Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wine Biz Interview #6 Winemaker John Kelly Of Westwood Winery

The first time I saw the name John Kelly it was in the comment section of this blog. It was a million years ago and he was and still is a very active and supportive reader/commenter. As I baby stepped my way around the blogosphere I noticed that this fiery, opinionated but fiercely passionate cat was a regular on some of the other sites I read….funny how that happens, like minds and what not. I always love it when a winemaker jumps in the conversation and is willing to voice an opinion from their side of this crazy business of ours, few do it better than John.

Where are you currently making wine?

Westwood Winery, in Sonoma. I own part of it, with some out-of-State investors. I’m making 100% estate wines from 37 acres we started planting in 2001: Pinot and red Rhones – no whites.

Have you made wine anywhere else?

Yes. Interned at RH Phillips back in 1987. Then got my break with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that ran 5 years. Had a brief stint at Duckhorn before settling in at Sonoma-Cutrer for 6 years. For me Westwood started as a nights-and-weekends thing in 1994 while I was still at SCV. After I left SCV I worked at Vinquiry – the analysis and supplies company – for 3 years. Then I consulted for another 5-6 years before I stepped up to making Westwood my full-time gig.

What inspired you to become a winemaker?

I needed a job, and the internship was available… I’m not sure how far back to go here. It’s not like I wanted to be a winemaker when I was a kid, though my parents did get me interested in wine – we had a good bottle on the table at nearly every family meal when I was growing up. In college in Texas I didn’t know anyone else who had a couple cases of wine stashed in a closet – I was into food and wine even back then, though I had no money. I had worked in restaurant kitchens before going to college, so I could cook too. But career-wise I was focused on academic research, and so I came to Davis to get my doctorate in biochemistry. I picked Davis for my graduate work in part because it was close to Napa, and I spent nearly every other weekend during my studies visiting wineries. After I wrote my dissertation I started to think that I was not really temperamentally suited to be an academic. I worked in a fine wine shop for a couple of years, which got me interested in finding a job in production. The rest, as they say…

You are very active in the wine blog world do you think wine blogs are important?

Well, I think MINE is important. Oh… and yours, too! Important? Like ending hunger or promoting social justice important? – No. Wine blogs are more like” inevitable,” given that the technology to publish weblogs made all things possible for all people.

Hangover cure of choice?

1) Red Bull and aspirin, or 2) lots of Taco Bell and more drinking if #1 fails.

I’ve noticed a new burst of posts from your own blog, what got you back into writing it?

Really, the blog has been sort of an intermittent self-indulgence from the get-go. I’m not a five-posts-a-week kind of guy. But yes I lost interest for about 6 months recently – I had some other stuff going on in my life that demanded my full attention. But I’m back, baby.

How many wine blogs do you read?

Wine-related blogs? I’ve got 16 set up in my feed reader.

What is the single most satisfying part of making wine?

Seeing “that smile” when somebody connects with my work for the first time.

The single most heartbreaking?

When I screw up something promising in the cellar. It happens!

Do you have a favorite vintage? If so why?

Of my wines? Or in general? I could say something sappy, like: 2002 and 2004, the years my kids were born. But for my wines? – nope. Come to think of it, not generally either. Too many regions and wines within them to have to keep track of favorites for each.

Have you ever been like super buzzy, up late at night and fallen asleep at your computer while futzing around on Facebook?

My wife found me face-planted on the keyboard of my laptop one night some time ago. Shame, but since I promised you I would answer all your questions thoroughly and truthfully, that would be a “yes.”

Vacation: Kentucky or Kuwait?

Kentucky – at least I expect I could get good Bourbon there without potentially violating the sensibilities of my hosts.

Where do you stand with the current nonintervention trend of winemaking?

On my head, with my fingers circling my ears and my tongue sticking out blowing a raspberry at the crazies.

Have you ever said something to a critic or customer that you wish you had not?

Um… sure. But it’s not like they didn’t have it coming. I will say I’ve mellowed with age, and I’m always working on upgrading the filtering software.

Are you afraid I will ask you to whom or what you said?

If you did, and I answered, that might be one long conversation.

Have you ever sneezed while peeing?

No I don’t think so – though one time, in college, I think I sneezed, belched and farted all at once. My recollection is a little hazy, so I might have been drunk at the time. I think I recall my date being not all that impressed.

You and I share a very real lust for Burgundy, what wine was it that first slipped beneath your skin?

In all honesty, it was a California wine that first turned me on to the grape: a 1975 Hoffman Mountain Ranch Pinot. It was an amazing wine, and cheap – important on grad student pay – because the winery had gone out of business. But once I discovered red Burgundy I was wrecked for life – wrecked I tell you. It was a Maume Mazis-Chambertin from the early 70’s that gave me my first O-face from wine. There have been many since.

Boxers or briefs?

A gentleman never tells. Mostly boxers and a couple pairs of boxer-briefs.

Are there any varietals that you will not grow?

Pet peeve here: a varietal refers to the wine made from a single variety. So I grow varieties, and “raise” and “refine” varietals. (OK… I’m an ass.) But seriously, give me enough money and I will grow anything you want. As for what I want to grow – of the varieties that interest me, I have the right ones planted at the site we own now. If fate is kind, one day I might like to grow and make Negro Amaro, or Sagratino on the right piece of ground. So long as I am in California I probably won’t grow any Zinfandel, or Chardonnay. But if some long lost relative were to leave me a little clos in Chablis…

Finish this sentence, “I want people that drink my wine to…..”

go home and make babies.

Worst over indulgent wine night ever?

