A Conversation with Winemaker Ted Lemon

in Occidental, California, which was an intimate gathering of winemakers from what many call “The True” Sonoma Coast. In addition to sitting on that panel, and getting the chance to taste the wines on offer at the tasting (notes will be forthcoming). I also got a chance to sit and listen to several of the sessions on offer.

One of them was an interview with Littorai owner and winemaker Ted Lemon conducted by my friend and illustrious wine writer Jordan Mackay. It was a superb interview with one of America’s best winemakers, and so I did my best to capture it as it was happening for my own benefit as well as yours.

Those of you familiar with my pseudo-transcripts of such discussions know that they’re not fully word-for-word, and that I sometimes summarize in order to track most of the points. Mistakes or misstatements are as likely to be mine in the transcription as they are the speakers’.

MacKay sat down with Lemon (and the sixty or so of us in the audience) to talk while we all sipped a couple of library wines from Littorai.

Jordan Mackay: So 1993 was a significant year for you. It’s the year that Littorai got founded.

Ted Lemon: And Heidi and I got married.

Jordan Mackay: That was a power-packed year.

Ted Lemon: No one was pregnant.

Jordan Mackay: I was talking with David Hirsch about you the other day. I was telling him that you we’re going to be here in Occidental. He told me to ask you about a wine from Occidental Ridge you made that year, and then the vineyard was so bad they pulled it out a year or two later. David said, “We have a bottle of every wine Ted has made.” Well, we pulled out a bottle of that Chardonnay and it tasted like it was three
years old. Does that surprise you?

Ted Lemon: It thrills me. I think it does. You always have that … one of the problems if you’re a consumer, journalist, sommelier. Like anyone else, a winemaker falls in love and we’re always guilty of falling in love with the recent vintage.

Jordan Mackay: While I was doing my research for this interview, I was trying to understand your journey. You were born on the East Coast, went to Brown University, took trips to France, worked in Burgundy, then went to school there. What kind of kid were you and how did you get interested in wine?

Ted Lemon: I remember being from that East Coast culture of cocktail. I remember the moment when Mateus rose showed up. Suddenly this appeared in the orbit of adults around me. That was the first inkling of wine. But for me it really was France. For me it was having that chance of tying that idea of beverage in the glass to a place.

Jordan Mackay: You did a year abroad at Brown, were you tasting/drinking during that time?

Ted Lemon: I lived with a French family, and we visited an old Muscadet producer, in an old chateau on a hill. It was foggy in the winter. And the proprietor was telling the story of what is wine, and I listened to him talk about a place, agriculture, and how Muscadet reflected how people lived, and the local culture. I though to myself, “there’s a lot more to this than I would have imagined.”

Much later, I went to University of Dijon but I was in arts and letters not in science. I took a wine appreciation class, and at the end, the teacher said “you seem awfully interested, do you want to do an apprenticeship?” I was like “what?” In my last year at Brown, I thought I needed to find something to do with myself. I came up with a senior project to study viticulture. They gave me $6000, and I was golden.

Jordan Mackay: There weren’t many people taking the route that you did. You were peripatetic. You spent all this time in Burgundy, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would become your destiny. But I’ve heard you like all wines. Is that true?

Ted Lemon: I was mentored by people who thought you should be exposed to everything. At that time the world was… different. No New Zealand wine, no South African wine.

Jordan Mackay: The first time I met you was for an article I was writing, which was on Howell Mountain Zinfandel. I know you spent a lot of time on Howell Mountain. Larry Stone used to say he used to buy that wine of yours.

Ted Lemon: It was a different time period. The place was run by the owners of La Mission Haut Brion, I thought I’d at least go see what they were up to. They were controversial wines, non ML, high in acid and very expensive. At the dawn of the Parker age that was a winning combination. Then the weight of criticism of style preference amongst the writers that were having influence was going in a different direction.

Jordan Mackay: So, you were doing that up there, and then you have this ultimate idea to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and you go on a search. Joseph Cambell-ish. We love this idea in wine. You took the same path as Josh Jensen. You looked at Willamette Valley, on the coast, what was on your mind?

Ted Lemon: In ’86 we would taste Pinot and Chardonnay, Burgundy, California, Oregon with other things thrown in. It was a group of us: David Ramey, Helen Turley, John Wetlaufer, Burt Williams, Steve Kistler. We were academic. We played games like “Find the producer pair,” “Find the Clos de la Roche.” The somms here would love it. What was important was that what we saw, was that when you had the experience tasting one of the wines from Western Sonoma County, and it really sang (blind) the light started to go off. These wines had something going on.

