Let the Fruit Speak

That’s Matthew Richards of Matthew Richards Wines over there in the picture, and while it’s a decent enough head shot, it’s not really the right pic to accompany this piece. The right pic would be a distance shot of Richards spraying down or hosing out his wine thief, which he seemed to be doing every time I looked up during my visit to the facility he shares with Chris Van Alyea of Christopher Cameron Vineyards.

“Nothing goes into the barrel unless it’s been disinfected — sometimes twice,” he explains. “People make fun of me for it, but I still believe that cleanliness is half of winemaking. I went to school for mechanical engineering, and I take a very scientific approach.”

For Richards, the wine thing started in Italy — a solo tasting tour before heading down (by train and by boat, because of all the bottles he bought) to a family wedding in Greece. But it didn’t take long for the Encinitas-born Richards to turn his attentions closer to home. “I started looking into it, and I quickly realized that California has the best growing climate and most innovative winemaking technology in the world. We have such a beautiful thing here in California, and I just wanted to get involved. A hundred barrels later, it’s going crazy.”

He started modestly enough, buying fruit from Frank Bons of Twin Oaks Valley Winery, taking up home winemaking, and reading, reading, reading. Then he began to apply his scientific approach to the question of sourcing. “I like to get the best grapes from the best appellation for that grape. I sat down and said, ‘Okay — Cabernet. I’m trying to make great wine out of great grapes, so what are the best regions for Cabernet?’ ” Extensive bibulous research provided the answer: northern Napa Valley.

At this point, the Francophile will be tempted to bleat, to mention something about the centuries-old tradition of Cabernet in France’s Bordeaux region. Richards is ready with an answer. “Cabernet from California tastes better, because we like to make ours a little more true to the grape. Average alcohol on a Bordeaux is 12 to 12.5 percent. In California, it’s 14 to 16 percent. But that’s just a by-product — you get more alcohol because you get more sugar when you leave the grape on the vine longer. And the reason you leave it on longer is because it brings out more character of the grape itself. You let it hang there for two more weeks, you get a richer, heavier Cabernet.” In California, that kind of hang time is possible, “and California embraces that.”

Richards grants that you can go too far, too rich, too heavy. “But if you do it correctly, you can get a California Cabernet that is elegant and big at the same time. I want to embrace the bigness, but pull the wine back to where it’s smooth and acceptable. Opus One is a Bordeaux blend at 14 percent alcohol — there’s nothing overwhelming about it, but the French would pour it down the drain,” just because of its size. Not Richards. “I don’t know if I’ve just gotten accustomed to it really quickly or if it’s what I’ve been looking for my entire life, but there is nothing more perfect than a well-balanced Napa Cab.”

The French might call Richards a hedonist. He’d probably prefer “purist.” “I think it gives credit to the fruit. A French Cabernet at 12 percent, they have to put Merlot in it because it’s too thin. My way is the simplest way. I may not blend anything into my Rutherford Bench Cab. I’m not anti-blending, but I shy away from it. In France, they plant five varietals and make one wine. I want to make five different wines. I want to make a Stag’s Leap, a St. Helena, a Rutherford. I think the grapes should speak for themselves — where they’re from, what’s going on. I think that’s the ultimate test: if you don’t have to blend a Cab, then that’s a pretty damn good Cab.”

Letting grapes speak for themselves — “where they’re from, what’s going on” — is a not-terrible shorthand for terroir. And it was terroir, says Richards, that led him to northern Napa. Of course, it led a lot of other people there first, so step one for the prospective winemaker was the careful cultivation of fruit sources. Richards packed some good San Diego beer, headed north, and started knocking on doors. “I’ve been to maybe 300 wineries in California. The fact that I could pop out of my truck — dirty from work, with my dog in the back, and without a horrible attitude — probably helped me make friends quicker.” (The beer didn’t hurt, either.) Richards made his first professional wine in ’08. By the 2009 crush, Araujo Estate’s winemaker/ vineyard manager Matt Taylor was giving him advice, selling him one-year-old barrels, and helping him to score some Rutherford Bench Cabernet from the family behind Flora Springs.

“The fruit that comes out of the Rutherford Bench sells for well over $100 a bottle,” Richards marvels. “That’s the caliber of wine I’m trying to make. I’m going for the gold.” If that means five drives during crush to get his fruit from there to here, then so be it. “I’m always there harvesting, and then I dry-ice the grapes and tow everything back personally. I’ll drive 12 hours, usually at night, pull in here, stretch, and start making wine.” It’s a drain, but he says it’s worth it to get the grapes he wants while living in the place he loves. “I want to bring the best Cabernet in all of Napa down here to San Diego,” he states. (And he may be on his way. Richards regularly brings his results north for side-by-side tastings and says that his ’09 Cab merited fist-bumping praise from folks who know.)

Mind you, it’s not all Napa Cab. Among other things, he’s got Napa Chardonnay from the vineyards that supply Cakebread, Pinot Noirs from Edna Valley and the Sonoma side of Carneros, and, under the San Dieguito label he shares with his friend Todd Hipper, Syrah from Frank Bons’s estate vineyard. None of these wines is an afterthought; they’re all the product of a similar process of research and experimentation. After region comes the question of a grape’s clonal selection; after clone, the yeast he’ll use for fermentation; and after yeast, cooperage. (It’s always French oak, but it’s not always the same French oak, and not always the same hand on the barrel.) “You change just one of those, and your wine is different.” Sometimes, he says, “The difference is night and day. So, I’m always doing side experiments with different yeasts or tweaking my oak program.”

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