This is the next in my occasional series of interviews with wine makers and others in the industry. Late last year I interviewed Mark McKenna by email. Mark is the wine maker and General Manager at Andis Wines in Plymouth, California. I recently uncorked a bottle of the Andis 2009 Reserve Cabernet Franc. I raved about this wine the first time I had it and it is still rave worthy. Such a great wine. This interview is with the man responsible for what is surely one of my favorite Gold Country wines.
What was your first introduction to wine?
I have to say that my love affair with wine actually began with an introduction to wine making and the winery lifestyle. I was attending UC Berkeley studying Geography when a girlfriend first brought me up to Amador County. Some family friends of her family owned a small winery and we would help them out on the weekends. I loved the setting, the work, and the general rhythms of the wine making process. For a Southern California kid, driving fork lifts and old dump trucks held a certain adventure to it that was new to me. I started working harvest that year and just came to love it more. It was later, working for Domaine de la Terre Rouge that Bill Easton really started to teach me about wine itself and how to appreciate it. The integration of those two facets of wine has been the real journey.
How has your enjoyment of wine changed over the years?
It has become less rigid. I stopped believing in the idea of the best wine and became a fervent acolyte of deliciousness.
Could you expand on being an “acolyte of deliciousness”? (I LOVE that phrase. Can I use it if I give you credit?) I’m intrigued by the by the idea that “good” and “bad” can be supplanted by degrees of deliciousness.
Sure. The idea was articulated to me by a Master Som named Chuck Furuya, who is based in Honolulu. Chuck is very into wines that are pleasing and delicious. As well he should be right? I mean his job is to pick wines that people will enjoy drinking. But, where Chuck differs from so many is that he is looking for the same emotional excitement in people when they drink a wine that I am when I make one. There are many ways to enjoy wine. It is a broad and at times highly complex subject, but, the best wine experiences are those that produce an uncontrived bust of pleasure in the person tasting it. Its the WOW moment you love to see in people’s eyes when they try a wine for the first time. Its the excitement you see when people get their hands on a new vintage of a wine they love.
Good and bad are such subjective terms, and so malleable depending on perspective. But providing a pleasurable experience is something you can literally see when you give someone a wine they find delicious and that experience is so much more rewarding than another endless debate about the “best” wines.
What is the most important thing a person new to wine (in general) should know about it?
That it is fermented grape juice. It sounds glib, but, one of the wonders of wine is the myriad of experience that this relatively simple process produces. It is the incredible diversity coupled with the depth of history that wine possesses that makes it so fascinating. Wine began as a beverage of hunter gatherer’s and rose to become the most revered beverage on the planet, yet, there is a common thread to all of it. Wine should always be a place of respite or inspiration or both. It should not feel intimidating, it should feel engaging.
What is the most important thing a person new to wine should pay attention to when drinking a wine?
Let yourself react honestly to the wine that is in front of you. There are no shoulds in the love of wine (you should like this, you should pair that, etc). A particular wine either ignites a pleasurable feeling or it doesn’t. The rest is just a matter of balancing knowledge and experience to make those experiences even more rewarding.
Is wine making mostly art or mostly science? Why?
It is a little of both, but, more than anything it is a craft. To make great wine you must play by the laws of science that govern fermentation. The winery must be clean, the right additions must be made at the right times, and you have to monitor the presence of both good and bad organisms. The first and most important law of winemaking is to make sound, clean wine. What you can do to make that wine more delicious and interesting is where the craft comes in.
How is the essence of Amador County expressed in the fruit from that region? How can someone tell a Napa wine from an Amador wine?
The Napa wine is twice as expensive Amador and the Sierra Foothills in general produce wines that have real personality. The enormous diversity that our region possesses is our greatest asset. When you have vineyards stretching from the snowline down to nearly the flats of the Central Valley, you can find a myriad of micro-climates that each produce something unique. It takes a lot of hunting and years of adjusting technique to match specific vineyards, but, it is thrilling to be able to work in diverse styles.
What is your wine making style?
We strive for wines that express the varietal from which they are made, are balanced and offer interesting flavors and aromas, basically wines that are pretty. We look for great vineyards to work with because ultimately, as a winemaker you are doing nothing more than shepherding those grapes through the wine making process with the hope of expressing the unique character great vineyards can offer. We want to bottle wines that have distinctive character.
What do you drink at home at the end of the day?
Mostly simple table wines that our family makes at home. Also wines from other regions and wineries, I generally crave something very different from what I have spent the day working on.
Thank you, Mark! I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.