Ten rules of winemaking
According to Kaz
If you were to Google “Ten Rules for Making Great Wine,” and if—through some accident of electronic alchemy—the search engine delivered you to a winery Web site simply called “Kaz,” be forewarned the results on your screen would not necessarily be what you expected to see.
Presumably, you wouldn’t even get 10: you’d only get nine and a half. That’s part of the contrary, perversely rational, stubbornly eccentric personality that defines the viniculture of Richard Kasmier.
But just call him Kaz. It’s not clear he even knows another name. What he does know is a set of rules, or essential ingredients, for making very good wine. We might also add he has yet to post them on his Web site.
Kaz, once a commercial photographer in Southern California, discovered Sonoma Valley on an Oldsmobile shoot, fell in love with the land, bought two acres in Kenwood, planted some vines and began a weekly I-5 commute between his business and his passion. He made his first vintage in 1986 and entered the Orange County wine competition. That year he won bronze; the second year he won silver; the third, he garnered gold. Today he’s settled on the land, making about 1,500 cases of intensely personal, organic, idiosyncratic, and highly desirable wines.
Ask him how, and you get the Rules According to Kaz.
You could, of course, say terroir, but Kaz is more basic and less pretentious than that. “It starts with having the right soil makeup. You can manipulate the soil type, up to a point.” What’s the right kind of soil? Depends on the grape, of course, says Kaz. And the rain, and sun, and all the other rules.
Kaz is not in favor of irrigation, unless he absolutely has to. “I really rely on Mother Nature for as much liquid libation as the ground will take from November to April. In between I try to dry farm—this year will be a challenge.” Dry farming, he says, produces “a more intense flavor and a smaller crop.”
“We fertilize the vineyard in the fall, let it degrade into the soil and let it micronutrie-ize.” (Don’t bother looking it up; it’s not in the dictionary. It’s in Kaz’s head.) “I’m looking for something natural, not force-feeding with fertilizers. I put lots of biomass on the soil, and no Roundup.”
Response to sunshine is critical. “If I have low sun I’ll open up and take away leaves…thin the canopy and let the sun in to dry the buds. When you allow grapes more sunlight, you’ll get a deeper color. You want just enough, staying away
Kaz is not an oak-head. He uses wood sparingly. “Part of it is selecting the right oak barrels for the right type of wine. Two-by-four wines come (from) new oak. They hit you up the side of the head. By the third year (of use) the oak drops off (most barrels). After the fourth year it’s a neutral barrel. Those are the ones I like most. I just use them for the vessel. My wines are considered fruity as opposed to oaky. Some wines, I use a barrel 10 times.”
Kaz is the only full-time employee. Each season he hand-shovels 15 tons of grapes into his crusher and then the same 15 tons into his basket press.
Most of his wines are single batches from individual vineyard lots. “Whatever comes off the vineyard goes into that wine.”
Kaz doesn’t believe in “messing with the temperature.” He uses natural yeast, never adding sulfites. “It’s as natural as
you can get.”
Once you’ve crushed it and pressed it, Dr. Kaz prescribes a good, restorative snooze. “Let the wine sleep and rest.”
“Knowing how much time a wine needs,” says Kaz, is crucial. Not everyone knows how to read it. “Some wines need a lot less time than others. I’ve got a chardonnay that needs just three months” before bottling.
“You never know what’s going to come out,” Kaz confesses. He believes consistency is the curse of factory wines. “We’ll have a good year, we’ll have a bad year,” he admits, “sometimes it’s out of our hands.”
So much for the rules. How’s the wine?
I opened a bottle of “Red Said Fred,” a blend of 41 percent zinfandel, 24 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent merlot and 17 percent petite sirah. It did, in fact, taste very European. There were things going on inside. You swear you could taste the soil, but maybe that’s Kaz’s voice in your head. Still, at the cellular level of your taste buds, you find something fertile, evolutionary—limestone, volcanic ash, maybe manure? The wine makes you think, what was that? After we drank the rest of the bottle, my wife was wandering around the house muttering, where’s that Kaz stuff, huh? I would like some more.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA