October 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview: Heidi Peterson Barret

The real secret may be in the palate of Napa cult winemaker

by Paul Franson

  • An acclaimed Napa winemaker shares her red-winemaking techniques.
  • Don't perform extended maceration; press before the wine goes dry.
  • Minimize new oak.
  • Taste constantly.
  • Educate your palate and use it in the critical process of blending.
Possibly the most famous California cult winemaker, Heidi Peterson Barrett is a private person who has generally avoided seeking attention, leaving her wines to create their own aura. Most famed for making collectible Cabernet Screaming Eagle, Barrett started out at Buehler Vineyards before making such Napa legends as Dalla Valle Vineyards' Maya (which received two 100-point scores from Robert Parker), Showket Vineyards' Super Tuscan blend Asante Sana; Vineyard 29 and Grace Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.

She started making wine for Screaming Eagle in 1992, but stopped due to "time and pressure" after the winery was sold last year. At $500,000, a 6-liter bottle of her 1992 Screaming Eagle set a world record at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. A vertical offering went for $650,000 at the 2001 auction.

Barrett is currently winemaker for Amuse Bouche, Revana Family, Jones Family Vineyards, Barbour Vineyards, Paradigm Winery and Lamborn Family. But she is also now focusing heavily on her own label, La Sirena (The Mermaid), and for the first time has started promoting the wine with winemaker dinners and other marketing efforts.

Heidi Barrett Interview
Heidi Peterson Barrett
In the La Sirena line, she produces about 3,000 cases of Cabernet, three Syrahs (Napa Valley, Santa Ynez and a new release from her own Barrett Vineyard in Calistoga), and a rare dry Muscat (See accompanying box). She makes this wine, and some of the others, at Revana Family Winery in St. Helena, which was built largely to her specifications by owner and cardiologist Dr. Madaiah Revana. She makes his eponymous wine, and also makes a small amount of stealth rosé for Revana.

Barrett, the daughter of winemaking legend Richard Peterson, and wife of Chateau Montelena winemaker Bo Barrett, agreed to share her winemaking practices with Wines & Vines readers for the first time. Some of the techniques may surprise those familiar with the processes used by many other award-winning winemakers. But she claims only one area in which she may have a real secret weapon.

Little vineyard intervention

The first surprise from Heidi Barrett is that she doesn't get very involved in the vineyards. "I work with the best vineyard managers in the business," she says, and she leaves the grapegrowing up to them. She does talk to them about the vines, however, so she knows about the steps they take to ensure ripeness, including thinning, cutting off the shoulders of clusters, and other techniques. "It's like a relay team," she says. "They hand off the grapes to me. They're very good grapes."

The picking decisions are up to her, though. "I taste for ripe flavors and monitor the chemistry." She typically picks at the mid- to high 25s in degrees Brix, not the over-the-top at 27º or 28º that some winemakers prefer. "I pick at a more moderate combination of numbers, but this is 2007. People like juicy red fruit that shows off the region." She doesn't want prune or raisin flavors, and removes shriveled berries from the lots.

She crushes the red grapes as they're de-stemmed, leaving about 10% to 15% whole berries. "They're pretty clean, but we don't double sort," she says, adding, "It's important to break the skins." She has experimented with whole clusters, but it wasn't successful. "We got exactly what you would expect: green flavors." She didn't repeat that experiment.

No indigenous yeast

Barrett adds sulfur, then inoculates with yeast the second day. "I don't take risks. I don't ever use wild yeasts." She almost apologetically admits, "It's traditional stuff, not unusual winemaking."

Extended maceration is not in her plan. She leaves the must on the skins about a week. She pumps-over mostly by hand, and tastes the must each day. "I look for full extraction, and can switch to more or less pump-over if we're getting too much extraction."

Barrett presses before the juice goes dry, an untraditional step. "This preserves the purity of the fruit. You get the maximum flavor and extraction without excessive tannins. As you approach dryness, you get awakened tannins. You don't want muddiness or seed and skin tannins, especially in that alcoholic solution. The seed coating will break down and the alcohol will leech out green, bitter tannins." She emphasizes: "The sooner you get the juice off the seeds the better."

