Chad Melville, A Winegrower Blending the Old and New World
We all love wine, but how often do you wonder what and who is behind that delicious bottle you’re enjoying? Blonde Tasting had a chance to sit down with Chad Melville, Head Winegrower at Melville Winery in Lompoc, California, to learn about his experience growing up in a wine family, venturing out as an entrepreneur, and ultimately taking the reins at Melville.
BT: So, what was it like growing up in a wine family?
CM: When you’re really young, you just assume that everyone is in a wine family, but as you get older, you realize that it is unique.
For me, normal was growing up with a sense that cooking was an important event that everybody participated in. Traditionally, back in the day, women were in the kitchen but where I grew up my Dad was in kitchen too. And when we sat down to eat, there was always wine on the table. So, it was normal for me to have a sip or two, although I wasn’t into it. But I was exposed to wine this way, and I learned. My dad would ask, “Wow, smell it again. Do you smell this? Do you smell that?” And, I would wonder, “Why are you so into this? Why do you sit here and pontificate for five minutes over one sip of wine?” Then I would go do my homework or go the beach.
Growing up my family wasn't producing the wine, we were growers in Sonoma. It was dirty. It was farming. We got the fruit harvested, we got it delivered, and that was the end of my connection. I really wasn't into wine until a couple of years after college. I was with some buddies and we went to one of the wineries in Sonoma my family sold fruit to. Larry Levin, the winemaker, had invited us to do a barrel tasting of the wine made from Melville fruit. That was the moment everything became clear to me. I remember exactly where I was standing, who I was with. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my god. This is what I want to do!” Suddenly, all of these dots connected and I knew this is the path I wanted to go down. I don’t think I would have had that realization if I hadn’t had the benefit of growing up in a wine family. All along, I had a hidden foundation that I didn’t really know was building.
BT: So that was the first step. Was that also when you knew you wanted to start your own label?
CM: No, that project came much later and it was even a couple of years before I got my first job in the industry.
The first thing that happened was I really started getting into wine. Like you’re doing now or have been the last 5-10 years. When you have free time, you go visit wineries. When you have spare money, you’re buying wine. Slowly but surely, I had 12 bottles in my cellar. Well, under my bed. I just got really into it.
I actually got my first job in the industry in 1997 in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery. At first, I didn’t know much, but I soon learned what people liked and didn’t like and how to convey that to them, which is a really important skill in this industry. After four months in the tasting room, I went right into cellar rat, just lugging hoses and cleaning barrels. That was really cool because I got to understand wine on a different level than farming grapes.
Then I went into production. It was a tough start because 1997 was a big vintage year. We had fruit coming at us from every angle all hours of the day. By the way, the people who really love that work, being sweaty and cold and wet and sticky and dirty, those are the people that have a future in the production side of the business. I remember it would be like 6:00pm at night and we were just finishing up a 14-16 hour day and we’d hear a, “Honk, honk,” and here comes somebody’s truck full of fruit. It was unexpected but what are you going to do? You’re going to unload it, process it. There’s another 4 or 5 hours. That happened several times that vintage. It was a good experience.
BT: Wow, no kidding. So what came next?
CM: I didn’t decide to do my own label until 2002.
BT: What was that like?
CM: It was exciting. It was scary. It was a lot of things, but it's super rewarding having the feeling of being in charge of your own destiny. You’re the one who has to do it and so you can only point the finger at yourself. That was super motivating too.
The first couple of vintages were small, but it's important to build your confidence and figure out the direction you want to go. It’s different than starting a restaurant as a chef, for example. They have a menu, let’s say, and the first few weeks are really tough. But every night, as a chef, you have a new opportunity to correct those mistakes. As a winemaker [in a sense I was a winemaker then, not a winegrower, because I was buying all the fruit] you have to wait one year to have that opportunity again. The stakes are so high. I was a bit conservative initially. It wasn't until my third year that I decided to really push it. Go after native yeast. Go after longer barrel aging. Go after a lot of stem inclusion. I wasn’t interested in making a cookie-cutter wine.
