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In preparation for our Spain vs California wine tasting coming up on January 31st, we had the privilege of speaking with Sonoma winemaker, Palmer Emmitt, to learn a bit about his background and what he is doing at his winery, Emmitt-Scorsone, in Healdsburg, CA, as well as getting his opinion on Spanish wines compared to California wines. Below is our full interview with him.
IT: What first got you interested in wines?
PE: My first exposure to wine was through my dad and his wine collection in our home in New Jersey. During our annual boys ski trips, where we travelled to different ski resorts each year, dad would always order good wine, and eventually I discovered that I especially was drawn to Oregon Pinot Noir. Dad encouraged my budding interest by letting me order a Pinot Noir off the wine list, whether from Oregon or California, each night and he taught me that Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy, France, so then I started ordering some Burgundies. Dad would also order a bottle of what he was passionate about – typically either a Bordeaux or Napa Cab. So that is how I started to learn just a tiny bit about wine. And then I met my business partner, winemaker Michael Scorsone, which led to the interest becoming a hobby, and then a passion, and eventually a full blown obsession.
IT: How did you meet Michael?
PE: I had a close friend, Jon Conway, who was living in San Francisco and I was living in LA, working in the film industry. I went to visit him one weekend and he said “I have a friend in Napa who is a winemaker, do you want to go taste some wine?¨ So we went to Napa and that is when I developed a friendship with Michael. I started taking a lot of trips up to Napa to visit him and learn more about wine. Here I began to not only get exposure to wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma County but also see what Michael was doing in the cellar and the passion that he had kicked my interest into overdrive.
IT: Did you have any other early influences that contributed to your wine obsession?
PE: The third component of my wine mentorship was Gary Vaynerchuck (also a New Jersey native and now well known entrepreneur, public speaker, and TV personality).
After one of those weekends with Michael, I came home with a bee in my bonnet and started searching the internet to get more information on various wines. I stumbled across a video Gary had done about one of the wines for his Youtube wine show, so that is how I discovered Wine Library TV. I devoured the show, watching every single episode. So much knowledge came from watching Gary… and then I got to know Gary personally and developed a friendship with him. This influence motivated me to start taking classes at night after work to get certified as a sommelier and then eventually I quit my job, left Los Angeles, and moved to wine country to do the Sonoma State wine MBA program, still not knowing exactly where I was going to end up in the wine industry. I wasn’t really thinking honestly that I would have my own winery but I started hanging out with Michael a lot once I moved up here and he eventually asked me “Hey, do you want to make some wine together?” and of course I said, “Hell yea, I do!”
IT: What is unique about your wine and what sets it apart from other California wines?
PE: In winemaking, I don’t think you can really reinvent the wheel. People have been making wine for 3000 years and most of the best ways to do it have already been figured out. Certainly there are different ways to market it but in the making of it, it is just a series of very subtle choices. So Michael and I do not believe we are doing something completely innovative. It is not revolutionary the way we make wine. It’s just a combination of choosing really interesting vineyard sites, trying to find the right match of grape variety to the vineyard site, and trying to do less in the winery. Doing less is really our winemaking philosophy. The more you start with an interesting grape, growing in the right place, and the less you do in the winery to screw it up, the better your wine is going to turn out. Our approach is a pretty old school/old world style of winemaking. There is a big trend in wine making/marketing towards “natural winemaking”, where people have these strict rules saying ¨ You can’t use this and you can’t use that, and you can’t do this and you can’t do that”, because you are manipulating the wine. Most of those things they say you can’t do, Michael and I do not do anyway, but we don’t limit ourselves. If we need to do one of those things to make wine that is not flawed, then we will do it. So we do not consider ourselves natural winemakers even though 90 percent of our wines would qualify as natural wines.
Also, I would say what distinguishes our wines is that Michael is an exceptional winemaker, not because he knows a bunch of tricks to turn bad wine into good wine but because his palette is so good that he trusts himself to not do things when it is not necessary. We can have the “do less” philosophy because Michael has that trust in his own palette, trust that it won’t deceive him. A lot of the winemakers that are classically, academically trained do everything by the book. ¨If you have this number, you add this chemical and if such and such happens to the wine, you do this¨. There is an insecurity there where they are fearful of screwing up the wine if they don’t follow certain steps. So, just the trust and confidence Michael has in himself to not do those things is a big reason why we end up with a higher percentage of special wines than maybe the guy down the road.
IT: What are the wines you make and the grapes you use?
PE: Well, another thing that makes us unique is the breadth of our offerings. Most people are a little more focused than we are. We have had the two brands, Judge Palmer and Domenica Amato, and now three with the introduction of the Emmitt-Scorsone label. There is the same philosophy and style behind all three but each one does lean a bit one way or another. Domenica Amato wines lean more towards the old world wines and Judge Palmer leans more towards what people expect from California wines. Judge Palmer Cabernet tends to be about half of our production, so is our biggest piece. About ⅓ are the other red wines we make, mainly under the Domenica Amato label which is focused on Grenache but also some Rhone, Syrah, and Barbera. Under Judge Palmer we do a small amount of other red Bordeaux varietals, specifically Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The last piece, about 15 to 20 percent of production, is white wine. We have done a number of varieties, specifically Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay under Judge Palmer and Rhone and Italian blends – Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Vermentino Fiano, under the Domenica Amato brand. We are going to do Zinfandel from a 100 year old vineyard next door hopefully next year.
IT: What is your experience with Spanish wines and what do you think about them? How would you compare them to California wines?
PE: I love Spanish wines. During my sommelier training, I learned about and tasted wine from all the classic, Spanish wine regions. Priorat is probably one of my two or three favorite wine regions in the world. I love the wines from Priorat and that is really the style of some of our new Domenica Amato wines. The blends we are making are really Priorat inspired.
I’ve done some wine travel in Spain – to Rioja and Penedes. Both places really impressed and inspired me. I love the traditions in Rioja. I love that it is a unique expression of a unique grape. In general, for me, I tend to think of everything in wine as very micro – very region specific and vineyard specific. So I hate to make broad comparisons like between Spain and California, but I love Spanish wines and appreciate them. There is a great winemaking tradition in Spain. California has always been a bit of the wild west in winemaking because there are no rules. So you are both somewhat limited in a place like Rioja by the rules but also liberated by them because you know what you have to do within the parameters. The rules tend to allow people to focus on the viticulture, which is really the most important element.
IT: One final question, Palmer! After joining our Cava tasting & tapas event in December, what did you like about the virtual experience? What did you get from it that you did not expect?
PE: Raul´s knowledge and passion for Spanish wine really came through and I thought it was a very educational and fun experience. I feel like the best way to learn about wine is to taste as you are learning – make those connections between what you are tasting and what you are hearing and if you aren’t doing those things at the same time, you are going to forget. It’s the two components together that make it really stick in your brain. And the supplemental visuals adds a third, fantastic element. Winemaking is really about a place and so if you can understand the geography, if you can look at it on a map at the same time you are tasting and hearing, then that is really going to help you understand the world of wine in the long run.”
Thank you so much to Palmer for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us! Please join us on Sunday, January 31st to taste two of his wines alongside two Spanish wines, and ask him some of your own, burning questions for yourself!
To sign up for the January 31st, Spain vs California Virtual Comparative Wine Tasting:
If you live in the US, click here to sign up for this tasting!
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Emmitt-Scorsone winery: www.emmittscorsone.com
Link to our event page: here
Link to Emmitt-Scorsone’s event page: here