Five questions with Ballentine Vineyards’ winemaker Bruce Devlin (part one)

by TrevR on March 27, 2007

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For this installment of ‘Five Questions’ we tracked down Ballentine Vineyards’ winemaker, Bruce Devlin, in between bottling activity and his other various duties. Devlin was extremely open and honest in answering questions for us, so we’re doing something a bit unique with this interview. Rather than cram everything into a single post, we’re going to break up the interview into two parts.

Ballentine Vineyards’ winemaker Bruce DevlinThe first part of the interview appears today–you’ll learn how Devlin’s experiences making wine in South Africa, Australia and Germany continue to influence him today and what it’s like having a wife who’s also winemaker at another Napa winery. Part two of the interview will run tomorrow. Enjoy!

CB: If we’re not mistaken, you previous worked as a winemaker in South Africa. What did you learn there about the winemaking process that influenced your style? Anything you still carry with you/implement today in the Napa Valley? What are the biggest differences/similarities between the two wine-growing regions?

Devlin: When I graduated from college, I knew I needed to gain some experience making wine. I went to South Africa to work, after doing a harvest up at Geyser Peak in Sonoma. It was a great way to see the world, gain some experience, and hang on to that carefree college lifestyle a little longer. After spending the time in South Africa, I worked in Germany and then Australia. I look back on those days very fondly. I guess the biggest thing that I learned while traveling was how a country’s climate and culture influence the taste of a wine. I found that South Africa in particular was a good example of how culture seemed to influence wine style. My impression of the country as a whole was that the people were used to wines that had lower alcohol content. The climate was very similar to California, and to make those lower alcohol wines here would have similar results to what was going on there, making under-ripe (by our standards) wine. This was what the majority of the population seemed to want. There were a few wineries bucking the tradition. They were picking later and riper. These wines were fabulous and quickly gaining some recognition as being superior and getting critical acclaim. It was a great lesson of what actual ripeness was and that the definition from two winemakers can be different for the exact same vineyard.

We had an irrigation pond as a swimming hole up in the hillside vineyards across from the winery, and we would hike up and swim a couple of times a week. Next to the swimming hole there was a Chenin blanc vineyard. It was easy to walk over and taste some grapes and see how they were doing. I remember one particular day tasting the grapes, and there was this huge explosion of flavor. It really tasted just like eating a tart apple pie with the somewhat caramelized sugar qualities and the spiciness. I really think this has a lot to do with why Ballentine is making Chenin blanc today. A couple of years ago, the owner was ready to tear out the then 35 or so year old vineyard. I convinced him to sell the fruit for another year, and well hold a little back to make. I just wanted to test the market. The wine sold out in six months. If I had never seen the value of Chenin blanc in South Africa, we wouldn’t be making it today. It would be a great shame for what has become one of my signature wines, in a market that has almost given up on the variety.

The techniques used in South Africa are not so dissimilar to what we are doing here. The equipment is a hell of a lot older though. One thing we were really working on down there was to keep oxygen out of the juice for white wine. We were spending incredible amounts of energy to ensure we had the lowest oxygen environment in the press and all the way until fermentation starts. Not a new idea to the world, but I had never seen it performed to such an extent. The winemaker was really trying to emulate what he thought the New Zealanders were doing to make those great Sauvignon blancs. When I came to Napa there seemed to be opinions all across the board about if Oxygen was good or bad, what varieties demanded it, and at what time it was appropriate. In the end I think I have kind of melted a few things together to make the Chenin blanc. A little oxygen at the right time to aid yeast viability, outside of that the environment is either oxygen deprived or the juice is protected with sulfur dioxide.

In Germany we made predominately white wines. On a side note the winery was being paid by the government at the time to explore the possibilities of producing a Cabernet Sauvignon. I was there in a marginal year, and the Cabernet got to 18 Brix was vegetal tasting and had hard tannins. We brought the grapes into the winery. We were very excited to be conducting this ground breaking experiment, and their winemaker and I realized that there wasn’t a destemmer/crusher to process the grapes. It was a white wine winery, and everything was whole cluster pressed. Well we looked at each other, and decided that we would load them into the press and use the press as an open top fermentor. We could punch down by hand, and this would mean when it was ready, hey the press is already loaded. We got the grapes in the press, and tasted some of the stems to try to evaluate their influence. I think this will always hold true, under-ripe grapes mean under-ripe stems. Well the two of us took our shoes off climbed in the press and began the arduous task of destemming by hand for two hours. We didn’t even come close to getting them all out.

