We recently had a chance to catch up with Barry Waitte of Tamber Bey Vineyards in Calistoga. Barry was kind enough to share his thoughts on how to make great wine, the current wine rating system and some cool new winemaking technology. Barry has enjoyed great success as both a grower and winemaker. This is a great read for aspiring winemakers.
California Winery Advisor - How did you get started making wine?
Barry Waitte - You can say I literally ‘grew’ into making wine. I originally got started in the wine business in 1999 by purchasing two vineyards in Napa (in Yountville and Oakville) primary to grow fruit for commercial wineries. Within a year of the purchase, I made 150 cases of my own as a Friends and Family wine launching the Tamber Bey brand. That went so well I made 300 cases the next year. And 600 the year after. This kept growing and in 2007 after getting to almost 2,000 cases but still selling most of my estate fruit to other wineries from my two vineyards, I decided to move all our vineyard production into our Tamber Bey label, taking our wine making production up to 10,000 cases by 2013.
CWA - What interests you about wine?
BW - Wine is a sensory product that can be enjoyed alone or in a social setting. That said, we make wines for different experiences and occasions, for our light whites and now dry Rosé to our deep and rich Bordeaux wines, and many wines in-between. What I enjoy about winemaking is bringing that sensory product into people’s lives. At the end of the day, we make something that makes people happy!
CWA - What can you tell us about your winemaking style?
BW - The Tamber Bey ‘style’ is to let the grape speak for itself. Each year mother nature gives us fruit that is different from the last, or from any other year for that matter. We work to make any given year a wine that is individualistic for that year’s growing and production qualities and to create an interesting and distinct story for that wine. Reflecting that any given years growing season of hot vs cold, early ripening to late harvest, these all make for different flavor profiles that can be brought forth and appreciated.
CWA – What is the most important factor in making a great wine?
BW - Two factors standout for me in managing a winery. First, we do not cut corners or skip on any step of the process from our vineyard work to the processing juice into wine to aging and bottling. Winemaking is a process of many, many steps that create ultra-premium wines, and all steps need attention at the highest level of care to achieve our goals. Second is to give our wine team the freedom and support to utilize their skills and creative talents to make decisions that they deem best to make our wines that may not be text book. Though wine is a function of a lot of science, it’s the artistic enthusiasm of our team to think and make decisions that are out-of-the-box that separates our wines from the standard fare.
CWA - Is there any advice you wish you got before you started making wine?
BW - What most people do not understand is how complex winemaking and wine marketing is, especially for a totally vertically integrated winery like Tamber Bey. We are a winery that grows our own fruit, has our own full production facility, and markets our wines to individuals and distributors all over the country. There is a lot of moving parts! Though I took this adventure very seriously at the beginning (including going to UCDavis before I got into the business), I am still learning each and every day. Somehow I wish I could have learned more at the earlier days – especially on the sales and marketing side of the business, and did bigger productions earlier in our wine business life.
CWA - Which wine law/regulation would you change if it were up to you?
BW - Each state has different laws (and taxes) related to shipping wines to individuals and all separately to distributors, so a loosening and/or standardization of the shipping laws would be extremely helpful.
CWA – Is there any newer winemaking technology you are excited about?
BW - One of the new technically advanced machines we recently purchased is an optical sorter. This machine literally takes a digital picture of every grape as soon as it has been destemmed but before it goes into the tanks for fermentation. This machine via its computer then makes a determination based on our specifications of color, size and MOG (matter other than grape), either accepts or rejects that berry and air-guns it out of the mix. This machine runs twice as fast as our former manual process and we clearly get a better selection of berries going into the tanks for winemaking. Since we process almost 500 tons of fruit each year comprising of millions of berries at Tamber Bey, this machine has been a game changer for us.
CWA - Do you have any favorite wine publications/websites/social media sites you follow?
BW - I look at the Wine Business website every day, and read their publication cover to cover each month. This is a great resource for all aspects of winemaking and wine marketing.
CWA - How do you feel about the current wine rating system? Do you feel it helps consumers with their wine buying decisions?
BW - I think most winemakers have a love/hate relationship with the rating system. From the consumers perspective, it makes for an easy validation for wines they are not familiar with. But most rating systems are created from the opinion of one person who is probably tasting and rating at times 100’s of wines at each sitting, so sometimes for me, it’s hard to believe that any one wine gets the attention that the winemaker put into the wine. Now these ‘raters’ are really good at what they do, and I do subscribe that at that level of practice will make for an above aptitude for knowing and evaluating wine. But as with anyone their palates are most likely different from not only each other but also from the consumers in general. It’s a frequent occurrence that you’ll get a wine rated by two recognized raters that have very different scores. The best way for consumers to make a buying decision is the taste the wines themselves.
CWA - What were the last two truly memorable wines you tasted (that weren’t your own).
BW - I ask this question a lot with people and get a fairly consistent answer. My experience is that most people remember a particular wine not necessarily for the wine itself, but for the experience around the wine. Same with me. So, on that note: 1974 Beaulieu Vineyards George Latour. I first tasted this wine while in college when up to that point I was drinking most anything for quantity and nothing over $5 bottle. With this taste, I was elevated to the head of the class on what ‘real’ wine was all about, and from that point, I could never go back and drink the swill wine! Next, 1997 Screaming Eagle. Jennifer and I shared this wine on our wedding night. A special wine on a very special occasion. Oh – the wine was really good too!
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