Sometimes there are people you encounter in life who, the minute you meet them, you think "This guy has a story to tell and I bet he tells it well." David Vergari is that guy. A veteran winemaker, David launched his own eponymous label, Vergari Wines, in 2003. He recently sat down with IntoWine to share with us his evolution as a winemaker and, most interestingly, the stories "behind the wine".
You founded the Vergari Wine Company in 2003. What inspired you to strike out on your own?
It happened in two ways: gradually, then quite suddenly.
I'd been thinking of making my own wine for several years before taking the plunge in 2003. It dawned on me that it was time to see if I had the stuff to make quality wine with no one to answer to but myself. Wines that I made previously at other places were well-received and garnered some pretty decent reviews. Could I do better without someone meddling in the process or having to compromise? It was an itch that I had to scratch.
How did your experiences at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Rutz Cellars help prepare you as a winemaker?
Working at Phelps was huge. I'll never forget the first interview with Damian Parker, the head of production as well spiritual leader and athletic director (just kidding on the last item, folks). The first thing he said was: "You're over-qualified!", which had a ring of truth. I had a good education from UC Davis, several internships, and looked competent on paper, but I needed more seasoning in the cellar to become a winemaker. I mean, how does one understand the process and earn the respect of the crew unless you've done it yourself? He put me to work dragging hoses, running swing-shift on the bottling
line and permitted me to be around more varietals than you could imagine. I told Damian during our interview that I wanted to be in a place where I could see the grapes arrive and eventually leave as bottled wine and we accomplished this at JPV. It was a great environment.
Rutz Cellars was a hoot. The first day I showed up for work, there were two armed guards and 24-hour security because the owner and my predecessor did not part ways, shall we say, amicably. I inherited a green crew and taught them everything in Spanish, which was dumb luck, as I majored in Latin American History at Berkeley and worked in Spain. Spent a lot of time working with some really outstanding growers and continued my education with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I wish I could have sold tickets to that gig. It was crazy beyond belief.
You spent parts of your winemaking career in both Australia and Spain. How did those experiences impact your perspective on winemaking?
I made it a point to see as much as I could in both countries, taking in everything. Australia. Ah, what a great place with so many distinct winegrowing regions, and I tried to visit them all! Missed out on Western Australia, but that was about it. I interned at Coldstream Hills, located in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. The winery is owned by James Halliday who has probably forgotten more about wine than many people know (check out some of his books, you'll see what I mean). James is a gracious man; both he and his wife, Suzanne, blew me away with their personalities and energy.
I had the opportunity to work with grapes from a number of vineyards and was struck by what makes for greatness and mediocrity. Some growers "got it", starting with careful site selection, preparation and planting, and farming for quality. A few were merely punters who were either in it for the money or didn't have a clue. James' cellar had over 20,000 bottles of wine at that time and every evening he pulled six, eight, sometimes even more bottles to drink. The breadth of wines he shared was beyond belief and really accelerated my tasting chops.
From Australia, I went on to Europe to further my education. After traveling throughout wine areas in France and Italy, I settled in for the harvest in Spain at a brand-new winery, which was still under construction when the first loads of grapes arrived (this gave me perspective as well, as in don't try the same thing if I ever build my own winery). We made wine from 14 different varietals. It was quite enlightening to see the various ways that people coped with technology--or didn't, for that matter--this helped me later at Rutz. Working abroad also taught me to appreciate what makes a piece of land ideal for grapes and how to take it from there. After awhile you can just look at some land and sense that it has what it takes, but it took a lot of travel and experience for this to sink in.
You produce hand-made Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why the focus on these two?
Some day I may regret saying this, but I believe there are enough Chardonnays in the world as it is without me making another one, so I focus on just these two. I like both varietals and enjoy how different they can be. Pinot sometimes drives me up the wall, but when everything clicks, it's as good as it gets. Cabernet Sauvignon is a different breed of cat. It's arguably, repeat arguably, less difficult to work with than Pinot Noir. That said, one needs to pay a lot of attention to the details to pull it off. Personally, I enjoy drinking all kinds of wines from Rosés to Stickies (Oz-speak for late-harvest). At the end of the day I keep returning to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Where do you get your grapes? What do you look for when choosing your grapes?
