We at Bohème devote our lives to growing one of life’s great pleasures: wine from California’s North Coast. Our namesake Bohemian Highway meanders Sonoma’s coast range of redwoods, creeks and farms. Tending vines in these hills is a daily blessing that inspires creativity and resourcefulness. It reminds of nature’s gift and beauty, and our reliance it.
Wine is more than a product of nature; it’s a human creation and the artistic expression of its maker. The landscape of our vineyards is expressed in bouquet and flavor, however we call on our wine to do much more. We hope that it intrigues, incites and brings loved ones together.
We hope Bohème graces your table in such a way, and we thank you for supporting our venture.
Vintner-Owner, Kurt Beitler Q&A
What does Bohème mean to you?
Bohème suggests both a place and a state of mind. The Bohemian Highway runs through our town, Occidental, on the Sonoma Coast of California. The road's name stems from the late 1800s when Bohemian Club members trekked to a nearby redwood grove for their summer encampment. It's a well-named road: the area surrounding Bohemian highway has always inspired artistic expression and free living. Hand-crafted wine is itself bohemian and – when done well – is amazing.
Why did you start making Pinot Noir?
It was serendipitous. In 2000 my uncle, Chuck Wagner, charged me with farming his Pinot vineyard near Occidental. I was drawn to growing first for its diversity and richness as a vocation. I love machines and being outside, and was hungry to learn about growing grapes. I later had an epihony about the sensational wines that surrounded me. Right then the place I already loved (Sonoma Coast) took on a deeper appeal.
Also, I've got the tendency of sailing a bit close to the wind that I've never been able to shake. My papers were always turned in at the last minute and my bike rides always end as the sun's setting. Making Pinot is a manifestation of that behavior. Pinot is finicky and somewhat uncontrollable. Like a lover you must be passionate about it to forgive and embrace its shortcomings. But it can show profound beauty, that is unique in nature. You might even say that to grow pinot noir requires a certain type of spirit.
What type? What’s a bohemian spirit?
The words that come to mind are “individual,” “artistic,” “virtue.” All people have something bohemian within. If a person loves or expresses their heart – that’s the essence of bohemian. To be in tune with the heart, to know that in a feeling is wisdom, to live according to what you alone know is real, is a bohemian spirit.
What’s different about a bohemian wine?
This is subjective and mystical, but one could say it’s earthy, mysterious, vibrant. A great Pinot tells stories and is evocative. It can remind you of wildflowers, or grandma’s pie, the scent of a Christmas tree, or the smell of rain in sagebrush. When a wine is really good, it's brings about feelings and can connect you with memories.
How is Pinot demanding?
It takes great care to bring the crop to ripeness; it’s delicate and high-maintenance. For example, a strategy in grape growing is to pluck leaves from around the clusters to help air circulate through the canopy. This is done so that after a rain or heavy fog, fruit will dry and prevent mold. But if too many leaves are pulled and the delicate Pinot grapes are over-exposed, intensely sunny days can cause sunburn or shrivelling to raisins. So in one vineyard we learned to pull leaves mostly from the inside of the canopy for good circulation yet dappled sunlight. It's the right balance for that vineyard and site.
The upside to Pinot’s fickleness is that grapes respond quickly to inputs. The day following a good watering or shoot-thinning pass, vines will perk up and leaves will turn darker green. They’re totally alive and responsive. Working closely with the vines helps us learn their nuance, how best to tend them.
What about Chardonnay – what do you love about it?
The wine I’m trying to make is vibrant and alive. It has refreshing acidity combined with a symphony of fruit. It’s complex – it also tells many stories. While not as finicky as Pinot, Chardonnay is very much an artistic expression. Some believe it’s a "winemaker’s grape," meaning a winemaker can more easily determine the outcome or character of the wine. If there are three recipes for Pinot, there are 40 for Chardonnay. If you want to intervene, there are many opportunities for that.
What’s unique about your approach?
We benefit from outstanding quality vines, mostly dry farmed, and petite-berried Wente clone, with yields of typically 1 - 1.5 tons per acre. With grapes ripening 2-3 extra as they do on the coast, we hope to achieve greater character and interest.
