[WF]: Last time we talked you had just pulled an all-nighter, bringing in grapes until the wee-hours of the morning. Why do you bring in the fruit in the middle of the night?
[Chad]: We start at 2am, and we go until about 8, 9, 10am. The reason is so that the fruit can come in cold. And the reason why that is important is, for one, we eliminate the process in the winery of having to chill the fruit. So, my winemaking philosophy is about eliminating steps that are unnecessary. Also, it’s produce, so it should be kept at a cool temperature to alleviate any kind of bad bacteria and yeast taking off and affecting the fruit. And then, thirdly, it’s more fun for the crew to be picking when it’s not sunny and warm outside.
[WF]: Where did the name of your winery, Samsara, come from?
[Chad]: It’s a Sanskrit word, an ancient Indian language, used in Tibetan Buddhism for living a balanced life. And the reason why I’m connected to that is I spent a lot of time after I graduated from college, I spent about a year in Indian, Nepal, and Africa. While I was in Indian and Nepal, I really got to, kind of got imbedded in the culture there. I really got into the Tibetan Buddhism. And when it came time to name my winery it was a really interesting process because you can name a winery anything – you can make up a word if you want to. And I kept going back to my journals, and the impact that trip had on my life and decided to pick something from that area. It’s something to always shoot for – balance. It’s not necessarily a reality, but it’s a good reminder.
[WF]: That’s neat – like really putting your heart and soul into it.
[WF]: What kind of role does whole cluster fermentation play in the wine style?
[Chad]: It plays a huge role. One, it provides a whole other level of aromatics. It tends to create a dried herb, like native sage aroma, and tea-like aromas, and it also provides a large part of the structure to the wine, so besides the acid that’s there, is provides this other layer of tannin. And tannin, you get it from seed, you get it from skin, you get it from oak, but you also get it from stems. And you would only use this in varietals that maybe aren’t so tannic to begin with, so in other words, Cabernet and stems would be a big no no. So it provides another level of aromatics, it provides another level of tannin, assuming that the stems are ripe. And thirdly, it helps kind of absorb and tuck in a little bit of the strong fruitiness that Pinot Noir, or California wine, has. And so, if I can find a way to tuck the fruit in a little bit and then it allows other things to come out of itself.
[WF]: So, then, what makes Samsara unique or different from other wineries?
[Chad]: The main thing is that, it’s really really small production. So I make, with any given wine, between 100 – 125 cases. It’s me, I don’t have any employees; it’s all native yeast, native mallow; it’s basket-pressed; it’s in barrel for 18- 24 months; it’s unfined and unfiltered. Now that doesn’t mean I’m completely alone, but as you walk through those kind of criteria, it becomes less and less, what’s the right word, not unpopular, but there’s very few people doing it the way I’m doing it. Which doesn’t make my way is the best way or the only right way, it just makes it the way that I want to do it. And I love the fact that it’s just me, and I can control every aspect of it. I don’t have to have a meeting to make a decision, you know what I mean?
[WF]: Yea, there are a lot of people who would love to be able to do that! How do you source your grapes?
[Chad]: It’s relationship-based. Some of these vineyards I’ve been working with from day one, others have come and gone. But I know all the growers in this area, because I’m a grower myself, for Melville. And so when something comes along, I’m not necessarily looking for new ones, I just like to add on to the portfolio if the site makes a lot of sense. (i.e. maybe a different soil type, or a different clone, different farm practices, something that is going to be a special place. There’s plenty of fruit available to buy, but there’s not plenty of awesome fruit available to buy. That’s all I’m ever interested in, and I’m willing to pay the price for it. But it would have to be the right site. So basically, if a friend or a guy I know is planting more vineyards, or is about to, I’ll hear about it. And then I’ll most likely get involved at the beginning and pick out where the vineyard is going to go, what clone it’s going to be, that kind of stuff. And I don’t actually turn over vineyards that often, so it’s kind of rare that this happens.
[WF]: When you think about all the work that goes into creating a bottle of wine, how much of it is growing or managing grapes versus vintaging?
[Chad]: In my opinion, I would say, 50% of it is growing, 30% of it is wine-making, and 20% of it is cooperating with Mother Nature in the cellar. The 50% of growing is also cooperating with Mother Nature, too, but the point is, I de-emphasize the wine-making side of it, and I emphasize the growing side of it.
[WF]: What’s your favorite part of wine-making?
[Chad]: The fact that I’m working with this natural product that takes a year to grow, and it’s grown in this environment that is totally reliant on Mother Nature. You can take that product, or produce, and turn it into wine! That is enjoyable on so many different levels. That’s what I love. That’s my favorite part. I guess it is the creative side.
[WF]: Tell us something about the eastern section of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, specifically Ampelos vineyard.
