Interview with Launny Steffens of Vineyard 7 and 8
By Jim Clarke
Jim Clarke: How
did you develop your interest in wine?
Launny Steffens: That’s
a long story. I started getting interested the late '60s,
and it’s grown over time. I think I’ve always
been fascinated by the ability to grow wine, the way different
climates and different grapes work together. Creating wine
– the ability of nature and humans to work together
– is fascinating and interesting to me.
JC: What prompted
you to make the jump from wine drinking to winemaking?
LS: Some would question
my sanity. Like lots of things, it’s the result of
what I’d call “coincident experiences.”
I was organizing high-end wine dinners for a charity in
New York for four or five years; we used to serve absolutely
exceptional wines and follow the dinner with a wine auction
– they were very successful.
There was one vendor I bought a lot
from because he always had access to high-quality, early
vintages of high-end wine. We were talking and told him
I would like to own a piece of a high-end Cabernet producer,
in case he knew someone who was looking for investment and
so on. He said, “Would you consider owning a vineyard
on your own?” and I said, “Sure.”
We looked around for two or three years
and finally discovered the site in Spring Mountain that
became Vineyard 7 and 8. A lot of it was a matter of being
in the right place at the right time. The Spring Mountain
District has exceptional grape-growing potential, and there
are a lot of people making great wine there. There are relatively
few places for really good Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa has
them, especially certain areas. We bought property with
that kind of potential. It helped that it had already been
planted in the late '80s; we’ve made major efforts
to make the vineyard an even better place to grow good grapes.
JC: What sorts
of input do you get to offer when working with Christian
LeSommer and Larry Langbehn?
LS: Christian sets
the strategy and looks at blendings; he visits the vineyard
four or five times a year. They keep him updated all year
long, sending him samples from different barrels and so
forth. He’s very involved. He and Larry have a terrific
relationship; Christian sets the strategy and Larry is the
day-in, day-out implementer of it.
We try to set our goals together. We
knew that we wanted to make a really special wine; the question
is: How do you define that? In our grape-growing and winemaking
we try to take a little different tack. We aim for a lower
alcohol content and a more traditional framework than some
of the other wines out there. We think about how it goes
with food: we don’t want it to be overpowering. We
knew we wanted something complex and drinkable over a long
period of time. I think all that sets us apart from many
of the better-known wineries in the Valley.
So I sit in when we’re doing
tastings of different blends, compare and contrast the wine
with others, look at the structure…
JC: What balance
do you aim to strike between early drinkability and ageability?
LS: We hope for the
wine to last a long time, but also that you won’t
have to wait forever to enjoy it. We’re early in the
process, so time will tell.
JC: You already
make a Chardonnay; do you have any interest in taking on
Burgundy’s red grape, Pinot Noir?
LS: We haven’t
had any interest in doing that. We’ve tried some Merlot,
Malbec, and Cabernet Franc – other grapes that might
go into a traditional blend – but we haven’t
gotten anything we’re really happy with. Right now
it’s 100% Cabernet, but we could possibly go for something
more blended if we saw some added value there. But Pinot
is not in the cards.
Our newest thing actually starts on
the 1st of the year: we’ve built our own winery. The
question will be: does it add value? The people who have
helped us to date have done a nice job, but they’re
14-15 miles away from the vineyard. So there’s transportation,
and the inability to do things in small lots. Now we’ll
be able to do unlimited amounts of tests, assessments of
ripeness, etc., and the grapes travel a couple hundred yards
to be crushed at most.
We ought to gain a leg up with the
new winery, making sure we only use the best of what we
could produce. Even though it’s a small site, different
parts of the vineyard can ripen a week to ten days later
than another section. So now we’ll be able to pick
one one day and the other a week later; we couldn’t
do that before. And we can customize our process; 2006 should
be the first year for another step up in quality; that’s
the theory behind the investment. Whether the small things
make a difference is the question; I believe they must in
something very special. Once they reach a decent size, most
producers go in-house. It’s not the cost – in-house
winemaking costs more – it’s being able to do
your own thing in your own time.