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 resourcefulness and creativity. It reminds of nature’s gift, beauty and our reliance on 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 must translate in bouquet, however we call on wine to do much more. At its best 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.
What does Bohème mean to you?
We took the name to signify both a place and a state of mind. The Bohemian Highway runs through Occidental. The name stems from the late 1800s when members of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco started an annual tradition of making a trip to a grove up here. It’s a very well-named road because it's a spiritual spot. To us Bohème means that you’re on your own path. Pinot noir as a variety is bohemian itself. It’s a test to grow and takes dedication to make well. When done right, it's amazing.
Why did you start making Pinot Noir?
I tend to procrastinate. There’s something about riding the edge in life, or sailing close to the wind. My farming and making Pinot is a manifestation of these tendencies. Pinot is fussy and finicky – both in its farming in the vineyard and fermentation. It’s risky. You have to love it to tolerate it in the first place. 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,” “edgy,” “risk-taking,” “independent,” “going beneath the surface.” To my mind, all people have something bohemian within themselves. If a person loves or has a heart and expresses it – that’s the essence of bohemian. To be in tune with the heart and have a conviction about what is real, and live it out.
What’s different about a bohemian wine?
It’s earthy, mysterious, vibrant. A great Pinot tells many stories. It’s evocative. It reminds you of wildflowers or your grandmother’s pie at Christmas or the smell of a saddle in sagebrush. When a wine is really good, it's evocative and connects you with great memories.
How is pinot demanding?
It’s a multi-faceted wine. It takes great care and devotion to bring the crop to ripeness; it’s definitely high-maintenance. For example, one strategy is to pull leaves around the grape clusters to help air circulation. We do this so that after a rain or heavy fog, the fruit will dry out quicker to prevent mold or fungal problems. But if you pull leaves too much, a hot day can come and the delicate Pinot grapes can sunburn or shrivel up to raisins. So we pull leaves only from the inside of the canopy – it’s an extra step. The upside to Pinot’s fickleness is that grapes respond very quickly to inputs. The next day after a good watering or pass like shoot thinning, they'll perk right up and grow or leaves will change color. They’re totally alive and responsive.
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 it’s not as finicky as Pinot, Chardonnay can be an artistic expression. Some winemakers believe it’s a winemaker’s grape, meaning that there are a lot of ways a winemaker can determine the character and outcome of the wine. If there are two recipes for pinot, there are 40 for chardonnay. If you want to intervene, there are great opportunities for that.
What’s unique about your approach?
We benefit from outstanding quality fruit. The longer period over which grapes ripen, the more interesting they become. Where we are, chardonnay grapes will hang longer, so we get the benefit of 2-3 extra weeks on the vine. We hope to achieve greater character and interest.
Where do you get your grapes?
We grow all our own grapes – about 20 acres of vineyard in three different places. We have a team of dedicated field hands. I’m constantly going around to the vineyards.
What do you like about that?
My interest in farming has changed over time. What I love about it is I really appreciate and admire a beautiful, well-kept vineyard. I love and want it to look like a garden. But it’s 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, whatever – it’s like the ultimate chess game. How do we move equipment and hands around to best utilize time and resources for the best outcome?
It sounds challenging.
It is – both intellectually and physically, it tests you. I think of it as a beautiful sport. It’s very intuitive. It’s similar to having street smarts. The skills that help me can be as simple as how to set up the implement on the tractor – what some would consider earthy, old-farmer skills. You have to get out there and get your hands dirty.
How did you get started making wine?
In 2000 I finished college and started working for my uncle, Chuck Wagner, managing a vineyard. I was very encouraged by both my uncle and grandfather to go into the wine business. Growing up I had a very strong bond with that part of my family. I came down every summer from where we lived in Oregon and worked at Caymus. I learned very much on my own. Right now I could totally devote myself to growing grapes alone – it’s a full job. I’ve been a farmer foremost. The winery side has become my challenge. It’s the question of how do I make wine well enough while running the vineyard?
Does growing the grapes make you better at making wine?
I think so. Wine starts with the grapes, of course. There’s a French word, vigneron – it means 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 various decisions, the better he gets at the craft. You can draw more connections. It means I can make decisions in the vineyard that help the wine and implement ideas more easily than a conventional vintner because the approach is cohesive and integrated.
Can you give an example?
I can optimize the quality of the fruit according to what I feel is important. Growers are often motivated to grow more fruit; winemakers want the highest quality. These two things are largely 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.
Do you think of yourself as a winemaker these days?
I find it tough to use labels because they're inherently inadequate. We all live diverse lives and do more than one thing. It's great to remember those who help us get where we're going, and not take all credit in a name, either. The wine industry is a tight group and it’s incredible how much people help one another out there.
Does making wine keep you humble?
I appreciate what control we have of the winemaking process, but the biology of plants and fermentation are beyond my comprehension. As humans we work to make sense of the natural world through science, but there’s still so much more. If our understanding were perfect we could forecast the future. The curveballs that come our way are a reminder that we’re stewards of the grape; we work with nature to create wine. This's why I’m not in love with calling our vocation wine-making.
How would you describe your point of view?
A bit laissez-faire. I love freedom. I aspire to be flexible and adaptable, and celebrate it. 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. This is in contrast to some that are subdued and modest wines, that are purported to be in balance. Perhaps some think riper-style wines are less regal; I'd rather not to be so dogmatic about wine. Balance is subject to the person or the moment. I love flavorful wines. And I believe in taking all sorts of risks, and allowing nature's great flavors to shine. I bite off more than I can chew, but things always work out.