August 02, 2011
Steve Pride's 20 Year Retrospective
Our first vintage as a winery was 1991 which means that we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. It therefore seems appropriate to indulge in a stroll down memory lane as well as to reflect on where we are and where we are going.
When Mom and Dad – Jim and Carolyn Pride – first bought the property over the Christmas holiday in 1989, they had no thought of building a wine label. The 170 acre estate had 45 acres of weak dry-farmed vines that were producing about one ton an acre. There was no winery. The grapes were sold mainly to Rombauer but also to Robert Mondavi. A vigorous program was put in place in 1990 to get water onto the vines and start replanting the most feeble blocks. A top viticultural consultant, Paul Skinner, was brought in to advise the best course for bringing the vineyards back to life, and Paul has remained as our consultant to this very day.
In 1991, after seeing that the grapes from the 1990 vintage made some pretty nice wines, Dad began working the numbers and decided that we should make some of the wines ourselves. Getting approval for a winery, however, became a bit of a struggle due to the county line running through the property. Neither Sonoma nor Napa Counties were willing to cede their part of the property to the other county, so it was required that Pride be two bonded wineries; a Napa winery for the grapes from the Napa side of the property, and a Sonoma winery for the Sonoma grapes. Despite the headaches and news that created at the time, it did not impede the goal of launching Pride Mountain Vineyards in time for the release of the 1991 vintage.
Early in 1992, winemaker Bob Foley crossed paths with Dad at Rombauer where the 1991 Pride wines were being made. Bob was very enthusiastic about the quality of the wine coming from the property. The two hit it off and Bob was hired as the winemaker, a position he held through 2006. Bob had been developing his own style of winemaking. He did not like to use a refractometer to determine sugar levels at harvest; he decided when to harvest based entirely on the taste and texture of the grapes and seeds as well as the color of the stems. He did not believe that expensive new equipment, sorting tables and the like, were necessary. He liked having a few of the crushed stems getting into the must. The wines he crafted in this manner were bold but with ripe approachable tannins, and thanks to the special climate and soils on the property, they never (or at least rarely) crossed into the pruney or porty character that defines over-ripeness, something that I consider a wine fault. Though we have modified many of our winemaking techniques over the past several years (more on that in a bit), we continue to approach harvest much as Bob initially conceived.
My brother-in-law Stuart Bryan, along with Bob and my mom and dad, helped to get the wines distributed throughout the country and get the winery on its feet as a viable business. Today, Stuart remains as our dedicated National Sales Director going above and beyond the call of duty with his outreach throughout the country. But it was when wine critics like Jim Laube, Steve Tanzer and Robert Parker began to bestow superlatives on the wines that the business really took off. Perhaps the tipping point was when Robert Parker gave our 1996 Reserve Cab a score of 99 points. We were Parker’s top-rated Napa cab that year, along with Bryant Family, and the phone never stopped ringing.
With the wines selling out rapidly through our direct-to-consumer releases, it was time to dig caves and build a winery on the property. The initial winery buildings (offices, tasting room, and fermentation room) were completed in time for the 1998 crush and the caves were begun in 1999. The first vintage that went into the caves was 2000. Since that time, everything about wine production has occurred on site. Over the first 10 years, we had grown from a couple thousand cases per year with the business run out of my parent’s house, to a nearly 20,000 case operation with around 30 employees at a state of the art facility. Mom and Dad bought two neighboring properties in 2000 that expanded the ranch to 230 contiguous acres with vineyard plantings rising to roughly 75 acres by the 10-year point.
Just when the wine quality and consumer demand were skyrocketing, tragedy struck with Dad being diagnosed with bladder cancer late in 2001. He fought valiantly through several rounds of surgery and chemotherapy, but the disease finally overtook him in the summer of 2004. During those years he was battling cancer, Mom and Dad made several significant charitable donations; they single-handedly sponsored an endowed professorship at the University of Pacific Dental School and they also made several important donations to Stanford University Hospital including a key grant to Dr. Irv Weissman that ultimately allowed, several years after dad passed away, the bladder cancer stem cell to be isolated. Mom and Dad also had the foresight to do some careful estate planning at that time which resulted in the property being sold to my sister Suzanne and me.
From the very beginning, Dad had the energy and wisdom to do all the vineyard development in-house. He bought backhoes, bulldozers and tractors and did the work himself along with a dedicated small group of year-round vineyard workers. In that manner, the development of Pride Mountain Vineyards occurred without ever having debt problems. Dad really put a lot of himself into the property and, if you have ever visited the vineyards, I believe the results speak for themselves. Mom and Dad wanted the feel of the winery to be ranch-like with friendly folks greeting our guests in a welcoming way. They succeeded in staffing the business with wonderful people most all of whom are still with us today. Kathy Bertolino, our business manager; Tim Bouchet, our manager of the tasting room and the overall guest experience; Wendy Brooks, our manager of marketing, technology and all things complicated; and David Orozco, our vineyard manager, have all been with us since the winery buildings were first constructed in 1998.
I had been a university professor for most of the 1990s in France, having married my French wife Laurence in 1992. I would come back and help Dad in the summers with vineyard development, but did not have any real intention of getting involved on a daily basis with the operation while he was in such vigorous health and spirit. But once he got sick, we moved our young family back to California and when he passed away, I took over running the operation in 2004. Suzanne had been actively involved as a business manager in Dad’s other business, a dental practice management company called Pride Institute. She too became involved with the winery bringing expertise, in particular, to our human resources needs as well as representing the winery at events throughout the country.
