Interview with Steve Kistler of Occidental Wines

Anyone that is an avid wine enthusiast has heard of Kistler Wines. Kistler Wines was the first brand from legendary winemaker Steve Kistler. A few years ago he sold the brand and is now making wine for his new brand Occidental Wine. Read more about Occidental Wine here and Kistler Winery here. I’ve of course been to both which is what peaked my interest in learning more about Steve Kistler, known as one of the most talented winemakers in California. Read more and get to know Steve in my interview below! A huge thank you to Steve for taking the time to share so much information. I learned a lot about you in the below and hopefully my readers will too!

First Memory of wanting to be a wine-maker

My grandfather was an avid collector of red and white burgundy, and I was fortunate enough to grow up around people that had appreciation for fine wine and cooking. I remember my grandfather would often buy 4 or 5 wines such as Meursault-Perrieres or Corton-Charlemagne from the same vintage made by different producers and I could compare the styles of the various producers who were sometimes working with fruit picked from adjacent rows of the same small vineyard.

What was your first job?

My only job before founding Kistler Vineyards was at Ridge Vineyards where I worked for almost 3 years. At Ridge I learned how they fermented all their zinfandels and cabernets with native yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria and how all these wines were eventually bottled without fining or filtration. I lived on the Monto Bello property at the top of the ridge for almost two years, first in the one room “octagon” house and later in the Paul Draper’s old cabin which looked down on the winery.

I still remember the first time I drove up the mountain to Monte Bello and met Paul to interview for a job. It had snowed the night before and there was over 4” of snow covering all the vineyards on the ridge.

When did you start making Pinot Noir from the West Sonoma Coast?

I first became interested in pinot noir grown on Sonoma’s coastal ridges in 1992 when I tasted a pinot noir from Summa Vineyard, located on Taylor Lane west of the town of Occidental. Soon thereafter I began looking for opportunities to make PN from one of these coastal sites. I met Joan and Walt Flowers who were planting vineyards on Camp Meeting Ridge and David Hirsch who was also farming pinot vineyards in the Fort Ross – Seaview area on the second ridge from the coast.

During the period from 1993 – 2004 I made nine vintages each of both Flowers and Hirsch pinot noir and bottled them under the Kistler label.

Also during this time, in 1995 I planted a 4-acre pinot noir vineyard directly across the street from the Summa Vineyard on Taylor Lane and named it Occidental Vineyard.

By 1998 in the cellar at Kistler, I was able to taste and compare pinot noirs from three cutting edge coastal vineyards: Camp Meeting Ridge, Hirsch, and the Occidental Vineyard on Taylor Lane. These tastings were invaluable to me in deciding the direction that my future PN vineyard development would take, and which led directly to my purchase of Bodega Headlands in 1999, and Bodega Ridge in 2008.

What is your favorite wine

I drink mostly red and white burgundy, also like Riesling and vintage Champagne.

What has been your biggest mistake?

So much of what I did in the early days was trial and error – trying to adapt Burgundian techniques to the grape growing and winemaking conditions in California.

For the past twenty years I have focused on farming and making pinot noir from Occidental’s coastal vineyards in the Freestone-Occidental area. Each year we strive to capture the singular character of these challenging maritime sites. We are constantly refining our farming and winemaking to produce site–specific wines that more clearly reflect their place of origin. This is definitely a work in progress, relying a great deal on experience, intuition and instinct.

Who has been a mentor to you?

I never really had a mentor. But early in my career I was influenced by a small handful of producers in Burgundy who were making white burgundies which had their own special set of aromatics which stood out from the rest. These white burgundies often had faint sulfides and a mineral, soil-driven character that I found compelling.

From my very first vintage I tried to use traditional Burgundian techniques to produce chardonnays which were inspired by those handful of burgundies I admired most. I was never interested in making fruit-driven chardonnay, even though this is a popular style commonly produced in California today.

What would you like to share about West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir wines?

I am most familiar with the PNs from the Freestone-Occidental area which represents the western edge of where PN can be grown in California. These vineyards are among the coldest and latest ripening in all of the Sonoma Coast.

PNs from Freestone-Occidental are typically more red than black in character, and have low pHs and bright natural acidities. These vineyards will reach peak flavor at lower sugar levels than warmer areas, and therefore, can be picked on the earlier side with moderate alcohols (13-13.5%) making them especially enjoyable with a wide range of cuisine.

What are some of the characteristics of the Occidental PNs?

When we pick our two ridge top vineyards, Bodega Headlands and Bodega Ridge, at the early edge of ripeness, we produce precise, site-specific PNs which speak with such a distinct voice it is hard to imagine how they could have come from anywhere else.

The occidental PNs are crystalline, mineral-laced wines. They feature an impressive array of chiseled red fruits combined with a delicate saline quality – a signature of our ridge top vineyards that makes them so compelling. This elusive character is seldom found in PN grown on warmer sites farther inland.

What is your favorite drink after work?

Allagash White and margaritas

What are your favorite spots in the region?

Underwood Bar and Bistro in Graton

K&L in Sebastopol

Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa

Campo Fina in Healdsburg

Zuni Café in San Francisco

Café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley

How are your daughters involved at Occidental?

My daughters are involved in every aspect of operating a small family wine business, i.e., the farming of our vineyards (120 acres), wine production, hospitality, working with our distributors both foreign and domestic, and helping to run our direct-to-consumer mailing list program, (and website design).

My daughters realize how fortunate our family is to be farming and making PN from these dramatic coastal vineyards, and as ambassadors to Occidental, are looking forward to telling our story to all those who love fine wine (to a wide audience).

What is something people may not know about you?

I played baseball at Stanford


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