As our regular readers know, we frequently pose a series of questions to a winemaker to probe their winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how they became who they are. This week, we are featuring Kevin Bersofsky, the winemaker at Montagne Russe, a California winery specializing in cooler climate regions like the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley.
Kevin gained interest in wine when he took the wine course at Cornell. When he graduated, he began work in other industries, but shortly after 9/11, Kevin decided to abandon his first career to become a line cook in LA. Then he got a call to work for a Napa winery, and soon thereafter made his first wine in his garage with his friends. That was the beginning of Montagne Russe, which now sources fruit from several growers in the cooler California regions.
“Montagne Russe” literally translates to “Russian Mountains,” but the term in French means roller coasters. Kevin explains why he named the winery so.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Syracuse, New York, but at an early age moved to Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where I lived through high school.
When and how did you get into wine?
I took a course on wine at Cornell as an undergraduate, one of the benefits of attending a university with one the world’s best hotel administration programs. Along with 800 other students in a huge lecture hall, I got to taste some pretty interesting wines! Several of my friends and I took the wine tasting seriously. On weekends we would buy wines at the local liquor store in Ithaca, sit around and critique the ten dollar offerings. I am sure if someone observed us they would have thought we were a bunch of arrogant know-nothings.
What has been your career path to where you are?
You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. I started out as a mechanical engineer working for Estee Lauder in Long Island. After realizing that working for a makeup company was not my dream, I went to work for a large consulting firm that involved a lot of travel right out of college. During those years, still not feeling inspired by my work, I went to culinary school on the weekends, as I had loved cooking since I was a child. Just days after September 11th, I decided to follow my passion and started working as a line cook at a number of Los Angeles restaurants, such as La Cachette and Melisse. One day I got a call asking if I wanted to work in production for a Napa Valley winery. Little did I know that decision would change my life. While living in St. Helena, I rallied several of my friends together and we all chipped in and purchased a half-ton of amazing Syrah, which we crushed and fermented in my garage. The rest is history. A few years later, while I was attending business school, several of my friends and professors implored me to start my winery after tasting my garage wines.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
Montagne Russe only works with growers who farm their own land in the Sonoma Coast, Russian River, and Mendocino appellations. It is extremely important to me that the owners live and breathe their terroir. We walk the vineyards together and they know every inch of soil, every stone, and every vine. Our vineyards can sometimes be difficult and are presented with challenges that might scare some winemakers away. For example, the weather can be super cool, which requires much patience for the grapes to ripen. In turn, the cool-climate vineyards produce expressive and floral wines. Black Knight Vineyard in particular has many different micro-climates, elevations, and soil types, which contributes to the wine’s complexity over richness. Alder Springs Vineyard is so far north that snow is not uncommon.
Yields can vary greatly, especially for the Pinot Noir. For example, I know several winemakers that have used Springhill Ranch Pinot Noir in the past, but yields were highly unpredictable. For larger wineries, not having a guaranteed supply is a problem. For us, it’s all part of the roller coaster. Black Knight has 22 microclimates! Thus, the two to three tons we get could require up to four separate picks during harvest.
By developing a close relationship to the land and vineyard owners, my growers have faith that I will bring out the truest expression of their fruit and in return, I trust them to be transparent with me about growing conditions, especially closer to the pick date.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
Simple – we take what the vineyards give us each year and basically do our best to get out of the way. We rarely manipulate fruit and we certainly don’t let fruit hang until it’s over ripe. I really don’t love the word “balanced” as everyone should be going for balance. But it all starts in the vineyard. I don’t believe in super long 45-day macerations and overly perfect looking fruit. We don’t typically filter unless absolutely necessary and we only rack once. It has worked out pretty well so far.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Practicing patience and not getting overwhelmed by the roller coaster that is winemaking. That’s the reason we named our winery Montagne Russe, the French term for roller coaster. In the early years every odd aroma in barrel, every sluggish fermentation, and every rainstorm late in the growing season used to send my anxiety up the charts. More recently, I have learned to just enjoy the ride. That’s also the reason we don’t try and make a house style. Why produce the same exact wine every year? Where is the fun in that? It was one of the reasons I left the professional kitchen. There was nothing worse than putting out the same dish 50 times a night, 6 days a week!
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Probably my number one guy is Tom Rinaldi from Duckhorn lore. Not only because he was my next-door neighbor in St. Helena for many years, but also because he was so honest with me. His wines, of course, are spot on amazing. But he was also one of the few people who would tell me “Kevin, this Pinot Noir is not very good” or “Wow this is an ass-kicking Chardonnay!” And I really appreciated the feedback. As winemakers, we are often very hard on ourselves. Sometimes our view of the wines has nothing to do with wine but more the journey, especially if was a difficult one. So, when Tom gave me gratifying feedback, I knew I was on the right track.
