.  The wine also happens to be a great match for traditional Independence Day fare.  You know what I’m talking about:  Grilled meats slathered with smoky-sweet barbecue sauce.  And though the 4th may now be behind us, we’ve still got months of great grilling weather ahead.

With this drool-inducing image in mind, I called on Bill Knuttel for this month’s interview.  Bill is the executive winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard (DCV) in California’s gorgeous Dry Creek Valley.  You may know DCV for its terrific Dry Chenin Blanc or Fumé Blanc wines, but the winery is primarily a Zinfandel specialist. 

Dry Creek Valley is one of the best places on earth for growing Zin, and DCV makes multiple versions -- all sharing a family resemblance of ripe fruit, good acidity and fine balance.  These are not the thin, jug-like Zins that flooded the market in decades past; nor are they hit-you-over-the-head blockbusters. 

Bill has been making wine at DCV since 2003, and he became the winery’s head winemaker in 2008.  Before that he focused on Chardonnay at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery, where he was winemaker for seven years, and on Pinot Noir at Saintsbury, where he made wine for 13 years. 

Like many successful winemakers, Bill arrived in the cellar via a slightly circuitous route.  He graduated from California Polytechnic University in Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and went to work for Dow Chemical in San Francisco.  But in his spare time, he pursued his love of fine wines. 

Wine eventually won out over chemicals, and Bill went on to earn a master’s degree in enology at UC Davis. 

Wine Review Online (WRO):  Did any of your chemical engineering studies translate to the study of enology, or were you starting from scratch?

Bill Knuttel (BK):  There was an absolute, direct translation.  Chemical engineering combines many disciplines -- chemistry, math, engineering, processing, materials handling, budgeting, finance, etc.  Essentially, it covers everything you need to know to turn raw materials into a finished product.  And guess what?  Turning grapes into a bottle of wine is exactly equivalent.  There is only one major difference: In winemaking there’s an artistic element that goes way beyond the kind of “factory” idea one associates with production. 

WRO:  What was the turning point where you decided you wanted to be a winemaker instead of a chemical engineer?

BK:  During the period when I worked as a chemical engineer, I was young and single with disposable income, and anxious to discover the finer things in life.  I’d be curious to know how many great bottles of wine I killed off in those days, not having a clue about the wonderfulness of what I had consumed!  But over a number of years I began to get a sense of which wines were excellent, which were important, which were the most enjoyable. 

Then, one day, something catastrophic happened where I was literally 15 minutes from my end, at 27 years old.  That morning, as I pondered the need to exit my career in chemical engineering, I realized I was staring at a sea of empty wine bottles in my bachelor pad.  I immediately called UC Davis and got hold of someone in the viticulture and enology department, who hooked me up with one of the two new professors -- both of whom were chemical engineers!  Within months I was embarking on a new career.

WRO:  Wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard that a near-death experience led someone to winemaking!  Did you have a particular variety in mind after graduation that you wanted to specialize in?

BK:  Oddly, I was originally most fascinated with great Bordeaux and German Riesling -- strange bedfellows -- but I had tasted such a broad range of wines before getting to UC Davis that it was all interesting.  This was also at a time when California was waking up to the idea of making world-class wines, and things like varietal designations and appellations were new and wonderful and meaningful -- things we take for granted these days.  So I didn’t really have any preconception about what I wanted to specialize in, except perhaps for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. 

But, as usually happens, I went in a totally different direction when I joined Saintsbury to be at the ground floor of the movement to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in classic, Burgundian mode.  With Pinot Noir, especially, I was forced into every aspect of fine winemaking with a difficult variety, lessons that have stuck with me ever since, and which made me very versatile as a winemaker.

WRO:  Did you have any experience making Zinfandel before joining Dry Creek Vineyard?

BK:  Early on I had opportunities to consult for various negociants, and I also founded the brand Tria -- which was eventually sold -- with some partners in the mid-1990s.  Tria concentrated on making three different reds: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah.  The Zins were from Napa Valley -- mainly from one of Aldo Biagi’s old Napa vineyards -- and from Dry Creek Valley.  You won’t be surprised to hear that some of the vineyards I worked with then are ones I currently work with at Dry Creek Vineyard.  Also, in 1999 I founded the Ottimino brand with Brad Alper, and we concentrate exclusively on Zinfandel, predominantly from the Russian River Valley.

