As with most things here at Caldwell, we do it a little differently. First off, everything we make (other than our Smuggler Pinot Noir) is crafted from fruit grown in our own vineyard, which means we're a true estate. Every wine – white and red alike – is fermented and aged in 100% French oak barrels. We’re also the first winery in the U.S. with our own barrel cooperage and full-time Master Cooper (only 34 people in the entire world hold this title).
They say great wine is made in the vineyard, which is absolutely true – and the reason we've got our own full-time vineyard crew. Having our own team means we get to control every step of what happens in the vineyard – from pruning to picking – exactly when and how we want. We always do a pre-dawn harvest and bring the fruit straight into the cave for processing. We hand sort everything to remove any imperfect berries and MOG (material other than grapes), and put the whole berries straight into oak barrels for fermentation. We add dry ice on top of the grapes to create a CO2 barrier, to slow fermentation and extract every last nuance from the grapes. We whole-cluster barrel ferment for an average of 30 days, a bit longer than most. And finally, we press the wine and pour the juice back in barrel so it can age in oak until it's perfectly ready for blending and bottling.
We have an on-site lab for doing analysis – which gives us the information we need during every step of the process, and allows us to make micro-adjustments as we go, to ensure every wine is in perfect balance. And as if that weren’t crazy enough, we also have our own bottling line, which means we bottle on our schedule, and not someone else’s. These are the details that separate the mice from the men when it comes to quality, and we wouldn’t do it any other way.
In between the scientific and operational decisions, there’s a lot of artistic interpretation, all of which is carefully guided by our winemaker, Marc Gagnon.
Marc Gagnon (that’s pronounced Găn-yōn)
He can build a computer, fix a Porsche engine, is unabashed in his earth-minded proclivities, and has made his fair share of ridiculously high-scoring wines for the likes of Screaming Eagle and Bryant Estate. With a work ethic that rivals Jesus (our Vineyard Manager of 27 years), he’s smart, talented, and a whole lotta fun. No doubt about it, our new winemaker is nothing short of a modern Renaissance man, of the highest order.
When asked what his winemaking style is, Marc will tell you that his ultimate goal is to capture and retain the fruit’s vitality and verve while embracing and showcasing each vintage’s bold signature of terroir. And make no mistake, the guy seriously knows his shit when it comes to terroir. As the former Assistant Winemaker at Screaming Eagle, he had to master the countless nooks and crannies and micro-terroirs of their site. “It’s where I learned to meditate,” he jokes. Bryant Family was much the same, and in his four years with them he upped their game to a whole new level. Now he’s taking everything he learned from these other hallowed spots to develop the next chapter for Caldwell Vineyard.
In the vineyard, there are endless variables –between rootstock, variety and clone, moisture levels, soil makeup and drainage, the macroclimate of the region, mesoclimate of the vineyard block, and canopy micro-climates of individual vines. Nature tends to dictate the terms in the vineyard, so our job in the cellar is to reduce the variables and strive for consistency and simplicity in every choice point.
Having worked for some of the best in the business, Marc will tell you that the greatest thing his mentors taught him was how to manage those variables – especially how to manage temperature during the winemaking process.
“My boss at Eagle was a chemist and an engineer, and the best thing he taught me was the mechanics of an HVAC unit,” says Marc.
That may sound crazy, but temperature control is one of the most important and often overlooked components of winemaking. Once you’ve made your harvest decisions and barrel selections, you’ve only got a few critical weeks to manage the fermentation of grape juice into wine. Our primary job during that time is to keep the yeasts happy and working steadily along, and temperature is the single most important piece in that puzzle. The only way to make a quality-driven, consistent and ultimately balanced product is to keep your fermentations under control.
When it comes to creating what we call the “Caldwell mouth,” grape and clone variety, picking decisions, barrel selection, and the fermentation process all play a part. But the real magic comes from honing in on the acid and pH levels for a particular lot.
“I like my pH levels in Napa reds to hover around 3.75. A lot of wine critics like the wine to feel unctuous and jammy (some might say verging on flabby), which is what you get when your pH stretches over 4.0. By comparison, the wines we were making back in the '70s were more like 3.5. Hitting the mark right between the two gives us that juicy quality, with more refinement in the flavor and the overall feel of balance.”
That’s the technical part. The real artistry comes from a winemaker who’s willing and able to do the work every step of the way, and take calculated risks in the name of greatness. The courage to own both success and failure is what differentiates good from great.
“I’m not one of these winemakers that sits back and watches the interns do the work. I prune the vines, tend the burn piles, haul the hoses, do the pump overs … all of it … because there’s no shortcuts when you want to get something right. It’s also really good for morale, as well as for training technique, when you work alongside your team instead of just telling them what needs to be done.”
Maybe that sensibility is in his genes. Marc comes from a long line of fearless adventurers. His dad’s great-great grandfathers left Normandy, France to help settle Quebec City and Newfoundland. His mom immigrated to the U.S. alone at age 22, put herself through medical school, and eventually became chief of anesthesiology and medical director – in the 1960s and ‘70s. Bucking the status quo seems to be in his DNA, which is likely one of the reasons Marc fits in so well at Caldwell. He’s always looking for a way to do things better.
Marc caught the wine bug early from his parents. They honeymooned in Burgundy and were teaching him how to taste wine at the dinner table by the time he was ten. He grew up thinking he wanted to be either a winemaker, a radiologist, or a psychologist for kids with special needs. When he learned how messed up the medical system is, he decided to go with wine.
He’s got a degree in viticulture and enology, and another one in art history. “Everything in life requires contrast,” he says. "You can’t really know light unless you know darkness, too." Art and science both have a place in winemaking, but finding the right balance is a daily challenge.
A purist, Marc ultimately defines success by the health and balance of the place he works, the people he works alongside, and the wines he makes. “My aim is to promote greater overall biodiversity and to help fortify the health of every facet of the vineyard, from the microbes in the soil to the raptors flying overhead, to the team members in the field. It’s in this state of health and balance that we can achieve greatness.”