So, What Sucks The Most About Your Job?

Winemaker Interview: Greg Kitchens

The straightforward, but consistent likability of Don Sebastiani & Sons' wines have come as much as a surprise as a pleasure.  With a smattering of brands ranging from $7-$22, there's something for everyone in their portfolio.  We've already reviewed the 2009 The Crusher Rosé of Pinot Noir, the 2008 Aquinas Petite Sirah, and The Big Green Box all of which we liked.  Then just recently we had the 2008 The Crusher Merlot.  In a comparative blind line up, this one was the surprise, hands down favorite (we'll post the full review soon).

With that kind of a winning streak, we had to get a closer look.  So last Wednesday, right in the middle of a surprise hurry-up-and-harvest, Greg Kitchens, winemaker for Don Sebastiani & Sons, took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions - including 'What sucks the most about your job?'...

So, a little background.  You're a native of Napa, went to school in So Cal, and jumped right into the biz after.  By my math you're about 35 years old.  What am I missing?  Married?  Kids?  Wine country's most eligible bachelor?  Yeah, so basically I grew up here in Napa, went to school with the Sebastiani brothers at Justin Siena High School and then I went down to college thinking I was going to be pre-med.  After deciding that med school wasn't the route I was going to take I came back up and jumped into the wine industry and never looked back.  I am married with a beautiful young daughter.  She is 13 months.

Under the umbrella of Don & Sons we have a whole bunch of different brands - Hey Mambo, Screw Kappa Napa, Three Loose Screws, The Other us make some sense of these names and brands.  Just about a year ago we had two divisions of the company and they decided to take one of the divisions and spin it off into its own entity.  Don & Sons was run by Don Sr and his sons August and Donnie.  August took TOG (The Other Guys) which is basically this spin off.  And it's your labels of Hey Mambo, Plungerhead, Leese-Fitch, Pennywise, White Knight, and Moobuzz.  So all those brands were a spin off for The Other Guys.  But even thought they're a separate company, they've contracted us to do all the winemaking for them.

Donnie has been at the wheel of the ship on what was the Three Loose Screws division which now has basically been eliminated and now termed just Don Sebastiani & Sons. which is our machine that drives the family's companies which are Pepperwood Grove, Smoking Loon, SKN, Aquinas, The Crusher, Flock, and B Side.

Are there stylistic targets you try to hit with each of the different brands?
Both our Pepperwood and SKN programs we try to keep a little more acid-driven and brighter than our Smoking Loon and Aquinas which we try to keep in that really big, fruit-forward, sappy, rich, oak kind of profile.

In 2007 production was 2 million cases.  What is it now?  We've actually dropped a bit in production, but still hovering around 1.4 million cases.

Is that drop attributable to the split or the recession?  It's more of the recession.  We've noticed a dramatic change in what our distributors used to hold on the floor.  Now they're ordering smaller quantities in a more regular fashion and keeping a really small quantity on the floor of the distribution houses and it's caused a dramatic effect in terms of what we're producing.  It's a tough market, but there's a lot of available bulk wine out there, this is a perfect time to be a be able to play the Robin Hood of winemaking where you're taking advantage of what's going on in the marketplace and pass along higher quality wine at a lower price point to your the consumers.

What's the most expensive bottle coming out of your portfolio?  We make the B Side, which is our Napa Cabernet that's aged in a combination of French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks on staves.  And it retails for right around $25 a bottle.

"Each wine's individual profile evolves with changes in established vineyard relationships, available fruit and flavor trends in the industry" and "we strive to produce quality wine at an approachable price, regardless of the outcome of a particular growing season."  This suggests the kind of hands on winemaking approach that hands-off winemakers might refer to as interventionist or invasive.  Does that bother you?

What wine are you most proud of to date?  (Yes, you have to pick just one)  That's a tough one.  Right now one program we really love to work on and the wines are always a lot of fun to make...we really like The Crusher Petite Sirah.   I have to say that's one of those wines we really enjoy to make.  It's a great profile from a great appellation that nobody knows of.  It's a really quirky wine, that as soon as you pick up a bottle and try it, you realize why we like the wine so much.  It's a brand we're really proud of.

You engage in some winemaking practices that self proclaimed "hands-off" winemakers might refer to as invasive or interventionist.  Does that bother you?  No.  Some people might say that we're using microoxygenation and oak staves and oak chips and that it's not the same as barrels and all that.  And, you know, it is different.  But at the end of the day we're able to produce a high quality bottle of wine...We're really proud of the techniques and technology that we use to make a better bottle of wine at half the price of our neighbors.  People can dog us as much as they want to in terms of "we're not purists", but we still make one hell of a bottle of wine for a great price.  And that's the honest to God truth - we're not trying to pretend that we're something we're not.  We know exactly what we're doing and we hope our consumer understands and appreciates that.  And if people want to buy a purist bottle of wine that's made in a specific style with old world techniques, there are plenty of other wineries that they can go find a bottle from.  We're not going to be disappointed that there are consumers that flat out don't like our wines - and we understand that, but once again we also know that there are a lot of consumers out there that love our wines.  And we're striving to make better wines to keep those customers happy with us and coming back and finding us on the shelf.

What sucks the most about your job?  I mean besides talking to writers.  No, no - talking to writers is a piece of cake.  I'd have to say right now the amount of time away from home with a little girl growing up.  It's tough when you're working 60-70 hours a week.  There are days when I sleep at home but I never see my daughter because I'm out the door before she's awake and by the time I'm home she's asleep.  That is probably one of the hardest things that really sucks.  You know, a lot of people love the concept of the glamor of winemaking, but it's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  It's a lot of time away from home and your family, especially this time of year.  And it's basically 2-3 months where we're doing this around the clock, we're running on all gears before it slows down and then we all crash and burn more or less.  Then we all take a little down time before the new year gets going.

What opportunity are you most excited about as you look forward to the 2011 growing season?  We've brought on a consulting winemaker who is world renowned, Nick Goldschmidt.  We're working with Nick to make all of our wines better, but in particular to make our white wines better.  One thing we think we can make a really dramatic improvement on is our white wine programs.  So, we are working with Nick with a heavy impact on stepping up the presence of our white wine programs.

Richard Bruno (pervious winemaker) departed earlier this year.  Is this your first harvest flying solo?  Yes, this is my first harvest flying solo, which definitely made it extra challenging. 

Nervous?  Yes and no.  You know it is nerve-racking when you're the guy at the top of the totem pole, especially given what mother nature's given us this year.  At the same time, I've been with this company for such a long time and worn so many hats that I knew I could do this job.  I've been doing bits and pieces of it for years.  Richard's given me lots of opportunities to really kind of take the lead on a number of different projects.  It's somewhat nerve-racking, but I feel like I've been kind of groomed for this.

And, hey, if you can make good wine in a vintage like this, it'll all be down hill from here.
Yeah, that's exactly what I'm feeling. If I can make this vintage work , I can do anything.

Thanks, Greg!