An Interview with Dr. Christian Butzke, Winemaker at Sakonnet Vineyards, Rhode Island

October 2011

Jim Clarke: You came to Rhode Island from a tenured position at the U.S.’s most recognized training ground for winemaking, U.C. Davis, in the heart of California wine country. When you left your position there, what drew you to Rhode Island and Sakonnet Vineyards?

Dr. Christian Butzke: What drew me back to New England (where I had lived before I moved to California) was both the beautiful scenery and the unique challenge to make wines in a still relatively new winegrowing area. I guess you could call it a pioneering spirit that drove me, like my idol Bob Mondavi in the 1960s. After ten years at UC Davis, I just couldn't picture myself farting into an ergonomic chair for the remaining thirty or so years of a secure academic career.

JC: Much of your most-publicized work while at UC Davis centered on cork taint and alternative closures like synthetic corks and screwcaps. How have you put this work to use at Sakonnet?

CB: I am glad to see that my work on corks encouraged (or forced) so many new innovations and improvements to both traditional and new closure options for my fellow winemakers to eliminate the cork taint problem. While sophisticated screw-caps have emerged as the best closure for wines bottles and are used for some of the finest wines on the market, I still use high-quality Portuguese bark cork for all of Sakonnet's wines. As a winemaker, my attitude is that the closure should have no impact whatsoever on the quality of the wine that I created and put into a bottle.

JC: Rhode Island’s maritime climate is said to be comparable to that of the Loire Valley; do the state’s soils have Old World precedents as well?

CB: Following the traditional notion of local terroir and typicité, it appears very clear today that the influence of the winemaker on a wine is rather minuscule in comparison to the impact of local weather patterns (air and soil temperature, sunlight, rainfall) throughout the long ripening season of grapes starting with the development of new buds right after the previous vintage all the way to the day the grapes are harvested. Soil structure (rather than composition) is important as it relates to the capacity of the soil to hold rain water and thereby determines how much water the grapevine roots can access as the grapes mature. Coastal New England's marine soils are very well suited to grow premium wine grapes.

JC: Are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot difficult to grow in Rhode Island’s climate? What steps do you take to ensure enough ripeness to make quality wines from these grapes?

CB: Through the vineyard experience of my winegrower, Joetta Kirk, who has tended to the Sakonnet vines for over a quarter of a century, and the use of traditional winemaking techniques such as saignée, the bleeding of juice from the freshly crushed grapes, we have made great strides for red wines in New England. As a result, my 2002 Cabernet Franc (the genetic parent of Cabernet Sauvignon) just won a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco International, the largest wine competition in America, competing with reds from all over the world.

JC: As cool-climate grapes, why have Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling not found a place in Sakonnet Vineyards?

CB: You might as well ask why Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling haven't found a place in Burgundy. Having won Best of Show at the Monterey International wine competition for our Gewurztraminer, and Sakonnet Vineyards approaching its 30th anniversary, we have a pretty good idea about how well cool climate varieties are doing here. At the same time, we are still experiment a lot in the vineyard and winery, as to be expected from eternal wine pioneers. But I don't like to follow trends (what happened to Sangiovese and Viognier?) but rather to create them, and given the five-year or so lag time between planting vines and making wine, we are quite happy right now with our whimsical Gewurz and our highly recognized Vidal wines.

JC: Sakonnet’s signature wine has become the Vidal Blanc; why has this lesser-known grape become so successful here?

CB: I make three different Vidal wines, a crisp, fruity version reminiscent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a very complex barrel-fermented Fumé, and a luscious ice wine, Sakonnet's Winterwine. Vidal Blanc, with its delicious aromas of apricots, peaches, pears and grapefruit, is not only ideal for our climate, but it also matches well the local seafoods, the lobsters, oysters, and clams of our coastal waters which are just half a mile away from the vineyard. Vidal's European parent, by the way, is Ugni Blanc, the grape that all fine Cognac is made from in the Charente.

JC: You use another relatively-unknown hybrid grape, Chancellor, in your Port and the Rhode Island Red; what does this grape bring to these wines?

CB: Our other dessert wine is a port made from Chancellor, a grape variety that combines the traits of the traditional Portuguese Port varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao or Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), giving it deep color and texture, and both intense fruity and earthy notes. My 2002 Rhode Island Red table wine is a blend of Chancellor, Cab Franc and Lemberger, and will for the first time carry an artistic label created by graduate students of the Rhode Island School of Design. This emphasizes my cooperation not only with local chefs and cheesemakers but with other artisans as well.

JC: Because of California’s dominance of the American wine market, many Americans expect wines to come from warmer climates; does this perception create difficulties for Sakonnet’s wines in the marketplace?

CB: We have about 1,200 wineries in California versus three in Rhode Island, but even in my first vintage here, I have shown that we can compete with and occasionally even beat the Californians. California has built the world-wide reputation of American wine and we owe a great lot to the outstanding work that has been done out West.

For me personally as I have traveled to many wine regions around the globe, it is always most important to try and drink the local wines after I see the vine grow and meet the makers. Making wines that can stand up to any global competition but at the same time create a connection for the consumer to the area, the local foods and the people involved in the artisan process, is crucial for the success of small but ambitious family winery. There are too many wines out there today that are just amusing labels where you don't know anymore who made the wine or where exactly the grapes where grown. As for any non-tropical fruit, be it apples or berries or grapes, a cool but moderate climate is a guarantee for the most delicious and intense aromas, and coastal New England with its Macintoshs, cranberries and blueberries (or Chardonnay) has a well-recognized heritage of quality agriculture.

JC: What sort of individual identity or style do you see emerging for Rhode Island and New England wines?

CB: I don't like to impose a personal style on the wines that I make but rather have the wines reflect the qualities and characters that the vineyard gives them. Choosing and drinking wine is an intensely personal affair and with the 17 different wines that I make at Sakonnet, I give people choices and let them find their own style of wine that they like without intimidation or snobbery. Of course, I do make wines that I like to drink myself, too. What makes us proud at Sakonnet is to see consumers and critics appreciate our efforts with different wine styles, be it red or white, sparkling or dessert wine.