Wine X Online Edition
Wine X caught up with one of most recognizable names in California wine, Donald Patz. Anyone who gets a semi-eponymous label clearly has earned a special place in the wine world, and Donald is in that very small fraternity. One of the four founders of long-time pinot benchmark Patz & Hall, Donald also spent time at other notable labels like Flora Springs and Girard.
I’m a fan of the old-school pinot guys who were all-in before the Sideways boom. No judgment zone on anyone who came after, but the old-schoolers helped to groom the “Miles pinotphiles” that made Sideways, well, Sideways. Donald is definitely one of the vanguards who made an early bet on both pinot and chardonnay. Cheers to that, right? Clank.
So today, Donald is a few years into that next chapter, and honestly, it’s a cool story. Three brands, three different wine personalities, each with their own story. Maritana Vineyards is producing some amazing chards and pinots, showcasing the Russian River AVA. Secret Door Winery is Donald’s elite, small production cabernet sauvignon that comes with a little romance. The third label, Terminim, is a Rhône-focused label, in partnership with Rhône vanguard François Villard.
Grab a glass, take a sip, close your eyes and imagine you’re joining our conversation, sitting on a barstool somewhere along 29, with a bottle or three between us.
Wine X: So, let’s go back to your time at Patz & Hall, and knock out the first question everyone will have right away: Tell us about your move from the business side and into winemaking.
Donald Patz: When Patz & Hall started in 1988, it was a group of four partners. James Hall was the winemaker at Honig, and I was doing well selling wine over at Flora Springs. Together, we realized we had the skills to do something pretty cool. We started Patz & Hall as a collaboration, and yeah, there was a lot of great energy from all of us. All of us were…..well….. pretty engaged. There were times that it felt like four attorneys in a room…. you know…. at least eight opinions. (Smiling and laughing) Seriously, there was a lot of positive energy, and a lot of learning from each other as we built the Patz & Hall brand. We each contributed our own creativity. That’s how I learned the styles of winemaking that I knew would make a product I’d personally enjoy. In 2016 we sold Patz & Hall to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and that opened up a new opportunity for me. I left Patz & Hall in April of 2017, but I knew I had some things I wanted to contribute to the wine industry. So starting on May 1, 2017, I went about doing that.
Wine X: Is it weird to see your name on the label of a wine you’re not involved with?
Donald Patz: It’s kind of an interesting situation, isn’t it?
Wine X: I mean, for me it would be….
Donald Patz: You know, it is funny to walk through a store and then glance over and see the label. I’ve even caught myself typing my name, reaching for the ampersand…. (laughing) but truthfully, I’ve been so busy since I left Patz & Hall that I haven’t had the time to think about it. It’s really great to see them continuing to be successful.
Wine X: Obviously, you have the eye & mind of a marketer. As a pinot guy back then, I have to believe that you were fascinated watching it suddenly become the “cool kid” of wines, especially after Sideways.
Donald Patz: I love pinot! We can talk more about that later. But to answer your question, there’s certainly a fashion element to wine. That was the case with pinot back then, and it influenced the styles of pinot that became popular afterward. “What’s the cool thing to do” will always be a part of the wine industry. We all want to make wines that meet people where they are. So, fast forward to present day: When I started this new chapter of my life, I knew I wanted make wines that I like to drink, but they also had to be sellable. I imagined wines I would pour for others while hosting them in my home, and watch their “wow” expression. The bottom line is that these are all bottles I’ll drink every night at my place. And I do.
Wine X: So, tell me about each of the three labels then. Start with Maritana.
Donald Patz: With Maritana, well, the world doesn’t need Patz & Hall 2.0. That’s where I started. I wanted Maritana to be different. Like I said before, over time I formed an idea of the pinot and chards that I personally liked to drink. So that’s what I made. My goal was to pick the grapes and go straight through to fermentation without fiddling with it. No acid additions, no water. Let’s talk about chardonnay first. We use Russian River grapes. That means we’re talking about a little bit lower sugar, and lower alcohol. That brought me to decide to use fewer new barrels. I find that Russian River chards don’t absorb new oak in a way that lets the pretty flavor profile of the Russian River chardonnay to shine. So, for our chard, we’re probably using only 5% or 10% new barrels. With the older barrels, we are framing that really pretty, distinctive Russian River flavor that you just don’t get anywhere else. It’s a beautiful wine.
Wine X: Now the pinot……?