Up to 2004, we were making wines for several other wineries on our property (Switchback Ridge, Hourglass and Robert Foley) but we were running out of room in the cave for our own barrels. So Bob developed his own production facility near his house on Howell Mountain that was completed during harvest of 2004. That was the beginning of the need for a transition on the winemaking front. Bob had been great in developing Pride Mountain Vineyards from the very beginning, but we needed a full-time winemaker on site each day focused only on us, and Bob wanted to run his own business.
After going through a couple of transitional vintages (2005 and 2006) in which our associate winemaker Romel Rivera and I made the majority of key harvest and blending decisions, we hired a new winemaker in the spring of 2007. Sally Johnson came to us from Saint Francis and was only 34 years old at the time. Though going with somebody so young might seem like a risk, she had a great palate, was analytical and smart, and had a kind gentle personality. She was just what we needed. Our goal was to continue making our rich concentrated style of wine while taking the change in winemakers as an opportunity to rethink everything we were doing on the production side.
The first decision we made was to take any unnecessary sources of tannin out of the wines. We purchased all new crush equipment that allowed us to get all stems out of the must. We began using much less new oak and Sally brought in a wide range of French cooperage for extensive new oak trials. Prior to Sally, we exclusively used Nadalie for the cabernet sauvignon and Radoux for the merlot. We now use 8 different coopers, all French, to impart a more restrained and complex oak expression to those wines that receive new oak (the syrah and viognier do not). Sally also began pressing the wine more slowly and at lower pressure. All of this allows the wines to have a better balance of fruit and tannin, which will really start paying off when the wines are 10 years old and older.
Sally has brought in different yeasts for both the reds and whites. She has successfully experimented with saignee (bleeding off a bit of the juice prior to fermentation to enhance the texture of weaker lots) and has reduced the number of times the wines are racked to clean the lees out of the barrels so that we gain a bit more complexity. We are now using some stainless steel on the chardonnay to enhance that wine’s vibrancy and have begun co-fermenting a bit of viognier skins with our syrah to promote a floral character. Sally has also brought more thoroughness to our blending. It is my opinion that for each wine we make each vintage, there is a perfect blend sitting somewhere in our cave, but because we typically have 50 to 60 lots of wine from which to blend, finding that precise blend can be a real challenge. Sally, Romel and I are always surprised how even a 0.5% change in the make up of a blend can significantly affect the character of the wine. Blending is one of the most time-consuming, important and enjoyable parts of our winemaking, and Sally has brought a new level of rigor to the process. All of the above changes, and more, are part of our attempt to make the best conceivable wine for each of our 13 different bottlings each year. The work is ongoing but the results so far are satisfying.
Equally important to the changes in our winemaking is our enhanced focus on the viticulture over the past few years. Surprisingly, our main vineyard concern at 2100 feet elevation, at the very crest of the Mayacamas Mountains, is vine vigor. The soils for the most part are deep and they contain a significant amount of water-retaining volcanic clay. Especially in years with lots of spring rains, the canopy can grow to the point that it forgets about the clusters that need to ripen. It is very important to get the canopy to stop growing well before veraison (the time when the grapes change color in early August). We have adopted a wide number of techniques to control vigor, too many to list here, and have been experiencing great success in this regard. Part of the strategy is to actively replant any underperforming blocks. Several acres each year are being replanted. We also now make sure that all of our blocks receive the proper amount of sunshine on the clusters early in the growing season. Each of our 50 blocks is somewhat different and it takes many years to figure out what works best with each block. We have 15 full-time vineyard workers, our viticultural consultant Paul Skinner, Sally and myself all focused on the goal of improving the fruit that we harvest. All this attention and expense is paying off, but as new university research is performed, and as our experience builds, there are always new ideas to implement and tests to perform.
Our vineyards are now up to 86 acres. Although there is a final four acres we could plant, we are now happy with our total production volume. The goal for the business moving forward is not to make more wine, but to make better wine. That is our primary focus at Pride Mountain Vineyards. The wonderfully humbling thing about wine is that despite all the study and hard work, we still do not entirely understand what Mother Nature does to the fruit in a particular block in a particular year to make the resulting wine come out the way it does. But our quest each year is to better understand that connection. It is a lifelong endeavor and never gets old.
The other core focus of the business is to make our guests feel welcome and appreciated while providing them with a phenomenal wine experience. We want to share our property and our wines with as many people as possible but in as quality a way as possible. For the last couple of years, we have staged the wines that our guests taste throughout our caves so that each guest gets a tour along with the tasting. We think this is much more educational and fun than simply tasting the wine at our tasting bar. Our guests leave the property knowing that they have acquired not only an exceptional wine experience, but a friend and ally in the wine industry. We are taking nothing for granted. Just like with the viticulture and winemaking, great customer experience is an eternal quest.
So at 20 years into this, my sister Suzanne and I can be satisfied that we have seen some success, even if it also feels like the work is just beginning. I have specific aspirations for the quality of each of our 13 wines and we still have a ways to go on each of them; the bar is set pretty high. There is always something to be done better each year in the way we farm each of our 50 vineyard blocks in order to extract still better wine quality. Our ideas for providing exceptional guest experiences seem limitless and I look forward to their implementation. As we enter into our third decade, it’s both rewarding and motivating to know that we will take the winery to still higher levels of quality and customer satisfaction. I just hope these next years don’t go by too fast; I want to savor every one of them!