Jordan Mackay: What happened on the search? Tell me about some of the other places you saw and ruled something out.

Ted Lemon: I remember trying to buy fish in Umatilla Washington. There was a small case of fish. We started north in Washington and worked south to the border. We would spend time, we looked at real estate. What struck me was that Willamette was already established. I tasted wines from Eyrie, from 82. They were great. The Sonoma Coast didn’t exist at that time. I thought to myself, “What an irony that you’re 40 miles from the most famous wine region in the country, and people were ‘what, you can grow grapes out there?'”

Jordan Mackay: The idea of being pioneering appealed to you?

Ted Lemon: God no. But I came to feel the idea of being an adventurer was ok. There were real American pioneers, Dick Graf, Josh Jensen (I worked a harvest at Chalone). America is all about discovery and invention. It’s exciting. I had this sense of tradition from Burgundy and not stepping outside of boundaries that I had to get over.

Jordan Mackay: Like prospecting for gold. That kind of excitement?

Ted Lemon: No just sheer fear. There was the question or fear of making something that was any good, that people in Burgundy would respect. From what I saw in the geologic map of California, I realized that so many different soil origins had to be a lab for terroir. The idea of making Pinot Noir from different meso-climates that were radically different was exciting.

Jordan Mackay: So tell me about your first harvest. What were your feelings?

Ted Lemon: Very positive. The wine had good balance, the fruit looked good. I was very excited. It was a small commitment. 150 cases. We knew we would have to grow slowly.

Jordan Mackay: I talked with a lot of people you worked with over the years. What became apparent to me was that Western Sonoma coast was really a collaboration. They all say Ted taught us a lot. The idea really you were working together was core principle here.

Ted Lemon: As you alluded to Charlie Heintz had a big contract with Sebastiani at the time, there was a lot of that level of wine growing, that was the only model. There wasn’t a lot going on at the more artisan level, and it took a lot of doing to get people to shift [away from big crops]. It’s always a journey.

Jordan Mackay: You were credited with paying by the acre for fruit and that hadn’t been done before out here. Was that something that was obvious?

Ted Lemon: In that tasting group we’d have lots of discussions about his issue. I don’t know why I grabbed it. It made sense. Not sure why I grabbed it. When I went to Napa, I stayed in Carneros and got to know some of the people there. Lee Hudson called me out of the blue when I started Littorai and he heard I was paying by the acre. He said, “Ted this is the worst idea you ever had. John Kongsgaard and I tried it once and it was a mess.”

Jordan Mackay: But it establishes that quality above all else is the goal. The other things that all these growers said was that you were fair on payment. That you paid on time, and paid fairly. Charles Heintz said you paid for the full fruit set before dropping crop. It seems like you had innate experience on how to manage those relationships.

Ted Lemon: It comes from spending time in real vineyards. You can’t make world class wine without working in the vineyard. Having dealt with Burgundians, California growers are a piece of cake.

Jordan Mackay: Burgundy is the bastion of Pinot Noir growing, and you brought that mentality here. Can you spend enough time in the vineyard?

Ted Lemon: I don’t think you can spend enough time in a vineyard. I like to say, we have the ambition of Romanee Conti, we just don’t have the dough or the background. We are set up for world class ambitions, but we are a startup enterprise.

Jordan Mackay: You started out in these collaborations with these growers that you helped to become great. You pushed new ideas on replanting, lower trellising, closer spacing. That contribution to these great vineyards can’t be overlooked. That is about you importing your knowledge from Burgundy and giving it away for free.

Ted Lemon: There’s really a three legged stool: a great site, the right material, and management. Management encompasses not only the owners but the workers. And the buyer. If you’re not on the same page it’s not going to work. David Hirsch had no vineyard manager, so trying to coddle someone like that to the world of fine wine was a process.

Jordan Mackay: Besides working with these growers you developed sites. What is a great site? You didn’t do a lot of scientific work, I don’t think. No soil pits.

Ted Lemon: Our philosophical feeling about it was the most important. I remember talking to friends about it, who know European viticulture well. If you visit great sites, you say “you know what, this smells right.” The aspect, the slope the feeling, the vegetation, all these things combine to suggest that this is a special place. This goes straight to idea of terroir. How does it happen and why? You look at a place and see that something unusual is going on there. Whether we say spiritual, or we say the drainage is better than across the street. There’s mojo. I remained convinced that we could look at a site and tell that it would make great wine. I am convinced that is how Mount Eden happened, Ridge, etc.

