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Stephanie Putnam of The Hess Collection Winery
by Stewart Dorman
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.3

In the Mayacamas Mountains, high above Napa Valley, stands a winery steeped in legend and myth. It's told that a great winemaker resides in an enchanted castle known as The Hess Collection Winery. (Stay with me on this one, it gets better. Kinda.) The locals speak of the "wizard of wine" with great respect and have even given her a name: Stephanie. Or, sometimes they call her Miss Stephanie. Occasionally Lady Stephanie Putnam. But they never call her Steph. Or Steph Baby. Or Stepharoony. Or the Stephster. Or hey Baby Baby Baby. (I only wish someone had told me about that last one before I did this interview.)

Lady Stephanie was gracious enough to invite me on a quest through the great woods of the Mayacamas Mountains. In other words, she told me to take a hike. (I've been told to take a hike many times before in my life, but I never took it literally.) The invitation to haul a heavy backpack through rabid squirrel-infested woods in the wee hours of the morning while asking a lot of random wine questions sounded appealing. (Hey, I live a lonely life.) So off we went.

Wine X: You know I was thinkin'. My editor isn't here, why don't we just muss up our hair a little, rub some mud on our faces, take a few shots, then do the interview over a nice warm breakfast at Gillwoods. What d'ya say? Come on. I'll even split the check with ya.

Stephanie: Hiking's good for you. Fresh air. Nature.

Wine X: Poison oak.

Stephanie: Stick to the trail and you'll be fine.

We gather our gear and start off into the tall redwoods.

Stephanie: So how far do you usually hike?

Wine X: Until I get tired. Or fall into a coma. You know, I once had an out-of-body experience during one of my spells. I got lost and forgot where I left my body.

Stephanie: You're a natural blond aren't you?

Wine X: Why?

Stephanie: Never mind.

Wine X: So, how'd you get interested in wine?

Stephanie: I grew up with it. It wasn't any big deal. When I was 10, if I wanted some wine, my parents just gave it to me. It was always around.

Wine X: Were you a fussy little wine drinker at 10?

Stephanie: Well, I didn't like Cognac. My parents got into wine after they bought a house that had a stocked wine cellar. They wanted to know more about it, so they started to take wine classes. Since then they've enjoyed wine and have made it a part of everyday life for us.

Wine X: Off the subject, where're we going?

Stephanie: Through some of the most beautiful forests in Napa.

Wine X: You could get lost out here.

Stephanie: I gotta map and a compass. And some extra water just in case.

Wine X: Explain this to me: if you don't know where you are, then how does a map help?

Stephanie: Where'd Wine X find you?

Wine X: Indiana.

Stephanie: Say no more. Can we move on?

Wine X: Sure. So you always wanted to be a winemaker?

Stephanie: Actually, I wanted to be an F.B.I. agent. Sort of "Silence of the Lambs" without all of the acting. I studied political science and math in college. But those just weren't me. So I took a wine class to see if winemaking was my future. That made up my mind.

Wine X: How long did it take you to get your winemaking degree?

Stephanie: Well, as you know, it usually it takes five years to get a degree. But I had a lot of fun my first year, so it took a little longer. You?

Stewart: I got my degree over the Internet from a correspondence school in Bolivia. Took five minutes. Just gave 'em my credit card number and presto, I was a winemaker. You know, I figured why spend all that time and money goin' to school. I mean, school's okay for smart people. But I'm a guy on the go. Got no time for incidentals like, you know, learning.

Stephanie: It's legal to marry your cousins in Indiana, isn't it?

Wine X: Hell, you can marry your pets.

Stephanie: (long pause) Anyway, I started my career at Robert Mondavi Winery, working in the lab during crush -- you know, checking sugars and stuff. Then in '91 I got a cellar crush job at The Hess Collection. From there I worked my way up from the cellar to enologist to assistant winemaker to winemaker.

Wine X: This hike's turning out to be one helluva workout.

Stephanie: We've moved 50 feet.

Wine X: Already? Jesus, can we rest?

Stephanie: Fine.

Wine X: I gotta cut back on those Flaky Creams. I gotta catch my breath.

Stephanie: You want some water?

Wine X: No, got some Tootsie Rolls, thanks. You know, I did a lot of research on Hess before this interview, and I noticed that the vine spacing in your vineyards seems a little tight.

Stephanie: Looked at the pictures in our press kit didn't you?

Wine X: Just answer the question.

Stephanie: We've planted some new vineyards to experiment with vine spacing. The idea's that planting more vines per acre will put more stress on the vines and produce grapes with more intensity. This should result in wine with better color and more flavor. We've planted about 12 acres with this meter-to-meter spacing, which translates to around three feet between each vine and each row. So we have more than 2,000 vines per acre, which is about twice as many as you'd have in a normal vineyard. Also, we train the vines to hang the fruit much closer to the ground, producing wine with more mouth-feel and rounder tannins. Overall, better wine.

Wine X: You happy with the results so far?

Stephanie: Yeah. We're gonna plant another vineyard section like this next year, and probably more over the next several. The only thing's the cost, which is, as you can probably figure out, twice as much per acre.

Wine X: What do you look for in a vineyard? When you're thinking about planting. Soil? Shape of the land? Water?

Stephanie: I like a lotta rock.

Wine X: Seems it'd be a lot harder to work in.

