Food & Drink

Golden Anniversaries in 2018 Include Jed Steele’s as a California Winemaker

Jed Steele: “At the end of the day, please the customer.”
Jed Steele: “At the end of the day, please the customer.”

Brace yourself for a year of 50th anniversary commemorations. That was some year, 1968, which for the most part will be remembered darkly, largely for war and assassination.

But it did have its positive milestones, such as the first manned flight around the moon and the first interracial kiss on American television (“Star Trek”).

The California wine trade also had its bright moments. Napa Valley alone stood out in several respects. For one, 1968 in Napa Valley is seen as perhaps the first great vintage of the modern winemaking era in California. “Cabernets of 1968 would make California wine history in years to come,” wrote wine historian Charles L. Sullivan in his book “Napa Wine: A History.”

Secondly, Napa County officials in 1968 adopted landmark zoning restrictions crucial to protecting the valley’s vineyards.

And in Napa Valley in 1968, Jed Steele got introduced to winemaking. He has been at it ever since. Over the past 50 years no California winemaker may have introduced more consumers to more variations of fine wine than Jed Steele. This past year, as I scanned through my wine-related notebooks and clippings for the previous four decades, I sensed that I’d recommended more wines by Jed Steele than any other vintner, several from his early years as winemaker at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, then over the past 25 years as winemaker for his own Jed Steele Wines at Kelseyville in Lake County.

So what’s the key to his endurance? As he broadly puts it, he’s kept consumer tastes foremost in mind. “I worked quite a bit as a waiter, bartender and wine steward during and after college,” Steele says. “This interaction with the public taught me that you must, at the end of the day, please the customer. You can’t forget the reaction of the end-user. This has given me a basic, underlying hedonistic theme in the wines that I make.”

That said, his most dramatic early success at pleasing customers came about more by happenstance than strategy. In 1982, while winemaker at Kendall-Jackson, he struggled with a batch of chardonnay that refused to fully ferment, leaving it sweet. He bottled it anyway, then watched the style – round, fruity, sweet – become immensely popular. Within short order, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay became the most popular take on the varietal in the country, with sales swelling to 550,000 cases per vintage at the end of the decade.

Today, in addition to his eponymous brand, Steele oversees three other labels – Shooting Star, Writer’s Block and Stymie. In all, he’s turning out around 65,000 cases per year, releasing as many as 40 varietal wines and blends each vintage. Almost invariably, his wines are lean, supple, savory and true to varietal. Occasionally, they push the boundary for ripeness, but pull up shy of crossing over into prune and port territory.

In several respects, Steele has been an innovator. Virtually no winemaker today talks very long about his approach before saying something about small-lot, vineyard-designated, lightly manipulated wines being his guiding principles. Steele, however, was an early proponent of that kind of precision and discipline. Almost from the start of his winemaking the names of several of California’s more distinctive vineyards – DuPratt-DePatie, Bien Nacido, Sangiacomo, Ciapusci, Mariah, Catfish, Durell, Zeni – have been recognized on his labels. “I’ve dealt with some of these vineyards 30 years or more,” says Steele. “I’ve had access to and continuity with great vineyards.”

Steele continues to draw grapes from 16 vineyards as far south as Santa Barbara County and as far north as Washington state, but he’s more and more at home with fruit from Lake County, where he established his own brand in 1991. Then, about a third of his wines were made with Lake County fruit; today, more than half are. He owns five estate vineyards totaling 81 acres and manages three other plots in Lake County.

During his tenure he’s watched Lake County’s standing for fine wine, especially cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, rise with little fanfare, though that is starting to change as other growers and winemakers discover the power and authority that the area’s iron-rich and obsidian-sprinkled volcanic soils can yield.

In turbulent 1968 Steele was living in lively San Francisco but eager to escape to the country. He’d earned a degree in psychology at Gonzaga University of Spokane, which he attended on a basketball scholarship, but was working as a railroad brakeman out of Oakland. His father suggested that he talk to a neighbor about getting a job at his winery in Napa Valley. That would be Fred McCrea, who with his wife Eleanor owned Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain.

The McCreas hired him, and during his first harvest he lived with another family friend, the noted writer M.F.K. Fisher, then living in St. Helena. (A strong literary thread runs through Steele’s life. His father was a newspaperman who under the pseudonym Lately Thomas wrote well-received histories and biographies on such diverse subjects as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, San Francisco political boss Abe Ruef and the New York restaurant Delmonico’s. “I remember cases of Clos de Vougeot and Bordeaux first growths being delivered to our back door whenever he had received an advance for one of his books,” says Steele of his introduction to fine wine.)

