I started by asking him what his “oenological voice” was, rather than just plainly what his style was in his mind. He smiled lightly, and said that would be a question better suited for someone like me, a writer. He then added that he didn’t think that most winemakers approached making wine with a style in mind, it’s more a matter of making the best wine you can, the most expression of site. The “style” that so many address is more an understanding from the consumer’s mentality. He said he can speak on what his goals are, his approach, and that is about as close as he could get to answering me– But more than anything, he noted, “I want to make wines that are delicious, that are profound, but that are balanced.” And if you taste the Arista lineup, the appellation blends or single vineyard translations, Chardonnay or Pinot, you’ll appreciate this methodology and practice, as it’s palatably executed.
Matt’s character is empowered by his synthesis with his favored varietals, not inoculating with any commercial strains of yeast or malic bacteria. You can blow out the nuances of a given site if you overwhelm it with commercial yeasts, he stated with low-volume, easing and nearly poetic rhythm to his speech. The emphasis is on the vineyard, and doing an unprecedented familiarity with the vineyard site so that when the fruit comes in, it’s only a matter of shepherding the wine, as he said, through vinification.
“You are stripping something away, even if you improve it,” he says about fining and filtration. Maximum amount of material in the bottle, he stressed. I told him I found his style of winemaking as more “truthful”. He preferred the word “transparent”, that gives the sipper the most optimal picture of the microclimate and geographic specificity where the wine comes from. You’re stripping less away, you’re adding less. It’s clear Mr. Courtney values the site where the Pinot and Chardonnay come from, and how that site can be tasted and the picture needs to be maintained, shepherded as he said. “We’re measuring three times before we cut.”
Chardonnay and Pinot to this winemaker walk a funny balance, in that they can be light on their feet, as he specified, but also be complex and layered. It’s a magic trick, he said, trying to have either of those varietals be that delicious dichotomy, keeping them interesting and captivating. “I want people to go back for that next glass.”
He likes Chardonnay that’s diligent and develops in the bottle. And with the Chardonnays he’s produced for Arista, since his start in 2013, we see this bright presence of fruit but yet this interesting palate weight and unique complexity, layered and savoringly compounded with flavor. He said that Chardonnay and Pinot can be all things to all people in ways that other varieties can’t. And that ties into this assertion of the magic trick. There’s a special relationship with this winemaker and these two potentially moody varietals. And his Pinots demonstrate the same verisimilitude and ardor as the Chardonnay, just ten, twenty-fold. His Pinots provide this tasty spacial awareness.
Our talk was briefly interrupted by one of his crew members coming in to ask him a question, something about malolactic fermentation, or something. Can’t remember precisely but it reminded me I was taking him from his day, that these winemakers, especially of this stratum, are always moving, always measuring three or four times then deciding, deciding… So I had to close, quickly. Of course Matt being the convivial chap he is didn’t say anything of any dire or rushed tenor, but I intensified my momentum.
“Really quick, thoughts on ’15…” An interesting year in his mind, partially because of the drought, but as well attributed to the early bud break and the challenging weather during fruit setting. Diminished yields in some sites, and some vineyards hit much harder than others. But, in his words, “very variable”. This will affect the amount of fruit yielded. He also cited the uneven ripening and the heat spikes have provided challenges in their own arena, making it “interesting” as he said. But he assures the wines in tank and in barrel are tasting quite good.
I told him that I heard some people, some winemakers say the shatter out there is “winemaker shatter.” He smirked, and said, “I don’t even know what that means.” But Matt expressed optimism about the wines that were fermenting and vinifying, and he again returned to this subject of shatter, and said that in some of his vineyards it didn’t harm the pick and eventual fermenting wines that much.
We returned to the topic of Arista, and what the winery, or label has done for him as a winemaker, and then I had to ask him which of his wines, notably the 13’s, is his favorite. “That’s like asking which of your kids is your favorite,” he said.
“Which of your kids is your favorite?” I said, laughing, then he laughed, but he then disclosed that he holds a beaming affinity for the estate wines, the Two Birds and Harper’s Rest Pinots. If you’ve ever had these wines before you can see why– bold and complex, the volume and layered magical beauty of each…
We closed our conversation with the new production facility on the Westside property and getting the vineyards to where they want them to be, to always push the envelope of quality, getting the vines in better health, year to year. Again, only optimism and a soft, understated but still vibrantly visible confidence about this winemaker, and for anyone loving wine, it rubs off on you. You’ll walk away from the chat, length no matter, feeling closer to wine, closer to Arista if you’re already a fan.
“It’ll be a huge help for us in the cellar,” he noted, when the facility is on the property. Getting more precise with irrigation strategies… vine-water status… “There’s no limit to how good we can get, that’s what keeps it fun.” Again, the yay-saying sentiment I expected from him toward the end of our talk. So his “style”, or his voice, if I can attach a new “descriptor”– balanced, just like what he aims to bottle year to year. And, profound, whether he intends it or no. Balanced in his tone, his demeanor, and his explanations. Profound in his presence.
Oh, then there’s the extraordinary, magical wines he brings to fruitful fruition. There’s that, too. So, I, the writer, goes back for that second glass.