Jordan Mackay: I like this idea that there is a mojo that can be sensed, before you put vines in the ground and spend three years… But I’m sure it helps having visited great sites, knowing that experience is a visual and spiritual sense…

Ted Lemon: It’s a sensory experience: sight, smell, sound. There’s this whole thing going on. I remember in 1985 visiting a lot of France and feeling like I was walking in Kermit Lynch’s footsteps quite literally. But I was much more vineyard driven. I wanted to SEE the vineyard. All that stuff filters it.

Jordan Mackay: Then you found other sites and planted them… Let’s talk about Chardonnay for a second. Tell us about Charles Heintz. Why you’ve been working with it for 18 years.

Ted Lemon: As a lot of people win the room will know. It’s across the road, almost flat on the top of the hill. It was planted in ’82. It had an old-fashioned split canopy sprawl when we walked in there. What really interested us was across the fence: Hillcrest. It was the oldest Chardonnay vineyard in this part of the county, planted in ’75. I was interested in the old stuff. We went away in the summer for three weeks and came back and it was full of leaf roll virus. I hadn’t seen it with leaves on. I thought, “Oh my god.” I said “Charlie can we get some of yours, too?” He said sure. I was afraid that Hillcrest wouldn’t get ripe. Charlie said yes, we made the two together, and called it Occidental Ridge.

Then in 1997 with a big crop, I told them we needed to share the pain about dropping the crop, and then I decided to do just a Heintz bottling. This was the first vintage. Charlie paid for materials, we did the labor for converting it to a vertical trellis, everyone was involved. Now there’s better trellising, and we have a specific section we’d always like. There’s stress that runs through this site that makes the vines less vigorous. This is a very vigorous site.

The 1997 never wanted to finish fermenting. I reinoculated two times, lean and mean. This wine has had a little window when it has all come together. Great to see this wine have a little time. At first we were ready to top with it.

Jordan Mackay: One thing I want to talk about is what Charlie Heintz told me was that you taught him how to make wine, and it has affected how he farms. He remembers telling you his hydrometer is broken and you said, “Did you drop it?” and he said, “No.” And you said, “Then it’s not broken.” You’ve said “I realized winemaking as it is commonly understood really is only needed when you have to deal with problems, like when you have hail or rot.”

Ted Lemon: Those things can be exaggerated. But it’s a fairly well known idea, this idea of knowing when to do nothing. Unless you’re making industrial wine there’s a lot of truth to it. But when it’s time to do something, it’s time to do something. When you have a fermentation going awry, rot going on like gangbusters, there’s gotta be winemaking going on.

Jordan Mackay: OK, so it’s 1997, you’re making 5 different vineyards. Activity is beginning on the Western Sonoma Coast. Are you excited that things are growing, what’s your sense at this time?

Ted Lemon: It was great to see Flowers happen. There was a still this sense of “what is north of the river like versus south” and a question of whether you could use the river as a delineation. What’s going on in Timbuk 2 in Annapolis. What’s in the southern hills in Freestone. There was a lot of talk with winemakers of what we were seeing and tasting. We were clear since we had no money, we wanted to continue making wine from all these areas so we could learn before we bought. That was important even though this was the gold rush times. There will probably not be another lime like late 90 s in California, the amount of money and excitement that was pouring into wine country.

Jordan Mackay: So you saw it as a big buffet?

Ted Lemon: I was sad to see Burt Williams retire. So when Burt left, I had lost a model for us personally. His style was in what we were focusing on. We learned that what we were doing was not the dominant commercial style and we were going to struggle to sell wine. It was a difficult thing. If we went out to talk with most growers they would laugh at the notion of points. Most of the smaller more sophisticated growers know it’s not reproducible. Back then you were paying attention to that 95 point score.

Jordan Mackay: One of the remarkable things about your career is that you have remained true to your style and things have come back around. It must have been frightening to be somewhat marginalized for that time.

Ted Lemon: We were lucky to generally be treated well by the press, but we were clear on the value of sommeliers and we cultivated those relationships. It’s funny, but historically looking towards Burgundy, we saw that when the estate bottled wines emerged after the war, what did they do? They bottled the wines and took them to restaurants and asked them to buy.

