I really like drinking wine.
I know when I like it and I know when I don’t like it, but I have a pretty hard time characterizing anything about it. By chance, I recently befriended Lloyd Mathews, a 33-year-old winemaker from New Zealand who has leapt through the ranks to become the director of winemaking at one of Napa’s most prestigious wineries, 9 Suns.
While trying to taste as much of his out-of-my-price-range wine I can (his wine starts at $300 a bottle and if you’re not buying a 3 bottle minimum, you can’t even taste it), I’ve also been picking his brains about what makes the difference between good and bad vino, and wrote it all down in case I have a few too many glasses and lose my memory.
How’s the wine business this year?
It’s good, man. It’s all coming together.
What makes for a good year?
How’s the best way to put this… with Napa, we tend not to have a lot of rain; our problem here is more heat than it is cool weather. So, what we’re looking for is that critical time during bud burst where it’s safe weather, which is like mid-70s nice weather, to get them up, and another one is at flowering when all the little flowers come out, ’cause that determines how much fruit you’re gonna have. With the weather, it’s just timing we’re concerned about. Where you can get caught is like in 2016 where we had ten days of really hot weather: around 110–115 degrees on the last day. You can’t give the plants enough water to keep them going. Napa’s pretty good for making wine, so we tend to have good seasons most years.
Is that what makes Napa superior?
It’s a bit more than that; the climate here is just so good for cabernet, it really is. We get this morning fog layer that comes in and sorta slows things down and keeps things nice. We have quite cool nighttime temperatures, so it’s not hot the whole time, hot and humid. From a disease point of view, we’re pretty good. Sonoma has the same sorta thing but it’s a lot cooler; it doesn’t get as hot as what Napa does, that’s why you grow Pinot’s over there, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, more than Cab’s like we do in Napa.
Cabernet are the most expensive grapes, right?
In the US, yes.
And you’re from New Zealand…
Napier, Hawkes Bay.
What’s the main differences winemaking here and there?
It’s just significantly warmer here. New Zealand’s a coastal island in the South Pacific so the weather’s far more variable. The consistency in our weather here in Napa makes life easy.
Did you move from Napier to Napa for the weather?
No, it was job opportunity. Hawke’s Bay is great; New Zealand and Australia are great (for making wine); but in the US, you can actually earn a decent wage, and with the right attitude you get more opportunities here. I was the director of winemaking at 29 years of age of this winery, a 40 million dollar property. So that’s the difference.
It’s kinda the same as skateboarding. Moving to LA was kinda like trying my shot in the big league. What’s the best lesson you can learn from making wine?
You’re always going to make mistakes; just do everything you can to minimize the mistakes. When we have mistakes in the winery, they normally cost a shit ton of money; you lose a huge amount of product. You can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in wine product in seconds. The other one is to trust your pallet. Your first instinct is normally right.
How did you develop an advanced pallet for wine?
Tasting as much wine as I could. Listening to what other people have to say and making associations. As soon as I worked that out, I started to understand what other people were talking about and I could see what they were looking for.
So, what is the real difference between a $200-300 bottle of wine, compared to the bottle I can go grab for $5-10 down the street at Trader Joes?
I always compare it to a sports car: you can have a car that costs $10,000 that goes as fast as a Ferrari. You can have another car for $10,000 that corners as well as a Ferrari. You can get one as powerful, or you can get one with all the computer technology for $10,000—but to get one that does it all and is a Ferrari is very, very expensive, and it’s the same with wine. You can have a wine that’s got all the tannins, you can have one that’s got a huge amount of concentration, but to get everything all together, to get all those elements, that’s what makes the difference, that’s where the cost comes in. It’s all the little nuances that make it that expensive. There’s only certain places in the world you can grow those grapes.
How much of America’s wine is made in Napa?
I think it’s only like 4-5%. It’s tiny but there are over 500 vineyards.
And how much of that is the prestige wines that you’re working on?
Oh, tiny once again. I’m not up with what the latest stats are but its tiny.
So, where are your favorite wines from?
My personal favorite is champagne.
But you don’t make any sparkling wines. Have you ever wanted to go down that route?
No, I don’t want to make the drink, I love my job. I love making wine, don’t get me wrong, but every time I pick up a cabernet or something like that, I analyze it. So, I choose not to make sparkling because it keeps the mystique around it for me.
Speaking of sparkly, bubbly wines, what’s the deal with natural wines? They always seem to have a weird buzz to them.
Yeah, natural wine’s an interesting one. Natural wine is classed as 70 milligrams of sulphites or less. So, they still have sulphites but the grapes are picked way earlier; they have no additions made to them, so there are no preservation aids and they tend to be a bit more acidic. I’m not the biggest fan of natural wines; I think it’s really hard to do well, because you’ve gotta be unbelievably dedicated to what you’re doing and there’s just not that many people doing it really well.
Do those wines keep?
Yeah, they can; there are definitely some that do. They tend to be a bit lighter, so you should probably drink them quicker.
Another clarification: what does it mean for a wine to be organic?
Organic is a tough one, ’cause you can organically farm but to make ‘organic wine’ you can’t add anything to it, you have to use only organic products as additions and most people use something called ‘diammonium phosphate,’ which is a nitrogen addition, and it’s not organic. It feeds the yeast to essentially keep them happy during fermentation. There’s a lot of organic farming in Napa but not a lot of organic winemaking, put it that way. It’s harder to make wine organically because our vineyards are pretty low in nutrition, so we have to add to them to bring it up.
When someone raves about organic wines being ‘better’ or not giving them a hangover, are they—from an experts point of view—just suckered in by marketing?
The marketing aspect definitely has an effect, there is no doubt about that. It’s a buzz word. As I said, you can get seriously good natural and organic wines but it’s far easier to make good non-organic wines, and when you’re trying to do stuff at our level, it’s just not possible. We would fuck up so much wine just to get a small amount; you’re leaving a huge amount up to the gods, essentially.
Would you ever consider going back to New Zealand to make wine?
Oh yeah, absolutely. One day.
That wouldn’t be a cab.
Probably not. Probably Syrah or Chardonnay.
Are you gonna be a winemaker for the rest of your life?
Good question, but I haven’t thought that far ahead. I still tell people that I’m still figuring out what I want to do when I grow up. I’ve been this way for the last 10 years. I enjoy what I do, I really, really enjoy what I do. It’s one of those things where I’m not closing any doors but I’m not opening any doors at the same time.