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

by TrevR on March 28, 2007

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Yesterday, we brought you the first part of our interview with Ballentine Vineyards’ winemaker, Bruce Devlin. In part two of the interview today, Devlin tells us what it’s like to work for a ’boutique’ Napa Valley winery and about his latest release–a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon–the winery’s first-ever Cab. Enjoy!

CB: Tell us what it’s like to be winemaker for a smaller, ’boutique’ winery in the valley–one that’s sometimes competing with major labels who’ve got big money backing.

Devlin: The Ballentine’s have owned land in the Napa Valley since 1906. They built the winery in 1995 on the property they bought in the 40’s. The winery expenses are all paid for as they come in, and therefore we have very little pressure on us from the outside world. There are no creditors knocking on the door, and no investors looking for a certain percentage profit every quarter. We have a very fluid and open structure. Some of our most successful wines have occurred because of small discussions around the crusher or out in the field during harvest, and not because all the numbers were crunched before we started them. Van and Betty Ballentine really give me the freedom to create. Perhaps a little too much freedom, when I started at Ballentine we made all of 5 wines and now we are making 14. We have the freedom to make spur of the moment decisions and sometime let our gut feelings guide us on the way.

One of the things that Van brings to the table is that he has been farming this very same piece of land since he was a kid. He may not remember what he had for dinner last night, but if you ask him about the 55 harvest and what kind of wine was made he’ll tell you every detail. He has ridden some highs in the market and been through the lows. In 2001 when the market was in oversupply, it was his experience and patience that helped us work through it. You just can’t buy that experience anymore. There are only a handful of these guys left around.

We have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to making the wine. We own the vineyards, the winery, and even the storage and shipping are handled by us. The wine leaves the property when it goes either direct to the consumer or to one of our many distributors around the country. This is where we start to see some difference in corporate wineries and us. We tend to get lost in some of the markets. We’re the small guy making wine. We have one person who covers the whole country’s sales for the winery. It’s really hard to give all our markets a fair share of time when there aren’t many of us out there working it.

I watched a friend go through the launching process for a startup 15,000 case brand under the umbrella of a large corporate company. Before the first wine was released, the press in most of the major markets knew about the wine, several papers had written articles about it, and they launched across the nations. Some articles appeared in South America about the brand. Now when I release something like the new Cab, I’m not just opening the front door and yelling out “New release come taste!”, but I don’t have the eyes of the papers looking at me either. I have a telephone, and we go to tastings and get the wine out there. We have a loyal customer base, and if people like it they buy it. If we want a winery brochure or a wine club insert we design it ourselves. I joke around a lot that I am the IT department, Janitor, Winemaker, Compliance, and stock boy all rolled into one. I laugh sometimes when I look out on a Tuesday at the end of the day and see my wife rolling the blue recycling bins out to the street at St. Clement, and this reminds me that I can’t forget to do mine.

Ballentine Vineyards 2004 Cabernet SauvignonCB: Tell us about the soon-to-be-released 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. We understand you were previously selling your Cabernet grapes to others. Why, specifically, was the decision made to start producing your own Cabernet from that lot?

Devlin: Our Pocai Vineyard off of Maple Lane is one of the warmest spots in the Napa Valley. We are in the heart of some of the best Cabernets in the world. We’ve always had a little bit of Cabernet, but never felt it was the quality that we wanted to put to bottle. Well that is outside of the one wacky year we made a Late Harvest Cab. It just wasn’t giving me the quality of fruit and intensity that I wanted to put into the bottle. This is Napa Valley, and if we’re talking Cab it better be good. A few years back we were doing some replanting and decided that this new spot might be a great piece of land to put in some Cabernet Sauvignon. A couple of years ago the vineyard started producing and we started to taste the potential of the wine. The first couple of years a vineyard produces are always a little on the light side, so we bulked the wine out. Sold it to someone else. When the 2004 vintage rolled around it was a low crop year, and the wine just showed this really nice concentration. I gave it some oak that I thought would work really nice to enhance the tannins and flavors of the wine. We watched the wine for about a year, going back to taste every so often, and found we liked it more and more. Van and I started to look at blends, and played around with some stuff and found that a little Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc really made the wine great.

CB: Anything in particular surprise you about the final product–the ’04 Cabernet?

Devlin: I think the vines are still a little on the young side, and we are seeing more concentration in the 05 and 06 vintages respectively. Which is great because it means the wines should just get better and better. It’s not that I think the ’04 is weaker, just that the newer wines so great promise. We can never really stick to a schedule at the winery, and the 2004 has made its way out to a few tastings and events. The wine seems to be really well liked. Van and Betty showed it at the Family Winemakers Event in LA this last weekend and had several people come back for seconds and tell them it was the best Cab of the tasting. The biggest surprise to me, is only really a select few have tasted the wine and our sales and marketing person is already suggesting the idea of allocation. It’s a nice feeling when your wines are so well received.

CB: Thank you very much for the time Bruce!

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

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has written 724 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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