Jordan Mackay: That’s visionary.
Ted Lemon: No, it’s imitative. That’s a good segue to this pinot. This wine is 14.2% or 3 or 4. It’s a bigger, richer, riper style. It’s probably time to drink it now. I wanted to bring something that was a little more illustrative of that time period. These were 4 year-old vines not farmed by us. It was made at a time that we were working with all growers trying to reign them in. We were saying irrigation is OK, no raisins. That ebullient style is not just about writers at the time. It reflects the climate and the culture of this part of the world at the time. Young vines subject to stress, young wineries, Burt was most established, Kistler was just getting started. Managing vineyards to get to a result that matches your vineyard wasn’t easy. You’re running around your grower forgets to irrigate, you have a big heat spike in October. All of these things contributed to wine style more effusive than otherwise. It’s not just about a vision of big ripe wine.

Jordan Mackay: When there is no disincentive for picking later, the idea of picking earlier and worrying about under-ripeness takes courage to go beyond the norm. There was a lot of encouragement… once thing I thought was powerful that you said, you feel like your wines would have been improved by picking earlier.

Ted Lemon: I can think of several wines, including this one would have been improved by picking earlier.

Jordan Mackay: It’s great you can learn that, and say that now. When I talk to California winemakers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the term Burgundian tortures them. It’s the anxiety of influence. They want to be Burgundian, but they say, “We’ll be making California wines.” You have the best Burgundian pedigree, but you’ve embraced California. How do you relate?

Ted Lemon: Look at Barolo. There’s a traditional school, a modern school, and different flavor profiles. What is the right Barolo? Is post climate warming Burgundy real Burgundy? I have the confidence to say now, that I couldn’t say before. It’s not about making great Pinot Noir anymore, but can we make a wine that is the most representative wine. The most representative of Thieriot. Unless we are all, in this complex area of Sonoma Coast, focusing like a laser on those sites, we’re not going to be capable of doing what the Burgundians doing.

Jordan Mackay: That is a shift to a Burgundian point of view. Not Pinot Noir, but Clos de la Roche. I’ve seen confusion in California. How do you know when a place is worthy of a name?

Ted Lemon: I don’t know. You try to taste it honestly through again and again, you try to find it. Some exposure to classic terroir is essential. It doesn’t have to be Burgundy. It could be Alsace or the Loire, You need that respect for terroir,to be about to say, sure, I have an ego, but I’m going to die and that piece of dirt is going to still be there. That’s the essential step in world class wine. You need to know that it’s bigger than you. As frustrating as it can be to hear Burgundy hide behind that, sometimes, it will always be true. It needs to be bigger than you, otherwise you will never make great wine.

Jordan Mackay: Let’s talk about material selection. Clones, suitcase clones, favorites?

Ted Lemon: I think if we could fast forward time I would like to see what clone 777 Pinot is like in 50 years. There’s the genetic question, climatological questions and more. I’m not afraid of Dijon clones at all. The best Chardonnay comes from combination of old and modern clones. What’s a heritage clone today? It wasn’t 50 years ago. Time is elastic.

Jordan Mackay: You have been farming Biodynamically. That elicits strong responses. Why did you decide to do that, and what have you observed?

Ted Lemon: it’s a large subject. We have an extraordinary opportunity to explore the biology of terroir. We can look back on 1960’s textbooks on French viticulture, you’ll see all the chemistry and there won’t be a single insect in that picture. There will not be a thing about what species are native to Vosne Romanee. This notion of biology has been forgotten in Europe. We are so much ahead because we protect the biodiversity of our sites, and it is going to be enormous.

Jordan Mackay: How have you evolved your winemaking over time. Compared to say with this 1997 Chardonnay?

Ted Lemon: This was bottled earlier, the 1997. There was a period of time between 1997-2003 we were not racking, but found that we had too much lees in the wine. Now we rack once. We now use 10% stainless barrels.

Jordan Mackay: There will be at some point a separate AVA for this area of the West Sonoma Coast, I’m sure. But you say this area defies easy categorization. What do you see happening here, how would things be organized if you had your way.

Ted Lemon: What I would love to see is that the West Sonoma Coast vintners take their time with this process. When you move fast, people fight. If we take our time we will show more respect for terroir. Faster decisions will be made for human reasons. It will be about marketing. For Littorai the thing that matters will always be the vineyard designation. That’s the true AVA.

1997 Littorai Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Medium yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter and cold cream with a dash of lemon curd. In the mouth the wine offers bright mineral and dried lemon peel flavors with a hint of piney bright notes. Fantastic acidity and balance. Extraordinary. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5.

1998 Littorai “Thieriot Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin, cedar, and spices, with hints of dried cherry. In the mouth, flavors of dried cherry, cedar, spices, and wet earth. All swirl with faint powdery tannins. A hint of sweet prunes lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.