Washington State's Elegant Di Stefano Wines
If there are "hoties" in the Northwest wine industry right now, DiStefano Winery has to be among them.
As a producer of classic Bordeaux reds, the small Woodinville, WA winery is generating high scores and gaining lots of attention for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The winery also produces small lots of Sauvignon Blanc.
Winemaker and owner Mark Newton says his new barrel programhelped to generate all the fuss.
"We are in the process of switching from 100 percent American oak to 100 percent French oak," Newton said. "We started in 1999 and right now, we're up to 80 percent French and 20 percent American. "As a result, we think the wines are more elegant, more supple. Our focus is to make the best wines we know how."
The work, and the barrel program paid off. In looking back at scores from Wine Spectator magazine over the past seven years, DiStefano wines hovered in the mid to high 80s. The 1998 Cabernet Franc scored 84 points; the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon scored 85 points; the 1997 Merlot scored 89 points. (The 1998 Merlot, however, scored 90 points).
Many in the industry who were familiar with DiStefano wines thought the scores were too low. The wine was good, and better yet, a great economic value. The only consistent comment was some of the wine was too lean and light.
Newton and his assistant winemaker Bill Herzog began grading barrels to see what worked best for DiStefano wines, given the style of pressing, crushing and avoidance of high extractions from the wine. The conclusion, says Newton, was to "go French."
"We are able to blend to the point where we are getting balance in the wine," said Newton, who develops computer hardware for Microsoft. "We are striving for balance, and French oak gave us the flavor we wanted with our blends."
All About Oak
American oak has a tighter grain to the wood, which imparts flavors at a slower rate. French oak is slower to impart flavor immediately, but after a year, will generally give more flavor to the wine than the slower American oak.
The timing, said Newton, was not the issue. He and Herzog preferred the flavor and aromas of French barrels.
"American oak is very one dimensional with a tendency of heavy menthol overtones," he added.
Once French barrels were selected, Newton said the next question was whether the barrels should be new or used. New barrels impart a more pronounced flavor, so the wine has to be complex enough to withstand the oak flavor. New barrels of American oak give wine a strong, oaky aroma, creamy character and vanilla and dill flavors. French barrels are slightly gentler. As barrels age, wine absorbs less oak flavor and the distinction between American and French oak becomes less significant.
For his wines, Newton uses 50 percent new oak, and 50 percent 1-year-old oak. More now than ever,
Avalon recommends the wines of Di Stefano! We have long felt they offered outstanding values, now more than ever. Check them out here...
New Oak, New Scores
Since implementing his new barrel program, DiStefano wines are hot. His 1999 Sogno Cabernet Franc rated 90 points. So did the 1999 Merlot, which was also praised for its great texture and balance. The 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon is outstanding and garnered 91 points. And his 1999 Ottimo, a winemakers' blend of DiStefano's top five barrels, scored 91 points.
Although switching barrels made DiStefano's wines more complex, Herzog, assistant winemaker for several years, says both winemakers improved blending techniques.
"We go through every barrel and start our general blending," Herzog said. "We are constantly tasting and blending to get the elegant, Bordeaux style. It's hand-crafted, beginning with beautiful grapes. Our Cabernets are just blowing me away."
The winery produces about 4,500 cases per year. Future plans include building a new winery in the next two years and increased productivity to about 10,000 cases per year. If all goes well, Newton said he will build a restaurant next to the winery and feature interesting wine and food pairings.
Before the growth, Newton said he wants to work more with the vineyard managers and the fields to improve the quality of fruit. "There is so much to this business. It isn't just making wine," Newton said. "It's growing grapes, pruning and training them and producing low yields. "We want to control the tonnage."
Newton said he believes in the concept of terroir, which is allowing the vineyard to express itself and its uniqueness via climate, soils and other factors. However, his goal is what the staff calls, "terroir blending."
The final expression of a wine is not just one item, said Newton. "It's not just terroir, although that is certainly an element," said Newton. "It includes yeast selection and barrel selection and blending-all those aspects contribute to a balanced wine. "In our wines, we believe that people will say the sum is greater than the whole. The sum of everything we do is greater than one aspect. In the end, I think great wines are made in blending terroir."