An Interview with Chef Richard de los Reyes of Row Eleven Wine Co.
Jim Clarke: While UC Davis has the U.S.‘s best-known university enology program, you went to their rival, CSU Fresno; what were the virtues of their program for you?
Richard de los Reyes: Fresno gave me the keys to the winery. Literally. The university was between professors, and all the seniors, with experience running the experimental winery, had graduated. I was the only one with any experience. They handed me the keys and said, ”Take care of these wines.“ I made fruit wines all summer, and crushed grapes the next semester. I learned more than I could have ever learned in the lab at Davis.
Fresno had one other advantage over Davis. All the wineries around Fresno crushed grapes 24 hours a day. If you needed to support yourself or wanted to get more practical experience while in school you could work the night shift in almost any winery of your choice
JC: What role models did you look to when you set out to form your own wine company for the first time?
RR: I had several: Fred Franzia of Charles Shaw Brand for his work ethic. No one works harder than Fred.
Justin Meyer at Silver Oak: Make only one varietal per label and be damn good at it.
Walt Klenz at Beringer: Be as knowledgeable as you can about everything. Walt was amazing. He knew as much about winemaking, winery design, finance, and sales as anyone working for him.
Julio Gallo (Gallo): Know your vineyards.
I had the honor of knowing all these men. My great-grandfather – the Lummis in Stratton Lummis – was amazing also. His motto was “Don‘t hurry, don‘t worry, and keep growing.” I try to keep that in mind.
JC: Why did you and your partner, Brad Miller, decide to join forces to start your own company?
RR: Brad and I were of the same opinion: that the doom-sayers predicting the collapse of the industry three years ago had misread the inventories and grape supplies. I had lived through three wine collapses and I knew the doomsayers in 2001 were wrong. We thought it would be a good time to start a wine company. We had nothing but respect for each other. We were both hard workers. It is a good fit. The energy and optimism of youth paired with the wisdom and patience of age. All we needed was money – lots of it.
JC: Why did you first decide to make wines from such diverse regions?
RR: I was not interested in the old model in the wine industry. You know: rich guy buys whatever property is available, plants grapes, makes wines and declares it is the best because he owns it. Because of my unique background I not only knew I could get grapes from any region I wanted, but from some of the best vineyards in those appellations. My goal was to work with the best fruit, make the best wine, and deliver it at the best price. My first love was Pinot Noir. The best appellations in my opinion are Santa Barbara and Russian River. I also wanted to learn about its cousin, Pinot Gris. There is only one place to make Pinot Gris: Oregon. The best Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Oakville and Rutherford, while Syrah is best in Santa Barbara. The only biodynamic vineyards I found were in Mendocino.
JC: What are the practicalities of making wine at several different locations – I would imagine you spend a lot of time on the road, for instance?
RR: It is not that practical, but look at the upside. Many of the facilities I work in are run by a very well respected winemaker in that variety, or at Central Coast Wine Services I am surrounded by many winemakers. These guys and gals live only to make wine. They are dedicated beyond belief. They are eager to learn and share what they know. They continually experiment and take great risks. They are Pinot and Syrah fanatics. Remember my great-grandfather‘s quote, “…keep growing.” I learn so much from them. The input is constant.
JC: Why did you decide to give each varietal its own brand name?
RR: Justin Meyers was my big influence. I want the brand to focus on only one variety and be a leader in it. I don‘t want the brand to be all things to all people. I don‘t want it to be confused. I don‘t want to compromise on barrels, equipment, technique, etc. Under each of those brands, that is what we make. It better be good.
JC: Your RDLR Syrah uses grapes sourced from a biodynamic vineyard; does that make any difference to you once the grapes get to the winery?
RR: I am a new-comer to biodynamics, learning as I go. The question is, “Do you want nature to develop your flavors, or man and chemicals?” We have so many things at our disposal to make our lives easier. It is hard not to apply or use them. Biodynamics takes a spiritual look at the vineyard. It reminds you that the vineyard is a living entity. However, it does not translate to the winery well. You know, crushing at certain moon-cycles etc. Nonetheless, I do sing to the yeast. I want them happy. After all, wine is a living environment.
JC: Your wines are well-priced for their quality, but you don‘t offer anything in a truly budget, $10-12 range; are you interested in creating something for that market?
RR: You sound like Brad. It is a funny thing: you don‘t need to own a facility to make great wines; you do need to own a facility to make good inexpensive wines. I am trying to give people a taste of great vineyards at prices well below what they are currently accustomed too. Brad wants to go farther. So we have created a new label called Bandon. It is an Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in that $10-$12 price range. We shall see.
JC: Any other plans for new additions to the Row Eleven portfolio?
RR: We have much to prove now. I have to stay focused. Bandon will be about it. I would like to work more with RDLR which, besides my initials, is suppose to stand for rich, dark, luscious reds. I want to get into more of a Rhone red blend that just Syrah. Maybe even a Washington and Oregon Red Blend. There are so many vineyards, so much to learn, and so little time. We will see.