After two seasons at Stony Hill he resumed his structured education, and in 1974 earned a master’s degree in enology at UC Davis, shortly after which he joined Edmeades Winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley as winemaker and vineyard manager.

In 1982 he joined Kendall Jackson as head winemaker and stayed there nine vintages, overseeing the winery’s production as it swelled from an initial 35,000 cases to a million cases a year.

He left in 1991 to establish his own brand, and in 1996 moved Steele Wines into the former Mt. Konocti Winery in Kelseyville.

Every fan of Steele’s wines is apt to have his or her favorites. Here are mine, based on tastings in recent months of current releases under three of his labels:

Steele Wines: Steele’s confidence that cabernet sauvignon will be the red wine most closely identified with Lake County is bolstered by the virbrant suggestions of pomegranate and cranberry in his sleek and refined Steele Wines 2015 Lake County Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($28). No less indicative of the potential of Lake County is the Steele Wines 2015 Lake County Cabernet Franc ($19), which runs to the cherry/berry side of the varietal more than the herbal, with a downright floral aroma, a thread of licorice in its fruity flavor, and the kind of frisky acidity to make it versatile at the table. He makes several pinot noirs, with the pick of the liter being from down south, the lightly colored but rich, earthy and complex Steele Wines 2014 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($21).

Steele has a long history with zinfandel, especially from Mendocino County, and all that experience is summed up most dramatically in the sweet fruit, swagger and spice of the layered and long Steele Wines 2013 Mendocino County Pacini Vineyard Zinfandel ($19). For white wines, look for the Steele Wines 2016 Lake County Viognier ($19), which by its honeysuckle, apricots and minerality could challenge sauvignon blanc as the county’s most esteemed green grape. The Steele Wines 2015 Sonoma County Carneros Durell Vineyard Chardonnay ($30) is a classic California take on the varietal, but it is big without being overwrought, its notes of coconut, vanilla, cream and smoke pleasing compliments to the richness of its tropical fruit.

Shooting Star: Steele’s full and proper name is Jedediah Tecumseh Steele, which he attributes to his father’s fondness for colorful and evocative names. One translation of “Tecumseh,” most often associated with a Shawnee chief who opposed white settlement in North America during the early 1800s, is “shooting star.” In the Steele portfolio, Shooting Star has come to signify wines of exceptional verve and value. Leading this fragrant and spirited lineup vintage after vintage is his frank interpretation of sauvignon blanc. The Shooting Star 2016 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is as direct with citrus fruit as ever, though it sails across the palate with more heft than usual, while nonetheless retaining his appreciation for tangy acidity.

Beyond that, the Shooting Star 2014 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) is the truest and most accessible California cabernet on the market, regardless of appellation or vintage; it just pops with sweet and spirited cherry and berry fruit shot through with suggestions of fennel. And don’t overlook the Shooting Star 2015 Mendocino County Zinfandel ($14), whose heat (15.8 percent alcohol) is eclipsed by lush berry fruit that is more than a tad on the sweet side but nevertheless refreshing.

Writer’s Block: This label is overseen largely by Steele’s winemaking son Quincy, who lives most of the time in Burgundy but returns to Kelseyville a few times each year to tend the wines for which he is the main guy. His Writer’s Block 2015 Lake County Zinfandel ($17) seizes the brighter side of the varietal in its sunny raspberry fruit, silken texture and lively acidity. As his father, he appreciates cabernet franc’s potential; his Writer’s Block 2015 Lake County Cabernet Franc ($17) is exceptionally layered, starting with forward berry flavors, transitioning through suggestions of persimmon and licorice, and finishing with a layer of earth and compost to make it one of the more complex cabernet francs on the market, especially in its price niche.

Stymie: I haven’t tasted any recent Stymie wines, but because of pleasant memories of earlier releases and because of the story behind the name I don’t want to ignore the brand. The original Stymie was a thoroughbred racehorse with a fairly impressive win record in the mid-1940s. Steele’s father, then a newspaper copy editor in New York, won enough money wagering on Stymie to move the family to California. “He used to say, ‘If it weren’t for that old nag you wouldn’t have become a winemaker because we’d never have moved to California,’” Steele recalls.

Now, as he nears 50 years as a California winemaker, Stymie is Steele’s way to bet on two underdog wines on the California circuit, merlot and syrah, figuring that with the right grooming on the right track they will finish in the money.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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