Jed Steele Let Me Make His Wines
November 10, 2010 by Erin Thomas
International stardom is not easily attained without narcotic notoriety, an active courtship style or a small golden man that rests picturesquely on your mantle. However, winemaker extraordinaire Jed Steele has done it.
Starting at Stony Hill Winery in Napa as a cellar worker for the 1968 harvest, Jed fell hard for the juice and drove his love to the University of California, Davis for a Master’s Degree in Enology. With the highest of certifications, Jed was recruited to Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino as vineyard manager and winemaker. After helping launch this new winery for the better part of a decade, Jed moved on to what skyrocketed his stardom in 1983 – a Sonoma County venture in mint condition at the time called Kendall-Jackson.
K-J is where Jed wrote the book. The man literally created the now famous and one of the best-known domestic Chardonnay recipes to date. For nine vintages, Jed achieved ultimate success with the brand and brought it to the one-million case mark which is when he made his exit in 1991 to inaugurate Lake County’s Steele Wines.
Jed’s hands have been in a lengthy list of pots for his consultant projects, taking him down to Santa Barbara’s Fess Parker, up to Walla Walla’s Northstar, keeping it home with his second brand, Shooting Star, and aiding with his son Quincy’s Writer’s Block wines. He has been recognized for his related research papers by the American Journal Of Viticulture And Enology, was named Winemaker of the Year by numerous publications and received the Robert Mondavi Trophy from the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. His wines have been able to speak for themselves alongside their high-ranking scores and credit.
And about three weeks ago, I made wine for the Jed Steele.
I guess I can’t take all of the praise considering I was a mere part of crush at Steele Wines for somewhere under thirty total hours, but I helped make wine. Selected by the powers that be, I was sent down to Kelseyville, California with no more details than what to wear (jeans and boots), who I was meeting at the airport (a guy from Louisville) and that he had the rental car. Needless to say, never had I done a crush or any part of harvest for that matter, I had no clue what the hell I was doing or what to expect.
Blindly – literally, since we sped past the entrance to the winery twice – we arrived at Steele Wines on a Thursday afternoon near what was supposed to be the end of harvest.
Along the West coast, the 2010 vintage has been noted to go one of two polar opposite ways: to be the best vintage of all time or to be catastrophically the worst. For California in particular, the harvest kicked off weeks later than normal with record-breaking temperatures hitting triple-digits and wild storms busting in near the end to push the grape-picking into either a fired frenzy or remorsefully leaving the fruit on the vines to take in the wet.
This was the atmosphere I walked in on – one day before a five-day squall was to hit Lake County. The following rainy day brought almanac-worthy tonnage for Steele Wines of nearly 140 tons of grapes brought in before the rain took over. The cellar’s staff was running around like crazies for 16+ hours that day.
After the madness of a day that seemed like a “last chance” for quality fruit, harvest went back to life as normal and my winemaking experience (that I was allowed to do) settled into a routine:
• Punch downs: Twice a day. The concept is to mix the grape skins back into the juice in the production of red wine. The skins rise to the top of a bin with fermenting juice below, dubbed “the cap,” and need to get punched back down into the mix to increase the extraction of color and flavor, and to prevent the cap from drying out or producing bacterial issues.
• Gentle pump overs: Twice a day. The concept is essentially the same as punch downs, however, this is for larger formats than bins – like massive, 30-foot tall stainless steel tanks. Plug a long tube into the bottom of the tank (there’s a few more steps not included) and pump the juice back over onto the top of the tank where the cap is sitting. One is basically just spraying juice all over the skins for anywhere between five and 20 minutes.
• Raking the incoming grapes: All day, everyday until the fruit is all picked. Think of a rowing machine but upside down as the rake was well over my height and about a quarter of my weight.
• Inoculations: While some of the juice was left to ferment naturally, a few varietals called for a jump-start with non-genetically modified yeasts, still allowing a minimalist approach to the winemaking. I got to pour it in!
• Sugar and pH readings: Through high-tech detective work with varying degreed thermometers and plastic beakers, juice is measured for acidity and sugar levels during its fermentation and aging to see if its sitting pretty or needing some love.
I somehow escaped cleaning the booze-infused walls of the wine press but did test my fears through some high-elevation inoculations over insanely tall tanks.
We also got to disappear for a few hours with Quincy Steele to lose ourselves in the vineyards for the slightly damp and foggy visual of Lake County’s finest, including Beckstoffer and Obsidian Ridge. Steele sources from pedigreed sites ranging from Santa Barbara to Carneros and Mendocino while maintaining a few estate properties that half of the cellar staff and Jed himself live on.
Although I was exhausted, scraped and bruised (my own fault) and stuffed full of mandatory beer and donuts/random Little Debbie products, I was sad to leave the folks and experience at Steele Wines. Don’t get me wrong, my feet hated me and my fingernails were tinted purple for a week, but I probably could have stayed a couple days longer before falling into a bin or getting power-blasted with a tube of juice. Big ups and many thanks to the generous, patient and dedicated people of Steele Wines and Jed who made this happen for me – I will look fondly upon this experience for as long as my hands will still lift a wine glass.
Overall, I have a better grasp of the pressures and particulars of harvest and am looking forward to tasting the wines I screwed up for the Jed Steele. You’re welcome.