Donald Patz: Pinot is all about aromas. I mean, come on….Pinot is the sexiest smell when you get it right. There’s times when I’ll be walking through a restaurant and will smell what I think is perfect perfume. Then I’ll realize that it’s a pinot being poured nearby. To achieve that sexiness, I do a few things. Again, I’m going after lower alcohols so that the wine has a freshness about it. Also, I don’t really worry about the color. That’s up to the grapes. Finally, I use a lot of whole cluster. Maritana is using about 50% whole cluster. When it all comes together, what I’m seeing is a wine that really shines, with ethereal aromatics. I can tell that the grapes we are getting are giving us something really special.
Wine X: You love pinot, I mean I do too….I get it…. But your second label is a cab? Isn’t that a cardinal sin? Let’s go there….
Donald Patz: OK there’s a story…. But first, let me say, I love Cab. I’ve always loved it! I think most pinot guys would say the same, honestly. But here’s the story. When I met my wife, she was living in Virginia and not exactly ready to move to the West Coast. While we were dating, she let me know that, as much as she tried, she wasn’t a pinot fan. She liked Bordeaux styles instead. So, during our courtship, I promised that, if she was willing to move to California, I would make her a cab. Secret Door is my fulfilled promise to my wife.
Wine X: They’re spectacular cabs
Donald Patz: Thanks. I thought I would make one cab and declare victory, but here I am with three now. The first one is from Hirondelle Vineyard. It’s right at the base of the Stags Leap outcropping and, well, it’s an amazing vineyard. Beautiful. Every time I’m there, I take a selfie because I can’t believe how incredible that place is. So, we started with Hirondelle. But not long after, I got a call about a vineyard up Stage Canyon Road, up in the mountains to the east of St Helena. So, confession: I’m learning that I need to avoid looking at new vineyard opportunities because, well, I’m like a dog lover walking up on someone giving away golden retriever puppies. (laughs). I figured out that I’d better stop going to look at available vineyards or else I would end up with a lot more. Sage Ridge Vineyard runs along a ridgeline and is grouped into cool, garden-sized parcels. It’s a pretty cool drive. So, after seeing it, of course, we had to have a small parcel from Judy Jordan’s property….. and we’re grateful to get to work with them. The Hirondelle and Sage Ridge bottles form the basis of Secret Door. We also have a third bottle at Secret Door . It’s a second label using grapes from other Napa sources, but we produce it in the exact same program and standards as our two hallmark cabs. We wanted a restaurant-focused cab that would be ready to drink today. We decided to bottle those grapes under a label that bears my wife’s initials JML. It’s a great wine and it will continue to mature into a pretty cab.
Wine X: The cabs. Help me get my head around each of their personalities?
Donald Patz: Sure. Let’s start with the Hirondelle. It’s really elegant and polished. Think black tie gala. There’s a strength to the wine, matched with a very beautiful element. If I was going to make a wine for my wife, I wanted it to come from an amazing part of the valley. That was the point of the promise, right? And that’s what we’ve done with this wine. Hirondelle doesn’t lack strength or intensity, but there is also an elegance in all of the wines from Stags Leaps. I love working with those grapes. Now let’s talk about the mountain wine from Sage Ridge. It’s a little unruly and BIG. There’s the intensity of the tannin that makes you think about a friend that is a little crazy. You know. Everyone has one. The one you always want to calm down a little before you let him in the house. Big, muscular, and full of energy. The Sage Ridge vineyards are planted around a bunch of sage laurels, and to me, I can pick up on the aromatics of the area when I have a glass. When you sip, you feel like you’re up there hanging out. Hirondelle and Sage Ridge are really are almost opposites, but both are truly incredible. We aren’t making the wines differently. Everything is about the grapes and the place.
Wine X: Drool-worthy. OK tell me about your third Label, Terminim.
Donald Patz: I was happy with two labels. Secret Door fulfilled a promise to my wife. Maritana is obviously in my sweet spot of the things I know really well, and it leverages the strength of my long association with the pinot and chard vineyards I love. I was good. Then that plan changed on accident. Here’s what happened: I made a call to a friend at Aspen Food & Wine just to check in. As we were talking about Maritana and Secret Door, he shares with me that he was sitting by François Villard… and while there, François shares with my friend that he wanted to do another project in California. OK………. I’m thinking to myself that Rhônes were a complete mystery to me, and obviously I’d just gotten out of a partnership. So, I wondered at first. But I jumped in. François is a lot of fun to work with and together we were able to find a vineyard that would work with us on the Rhônes we needed. Actually, it was a vineyard that, in the old Patz & Hall days, we would often purchase grapes from called Alder Springs Vineyard. It’s up in Mendocino. When François and I first visited Alder Springs, François started getting excited about the Marsanne and Roussanne, almost giddy running though the rows of vines……and sure enough before you knew it, we were making some…… I thought we’d dabble in some of the standard Rhônes, but those vineyards took us in a wider direction. That vineyard is what really makes Terminim special. It simply produces amazing fruit, and that makes extraordinary wines. In the bottle, the wines are an even mix of both François’ and my sensibilities. They’re great bottles and it’s a really fun project. At home, I find myself drinking the Syrah as much as anything. It’s a really nice wine.