Stephanie: That's exactly why. If the soil's hard to work in, then the vines have to work that much harder to produce fruit. That stress makes for better flavors, especially for cab. Sandy soils let the cabernet vine grow easier, which changes the flavor profiles of the grapes. The more stressed the vines, the better the cab. We also have one of the oldest cabernet vineyards in Napa Valley. It was planted in 1938. That vineyard produces some of our best wines. Not a lot, but very good stuff.

Wine X: If cabernet likes rocky soils, then what does chardonnay like?

Stephanie: A little more moisture in the soil. So for chardonnay I look for soils that have a little sand and clay 'cause these elements help trap moisture. Fog's good, in moderation. Fog helps cool the area and slows down the ripening cycle, which is good for chardonnay. Carneros is great for chardonnay: the soil's great, and the land's full of rolling hills that give the fruit great sun exposure, which produces big fruity flavors, like apple and pear, in our wines. Monterey also has sandy soils and a good climate for chardonnay.

Wine X: In your opinion, what makes a good winemaker great?

Stephanie: Sucking up to the press. Just kidding. A great winemaker can take a mediocre vintage and turn it into a great wine. And what makes a great wine is patience. For example, in '98 we waited until the grapes were just right. Our growers called every day for weeks wanting to pick. They were begging us to pick. But we wanted a long hang time to get the flavors and complexity. Being patient pays off. I think the '98s are some of the best wines we've ever made.

Wine X: Why were your growers so anxious to pick? Want a Tootsie Roll?

Stephanie: How long's it been in your pocket?

Wine X: Couple months.

Stephanie: Gooey?

Wine X: Little.

Stephanie: Sure. Thanks. Anyway. As fruit hangs in the vineyard, it goes from being firm and tight to soft and shriveled. Kinda like this Tootsie Roll. But that's when it starts producing big flavors. Our growers get nervous when this happens for two reasons: rot can set in, which can ruin the grapes; and birds start eating the softer grapes, which, of course, decreases the yield. Basically, growers want to deliver fruit that looks pretty; we want fruit that tastes pretty. Winemaking's as much an art of communication as it is an art of cellar skills.

Wine X: You ever see that episode of the Six Million Dollar Man where Steve Austin gets his arm ripped off by Bigfoot? This looks a lot like Sasquatch country to me. Like some big hairy creature could come outta the woods at any moment, rip your head off and use it for a soccer ball. You know, sometimes I pretend I'm the Six Million Dollar Man.

Stephanie: I bet you do.

Wine X: Anyway. Long hang time. Anxious growers. Then what?

Stephanie: Harvest. We wanna get the fruit into the winery as soon as possible. If it's left out in the sun or on the crush pad too long, bacteria can set in and ruin the fruit. We pick fruit in the early morning, bring it directly to the winery while it's still cool and then destem it into the stainless steel tanks as fast as possible. We'll chill the tanks down to get what's called a cold soak. This technique locks in the flavors that we've worked so hard for all year long in the vineyards. It's a beautiful thing. The wine's big, full, ripe, jammy and tasty!

Wine X: Beer?

Stephanie: It's seven in the morning.

Wine X: Scotch?

Stephanie: Maybe later.

Wine X: Haven't seen any rabid squirrels have you? I hear they can be pretty mean... do a lot of damage, you know.

Stephanie: Stewart, I've hiked this trail hundreds of times. There are no big hairy beasts, no rabid squirrels.

Wine X: Blair Witch?

Stephanie: No!

Wine X: 'Kay, sorry. Just trying to make conversation. Where were we?

Stephanie: You were about to ask me about the different styles of wine I make.

Wine X: No I wasn't.

Stephanie: You will if you want to continue this interview.

Wine X: So, you make two different styles of wine?

Stephanie: Why yes we do, Stewart. We have our Hess Collection wines, including an estate cabernet sauvignon, a chardonnay and a small amount of zinfandel. Then we produce a value-priced cab and chardonnay called Hess Select.

Wine X: What's the difference between the styles?

Stephanie: The Hess Select wines are produced in a fruitier style so they can be enjoyed at a younger age. The Hess Collection wines are bigger, more intense wines with more oak influence, so they'll get better with more time in the bottle.

Wine X: What do you see in the future?

Stephanie: I think red wine's going to get more popular, and jug wines less. Wines in 750 ml bottles will dominate the market as the public looks for better and better product. We're making better and better wines while keeping prices very competitive. That's what competition does -- makes you better and keeps you on top of your game. I think that's gonna be good for the whole industry.

Wine X: I'm going to be fixing a nice dinner for my wife tonight. What wine would you recommend?

Stephanie: What're you gonna have?

Wine X: Top Ramen. Chicken flavor. With a side of baked creamed corn topped with potato chips for texture and presentation.

Stephanie: Ruffles or Lay's?

Wine X: Ruffles.

Stephanie: Well, then I'd have a nice chilled bottle of Hess Collection chardonnay. It makes any meal with Ruffles a delight.

Wine X: Thanks for the unbiased tip. Can I get an inter-winery discount on the wine? Now that we're best friends and all...

Stephanie: Sure.

Wine X: Can you also call someone to pick us up? I don't think I can make it back. I think it's altitude sickness.

Stephanie: You're a rock of a man, Stewart.

Wine X: Thanks Steph, er, Stephanie.

Stephanie: My pleasure.

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