[Chad]: It’s a region one cold climate. Because it’s (Ampelos vineyard) on the eastern edge, it’s a little bit warmer of the cold climate. So it’s still considered a cold climate, but our area here is unique in that, you drive east-bound from the western border of Sta. Rita 8 miles, until you’re out of the AVA, and you basically increase 8 degrees (in temperature). So it’s a degree a mile. (Ampelos vineyard) is on the eastern edge, so it’s a little bit warmer but still a cold climate. What is unique about it, too, is the way it’s situated – that it’s planted on a western facing slope on pretty loamy soil. Maybe borderline clay, but certainly loam soil. And it’s positioned right where essentially the Sta. Rita Hills kind of pinched in a little bit so you have one corridor of 246 to the north and you have the other corridor of Santa Rosa Road on the south. And when you’re sitting in Ampelos vineyard you can see both sides, which is a really unique perspective. It receives wind and weather from essentially both corridors. Other than that, it’s biodynamic, it’s organic, and it is owned and farmed by the Work family. I love working with family growers, more so than with the corporate level. So all that kind of makes it unique, for me.
[WF]: What do you find about your work that is challenging, and what do you wish you could change?
[Chad]: That’s a good question. Challenging is being subjected to Mother Nature’s obstacles. It’s a challenge that we all have and one that we will never conquer. So there’s a mental exercise there, always reminding yourself that you’re not in control. That’s a really healthy outlook, I think. What do I wish I could change? If I could always have consistently good healthy fruit with good healthy yield, that would be really nice. But if that was the case, it would take a lot of the thrill out of what we’re doing.
[WF]: Like living on the edge a little bit?
[Chad]: Yea. I guess what I would change is people’s perception on wine. I think people are so intimidated by wine. I mean, not you and I, but kind of your average person who doesn’t know anything about wine, they’re kind of intimidated by it. So that would be a great thing to give to people – the same amount of confidence they have in going to the movie theater that they have in going to a winery.
[WF]: Chad, how do you know early on that you’ve got a good vintage?
[Chad]: Things add up. You know if you have a good healthy wintertime, like some good rain, good cold temperatures so the vines go dormant. Then if you have a good Spring – good meaning kind of dry, not so cold. And then you have a good flowering. That’s really when it adds up. At flowering, if you have a good set, a healthy flowering, a fertile flowering, and a good set. Then, that’s the first chapter. Then you move forward with the weather after that point, no mildew, the set looks good in the sense that there are small berries, small clusters, but lots of clusters. You know by August when things color up a little bit, like how even things are. So basically before you pick a grape you know the quality of the vintage. Which is kind of fun, actually. Because if you’re paying attention to what’s going on outside, you know. So then, at that point, you bring the fruit in, you process, you ferment, you do all that. There’s plenty of things you can mess up on. But if you don’t mess up and you get (the fruit) to barrel by November, December, you know it by that point - wow, this is a special vintage.
[WF]: I’d like to know your opinion on why there is such an abundance of low-quality Pinot Noirs on the market today.
[Chad]: I think because those are the ones who are going after the marketability of Pinot Noir, which didn’t exist, 8, 10 years ago. And it’s a business opportunity for these people to try to capitalize on. Which is unfortunate. I remember 10 years ago, talking to a Napa Cabernet collector, a good friend of mine, actually. We were talking about what I was doing for work. (Maybe this was about 15 years ago). And he said, “What are you planting”? I said “Pinot Noir.” He didn’t even know what Pinot Noir was! And this guy spends a LOT of money on wine! But it just goes to show that there’s just a disconnect with Pinot Noir back then. So now you have Pinot Noir so hot, and people are trying to capitalize on that marketability. The other thing is, too, it’s impossible to grow super high quality Pinot Noir and not spend very much money on farming. So any time you see a Pinot Noir for under $15, be very wary of it.
[WF]: Exactly! It’s so labor-intensive, how do you do it? You can’t bring a Pinot on the market for super cheap and have it be any good! It’s almost impossible. So what are your goals for Samsara?
[Chad]: The goal is to maintain increased quality. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Which is also a really really fun perspective. If there’s a way I can improve something, or a way I can make it better, I’m going to try to do it. That’s basically it. The goals aren’t motivated financially, they’re not motivated through the critics’ eyes, the goals aren’t motivated from anything other than trying to make the best wine I possibly can. (WF – That’s a goal to aspire to! I like that.)
[WF]: Last question: What are your favorite foods to pair with Pinots?
[Chad]: The classics are like salmon, turkey at Thanksgiving, but those are old, you know. Lately my wife and I have been digging these caramelized beets on the stovetop with a little bit of salt, a little bit of garlic, and that brings out this earthiness and also a sweetness from the caramelization, and that with a Pinot is off-the-hook good. Tuna tartar is really cool too. Which is not that common; it has that richness in the tuna that compliments the richness in the Pinot Noir.
[WF]: Like an ahi tartar?
[Chad]: Yes, exactly – ahi tartar. And you know, like Miso marinated cod; surprisingly a lot of Japanese food works super well with Pinot Noir. But the bottom line is, it’s a lot like champagne, in that Pinot Noir goes with just about everything. It doesn’t go well with asparagus, unless your wine tastes like asparagus. (ha ha) That’s another cool thing about Pinot – it’s so versatile!