Meanwhile, I was still working full-time at Melville. And at that time, Melville was producing wines that were big, ripe, super attractive, and got great scores, right off the bat. So, my Syrah wasn’t meant to be similar to Melville's. I was really pushing the envelope with SAMsARA.
Since then, the evolution of Melville has really found a nice groove. In 2019, we’re bottling the estate’s Syrah at 13.8% alcohol, but with all the aroma and flavor and texture that you would want with a riper wine. That combination comes with both vine age, and thoroughly understanding the land. A better understanding of the land helps you better understand the wine-making process. It makes sense that Melville started off the gate big and attractive and got a big following and then it has just been fine-tuning to this spot now, where I’m super proud and happy of the process.
BT: So what are you most proud of professionally? You’ve touched on a lot of things that could potentially be in there. Obviously I would assume your entrepreneurial success?
CM: It’s nice to be able to take that kind of risk, both here at Melville and previously with SAMsARA. I make the wine here, at Melville, the way I like the wine. I don’t make it for anyone else. And then to have people see it and buy it and enjoy it, that’s rewarding. The entrepreneurial success is cool but what’s even more rewarding is when someone pulls you aside and says “Oh my gosh, I had your wine, we were at this great restaurant in New York, and we had it with this food”. It has nothing to do with being an entrepreneur at that point. Someone making that effort to write you an email or pull you aside, that’s the most rewarding. You’re impacting people’s lives.
BT: Your stylistic take, and more risk-taking in your wine growing approach, would you say that was a lesson learned from your SAMsARA experience that you have brought to Melville?
CM: Yes, I think so. I mean, my dad has always been a risk-taker. Conservative in a lot of other areas of life, but he always encourages pushing the envelope with wine. It’s so great to have someone in your life like that, to encourage that kind of development and pioneering renegade mentality. When I have a new idea and a good reason why I think it will work, his answer every time is, “Go for it.”
BT: It’s awesome to have that kind of support behind you.
CM: Totally. We do take a lot of risks here. To get into the nitty-gritty a bit, as an example, the fact that we use neutral wood only here is super risky. The fact that we age it all on the lees without any acid too, that’s super risky. Farming is a huge risk, by definition. You’re essentially giving up control when you rely on Mother Nature.
BT: I’m curious, why is it risky to not use SO₂ on the lees?
CM: Well, if you weren’t confident in the quality of your fruit and the lees, you would use SO₂ to stabilize the wine. The reason I don’t do it is because I want the lees to interact with the wine for as long as possible. The lees are a life source and a stamp of the vintage and contribute a lot of character to the wine, especially when you’re not using any new wood. There’s a lot of positives to using new wood, it’s all documented, everybody knows why. But to only use old wood is a statement. We believe in the fruit. We believe in the vineyard, the climate, the soil, and we want to express that.
BT: So as far as differentiating factors that sets Melville apart from other wineries, whether it’s local or even on a global scale, would you say it’s some of the techniques that you’re using and mindset about the vineyard?
BT: Would you add anything?
CM: Well, being 100% an estate on its own is a huge differentiating factor. It’s just not that common, especially in America.
BT: You own the land. You own the fruit. You’re producing it.
CM: Right. We’re doing the farming. We don’t buy fruit from anyone. No one way is better than the other. The ultimate goal is just really good wine, right? However, for us, being 100% estate really defines who we are. We make every decision from the vineyard to the bottle. If we weren’t 100% estate, we wouldn’t be 100% neutral wood. We probably wouldn’t be using stems. We wouldn’t age the wine on the lees without SO₂. For us, the goal is the purity of the land.
Stem inclusion during fermentation for the Syrahs and Pinots is also really important for us because, again, we’re not using the wood so the stems bring out a lot of that savory aromatic and provide structure to the wine on the palate. We have a long cold dry growing season in Sta. Rita Hills with depleted well-drained soils. Couple that with the way the vineyard is planted, row orientation, density, really all contribute to stressful elements that make the vine struggle a bit. In return, it produces a small amount of intense fruit but also allows an opportunity to get stems ripe. You have to farm for it too. Taking leaves away from the fruit zone, exposing the stems to the sun, the wind, the elements, so that you can encourage lignification.
