Richard Woodard catches up with a man determined to rewrite perceptions of the Napa region, despite owning neither vineyards nor a winery
Sure Napa wine is good, but it’s just too expensive, right? Wrong, says Brent Shortridge, the man behind Waterstone Winery. With his new red and white wines, he’s determined to get the valley’s wines back on 'by the glass' in the UK’s restaurants.
Tell us about the In Studio range.
With the white, our winemaker Laurie Hook’s choice was to take the approach of the Rhône Valley, so she picked three grapes: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, which have very small plantings in Napa – that was part of the appeal to her.
The red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Sirah – very unusual in terms of Napa. Part of the aim with this series was to mitigate the escalation of grape prices in Napa Valley. Part of Laurie’s mission was to create a red blend that would come in well below our Cabernet Sauvignon [in price terms].
She chose two varieties that would fill out the mid-palate in Syrah and Petite Sirah, and that tend to be very generous in the mouth, and she found a blend that worked with the Cabernet, rather than shut it down.
For by-the-glass you want something that will drink well on its own, but also pair with food.
Why aren’t there more Napa wines at this price level?
These wines are hitting price points that are in some ways being abandoned by most Napa Valley producers. Not because they’re turning their backs on it, but because the grape prices are driving their prices up.
The fact that these are blends gives us a little more freedom. If I have to, then I can look at Petite Sirah, for example, which is not commanding a high price per ton in Napa.
Most producers don’t have the economies of scale that I have. I’m a very lean operation, I don’t have a lot of personnel, in fact it’s myself and Laurie and then we use a lot of agents and contractors around the world.
We don’t own any land, nor bricks and mortar. We don’t own a physical winery – we lease space at an existing winery in Carneros called Bouchaine. So I can pass on those savings. You don’t have to go through fancy gates to get to me.
The on-trade here often perceives California wines as being over-the-top, in terms of alcohol, extraction and price.
I think that is a fair assessment of California in general. We have a climate with a dry summer and a lot of sun, so we tend to push a ripe style. It’s popular style, people sell out every vintage, and why mess with a good thing?
But there is a new wave - a number of producers who are pursuing balance in a greater way, and they’re producing some exciting wines as well that are getting notoriety.
What’s the latest on the aftermath of last year’s devastating fires?
It’s a slow process because we had – not just in Napa, but in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties – over 9,000 structures burned to the ground.
The important thing is that 90% of the grapes were already harvested at the time that the fires hit.
Laurie would have to go out wearing a mask, because the air was toxic and the Truchard vineyard, for example, was bathed in smoke for 10 days. When the results came in, we had levels of smoke markers that were well below the threshold for human detection.
We didn't really see a big impact on either warehouses burning with stock or on the crop, so it didn't really affect the size of the vintage coming out of Napa or Sonoma or Mendocino. We got lucky.
Waterstone Winery In Studio Red 2014 (£19.75 dpd); In Studio White 2016 (£15 dpd) from The Vineyard Cellars, 01635 589414