Interview with Andrew Berge, Head Winemaker at Spell Estate

by Spell Estate, Tastemaker in ResidenceFrom the Washington Wine Blog - Seattle, WA

Head winemaker, and new  Tastemaker in Residence , Andrew Berge, crafts some excellent Pinots and Chards for Spell Estate. 

Head winemaker, and new Tastemaker in Residence, Andrew Berge, crafts some excellent Pinots and Chards for Spell Estate. 

A winemaker with a passion, Andrew Berge crafts some fantastic Pinot Noirs for Spell Estate in Sonoma, California. Sourcing from a range of small vineyards, from Mendocino County to the Russian River Valley, Andrew has a long history in the wine industry. Originally from Minnesota, Andrew achieved his master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the prestigious UC Davis. He has previously worked in New Zealand and even had a stop at the famed Chasseur winery before landing the head winemaking position at Spell Estate. His recent releases were highly impressive, particularly his single vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings which had bright acidity and lovely texture. Andrew Berge is certainly a winemaker to watch. I had a chance to sit down with Andrew and he talked about his history in the wine industry and some of the projects he has been working on at Spell Estate. I found him to be incredible passionate and articulate. Here is my recent interview with Andrew Berge, head winemaker at Spell Estate.

WWB: Can you talk about your background in winemaking and how you first became interested in wine?

AB: Well, I want to thank my parents for introducing me to wine and the prospect of pursing it as a career.  My parents lived and worked in Germany for a little over a year in the late 70’s.  Their free time was spent immersing themselves in European culture and through that experience developed a passion for wine and food.  So growing up, food and wine were always a part of my life.  When I was 16 my father took a leadership training course through his employer.  He was instructed to develop his dream business plan, which ended up being a small family winery and vineyard.  At this same time I was evaluating colleges and considering potential careers.  With my father’s encouragement, I looked at UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology program as a possibility.  However, at my age, growing up in Minnesota I did not have much experience with wine to influence my decision to pursue winemaking.  My decision to pursue winemaking stemmed from a desire for the way of life.  Through my research, I realized I had the possibility to incorporate many of my passions; the sciences, working outdoors, working with my hands, food, and travel.  Plus it had the added benefit of building a life in spectacular, temperate places.   As a junior in high school, I scheduled a campus visit to UC Davis for my father and me.  We initially met with the admission counselor who wasn’t able to find my transcripts.  Turns out we were meeting with the graduate student admissions counselor who promptly directed us down the hall to the undergraduate admission counselor to finish the informational meeting.   Apparently, my Minnesota accent and straightforwardness over the phone led them to believe I must have been a potential graduate student? After a thorough campus tour the department arranged for us to meet with a current student who was employed as the cellar master at Folie à Duex.  To keep a long story short.  Our day began in Davis, it included two tastings and lunch in Napa, a stop at a ski resort, gambling in South Lake Tahoe, dinner in Carson City and more gambling in Reno before it concluding back in Davis.  The highlight of the whirlwind experience had to be the visit to Folie à Duex.  The cellar master gave us a facility tour, which culminated with an extensive barrel tasting.  He sent us on our way with a bottled barrel sample of our favorite wine that day, one of their old-vine Zins from Amador County.    As a kid from the Midwest I was blown away by the possibilities and diversity of northern California and UC Davis.  If it were up to me I would have attended UC Davis following graduation from high school.  Unfortunately, as an out-of-state undergraduate student, I didn’t want to go $100K in debt to pursue a career dragging hoses.  I had been accepted to the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Engineering department and wanted to focus my studies on food production.  The Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis provided guidance to structure my schedule at Minnesota with the intention of transferring to UC Davis after my sophomore year. 

When I completed my sophomore year I was comfortable with where I was and decided I should earn my Engineering degree as it might provide more opportunities if winemaking didn’t work out. As an undergraduate, I worked for 3M and Cargill.  Both of these experiences were influential in my career choice to work with small lot, premium wineries being that they are two of the largest companies in the world.  At Cargill, I worked for the Sweetners Division R&D lab developing a new liquid sucrose refinement process.  My responsibilities included running the pilot plant and analyzing all of the samples.  With hundreds of sucrose samples I performed many of the same analysis using all of the same equipment any Enologist would use in a wine lab.  The lab work proved to be an invaluable experience learning the functions and limitations of the equipment and provided the best insight to what an Enologist position with a large winery would entail.  I also learned I didn’t want to work in a lab for 8 hours a day.  After a brief assessment of the career opportunities in the food industry, I decided I was still interested in pursuing a career in wine.  In the fall of 2003 I enrolled as a graduate student at UC Davis in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering department.   Under Dr. Michael Delwiche, I worked on a viticulture project evaluating bird depredation in wine grape vineyards.  For two growing seasons I walked and tasted fruit from nine Pinot noir vineyards in the Carneros AVA.  During this time, I developed a passion for Pinot Noir and other cool climate wines. 