So stem inclusion, neutral wood, being an estate, and being in Sta. Rita Hills, help distinguish and really put Melville in a 1% category. If doesn’t mean that’s better. It doesn’t mean you’re supposed to like it. It’s just who we are and what we believe in. What I find as a result of all of that is that the wines tend to be a really unique combination of Old World and New World. Old World approach wine growing and then this beautiful California cold climate fruit.
BT: You touched on Sta. Rita Hills, can you share a bit more about this AVA? What’s changed since you got here?
CM: Well I helped plant these vineyards in ’97 ’98. In ’97, vs. looking at a map of Sta. Rita Hills now, basically take away 90% of the vineyards. We weren’t the first, but we were part of the first wave. There’s been a ton of growth.
As I think back to the mid-to-late ’90s, the trend was producing this bigger bombastic wine - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. Generally speaking, I think people learned that style of wine wasn’t necessarily that appealing, talking about Pinot Noir specifically. So producers toned down a bit, but in that process I think some people took it too far in the under-ripe direction. Trends are like a pendulum. It’s always swinging one way and then maybe too far and then back the other.
Also, a lot of people are relying on the vineyard more and farming has become really important for a lot of people.
BT: That has to be a positive trend then?
CM: Totally. There’s certainly more in the organic farming and biodynamic farming. A lot of people are using less and less new oak these days. There’s a trend out there with natural wine again. These trends are broad and not specific to Sta. Rita. Hills, but these seem to be hot topics right now.
BT: Is that consumer driven?
CM: The consumer definitely drives it but there’s also a lot of wine bars, sommeliers out there, and wine writers who like that stuff.
One thing I’m proud of here is that, with the exception of fine-tuning our vineyard and wine style, which I don’t consider a trend, over the past 20 years we haven’t changed our course. We’re focused on farming our own fruit.
BT: What are some of the biggest challenges you are facing right now?
CM: Farming. Whether it be a disease, or an insect. There is always potential for things to fall apart, which is interesting because the farming side of things doesn’t typically receive a lot of attention. Yet it’s really the most important thing. It’s also where the majority of the risk is at too. When there’s a great vintage or a great wine, all the accolades go to the winemaker. If there’s a terrible vintage or a terrible wine, everyone blames the farmer.
BT: Are you guys seeing any changes with regards to climate? Noticing anything here from a farming perspective?
CM: A little bit. I notice it more on a global level. I just read that the month of July 2019 was the hottest month on planet earth since they started recording temperatures. I was in Portugal and Spain recently and it was 109-112 degrees. You definitely feel that when you’re out in the vineyards.
Here, we’re so close to the ocean, and the ocean is what really regulates us. Specifically on the western end of Sta. Rita. Hills because of the temperatures and the way the mountain range runs, we don’t feel the climate change as dramatically as you do even 20 miles to the east. It’s not as crazy here as some of these places where they’re growing without a coastal influence and seeing dramatic swings both hot and cold, or weird weather like getting rain when they’re not supposed to.
BT: Are there any other insights you would like to share about Melville or thoughts on the industry?
CM: I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the contribution of our team here. We have a great group of people that work very hard, and without those people, Melville wouldn’t be what it is today. We’re very fortunate to have the team and relationships that we do. It’s definitely a group effort.
So there you have it: the secret sauce. An Old World farming philosophy at an estate winery coupled with a California AVA, Sta. Rita Hills, which is making waves worldwide for its outstanding wines. It’s no wonder Melville earned a coveted spot on Wine & Spirits 2018 Top 100 Wineries. Specializing in cool climate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, these wines are worth seeking out.
If you find yourself in Southern California, you can visit the Melville winery in Lompoc or their relatively new tasting room in Santa Barbara. Check out their website for hours and reservations. Pro Tip: You can even book a VIP Tour and Tasting with Chad Melville himself. Trust me, you'll love it!
Interview of Head Winegrower, Chad Melville, of Melville Winery conducted by Shannon Gartner, Founder of Blonde Tasting, on 16 August 2019 at the Melville Winery in Lompoc, CA. You can follow more Blonde Tasting adventures on Instagram @blondetasting.