Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meet the Winemaker: Blake Eliasson (Settembre Cellars)

Small and boutique is how one might describe all of Colorado's wineries, but Settembre Cellars is the epitome of small and boutique. Founded in 2007 by Blake and Tracy Eliasson, Settembre produces just a few hundred cases annually. They sell almost all of their wine from the winery and even offer a bicycle delivery service to local wine lovers in Boulder. In addition to recently starting one of the hottest wineries in the state, Blake and Tracy welcomed their first child, Oliver, into the Settembre family a few months ago. Having a recent addition of my own, I am especially appreciative that Blake took the time to be my guest for this week's winemaker interview.

CWP: How did you get into winemaking?

My path to winemaking started with wine appreciation: drinking wine, exploring my palate, reading about how the wines I enjoyed were produced, and visiting the places and people who made them. I became fascinated with the subtleties and differences and began delving deeper into what was fundamentally responsible for these differences. The depth of the subject is breathtaking and I love the plethora of variables; so expansive that there is room for both art and science. I'm amused that attempts to recreate the great wines of the world in laboratories inevitably fail and that many traditional methods continue to produce superior wine. Personally, my preference is to use traditional methods guided by sensory evaluation and scientific measurement. I read everything I could get my hands on and tinkered with kits and planted grapes. I appreciated how wine production had an innate connection with the natural world. With the help of a fellow Colorado winemaker I received my first Vitis vinifera grapes in 2006. The grapes were not grown and harvested in a manner fully aligned with my stylistic goals, however, I was able to see where winemaking choices (fermentation temperatures, skin contact time, barrel selection, etc., along with patience) relate to stylistic goals. This was my first wine produced that was both unique and more aligned with my palate. I was hooked. I completed the UC Davis distance graduate certificate program in Enology & Viticulture to compliment my self study and in 2007 Settembre Cellars started its first commercial vintage (a whopping 150 cases).

CWP: If you weren’t in the wine business, where would you be working?

I have a Ph.D. in solid state electrical engineering and still consult in the field of quantum device physics (catching photons and counting electrons). Believe it or not, there is overlap: from the wine's color as determined by the dance of electrons to oxidation-reduction reactions.

CWP: What do you do when you’re not at the winery?

I continue to enjoy reading and tasting wine from the appreciation perspective. Outside of wine, I enjoy music, cooking, skiing, biking, and spending time with our 5-month old son Oliver. During Oliver's first vintage I've been teaching him viticulture, the leaves of the vine, next year we'll begin sensory analysis of the grape and its juice; or perhaps more realistically intercepting grapes tossed to the dogs.

CWP: What is a wine that you currently do not make that you want to make?

I've experimented with various sparkling wines and one day hope to add one to our releases. A friend from a highly successful winery once told me that no one has ever made money producing by méthode champenoise; my wife Tracy likes to say if there is a more expensive or time consuming winemaking technique I'd use it, so this one seems a natural fit. I'd also love to make wine from one of my other favorite grapes: nebbiolo. The Barolo region of Italy, and its efforts to extract typicity from where the nebbiolo grape is grown, is largely responsible for my interest in extended maceration and single-vineyard wines.

CWP: If you could make wine in any wine region in the world, other than Colorado, where would you be making wine and why?

In the states my answer would be the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Another of my favorite wines is pinot noir and Oregon produces some of my personal favorites, plus I've always enjoyed visiting its vineyards and wineries. Outside of the states it would be Tuscany, more specifically the central Chianti Classico region. Sangiovese is another of my favorite grapes and responsible for my initial transition from casual drinking to taking a serious interest in wine. The cuisine of the region also inspires our efforts in the kitchen and indirectly our food friendly wine style.

CWP: What is the best bottle of wine you’ve ever drunk?

It's hard to select a single bottle, especially when one's palate continues to expand and setting can play such a huge role in experience. I've had encounters with bottles of Barolo in Italy that absolutely astound me, but yet can't say I've repeated the experience at home (perhaps it was the fresh tartufo biancho pairing). I can pinpoint the 1997 vintage of Chianti Classico that not only initially piqued my interest in wine but remains one of my favorites to this day.

CWP: To what style of music would you compare your wine lineup?

If a resonance may be imparted to the wine during élevage the connection is undoubtedly to Trey Anastasio. I have an embarrassing number of live recordings of which, by the time of release, the wine has probably heard them all. Trey's musical interests are broad; a guitarist and composer who plays a wide variety of styles, a master of tension and release, segue, tone, surprise and delight, together with improvisation from a solid foundation. Attributes which in ways coincide with my wine goals: elegance, complexity, finesse, and finish.

CWP: What do you think consumers should think of when they think about Colorado Wine?

New opportunities. There are an ever increasing number of growers who are pursuing viticulture with premium wine goals in mind. Likewise, many winemakers are moving beyond producing 'tourist' wines and taking their knowledge and commitment to a professional level to produce serious wines. The highest quality wines are not always easy to find (many of the ones that most suit my palate aren't found at the corner liquor store). Before forming your opinion of Colorado Wine try a handful, if one doesn't suit your palate ask for other recommendations. I suspect most winemakers, like myself, would be happy to point you in the direction of a fellow winemaker who may produce a bottle more aligned with your preferences.

CWP: Where do you see the Colorado wine industry in 10 years?

Less concerned about frost and closer to uncovering Colorado's true terroir.

CWP: What question would you like to ask me and my readers?

While in Northwest Italy a winemaker first introduced me to the Slow Food movement and its writings on food and wine. More recently, while relaxing to a casual wine read the author posed a question that has lingered with me. In the words of Alice Feiring, “Stupefyingly, in a world favoring slow food, few seem to mind fast wine.”. Why?

1 comment:

  1. Well, first I think the slow food idea is still held by only a very small minority. That being said, people often don't want to have to think about wine. Wine can be a confusing product to understand. If it tastes ok and has a fun label, that is enough for many consumers. As more people begin to care about where they food comes from, concern for what's in the bottle will follow suit (I hope).