Spotlight on a Winemaker: Steve Peck

by Keith Hoffman

I sat down for three great hours with Steve Peck, red winemaker, on the J. Lohr Vineyards deck all the way through a setting Paso sun. We tasted some of the whites, which he does not oversee, and the reds, which he does. What a likeable gent. I stole a whole evening from him, and he was perfectly gracious, engaging, and simply a great guy to hang out with.

Steve brings a biotechnology background to his wine crafting and I bring the same to my wine drinking. Needleless to say, we hit it off. A lot of our discussion centered on the unique challenges of producing wines in the style I prefer, acid-driven and “Old World,” in what is a very warm and decidedly New World growing region.

Mr. Peck, being keen on keeping pesky pyrazines compounds (which impart a “green” flavor I find particularly disagreeable) from developing in his cabernet sauvignon employs interns whose sole job is to run around taking exact water measurements from 2,000 acres of vines. Their tireless data collection feeds into a complex irrigation program designed to keep pyrazines from accumulating.

We tasted a quiver of fine wines, and a few of the highlights included: the 2011 “Fogs Reach” pinot which had a solid acid pop, nice black tea notes, and an extended finish, I’m sure she’d be a great “food wine” ($35); the 2010 merlot which showed nice, lightly smoked, dark plum skin and red apple aromas with nice balance and a cranberry bite on her close ($15); Quality to Price Ratio (QPR) stalwarts, the 2004 and 2010 Hilltop cabernets with deep cassis and blackcherry flavors, multiple wood layers, and firm, but approachable tannins ($35 each); and finally, a simply amazing QPR, the 2008 Hilltop cabernet with plum skins, forest floor, crushed leaves, and big blackcherry and boysenberry flavors with a long mineral and tobacco close for just $35.

J. Lohr stats: 1,300,000 cases annually, owners of 2,000 acres of vines in Paso, and another 1,100 in Monterey.  Big, yes. Do their wines taste like mass production? No.

Let’s get to know more about Steve, below…


1. What were you before you were a winemaker?
I was only 19 years old on my initial foray into professional winemaking. Prior to that I guess I was just a teenage punk. Today, I wonder why I spent 15 years in biotech research before returning to my winemaking career 12 years ago. I have a tendency to do things the hard way.

2.  If you weren't a winemaker you'd most likely be a?
Biotech researcher making wine in my garage.

3.  Happiest moment(s) during the wine crafting process (besides “finishing”)?
When I taste my first sip of Seven Oaks after bottling.

4.  Worst moment(s)?
Making grape harvest decisions when the weather is bad... Whether it's rain, a heat wave, or frost, it can be seriously stressful.

5. For the rest of your wine-crafting days, if you could only make wine from one red grape variety what would it be?
I have a thing for malbec.

6. For the rest of your wine-crafting days, if you could only make wine from one white grape variety what would it be?
Give me a life sentence of Chardonnay and I would be a happy man.

7.  First wine-related thing you think about when you wake up, monthly, during the year.
January = Christmas break was great, but why haven't these wines all finished fermentation? Maybe I should have played it safe and picked sooner?
February = Under pressure, gotta get Seven Oaks out of barrels and headed toward the bottling line.
March = Hilltop cab is coming along nicely. Glad I let everything get super ripe.
April = Please no frost in the vineyard this year!
May = How am I supposed to make wine when I'm traveling to events and hosting visitors daily at the winery?
June = How are the Cuvee's coming along? Maybe we should give 'em a rack before bottling next month...
July = Why are all these yeast salesmen calling me? Harvest is a long ways off.
August = Better get out in the vineyard to taste fruit before it gets too hot out.
September = Son of a gun! Syrah is ripe and we don't even have any yeast on hand.
October = Hmm... If I slept with my work cloths under my pajamas, I bet I could get out of my bed and into the vineyard to taste the blocks 6 minutes earlier.
November = Complex anthocyanin, total phenolics, parts per million, tannin, temperature, punch down, pump over, free run, light press…. multiplex of thoughts.
December = Nothing like the smell of malo in the morning!

8.  Of all the winemaking tasks you currently perform, what one do you wish you had a capable intern doing instead of you?
Nursing sluggish fermentations.

9.  What, if any, liquor do you enjoy neat?
Cognac XO, grande champagne hillside.

10.  If you had to pair a wine with a mild cigar, what grape or style would you suggest?
A big, lush petite sirah.

11. What is your biggest gripe about the wine, and/or adult beverage, industry in general?
I don't lose sleep over this, but I find it interesting that our labeling requirements for wine are so strict, that many producers actually print all the required "front" label information on the "back" and then place the bottle backwards on the shelf to display their artwork or brand image forward. Tricky marketers.

12. What did you drink to ring in the last new year?
Champagne with oysters.

13.  If you somehow knew fate, and that you only had one more bottle to enjoy before you died, what wine would you pick?
I would pull out the 1983 carignan I made with my uncle in Santa Cruz.

14.  If you could no longer work in the AVAs you currently do, where would be your top AVA relocation choice?
I think the SF Bay has a lot of potential. Areas like San Benito county.

15.  How long do you let your purchased wines rest after they have been delivered?
Usually a month or so.

16. Please list a few words to describe Mega Purple / Mega Red.
Red grape concentrate used in an attempt to elevate hot climate wine to coastal quality.

17. What is your favorite beer(s), and why?
Belgian white beers are nice. Creamy, with lower carbonation

18. Your favorite cocktail(s), and why?
Campari with soda or tonic. I like a drink that bites back.

19.  Choose one or more of the following to describe vacuum aerators and similar apparatus.A. Gimmicks.B. Useful, have a positive effect on the wine above and beyond what decanting can accomplish. C. Same effect as decanting, just quicker.
Answer: C

20.  Choose one or more of the following to describe metal dipping devices and similar apparatus advertised to almost instantly “age” wine. A. Gimmicks. B. Useful, have a positive effect on the wine above and beyond what decanting can accomplish. C. Same effect as decanting, just quicker.
Answer: A

21.  Have any wine / food pairing(s) that seem odd, but really work?
I love our Pinot Noir with Lindt Chili infused chocolate. Sounds weird, I know, but really nice.

22. What is your definition of terroir?
Soil, weather, people and their choices.

23. Your favorite single word relating to the wine making, not selling, business is

24.  What work do you suppose you will do after your final wine is made?
Unpaid beach activity coordinator.

25. If you could give any beginning wine drinkers one sentence of advice, what would it be?
Wine is part of the meal.

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