I also like stirring the barrels every 1-2 weeks - lifting lees for texture - and delaying addition of SO2 till some months following Malolactic Fermentation. Fermentations and aging must run clean to prevent volatile acidity issues, but we then realize the benefits in viscosity and diacetyl that matched the bright coastal fruit. Our best Chardonnays have been done this way.
Where do you get your grapes?
We grow all our own – about 20 acres of vineyard in three different places. We have a team of dedicated hands. I’m constantly going around to the vineyards and deciding how best to coordinate jobs and utilize resources.
What do you like about that?
My interest in farming has changed over time. I love the challenge of keeping beautiful, well-tended vineyards that looks like gardens. The vines should produce excellent fruit and also make a majestic view for our guests and neighbors. But it's always a moving target. You have your own idea of how you want it to look, but because Mother Nature is ever-changing – storms, hot weather, and so forth – it’s like the ultimate chess match. How do we move hands and time cultural practices for the best outcome?
It sounds challenging.
Yes, it tests you both intellectually and physically. I think of it as a beautiful sport that becomes intuitive over time. The skills that help in the field can be as simple as how to tune a tractor implement or optimize a vine's shoot count on a rocky hillside, next to healthier soil that supports a denser canopy.
How did you get started making wine?
I came down every summer from where we lived in Oregon and stayed with my grandparents at Caymus in Rutherford. I'd do all sorts of jobs around the winery and take motorbike rides in the vineyard. Later on I was encouraged by my uncle and grandfather to get into the wine business. In 2000 I finished college and started working for my uncle, Chuck Wagner, managing his vineyard near Occidental. I learned very much on my own.
Does growing the grapes make you better at making wine?
For sure it does. Wine starts with the grapes, of course. French use the word, vigneron – meaning someone who grows grapes for wine making. The best reason would be cause and effect. In any profession, the more attuned one becomes with outcomes from decisions, the better he gets at the craft. More connections can be drawn. We can more easily make decisions or implement ideas in the vineyard that help the wine because our operations are integrated.
Grape growing is a fulltime job but fine wine craft is of equal importance and intrigue. Fermentation, aging and blending have myriad opportunities for exploration at every winery.
Can you give an example?
I can optimize the quality of the fruit according to what I personally feel is important. Growers are often motivated to grow more fruit; winemakers always want highest quality. These two things are often at odds. We’ll drop fruit or trim off parts of clusters which can take lots of time but enables the best quality and uniformity of the crop. As growers we also know what's a needless or "foolish" use of resource - when a diminishing return for quality is reached.
Do you think of yourself as a winemaker these days?
It's tough to use titles as they're often inadequate. Yes, I'm a winemaker, but not all of the time, because I do other things too! We all live diverse lives and meet all sorts of demands in the workplace.
Does making wine keep you humble?
It can. I appreciate what control we have of the winemaking process, but the biology of plants and fermentation have so many details, they can be humbling. As humans we work to make sense of the natural world through science - and control risk - but it's a healthy reminder that people have made wine for thousands of years, and we needn't always complicate it.
Curveballs inevitably come our way but we’ll always be stewards of the grape; we work with nature to create wine. To keep a clean winery and build on solid fermentation principles is an approach that has served me well.
How would you describe your point of view?
A bit laissez-faire; I love freedom. I aspire to be flexible and adaptable, and celebrate nature's randomness. I don’t have a pre-set destination in mind. The destination is to do something I love and am satisfied with. I’m not a control freak. Some of that is because of the mystery of the grapes – you can’t control them. It’s rather big-headed to think one could set a system for something so complicated. And it can limit you.
What’s your winemaking philosophy?
I aim for wines that are very flavorful – those are the wines I admire – aromatically beautiful, engaging, lovable wines. They can come in many forms. This is in contrast to some that are overtly subdued or modest, that are purported to be in balance. I'd rather not to be so dogmatic about what's regal. Balance is subject to the person or the moment. I love flavorful, structured wines and I believe in allowing nature's flavors to shine brightly.