Q+A with Winemaker Steve Matthiasson

Steve Matthiasson was perhaps the most in-demand viticulturist in Napa when he and his wife, Jill, decided to start their own wine label. The critics couldn’t withhold their excitement—and we can’t contain ours, with the Matthiasson White blend in our October wine selection. (And today, Steve’s unquestionably the most in-demand viticulturist in Napa.) We caught up with Steve in the middle of this year’s grape harvest to talk about one of his favorite subjects: gathering friends to eat, drink and be merry.

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How’s the 2017 harvest looking?

We’re picking multiple vineyards every single day right now. We’re doing our first red this Friday. After the last five years of drought we’re finally kind of back on track with normal ripening. It’s still three weeks early as compared to a decade ago, but we’re more in line with where we need to be.

After harvest ends and you and Jill start entertaining again, how do you select wines for your parties?

I think about who’s going to be there, and what they’d all be excited to try. For non-wine-industry parties, I keep it simple. At our end-of-year soccer party, for example, it’s just Cabernet.

For wine-industry people, I try and think about what everyone’s going to get a kick out of that they don’t taste every day. We once hosted for several winemakers and Jay McInerney from The Wall Street Journal, and the theme was all northeastern Italian wines.

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So you do have different plans for hosting wine geeks versus family, then?

Definitely. At Thanksgiving, for example, I work with my cousin-in-law, Coby, who collects as a consumer, and we strategize together since there are 20 relatives who attend. From there, you have to have a mix of whites and reds for the people who only drink one or the other. Then he and I raid our cellars for six bottles each. He brings the richer, buttery whites and fuller-bodied reds to keep people who love those wines happy, and I select the crisp, minerally whites and lighter reds for the other contingent. It’s always my personal mission to get people to open their minds a little, but you still need to have a good mix.

When people bring a bottle to your parties, do you save it or serve it then and there?

One of the great things about being in wine country is that at any party, there’s always a wine table—everybody brings a bottle. You just ask, “Where’s the wine table?” as you show up, and you can always count on a lot of interesting wines to try. It’s like a wine potluck.

Sometimes it’s really nice to bring two bottles: One for them to stash and one to serve now.

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When winemakers get together, do you all try to impress each other with your fanciest wines?

It’s definitely not about impressing. It’s about representing—bringing a bottle that’s special in some way, to you.

I learned this one year that Daniel Johnnes, the organizer of La Paulée, (the famous annual Burgundy tasting event), gave us tickets to the gala dinner. Everyone brings a bottle, and I traded a bunch of my wine for a $1,000 bottle of 1989 Burgundy to bring. A wine writer sitting across from us had brought a $50 bottle of Chablis—but it was well picked out. It wasn’t about price, it was about being thoughtful. The wine was real, handmade with intention. It was every bit as legit as the $1,000 bottle we brought.

What’s the easiest pairing to provide an “aha!” moment?

Pinot Noir and salmon. Also Merlot and lamb. Some of those classics are classics for a reason.

More generally, though, wines with more acidity pair with more foods, so a lot of times the “aha” moment is when people taste a wine and think it’s a little tart at first—and then the food comes out. When they try the two together, all of a sudden it all comes to life.

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What is the safest, most crowd-pleasing wine to serve at or bring to a party?

Just bring your favorite, because someone else is going to like it, too. If not, then you can’t go wrong with a bottle of something sparkling, especially Champagne. But if you found something that you think is really cool and want other people to try, definitely bring that.

Spritzers in summer, mulled wine in winter: Yes, or ultimate party-foul?

All ok in my book. I love mulled wine, and I love spritzers. Here in Napa we have our annual Grape Grower banquet in the summer, and it’s 80 degrees and everyone’s pouring Cabernet. I put ice in mine to make it more refreshing.

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