Bob Pepi: California Flair at CWC
Bob Pepi (left) tasting varietals and blends with Canyon Wind Cellars owner/winemaker Jay Christianson (right).
My Canyon Wind Cellars blog theme for 2015 will be delving into the winemaking processes and behind-the-scenes operations at our Western Colorado estate winery. There is a story behind every bottle that you purchase from our winery. You might think that every wine starts at the vine, but I would argue that it starts with human thoughts. Winemakers conjure visions for a winery and certain lines of wines they want to produce. These visions will influence what grape varietals the winemakers purchase and plant; and even before that, it can influence what land they choose to nurture their vines. And extensive consideration is put into the winemaking process itself.
When Norman and Ellen Christianson first started Canyon Wind Cellars, Norman was confident in his geological expertise to guide him to find the right vineyard location (which has certainly proven true!), and they were both passionate enough about wine to take on the enormous endeavor of starting a winery. But they recognized the need for some experienced help in setting up the winery and beginning winemaking. Norman had been working with viticulturist Rich Thomas during Canyon Wind Cellars’ inception, and he asked if he would be willing to help him with winemaking. Rich said no, but he knew that renowned Napa Valley winemaker Bob Pepi had just sold his winery, Robert Pepi Winery, in 1994 and he might have some time to help.
Norman called Bob and asked if he would be willing to consult for him, and Bob said that he had just retired and was no longer in the wine business. However, in January 1995, Norman unexpectedly ran into Bob at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show in California (it seems Bob was not as retired as he had implied!). They ended up planning out the future of Canyon Wind Cellars together while writing on a napkin, and that is when Bob Pepi became our consultant wine maker.
Bob began by helping plan building arrangements and equipment placement as the winery structures were being built during this time. Norman and Ellen had begun planting the vineyard in 1991, but the winery building was completed in 1995, and the warehouse and underground barrel cellar were later added in 2000. Initially, Bob was making frequent trips from California to advise the Christiansons on all elements of viticulture (the growing of wine grapes) and winemaking. Eventually Bob’s trips to Canyon Wind became less frequent as Norman and Ellen became more proficient. After Jay and Jennifer Christianson took over ownership and winemaking in 2009, Bob Pepi started making an annual visit to the winery for what I like to call their annual blending jam session, usually in January or February.
Wine Blending Chemistry Set: Beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, graduated cylinders, and wine of course!
I sat in on part of their time together last week, and it involves a lot of wine, Erlenmeyer flasks, graduated cylinders, stemware, deep concentration, and repetition. Bob is friendly, soft-spoken, unassuming, a little scatter-brained (perhaps a symptom of being semi-retired?), tanned, and sports salt-and-pepper hair and a beard. Jay, Jennifer, and Bob take samples of all of the wines from our barrels, talk about how much they have of each varietal (or blends, in the case of co-fermentations) and how they have been oaked, talk about the flavors and aromas present, evaluate how growing conditions and seasonal variations may have influenced them, and compare opinions of the wines and what they may do with them this year. Bob starts pouring different percentages of different varietals into graduated cylinders, pours the resulting blend into a glass, passes it around for tasting, and opinions are voiced. Sometimes he makes two different blends at a time, keeps the blends secret, and just labels them #1 and #2. He gives them to Jay and Jennifer and asks if they prefer #1 or #2—it amused me to think it was like an eye doctor asking which lens is clearer, and sometimes the difference between two blends is that small.
Jay and Jennifer are skilled winemakers, but it helps to have an additional resource of sage wisdom with decades of winemaking experience like Bob. During his annual visit, they also walk the vineyard and discuss how the vines are developing, future vineyard plans, and any proactive changes that should be made. During the rest of the year, Jay and Jennifer always have the option of calling Bob for a third opinion of when to harvest a particular varietal or to evaluate lab results from a wine sample. Bob Pepi has likely influenced almost every Canyon Wind Cellars wine that you have enjoyed.
Click here for additional information about Bob, Jay, Jennifer, Norman, and Ellen.