At this point, everything comes from Sonoma and Marin Counties, and the Napa Valley. I currently work with--or have worked with--family-owned vineyards, with growers I respect, like the Van der Kamps, the Sangiacomos and Rick and Diane Dunah in Sonoma County, Mark Pasternak in Marin County, and finally, Peter Nissen and Pete Richmond in the Napa Valley. Past experience has taught me how to spot the b.s. from the real deal and these folks walk the walk. They are stewards of the land who care about quality and do what it takes to bring it about. There's no jawboning or coaxing to persuade them to thin extra shoots, drop clusters, etc.
They know what to do, so it's worth the premium that I pay. One other important factor is where the vineyard is located. Ideally, with Pinot Noir, I look for the warmer part within a cool growing area. As for Cabernet, experience has taught me that Napa Valley is one of the best places in North America to find this varietal. Before, anyone gets riled by what I just said, relax: it's just my take. You are welcome to yours and guess what? We're both right.
Describe your approach to winemaking:
Look, it's not a cliché: begin with your starting material. Get the best grapes possible from growers who don't talk out of both sides of their mouths. Earlier in my career, I kept butting heads with one guy who resisted my, uh, entreaties to drop clusters and farm for quality. He was getting paid well, so that wasn't the problem. The wines were okay, but I knew that we could do better with more vine balance and less crop. One day, after several years of this, he let drop the fact that his bank loans were based on an average yield of EIGHT TONS PER ACRE! At the same time he repeatedly cited his commitment to furthering the quality and reputation of this particular Appellation. Unbelievable.
Where was I before going on that rant? Oh yeah, I'm supposed to discuss my approach to winemaking. Well, besides the obviously central role of the vineyard, timing the pick is by far the most critical decision I make during the harvest. After that, it's paramount to get the fruit to winery STAT for crushing, followed by soaking and fermenting. There are a lot of details at this point and it's quite a ride with lots of adrenaline and the occasional bout of angst. I opt for native fermentations, but if something's not quite right or I have some concerns, it's quite okay to use prepared cultures, because stuck ferments are the worst followed closely by rogue bugs spoiling the party with off-aromas and VA (Volatile Acidity). I try to go for the throat with every lot--you know, just make the best wine possible. Winemaking is a constant series of decisions, and opting to doing nothing is the same thing. I like to press when the wine feels right, sometimes well before dryness if I think that finishing in barrel will help. I choose barrels from coopers who don't cut corners, and I prefer a tighter grain for slower extraction. The oak notes should complement the wine and integrate with it; if the first aroma you perceive in one of my wines is pure, toasty oak, then in my mind I've probably screwed up.
Finally, whenever it's possible to bottle without fining or filtering, that's okay by me. However, one needs to be careful and know the potential risks! For example, let's say your wine has a little bit of residual Malic acid--some did not convert to Lactic acid--plus, when you look at it under microscope, there's a decent-sized population of viable, living ML bacteria. If you opt to bottle without filtering out the bugs, this leaves open the possibility that the wine will re-ferment inside the bottle. This is a really ugly situation--more like a nightmare--because customers call in to complain about fizzy wine, vendors start asking, "What the hell's going on here?", the Trolls on erobertparker.com go nuts and your rep takes a hit. What would you do in this situation? Sometimes it ain’t easy.
What's next for the Vergari Wine Company?
As far as Vergari Wines go? Grow slowly. Source more quality vineyards, which isn’t easy these days for Pinot Noir because everyone else is chasing the same thing. Be humble and irreverent. Don't mess up.
I also have yet another itch that needs scratching. Since I grew up drinking Dago Red and sought out bargain wines while attending college and afterwards, I still enjoy discovering wines that deliver quality for a low price. Even though I've worked at boutiques and mega-wineries, I like the idea of making wines that don't cost a lot but deliver the goods. For example, earlier this year I made a 10,000 case blend of Dry Creek Zinfandel for a negociant that I am really proud of. It had a twenty-dollar nose, flavors that rocked and yet sold for $8 a bottle. I am thinking of doing more of this. We'll see.
Where can your wines be found?
Mostly at restaurants. The balance is at service-oriented wine shops. There's a pretty up-to-date list on my website, www.vergariwines.com. Check it out.