April 12, 2009

BeeHind the Vine: Hopper Creek

I’ve always marveled at the skill and discipline it requires to produce outstanding wine. BeeHind the Vine, a new addition to WinoBee, will introduce you to the men and women whose extraordinary talents are on display each time we uncork a bottle (or two).

Our inaugural column profiles Barry Grushkowitz, winemaker at Hopper Creek since 2005. The vineyard and winery, which produces award-winning Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Merlot Rose, is located in the heart of Napa Valley. My wife and I first discovered Hopper Creek last September on a day trip with Napa Valley Bike Tours (highly recommended). Needless to say, we have been devotees ever since.

Recently, Barry was gracious enough to sit down with me on a beautiful Sunday morning for a Q&A, followed by a tour and tasting. Additional photos can be found here.

In three words, describe your winemaking style.
Minimal handling, a minimum amount of additions, and a minimal amount of mechanical action.

What’s your favorite part of the job, other than unlimited access to amazing wines?
Smelling and tasting a wine that’s turned out really well, and sharing it with people.

What’s the most challenging part of the job?
Getting good quality grapes.

...Hopper Creek has six acres devoted to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a couple rows of Cabernet Franc (a recent addition). The rest of their grapes are purchased from other vintners in the area…

Do you find it easier to work with grapes grown onsite?
No, not really. I don’t think it makes a difference when you’re working with a really good grower. After many years, you get to know sections of their vineyards as well as your own. Good growers will also take suggestions, if there are any to be made on improving growing conditions.

What wine that you’ve produced are you most proud of, and why?
It hasn’t been released yet, but I think I’m going to be most proud of our (estate grown) Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a new addition to our vineyard, and it’s turning out really nicely.

When will that be released?
We’ll be bottling some of it out on the 22nd of this month, and it probably won’t be released for another seven or eight months at a minimum to get over bottle shock. And that’s going to fun, because it’s kind of an unknown, so it’ll be interesting to see how people respond.

What do you see as the “next big thing” in winemaking?
The next big thing I’d like to see is an improvement in filtration – some way we can filter wines without losing flavors and aromas.

You use French oak barrels – what’s your take on unoaked Chardonnay?
I really do like Chardonnay with some oak in it, but I know there are people who don’t like any oak, or just a very minimal amount. It really depends on the vineyard – if the grapes from a particular vineyard provide a very fruity wine, then oak can add another dimension. It can offer some spiciness that you wouldn’t get, and I like that complexity. If the grapes provide very little fruit, you have to be careful with the oak and I can see using a very minimal amount.

…while plenty of Napa wineries have a stuffy and business-like atmosphere, Hopper Creek is quite the opposite. The tasting room, which is adorned with photos of past visitors, is more living room than showroom…

What kind of influence, if any, does Hopper Creek’s laid-back style have on your winemaking?
It doesn’t really have any effect on my style, but I love the atmosphere. I’ve worked at other wineries where no one came around – it’s fun to enjoy the winemaking process with other people, and see the pleasure they get out of it as well.

…on our first visit to Hopper Creek, we were invited to help with the “punch down.” As red wines ferment, the skins rise to the top of the tank or bin and form a thick cap. This cap needs to be broken up three or four times a day in order to ensure maximum extraction of flavor and color, and to prevent bacteria or mold from forming. While most wineries use various tools for punching down, Barry believes in a hands-only approach…

What wine myths would you like to dispel?
Winemaking is not 100 percent romantic. There’s a lot of labor, hard work, and some disappointments.

Also, good wine does not have to be expensive. For people just getting in to wine, I think they make that assumption. Even people that have been in the industry a long time, as far as consumers, assume that the more it costs, the better it’s going to be. There’s some truth to it, to an extent, but it’s certainly not always the case.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring oenophile?
Try as many wines as you can.

Hopper Creek distribution is extremely limited, as they produce only 2,000 cases per year. While it’s possible to find a few bottles online, your best bet is to order straight from the winery. (A new website, with up-to-date ordering information, is on the way!) Better yet, make your purchases in-person while visiting one of Napa Valley’s hidden gems.

The vineyard and winery are located at 6204 Washington Street, Yountville, California. They are open for retail sales (and tastings of their current releases) Tuesday through Sunday from 11-4. To schedule a visit, call (707) 944-0675 or e-mail