Winemaker Q&A - Chris Pittenger of Gros Ventre Cellars
April 2019 White Wine - 2018 Merritt Island Chenin Blanc
Questions for Foot of the Bed by Corissa Funk
To start with a broad question: how would you define your winemaking style?
Our style is determined by the varietal, vintage, and site from which it is grown. Every year Mother Nature throws you curveballs that can dictate style. In general, we try to make wines equal parts of fruit, earth, structure, complexity, and freshness. To this end, we feel that the style is the result of decisions made in three areas. 1) The vineyard: working with dedicated growers to make timely decisions throughout the growing season and especially at harvest is critical to the style of the wine. 2) The Cellar (fermentation): critical decisions about what to do or not do to a wine has a huge influence on what style the wine will take on. We feel that less is more in most of our decisions during this time. 3) Blending trials: this is the final opportunity to impart a “house style” on a wine. Every palate is unique and our style is oftentimes a reflection of our personal preferences and sensibilities.
Do you have a favorite winemaking technique? Anything from the sorting table to bottling that you are particularly excited about?
I don’t think there is any one element or “silver bullet” that makes wine great. It is the cumulative of hundreds of decisions made throughout the process that makes wine so unique and fascinating as a consumer and a winemaker. Many producers attempt to make a product that tastes the same every year and does a great job of making consistently similar wines every vintage. For us, we are trying to make the best wine from a particular vintage from a specific site. We embrace that the wine will be different every year no matter how hard we try (or not try) because Mother Nature will never give the same grapes every year. This is what excites us about wine.
Was there a time you experimented in the winery and it all went horribly wrong? Or perhaps something that turned out better than expected?
Every year is a new “experiment.” We don’t have a “dogma” when it comes to making the wines. We look at each vintage through a fresh lens and react to what the year provides. That said, during our first year we were working with 3 vineyards and had no experience with them. So determining how much new French oak to put on the wine was bit of a crapshoot. For our Cerise Vineyard in Anderson Valley, we figured 33% would be a safe number. It turned out that the fruit was dominated by oak that year. Fortunately it ultimately integrated nicely in the bottle after some extended age and turned into a delicious wine. However, it wasn’t until 3 years later after experimenting with 25% in year two, and then ultimately determined that around 10-15% was the appropriate level of new oak for that particular vineyard.
What differences do you find working with grapes from the Foothills vs. Sonoma Coast vs. Russian River Valley?
El Dorado grapes and Sonoma Coast grapes couldn’t be more different. On the Coast and in the Russian River Valley, we open up the canopies and expose the fruit a lot more to sun given it is a cooler and damper growing area. We also tend to grow the grapes on southerly aspects for ripening purposes. In the Foothills we are trying to protect the fruit from direct sun and often work with northerly or easterly aspects and use the canopy to protect the grapes from the sun, which is much more intense in the higher elevations around 3000 feet.
What do you look for when selecting sites to work with?
1) Good people (growers) that have shared values of quality and sustainability. We put a lot of value in the people behind the fruit. A good farmer can take a wine to the next level. 2) Unique and distinctive sites. There has to be an element that excites us about a site. It could be the elevation, the soil type, the varietals grown, proximity to the ocean, etc.
Ultimately, If the farming is done right and the site is planted to the right varietal, clone, and rootstock, then very little intervention needs to be done in the cellar.
You and your wife have donated generously to several charitable causes including The Trust for Public Land, the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental and disaster relief efforts. What environmental changes have you seen in vineyards over the course of your career?
First of all, I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been working with vineyards and grapes for 25 years. The anecdotal evidence of climate change that I’ve seen is shocking. When your livelihood is centered on an agricultural product, I think you are more sensitive than the average person to the environmental changes that are happening around you.
We have seen huge changes in what grapes can or should be grown. Areas that once were considered too cold to ripen grapes are now fully capable of growing grapes. Areas that once were relegated to cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir are now capable of growing late-ripening varietals like Cabernet and Mourvèdre.
Extreme patterns of weather have taken a toll as well. We suffered many vintages in a row of drought conditions that stressed vines and sites to their breaking point. Some great wines were made in those years, but the long-term health of the vines is still in question. Now we are seeing extreme “100-year” flooding on a more frequent basis, which damages vineyards and the livelihoods of farmers, wineries, and communities.
What efforts do you take to produce wine as sustainably as possible and reduce environmental impacts?
We look at our entire wine production holistically from grapes to glass to see what decisions we can make that would be a cumulative benefit on the environment or at least a smaller footprint. To that end, we work with growers who farm sustainably, often organic or bio-dynamically. On our packaging, we purposely don’t use foils (capsules) on the bottles because we find them unnecessary and wasteful, only providing for aesthetic value. About 75% of our corks (100% in the future) are made from sugarcane and have a zero carbon footprint. We use lightweight glass bottles, which use less fossil fuel in transportation and are 100% recyclable.
Ultimately, we feel what is most important is that businesses are conscious in their decisions and try to do something to benefit the environment, even if it is small. The sum will go a long way to improving our planet for generations to come.
How did the name Gros Ventre come about? Where else can our members find your wines?
Sarah and I met in Jackson Hole Wyoming. It is home to Teton National Park and gateway to Yellowstone. One of our favorite places to hike, fly fish, and camp is the Gros Ventre Wilderness. During our first vintage in 2009, Sarah was very pregnant and we were not only starting a winery, but also a family. Pronounced “GROW VAUNT,” it translates to “BIG BELLY” in French, and was the playful name for Sarah’s pregnant belly and the place where we first met.
Folks interested in trying more of Chris’s wines can join his mailing list at https://www.grosventrecellars.com/wines.