Talbott Vineyards in Monterey Country is one of the regions top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers. Owner Robb Talbott, son of Robert Talbott who started a high end clothing line in the 1950s, first planted vineyards in 1982 and quickly established his label as one of the premier wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Though much has changed in Monterey County in the last 30 years, Talbott nonetheless continues to craft wines that truly reflect a sense of place.
Your focus is on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. How did you fall in love with these varieties?
My tasting palate started to develop when I was in Burgundy on a fabric buying trip with my parents at the age of 12 years old. Even though the waiter was mixing half water and half wine, that was when my palate memory started, and when I fell in love with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. From there it was a progression until I realized that the perfect place to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was right in my own backyard in Monterey County.
Your wines are all estate grown from two well-known vineyard sites and certainly the Santa Lucia Highlands is known within wine circles as a respected growing area. What’s so special about this area?
The climate and the soils are perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This can’t be said for all of the varieties that people have tried to grow here, but for Chardonnay and Pinot this is an ideal region. We have a very cool marine climate. Specifically, we benefit from cool foggy nights that let everything in the vineyard cool down. Our soils are alluvial, so they are very well drained. At our own estate vineyards—Sleepy Hollow and Diamond T—we control everything. We are not reliant on a farmer to tell us how to prune, or when to pick. We control the quality at every stage from grape to bottle. It’s this control of these fabulous vineyards that creates the quality you taste in our wines.
Your father started a line of premier clothing in the 1950s which now has a solid reputation. What are the similarities, if any, between the clothing industry and the wine industry?
There are actually a number of similarities between clothing and wine, even though clothing is a little more trend driven, whereas wine is more traditional. My dad was my mentor. He taught me an awful lot. I learned from him that you always protect the source for your raw materials, and you always put quality first. As a winery, we declassify anything that doesn’t meet our quality standards—that’s hard to do, but it is something I have done whenever it was necessary. My father also taught me to stand behind your product, and to respect and service your customers—they are the people who build your company. And you always have to offer value at all price points. Your customers should find more value than they are paying for. If they do, that will bring them back again and again.
Explain the tiers of Talbott Vineyards.
All of the wines we produce are made from estate-grown grapes, but there is a remarkable amount of diversity in our Sleepy Hollow and Diamond T vineyards that allows us to offer different tiers of wine. These different tiers in the Talbott Vineyards portfolio are based on fruit intensity and length of finish. Our Kali Hart Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the fruitiest and zippiest expressions of our estate fruit. Our top Talbott Chardonnays (Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Diamond T) have the most winemaker influence such as ML, sur lie aging and new oak with amazing length of finish. They are jaw dropping. Logan falls in the middle, with a perfect fruit to oak/yeast balance. As for our cuvées, those are our top-tier wines where winemaker Dan Karlsen gets to have a lot of fun with the winemaking. Even after all of these years, it’s still fascinating to me that we can get such distinctly different wines, and so much complexity, all primarily from our Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. The other thing I would add is that I think our tiers offer great value from top to bottom—I would measure them against the market any time.
The winery and luxury furnishings part of Robert Talbott Inc. is not flashy or trendy, but more traditional and conservative in approach. Do you foresee a need to adopt a more edgy media campaign to promote your wines to a new audience?
When I started Talbott Vineyards there were 215 wineries in California, now there are thousands—and everyone seems to want to make Chardonnay. The competition today is brutal. As a result, you see a lot of “trendy” marketing for poor quality wine. Instead of trendy marketing, we've focused on continually improving quality. We’ve committed ourselves to vineyard sustainability through the use of things like cover crops, reduced chemical applications and safer chemicals. In the winery, we are handling the fruit more gently than ever before and we are whole cluster pressing so that the character of the vineyards shines through. In the packaging for our Kali Hart tier we switched to Eco Lightweight bottles and screw caps. Now a truckload of our Kali Hart wines weighs almost 4 tons less, which significantly reduces its carbon footprint during shipping. These aren’t trendy changes, they are concrete differences in the way we approach our business. Basically, we are respecting our gorgeous land and taking care of our product. As a result, our wine quality and sales have never been better, and our wines are considered great values for their pricing.
The 100-point rating scale has produced its share of diverse opinions. Some say it has empowered consumers, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as being the long-term impact of the 100-point rating system?
I’m like our winemaker Dan Karlsen; I’m a straight shooting guy. I think the 100-point rating system has done all of the things you’ve suggested to some extent. I’d also add that when you get a 100-point rating, as we have been fortunate to do, it’s phenomenal. But even though we get a lot of great scores, we don’t sell our wines based on those scores. We sell our wines based on their quality and flavors. When you do that, you build a more loyal and consistent customer base. The 100-point rating system introduced one way the average consumer could understand wine, and in doing so created more interest. In the U.S. we are in the early portion of the wine drinking continuum, and as we further develop as a wine drinking nation, the 100-point system will likely give way to individualized preferences for a particular region, varietal or style. Ultimately, I think customers need to let their own tastes guide them more.
What prompted you to pursue wine as a career? If not wine, what path would you have chosen?
From the early age of 12, I became fascinated with fine wine. That interest later turned into a passion that I followed when I planted my first vineyard and built my winery. Originally, my family’s apparel company did not hold the same passion for me, so I followed my heart with the full support of my parents. My degree was in fine arts, and I loved the art of fine wine. I also loved the hands-on aspect of making wine. I built my winery from scratch, cut the roads, planted the vines, did the carpentry on the properties, built the fences, did the tilling, deep ripping, and put in the irrigation. Beyond my family, this has been my greatest source of pride and enjoyment. If this couldn’t be my career, I’d still want to work with my hands, or grow things.
Describe the winemaking philosophy at Talbott.
Our philosophy is quite simple. We start with the right varietals, planted in the perfect spot with the ideal climate and soils. In the winery, we handle the fruit gently, we treat it with respect, and we let it show what it has.
High alcohol levels are an important topic these days. What are your thoughts on the subject?
At Talbott we pick based on physiological ripeness and acid balance. In California this moment of perfection occurs at higher sugar levels, resulting in wines that are richer and more voluptuous, with alcohol and flavor levels higher than Burgundy can achieve, except in exceptional vintages. When people talk about high alcohol levels, I think what they are really taking issue with are unbalanced wines. Alcohol is one element in a wine, and it shouldn’t be the dominant element. I love wines that are in balance, which ours are.
California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have taken quantum leaps forward in terms of the quality of wine being produced. Do you rival Burgundy?
My goal was never to copy Burgundy. I don’t believe in copying anyone’s winemaking style or wines. I founded Talbott Vineyard in Monterey County because I believed that this was the best place to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We are so lucky here! Burgundy makes many great wines in the warmer years, but here in the Santa Lucia Highlands we get amazing fruit year after year. We may use French barrels and some French methods, but what makes our wines so exceptional is the consistently perfect climate and the resulting quality of the fruit. I think that most wine drinkers and wine critics would agree that the Santa Lucia Highlands, and perhaps Sleepy Hollow in particular, are currently producing some of the highest quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnays in the world.