Most of the white wines we made in Germany were made and bottled by December of that same year. They had a very short life in the winery. The goal was to retain as much fruit in the wine as possible, and then to preserve it as soon as possible by getting the wine in the bottle. When I started making the white wine here, everybody (all our custom crush clients) were bottling their whites in March or April of the following year. I wanted to preserve as much of what I could of the Chenin blanc flavor. It is a somewhat delicate variety. I started bottling the wine in December, and soon enough several of the other clients were lining themselves up to join in that December bottling.

In Australia we had a great team of people. We had fun and got the work done. Who wants to go to a winery to work and not have fun while doing it. It was a larger facility, and we were partitioned out into our separate tasks to get the job done. The winery had some great concrete open tops all equipped with heading down boards (boards that hold the grapes under the juice). It meant that there was always skin to juice contact and the extractions were great without beating up the wine too much. You would still pump over the juice to mix up the tanks and circulate it through the suspended cap. If any of us finished our particular tasks early, we would go help out there with pump overs and digging out tanks when they were finished. I was on a shift with two French men, and one of them always did the open top pump overs. For him pump over meant sit on the hose at the edge of the tank, turn on the pump, and have your hands free to smoke cigarettes. For the rest of us, we were dragging the hose around the tanks making sure every inch got mixed up and that we were doing the most we could to get full extraction. At Ballentine we are now using open tops on wines where we really want to be able to control the extraction properly. They have become our most used tanks every harvest, and we try to put as many wines into them as we can.

It was a couple of years later, I was back visiting South Africa with my wife’s family. We were touring some wineries and tasting some wines. I set up a tour with a winemaker who is one of the most respected winemakers in the country. He is very political, and not afraid to let his opinions known. It was shortly after harvest, and he went off on one of his rants about what was going on and proceeded to proclaim, “I will never hire a French intern again, all they f…ing want to do is smoke cigarettes and have sex. They don’t get anything else done!” My Parisian born father-in-law just laughed and nodded his head.

Q: We understand your wife is also a winemaker–talk to us about that dynamic. Friendly competition? :)

Devlin: My wife is the winemaker for St. Clement. She and I met in college, and we worked in Europe and Australia together. We basically had the same resume when we got back to the states, and said when who ever got the first job would determine where we lived. We even got called on some of the same interviews, and would go in together. We looked mostly in Napa and Sonoma, solely out of the number of available positions in a given area. I got hired on at Ballentine, and it took her a little longer to find exactly what she was looking for. We were quite worried about finding two winemaking jobs in the same area, and I committed myself to commuting up to an hour if I had to. It turned out her first job was closer to our house than mine was. In a funny twist of fate in 2005 she was offered the job as winemaker for St. Clement Vineyards. St. Clement is directly across the street from Ballentine. Her office is up on the hill, and she claims she can keep an eye on me now. On our side of the wine world we really don’t see the competition thing. We play around with it a little bit, especially when friends come to town for a tour of both facilities. We actually bring wines home we’re working on and taste with each other if we have a concern or feel the need for a critical opinion. We get very critical of our wines tasting them all day and figuring how to make them as good as they can possibly be. We tend to focus on them so much, sometimes we find flaws when they are not even there. It is very grounding to bring a wine home that you are concerned about, have your most trusted palate taste the wine and tell you it is okay. There have been a few arguments over the wrong critic though. It’s kind of like coming home with a new hair cut and not saying you like it. There is definitely room for trouble. We typically can be critical of the wines together and usually wind up making a better decision by having had a conversation about them.

CB: To be continued tomorrow…

[techtags: Napa, Napa Valley, Ballentine, Ballentine Vineyards, Bruce Devlin, wine, winemaker, winery, cabernet sauvignon]

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has written 725 posts on The Cork Board. He was born and aged in the Napa Valley and has a passion for wine, writing and social media, which led him to co-found this blog in early 2007. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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