I first met Michael Beaulac, the personable and funny winemaker for Pine Ridge Vineyards in the Napa Valley, several years ago, when he was the winemaker at St. Supery. I admired his wines then, and I’m even more impressed by what he’s doing at Pine Ridge.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to taste barrel samples of Michael’s 2009 wines -- his debut vintage at Pine Ridge -- and the bottled versions promise to be spectacular. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I really loved the Oakville Cabernet, with its notes of blackberry cobbler and mocha. The reds -- five AVA-designated Cabs and a Bordeaux-style blend called “Fortis” -- all showed great balance and elegance, along with plenty of ripe red and black fruit.
I followed up with Michael last week to find out more about his journey to Pine Ridge, and to see how the 2011 vintage is coming along.
Wine Review Online (WRO): How did you get into the wine business?
Michael Beaulac (MB): I was working as a wine buyer in a restaurant in Maine, and Tim Murphy (co-founder of Murphy-Goode winery in Sonoma County) came in and jokingly offered me a job. So I went out to California to work the harvest as a cellar rat.
WRO: Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
MB: I grew up in Vermont, and I have a U.S. history degree. I knew nothing -- I didn’t know how to hook up a hose or how to clean a tank. Chris Benz (Murphy-Goode’s winemaker at the time) was a very tough, strong individual, and she basically beat me into submission. We’re actually good friends now -- I went to her Christmas party this past year -- but every day I went to work thinking, “Oh my gosh, she’s going to fire me today.”
WRO: So how did you learn the ropes?
MB: Chris was just tremendous in teaching me how to make wine. Her favorite question was “Why? Why would we rack this, why would we add acid, why would be pick today, why wouldn’t we pick tomorrow, why are we pressing it this way?”
WRO: Did it take you a while to start enjoying the job, or was it something you took to right away?
MB: I will bet a hundred bucks that I started on August 11, 1989. And on that Friday, Tim Murphy came down in the cellar -- they give the new guy all the bad jobs, like cleaning the drains, sulfuring barrels -- and I remember him coming up and putting his arm around me and saying, “Isn’t the wine business romantic?” And I said, “I love it!” To this day, I cannot imagine doing anything else. Every day it’s something different, and I think that’s what I like so much about winemaking.
WRO: So what happened at the end of the season?
MB: I knew it was only a harvest position, but at the end of it Chris said, “We’re going to let you go in couple weeks, but I want you to know that you’re one of the best cellar workers we’ve ever had.”
From there I went to (Domaine) Laurier and worked with Merry Edwards for about a year, until the winery went under. Then Chris called and offered me a job at Murphy-Goode -- and I stayed seven years.
WRO: What position were you hired for?
MB: Cellar rat. Then I was cellar master, then assistant winemaker, then I started the winery’s Zinfandel and Pinot Noir programs. The Zin stuck, but the Pinot didn’t.
WRO: Once you moved on from being a cellar rat, was the actual practice of winemaking what you’d expected?
MB: I was coming from a restaurant background. I knew wine, and I thought I knew something about winemaking, but I knew NOTHING AT ALL. I was just shocked by everything. I didn’t know there was a difference in how you made white wine from red wine -- 22 years later I can’t believe that! That’s why I always go back to what a great group of people they were at Murphy-Goode, because it was all about, ‘How can we make you a better cellar worker/assistant winemaker/winemaker?”
WRO: You obviously had a crash course in winemaking rather than an academic one. If your son or daughter wanted to become a winemaker, would you advise him or her to get an enology degree?
MB: Absolutely. For me, a lot of winemaking is intuitive, and after years of doing it I can taste a berry and anticipate where that grape will be during fermentation. But some of it really is chemistry. I’ve been really lucky in all of my positions to have great enologists and assistant winemakers who can say, “Hey, here’s a number that’s sticking out.” Now I can look at the analysis for the wines and see what I need to see, but 17 years ago, I didn’t know that stuff. So I think the UC Davis experience is a must.
