Dierberg Vineyards Winemaker Tyler Thomas describes California’s Central Coast as “defined by opportunity” – a perspective he’s gleaned through experience paying attention to what he’s learned along the way.
Thomas started his career in Central Coast with a harvest job at Fiddlehead Cellars and though his journey included time working in Sonoma, he’s neatly back in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley – making wine for Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards since 2013.
Central Coast, Quickly
Central Coast runs from the San Francisco Bay southward along the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara County. Data shows that this region pushes out around 15% of California’s wine production including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Rhône varietals, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the list goes on. If variety reflects the playfulness of opportunity, this scope handshakes with Thomas.
Central Coast includes some of today’s most exciting and interesting AVAs: Livermore Valley, Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Benito County, San Francisco Bay, San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County, Santa Clara Valley, and Santa Cruz Mountains. As lists go, this one screams compelling.
I spoke with Thomas in late 2017. During the conversation, he consistently referred back to lessons he’s learned from others, either his impressions of how things should be done or his understanding that most things should be questioned.
His outlook on work seems to reflect his outlook on Central Coast – a backbone of opportunity to explore and discover. In other words, an opportunity to learn. Here are some of the leading thoughts on learning that Thomas shared with me.
Stéphane Vivier, HDV Wines
Vivier is the Head Winemaker at HDV Wines, otherwise known as Hyde de Villaine, the highly-regarded collaboration of the Hyde Family of Napa Valley and the de Villaine Family of Burgundy. Thomas worked as Assistant Winemaker at HDV, finding texture in the balance of California and French influence.
“Wine is tied to culture, things we desire and value aren’t necessarily lined up with other cultures. What you value and desire is made up by your culture,” says Thomas. Integration of places and people doesn’t necessarily create an amalgamated product, nor does it create a product that will be received in the same way by all who consume.
This becomes particularly interesting in an environment such as Central Coast where there is “less pressure to do things a certain way,” shares Thomas. “We can tinker and play,” Thomas says that in Central Coast they can inquire within about their culture by asking, “What is our true nature down here?”.
Mark A. Matthews, Professor of Viticulture at University of California, Davis
Thomas worked and studied with Matthews as he earned his master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis. Matthews made a deep impression with what Thomas calls his “contrariness”, which Thomas views as a call to arms for critical thinking.
Matthews is the author of Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing (University of California Press, 2015) – a book that puts science and data in the driver’s seat of grape-growing and the winemaking and drinking process that inevitably follows. Working with Matthews, says Thomas, taught him to take a balanced approach when pursuing both terroir and technique. He admires Matthews’s ability to be, “dogmatic about not being dogmatic”.
“Winemakers tend to assume that our actions are always good,” said Thomas. He rhetorically asks, “is method a layer or an impact?” when it comes to using interventions such as oak and punch-downs. I asked Thomas if restraint was essential to evoke place in a single-site wine – he admits that “better vineyards are better” and that winemakers are indeed “managing a process that would go on without [the winemaker]. We have to remember our role is not that of the prime mover.”
Thomas applies what he learned from Matthews with a beautifully curious slant. He’s not out to debunk anyone else’s way of doing things – be that maker or drinker – but his application of honest and constant critical thinking keeps his winemaking fresh.
“Traditions are there for a reason,” Thomas said. But when they are “abused, the pendulum swings the other way because people want to reject [the abuse].”
His French Grandmére
I asked Thomas about young people and wine – each of us the parent of teenagers who show a nascent interest in learning about the stuff. Thomas remembers that his French grandmother had wine around, but doesn’t recall a method for introducing the kids to wine (ie, dampening wine with water).
What he does remember is the sense of place she created when she cooked for her family, the “sense of community” that she cultivated when she prepared the Thomas Meal. Interestingly, Thomas shared with me that it was the scents of his grandmother’s home that still held nostalgic sway and that he could draw up the setting by aromatic memory, including the “room where the dog peed” – and don’t we all recall places such as that?
Thomas says he still has the bottle that stood on her bureau, a Graves that he requested for himself after she passed away. That and crystal cordial glasses. A bottle of improperly stored Graves isn’t a goldmine, but it is a heritage, a recognizably important stitch in what makes Thomas who he is today.
Thomas’s son recently turned 13 – a golden age of “benchmarks into the initiation of manhood”. To celebrate the occasion, Thomas gave his son his first undiluted pour, a bottle of HDV from his birth year, trickling the sense of heritage onward.
Wines to Try
2014 Dierberg Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley (SRP $32): A Chardonnay with some oak action, 14 months in 15% new French oak – this makes a prime example of the ready skill employed by Thomas. A thriving varietal for the region, this is also a lovely introduction to the Santa Maria Valley.
2014 Dierberg Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (SRP $44): Concentrated, tenderly-packed with red fruit and openly complex, we enjoyed a bottle of this wine with a dinner of roasted, herbal veggies, potatoes, and chicken. Food-friendly to a sip.
2014 Dierberg Drum Canyon Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir (SRP $52): Thomas and I discussed Drum Canyon vineyard and soil. “Soil is so complex,” said Thomas “you will observe that soil is making the difference, which we accept as a source for potential variation, but also, it’s just what we have.” The soil here is rockier, loamier – delivers “complex aromatics delivered on a finely textured wine,” said Thomas.