Wine X: So “Terminim” …….is there a hidden meaning here? Is this the last new label?
Donald Patz: (Laughing) We’ll see. Like I said before, I just need to stop visiting awesome vineyards. I need to turn my cell phone off!
Wine X: You’ve been doing this so long, and successfully too. A lot of people would have hung it up after the sale to Ste. Michelle. But you didn’t. So, what’s your “why”?
Donald Patz: There’s as much emotion involved in these kinds of decisions as anything else. Think about a successful rock & roll band that decides to break up. Then think about the musicians that, afterward, decided to go solo to prove that they can do it on their own. The other thing that influenced me is this: I love California wine. I’m a big advocate of everyone in the game here. This is what I know and what I’ve dedicated my entire life to. I wasn’t ready to quit. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish; I knew where to get the resources to do it… and, of course, I still had an open promise to my wife. Taken together, it made for a strong pull to do something amazing. There’s something really satisfying that comes from getting to know the vineyard owners, and talking about what they are seeing…… building those relationships while you walk the vines, looking at the grapes through the whole growing season, and then moving the grapes on to harvest and on to fermentation. It’s all the science and art behind the craft. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but it’s incredibly satisfying. I guess I’m just that horse that is unwilling to go back to the barn.
Wine X : OK….. you knew I’d ask sooner or later….. Why mess around with three different brands?
Donald Patz: Well, I needed to come up with a different brand anyway, other than my own name. Right? I mean, let’s start right there. The other thing is this: I’ve learned along the way, just being practical, that restaurateurs tend want no more than one or MAYBE two of a label on their wine list. There’s that. So, I have three different labels, right? That’s a good strategy. But setting that aside, these really are three totally different projects, with three different personalities. It’s a lot liken having three different kids. It’s great to think of them and grow them individually. When I get into my truck and drive to see the Terminim fruit, all I’m thinking about are the Rhône wines. It’s the same for my days in Stags Leap and when I’m up at Sage Ridge Vineyard. All I’m thinking about is cabernet on those days. That’s our work philosophy: to give all of our attention to one at a time. That allows each of these labels to become the best that they can be, separate from each other. Honestly, I think they deserve to be separate.
Wine X: It’s easy to be seduced by pinot. We both are. It’s spiritual. In all that you’re doing now, have you found anything that approaches the spiritual feeling you get from pinot?
Donald Patz: Absolutely. Each one of these wines has something magical about them. The Rhônes….. working with François………we’ve really made something impressive. I’ve poured the Syrah for groups and then seen the expression on my guests faces. Syrah, in its own way, is romantic. If I hadn’t done pinot, now knowing what I know, I could totally see myself making a life out of fully exploring the diversity of Syrah. It has an exotic, bacon fat, subtle ground pepper, earthy complexity that …. man…. when you get it right…… it’s extraordinary. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if Syrah had risen to popularity in California earlier? Who knows. The white has been equally fun. And the Cab, look, if there is a grape that is made for the Napa Valley, it’s cabernet sauvignon. When I got to do cab on my own, my palate brought me back to the cabs I enjoyed in the 70’s. The ones that I first fell in love with. Being able to make cabs that connected me to those memories was really meaningful to me. It made me truly love the spiritual side of cabernet. No doubt.
Wine X: Outsider looking in, it’s been a pretty cool ride.
Donald Patz: I would have never had the chance to do any of this had I not been involved with Patz & Hall first. Our success, and then sale gave me the ability to start fresh, on my own, with a lot of my own convictions on what I still wanted to contribute to California wines. I love drinking the wines we produce here. Yeah, you’re right. It’s been a cool ride.
You can find Maritana, Terminim, Secret Door, and JML at better wine merchants and restaurants across the country. But just a warning, some of these bottles are getting harder and harder to find as oenophiles connect the dots, find a review, or get a recommendation. That’s especially the case for Secret Door……. so you might save yourself the trouble and go right to Donald Patz Wine Group online and shop directly or join their club so that you can earmark a bottle or two. I did…….