WRO: Let’s fast-forward to your time at St. Supery. What was it like working with the famous consulting winemaker Michel Rolland?
MB: I worked with Michel for, I think, five years, and he is the nicest man you’d ever want to meet. He really taught me a lot about blending -- you don’t necessarily take the four best wines and put them together for your Cabernet blend. Sometimes you take a wine that, on its own, doesn’t taste very good, but you add that into a blend and the whole dynamic changes. I credit him a lot with my ability to blend wines.
WRO: After eight years at St. Supery, what lured you away to become the winemaker for Pine Ridge?
MB: Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supery, came into my office one day and told me she was planning to retire in 18 months, and she wanted me to take over as CEO. I was really excited for about a week, and then I said, “But I like making wine,” and in the CEO gig I knew I couldn’t do that. So I went and told Michaela it wasn’t the right time for me.
Ten months later I was approached by a headhunter for Pine Ridge. The winery has 200 acres in five different appellations up and down the Valley and 13 different vineyards -- that’s pretty cool. And they have money to spend to make sure the vineyards are grown the way they’re supposed to be. They told me, “We can give you the equipment, and the cellar to make sure that you can process the fruit, and we can give you the budget for barrels....” Plus I had the opportunity to be the general manager as well as the winemaker.
WRO: How does the winemaking process work at Pine Ridge?
MB: Everything is about the vineyards. Gustavo Aviña is our vineyard manager, and he has these vineyards in pristine condition. He is intimate with every block and he has an intimate knowledge of what I’m striving to do, and I have a great knowledge of what he’s doing. That team effort is the most important thing in making great wine.
WRO: What’s your winemaking goal at Pine Ridge?
MB: To me, it’s all about that structure -- the weight in your palate. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing Chenin Blanc-Viognier or Stags Leap Cabernet, the goal should always be for the person tasting the wine to pause for a moment and go, “Wow, that really is something different and unique.” And there’s a weight to the wine appropriate for what you’re trying to do, and a complexity. To me, it’s all about that palate and the way the wine feels in your mouth. When you swallow, 10 or 15 seconds later you should go, “I can still taste that wine -- and I want another sip.”
WRO: How would you describe your first Pine Ridge wines, the 2009 Cabernets?
MB: The current thinking is that the 2009 Napa Cabernet is perhaps the best wine I’ve ever made. I’ve tasted it with a few people and that weight factor, the complexity… every time I taste it I just go, “Wow. If this isn’t received well I’m moving back to Vermont.” I think the 2009s as a whole are very complex, very big, elegant, smooth wines, with a lot of dark fruit.
WRO: How’s the 2011 vintage shaping up? Any concerns?
MB: This year has been very odd. I think the fruit is down about 26% from what we had originally anticipated. We have a vineyard up on Howell Mountain and that vineyard is beautiful -- it missed the rains during bloom. And then we have a vineyard in Rutherford that I would say we are down to about a ton per acre -- and it’s normally about 4 tons. So, it’s kind of hit or miss. With Merlot we did really well, but I’m hearing a lot of people got hit hard on it. I’m guessing we’ll start harvest around September 20, which is about 10 days later than we started last year -- and we’re hoping to finish before November!
WRO: Do you have a favorite vineyard site?
MB: I think I’m supposed to say Stags Leap is my favorite because that’s our home vineyard, but I think my very favorite is what we call Rutherford Ridge. It’s up on top of this ridge and the elegance of this wine -- that vanilla-cherry-cream, that graham cracker crust -- it’s spectacular. The vineyard is tiny -- only about 3 acres -- but there’s just something about the fruit there.
WRO: So what do you drink when you’re not drinking your own wines?
MB: I like Staglin and Rubicon. I like good Pinot Noir from Russian River when I can’t have Archery Summit from Oregon. Really, I’m all over the board….