In January of 2006 I completed my degree at UC Davis and headed to New Zealand to work a harvest abroad.  Upon returning from New Zealand I landed a harvest position with Chasseur Wines.  After harvest, Bill Hunter approached me to stay on and work full-time in the cellar.  I was there for almost 7 years.  That experience was, and most likely will be, the most instrumental in my career.  It was a great opportunity to work ono-on-one with an extremely talented winemaker who was sourcing fruit from some amazing sites.  I was involved with many aspects of the business and it provided an invaluable learning opportunity for an aspiring winemaker.

WWB: You have a background in winemaking that brought you to New Zealand. Can you talk about how that experience has made you a better winemaker?

AB:  I worked the 2006 vintage in Blenheim, New Zealand.  After completing my studies, I had decided to work a full year or two at a small winery as opposed to working many harvests, at many wineries.  For me it was going to provide the best opportunity to connect what I had learned at UC Davis with a real world experience.  Harvest is such a crazy time and as a harvest employee your employment may only last 6 to 8 weeks.  For me this wasn’t going to provide the opportunity I wanted, but it would provide the experience required to secure an entry level full-time position. New Zealand was a phenomenal experience.  Because I was on schedule to finish my degree in January of 2006 and I had developed a passion for Pinot Noir, it was the obvious choice given the timing.  I worked for Rapaura Vintners which is a large custom crush facility in Blenheim that processes South Island grapes for many North Island wineries.  In 2006 we processed just over 7000 tons of grapes.  Roughly 85% of that was Sauvignon Blanc.  I worked in the red cellar where we processed about 700 tons of Pinot noir.  It was large production, producing high volume, low cost wines.  I can’t say much from that experience has influences how I make wine today, but it did provide the experience required to secure the next job.   New Zealand was about the life experience. 

WWB: I recently had the chance to review your Spell Estate lineup of Pinot Noirs. One common theme that I noticed with your 2013 Pinot releases with the combination of ripe fruit and minerality. How you are able to obtain this old world minerality while sourcing from California fruit?

AB: Three things: site selection, top notch farming, and reductive strength.  I believe wine’s quality is grown in the vineyard and preserved in the winery.  At Spell we don’t own any vineyards, so we contract to purchase grapes from what we believe are some of the best vineyards in Mendocino and Sonoma County.  Not only are these sites located in a great geographical location, they possess great plant material and have owners who understand that what they do in the field directly impacts the resulting wine.  At harvest I make most of my decisions based on perceived physical ripeness (seed color, stem color, pulp color, skins condition), Brix is secondary.  To assist the vines in producing fruit with physical ripeness before sugar levels become excessive I work with our vineyard partners to get as much of the hand work completed as early as possible.  I want any fruit we don’t plan to harvest off the vine as early as possible.  There is no point in distributing solar energy to fruit that won’t be harvested. 

Once the grapes get to the winery I do everything I can to maximize extraction to build structure and wine concentration.  One of the endearing qualities of Pinot Noir is its natural sweet fruit character.  In California we have an abundance of sunshine, which allows us to achieve great fruit concentration.  Combined with Pinots natural sweet fruit character some people perceive it as actual sweetness when in-fact there is no residual sugar.  To balance out the fruit concentration I use tannin structure.  But to make it work I need ripe tannins and that’s why farming is important.  Without the farming I wouldn’t be able to produce the wines I do for Spell.  The structure creates reductive strength and minerallity may be part of that or at least is an indicator of it.  For me it’s a sparkly character on the back end of the palate.  California Pinot’s have this great purity of fruit as I mentioned earlier, but over time (sometimes quickly) this fruit oxidizes and evolves into stewed, molasses flavors I don’t enjoy, so I build the reductive strength into the wines to retard this process so the wines have the potential to be enjoyed for 5-7 years (or longer) while maintaining fresh fruit purity.  This reductive strength comes at a compromise of early consistent drinking experiences, but benefits those who have some patience. 

Regarding the 2013 wines I feel they are now just coming into a premium drinking window.  I predict that by August (2016) they will be showing the best since they were bottled.  They seem to be following a similar life cycle to the 2011’s which confirms 2013 may have a bit more reductive strength than 2012 or 2014, which were a little more forthcoming early on.  

WWB: What are some of the biggest challenges that you encounter when making great Pinot Noir?

AB: Another of Pinot’s endearing attributes is that it projects a sense of time and place.  So my biggest challenge has to be dealing with vintage variation.  Sometimes it takes a lot or two before I can get a handle on how to adjust my protocols to deal with vintage variation.  Given Spell is small and producing roughly 1200cs of Pinot Noir it is difficult to hide any mistakes. 

WWB: Who are some of your favorite influences in wine? When you are not enjoying Spell Estate wines, what is typically in your glass? Any particular favorite German Riesling producers? 

AB: A few of the Pinot and Chard brands that were early influences are Marcassin, Aubert, Dehlinger, Chasseur, Rochiolli, Kistler, and Lafollette.  I have always been impressed by the focus, quality and craftsmanship each wine possesses.  Now I look more towards Europe for my inspirations. I’m constantly exploring new producers (at least new to me) so there is very little consistency, but my favorites are red/white Burgundy, Loire whites and Syrah.  Mostly old world style wines.  I like distinct wines with varietal flavors and plenty of structure. For Riesling, Keller and von Schubert have some space in my cellar.