WRO:  What was the transition like from making Pinot to making Zins?  How different is the approach in the cellar and in the vineyard?

BK:  Worlds apart!  In the vineyard, Zinfandel is always challenging because of its uneven ripening -- vine to vine, cluster to cluster, even berry to berry.  So thinning of green fruit and raisined fruit is a never-ending battle, and achieving full ripeness generally means that sugars are higher when the grapes hit the crusher.  Since I value balance in wine, I really work hard to bring in ripe Zinfandel at reasonable sugars.  Even then, nursing fermentations to dryness so that stuck fermentations and the ensuing volatile acidity problems are avoided can be challenging, especially in warmer vintages.

Pinot Noir is more uniform, but finding that perfect moment to harvest, when varietal character and color are optimal, is also difficult.  The challenge in the cellar is then to extract good color and tannin from this oh-so-fickle grape, while retaining varietal character.  And if I can get on my soapbox for a moment: I always strive to produce 100% Pinot Noir in my bottlings, so the color and tannin thing is a real issue.  There are way too many Pinots out there that have other varieties blended into them, to the extent that I’m not really sure if the wine-consuming public knows what real Pinot tastes like anymore!

WRO:  What makes the Dry Creek Valley region so great for Zinfandel grapes?
BK:  First and foremost, it’s the soils and the temperature patterns, which imbue Zinfandel with a dried-flower spice on top of all the great berry flavors, making it very different from Zinfandel in other appellations.  Soil is probably the predominant factor here, but the pattern of very warm days and very cool nights, which is more extreme than, say, Napa Valley, probably plays a big role in the character of Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley.

WRO:  How would you describe the overall style of DCV’s Zinfandels, and how do you achieve it?

BK:  Both the Heritage Zinfandel and the Old Vine Zinfandel follow the standards I outlined above, where we try to achieve full and even ripening in the vineyards by judicious thinning and picking at the right time -- certainly before there are copious amounts of raisins, which too many winemakers seem to use as an indication of ripeness.  This gives us alcohols that range from the high 13s into the low 15s, with wines very much in balance.  To some degree, both wines are produced like other big reds, with full extraction, 100% oak aging, quarterly rackings, etc.  We’re looking for full body, varietal typicity and balance.  The Heritage Zin gets a mix of French and American oak, while the Old Vine Zinfandel is all French so that the nuances of the mixed varietal Old Vine Zinfandel vineyards don’t get overwhelmed. 

WRO:  How do the profiles differ for DCV’s single-vineyard wines?

BK:  The vineyards we feature include the 125-plus-year-old Beeson Ranch, the Somers Vineyard and our estate vineyard bottled as “Spencer’s Hill.”  These wines are made like the Old Vine Zin, but generally with a larger percentage of newer French Oak, and, of course, they are bottled because of their very distinct fruit characters and are often barrel selections from within the main lot from each vineyard.  A lot of care and feeding go into these wines, and I’m not above de-classifying them in any given vintage if they are not up to snuff. 

WRO:  Is Zinfandel still “The People’s Wine,” or has it taken on a more serious role over the years?

BK:  Yes and no.  Zinfandel still has a unique niche as the “American” red, I think, and its advocates can be fanatical.  For those in the know, well-made Zinfandel takes a place with Cabernet Sauvignon and other serious reds as ageable, always interesting wine, though there are many who will insist the opposite.  In the current economy, I think that even those so-called “noble” reds that are supposedly superior to Zinfandel are becoming “The People’s Wine” simply because of all the pricing pressure on higher-end offerings.  There’s quite a battle raging.

WRO:  Any favorite Zin-and-food pairings?

BK:  While being very serious about saying “be adventurous” with your food pairings, I will admit that few give me more pleasure than a big, juicy Zin with roasted pork or lamb.

WRO:  When you’re not drinking DCV wines, whose wines do you enjoy? 

BK:  I go in phases, trying to keep up with various wines from around the world.  Recently I’ve been sampling Alsace whites and Torrontes from Argentina, while for reds it’s been Malbec -- which in some ways is to South America as Zinfandel is to North America, both historically and in terms of wine structure and unique flavors.