She then presses the pomace gently. "We don't press very hard, and we don't keep the press wine separate. We stop pressing if we start getting too many tannins."

Pressing before dryness

Barrett moves the wine from the press into a tank to finish if she can, but says there's no reason you can't finish in a barrel. In any case, three days after the wine goes dry, she racks it into another tank (or barrel). When dry, she adds malolactic bacteria. She uses freeze-dried Vinaflora from Hansen Labs. "It's voracious, but you can't expose it to air," she warns.

After the ML is complete, she racks the wine and doses it with SO2. "Usually an add of 45-50ppm will give you around 30ppm free SO2," Barrett says. "It will vary wine to wine, so you may need to make a second small add to get your 30-35 parts that I'm shooting for to stabilize."

A combination of coopers supplies barrels for her various brands. "It's almost never all new," she says, adding that Grace Family was using all new barrels before she started making their wine, and she didn't change that regime. It's typically 30% to 60% new. The ideal, she feels, is one-third each new barrels, once-used and twice-used.

For Sangiovese, she uses only 10% new oak--"It's an oak sponge"--and leaves it in wood, U.S. oak in this case, for 14 months. She adds that Zinfandel can also take American oak but, "For Cab and Syrah, it has to be French."

Barrett typically chooses medium and medium-plus toasts. "I like it to be toasty, sweet and caramel, nothing too harsh but enough to know that it's there."

She doesn't use micro-oxygenation. "It's good for less expensive wines you want to push to market sooner, but that's short-sighted thinking for wines to age. That makes them pre-aged, and they can taste old." She thinks it might help with wines that have gone through extended maceration, but clearly doesn't like this "messing around. It removes the purity of fruit."

Blending as an art

The final step in her winemaking, other than the mechanics of bottling, is blending. Using her experienced palate in the process of blending may be the only true secret to her success. "My specialty is blending," she admits. "That's where the technology stops and the art takes over." She's fortunate to have great materials for this process. "We don't get many duds," she claims. "We've bulked out wine, but rarely."

Bad corks are not a big issue for her. She says her supplier (Amorim) lets her choose the bales she wants after soaking samples for quality control purposes. What supplier, after all, would want to sell Heidi Barrett bad corks? She's sticking with natural corks, for now at least. "For traditional, beautiful red wines that can age 20 years, there's nothing like traditional corks," she believes.

She emphasizes that her technique is customized for each lot. "I taste and smell it regularly. This gives me clues about what to do next." She bases her process on extended experience, including working with her father and at a vine nursery during high school in the late '60s, studying at UC Davis, and professional winemaking ever since.

It's all classic winemaking," she emphasizes. "Get great fruit and enhance it."

How Barrett Makes Dry Muscat Canelli
Heidi Barrett Interview
Famed for her red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Heidi Barrett also makes a white wine (and even a rosé). As you might expect, however, it's not the usual Napa Chardonnay. It's a dry wine from Muscat Canelli, which is considered the most floral and elegant among the Muscat family.

Barrett notes that she made Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc at Buehler and Rutherford Hill in the early '80s, and she did a crush internship in South Germany. "I loved Riesling, especially from Germany, and while I was there, a light bulb went on about balance. You can apply it to anything." Still, she admits, "My clients grow red grapes."

The grapes for her Moscato Azul come from Solari Vineyard in Calistoga. The property lies at the foot of Mount St. Helena near her home. The vines are very old, and formerly went to the Robert Pecota winery before Pecota sold his winery to Jess Jackson.

Barrett uses whole clusters picked at 23º Brix, and starts the fermentation in the mid-50ºsF, then slows it to 50ºF for a very slow fermentation of three to four months, using two German yeasts. She ferments almost dry--0.65% residual sugar--then chills the wine to 30°F to kill the yeasts, which drop to the bottom of the tank in a few days, already cold stabilized. She doesn't expose the wine to oak and fines with a little gelatin to remove bitterness, a characteristic of many dry Muscats.

The wine ends up with an alcohol level of 13.1%, with good body but no fat, making it excellent with food. She bottles the wine in a stunning cobalt-blue bottle; it stands out in local restaurants where it's often consumed by other knowing vintners and winemakers. P.F.
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