Worst in what way? Gave me the worst hangover? Caused me the most humiliating walk of shame? Cost the most money and left my suit covered with body glitter? One of the funniest was celebrating the end of harvest with a bunch of interns from South Africa at my house. We drank all the good bottles and then went back and drank the not-so-good ones. I was playing DJ with the old vinyl when it caught up with me and I fell asleep [ahem] on the living room floor. They put chopsticks up my nose and took pictures – I had my fingers laced together on my chest and the most angelic smile. Ah… good times.

I’ve tasted some of your wines, (thank you for sending those to me by the way) and noticed that while they are up there in alcohol there is NO trace of it on the nose or palate, how you do that?!

I could tell you but then I would have to kill you. Let’s just say I understand yeast at a deep and carnal level and will do whatever it takes to make them happy, and leave it at that.

First or last on the dance floor?

Last, if I’m out there at all. Rocking my awkward terminal white-guy overbite.

When playing rock star in the car who do you pretend to be?

Robert Plant. David Byrne. I know you were hoping I’d say Dave Matthews, but I can’t pull that off.

If I were to tell you that knowing you always have my back, knowing that you are one of my longest readers, (Ron My Love, he saw me first!) and seeing that you linked my blog on one of your comments and having you tell me that you find reading my blog as pleasurable as reading Kermit’s newsletter made me beam with pride and always strive to entertain you, would you share a bottle of Pastis with me?

Of course. Flattery will get you everywhere. In fact I’ll have you know that in honor of our shared obsession with this widely misunderstood beverage, I have been sipping my way through a very tall Pastis all during this interview. Slainte!

Thank you John. Thank you for the interview and for the hours shared here. Knowing that you are reading makes me try harder. Reading your comments have made me very proud, laugh out loud and once or twice...cry. You are wonderful person that I feel very lucky to know.


David McDuff said...

"Pet peeve here: a varietal refers to the wine made from a single variety. So I grow varieties, and “raise” and “refine” varietals. (OK… I’m an ass.)"

You're not an ass, John (at least not that I know of ;-) ), you're just a pedant. And you're right. This is a peeve of mine as well. No offense to Sam, she's in good company. It's a subtle misuse that's made far and wide, by wine newbies and seasoned professionals alike.

And well done with the interview, Sam. I know I haven't been commenting much of late but I've been enjoying reading along with your Q&A sessions.

Charlie Olken said...

Variety. Varietal.

Yes, there is a difference, but I confess to getting it wrong for years until I wrote a book last year and the editor took me to task. So, yes, there is a difference, but I still must be wrong because "varietal" is, to me, an adjective that can be applied to grapes or wines and a variety is a type of grape or a name of a wine made with the appropriate percentages of a particular grape.

And Pastis? Oh well.

Thomas said...

Put a check in the column for pedant here: variety/varietal.

Yes, "varietal" performs one adjective function, but that's only because people have become too lazy to add the word "wine" to it.

Hey, John, I read your back and forth on Dr. Vino, re, the "enzyme" thread. Made me wonder how you feel about a certain blogger, but I hadn't your email address and didn't want to make a big public thing about my question.

In any case, I'm glad it's you arguing with doctrinaires on winemaking and not me anymore...

John M. Kelly said...

Sam - thanks again for the interest. In the best tradition of logrolling I just posted about it on my blog (got a whack in there for Tom Wark, too - who introduced us).

Heh heh... he said "pedant." Glad I'm not the only one. It is a minor distinction though. Different parts of speech aside, since it is easy to tell intention by context I expect that OED will eventually list them as interchangeable.

Thomas - my email is john@westwoodwine.com if you want to chat.

Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

OK, OK, I can't gripe about you interviewing John. He was here first. Besides, now I'm thinking I don't want to be Wine Biz Interview #69 anyway. And I guess I'm not really in the wine biz, since I'm just a stupid blogger.

I've always wondered how "varietal" became acceptable as a noun, but it's everywhere. It's yet another lost cause, Love, like fighting the 100 point scale.

John, we've never met, but I admire your attitudes about wine, about wine writing, about Samantha, and about winemaking. I'm honored to belong to the same club here at SSD.

Samantha, I love you

Your HoseMaster

Samantha Dugan said...

So nice to see you! In fact I am so happy you are here I will not even flinch that you are kicking me in the nads along with John. (Wink) It is always nice to get a visit from you and thank you for following the interviews. Gotta say they are kinda fun for me and the people I have been picking have been a lot of fun to read.

One of these days I am going to tie you down and fill you full of my beloved "Vile stuff" until you like it! Okay upon reading that back I should mention that "Vile stuff" is Pastis.

I was going to give you John's email but seeing as he just did...

John My Dear,
Thanks for playing along Baby, and thanks for rolling me as it were. I sent the link to Tom so he can now feel responsible for putting the two of us together, intentional or not. Like I said, I adore you Pal.

Ron My Love,
Oh so now you don't want to be interviewed?! Might that have anything to do with, oh I don't know...like being featured by The Chronicle? I see how it is...and just for that I will not be sending you anymore head gear. I still love you though...

Nancy Deprez said...

Great interview John & Sam! And my former boss, Randy of The Wine Country (you all have heard of him), always told me it was "varieties" too though I always say "varietals" because that's what everyone else seems to say and I tend to say what ever everyone else says because I want to be understood.

I think I'll go back to saying Varieties.

Pastis Daddy said...


If you are going to tie me down and fill me full of Pastis, I hope you will take the opportunity of my bondage to enjoy other fun.

I mean, what good is Pastis if drinking it does not get you into a little trouble.

Samantha Dugan said...

Not sure I deserve any credit here...John was the one that had to answer my silly questions, but thank you. I'm with you girlie, gonna change my verbage.

Pastis Daddy,
Pastis=Trouble my friend. Rarw!