Another winemaker I respect is Christophe Barron from Cayuse. The first bottle I ever tried of his, I stared at for ten minutes, trying to figure out where that level of complexity comes from. I have to give a shout out to Jeff Stewart at Hartford Court, who helped me believe you don’t have be known for one varietal, as his Pinots, Chards and Syrahs are all killer. Lastly, Steve Leveque at Hall. He has been so supportive of Montagne Russe and his feedback has been honest. I love and respect winemakers that help other winemakers.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Marc Ripolli from Cal Batllet in Priorat, whom I just met during a recent trip to Spain. He personally goes out into vineyards that yield a half-ton per acre to baby some of the most amazing old vine Carignan. Now that’s dedication! He isn’t using fancy equipment and he is proving that the small guy can make wine every bit as good as the sophisticated operations. I would also call out Sean Boyd at Rotie Cellars in Walla Walla. His philosophy on Syrah dove tails with mine completely; we both embrace the Northern and Southern Rhone styles.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I think the two that I am most enamored with right now are Walla Walla, and Priorat. I am a Syrah fiend. It’s my first love and on some level, I just don’t get why Syrah doesn’t receive the respect it deserves. In my book, Washington is redefining some of the deeper reds, especially Syrah. I had heard stories about Priorat, but until I visited the region in June, I was unprepared for what I saw. Ancient vineyards wrapped around hillsides, littered with stone, producing extracted yet insanely balanced wine. Basically my dream.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
Hmmmmmmmm. Every winemaker has a handful of wines that altered their perception of wine itself. I think the one bottle that knocked me on my derriere was a 1980 Montelena Estate Cabernet. It was served to me hidden in a brown paper bag and I thought it was a 2005 Napa Cabernet. Eleven guesses later, I still hadn’t gotten all the way down to 1980. If I had not be holding the bottle I would not have believed it. The most interesting was the 2008 Callioux Vineyard Syrah from Cayuse. I ordered it at a restaurant in D.C. and that bottle evolved so incredibly over the course of two hours. If I wrote the list of flavors and aromas in the wine it would seem like an impossible set of characteristics including charcoal, grilled meat, nicoise olive, lavender, and salinity. Just crazy.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I have a number of 1975 Napa Cabernets, including the BV George de La Tour. 1975 is my birth year. I am sure I have something older back there some place but I can’t get myself to dig through the bottles. I am a sucker for old California Cabernet. Some of those wines from the 1960s and 1970s are drinking better than modern cabs 40-50 years on. The most expensive… You know, I don’t spend much more than 100 dollars on any bottle. But if I had to guess it would be a 2005 Colgin Syrah.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
I just opened a Sojourn Sangiacomo Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. I am getting fruit off the same vineyard this year and had to see what they were doing with it. They of course nailed it! Both intense acid and big fruit, which is not an easy thing to pull off in California.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
It would have to be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Assuming my Pinots are off limits for the sake of the conversation, anything floral from the Sonoma Coast including the aforementioned Hartford Court Seascape Pinot Noir and any of Kistler’s Chardonnays. A very close second would be Dehlinger Estate Syrah.
Is beer ever better than wine?
There are some terrible wines and amazing beer, so definitely yes. I actually find a lot of wines to be too acidic and in those moments I gravitate towards beer. Especially something amber from Alsace. So at most wedding receptions you will find me cradling a nice craft beer.
How do you spend your days off?
I wish I had more honestly. The chef in me usually has me going on some culinary adventure, such as a farmer’s market or out to Marshall in West Marin for some fresh oysters. I am a bit of a forager and pick up anything on a hike including bay leaves, wild fennel, mirabelles, figs, and wild berries.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I loathe blue cheese. There, I said it.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Something entrepreneurial and probably with food. I have had an idea of starting an heirloom juice business. I also really enjoy giving lectures at my alma mater, the Wharton School of Business. I have given a few on innovations in the wine industry and love connecting with the students.
How do you define success?
I once gave a bottle of my first Syrah to the parents of a friend that had passed away. She was a part of the group that helped make that wine with me in my garage. It made me proud to think that when they crack open that bottle, they will likely remember their daughter. My hope is that someone will open up one of my wines long after I am gone. Maybe they knew me, and maybe they didn’t. But if that wine brings a smile to their face, then that is my definition of success.