Jed Steele is a people person. That is something that hit home with me when I went down to Lake County to be a part of the Steele Winery “Crush Crew” the first week of October 2013. For the last ten years, Jed Steele wine maker and owner of Steele Winery in KelseyVille California (Lake County), has invited folks in the trade both on the wholesale and retail side to come down to the winery and be a part of the work crew during crush. It is a great way to build brand loyalty, but as Jed told me…”I love to see people learn how things work on the winery level.”
When I got the invite to go down, I was eager to be a part of the wine making process, even if it was for a short period of time. Through reading, I have learned a lot about what it takes to make a bottle of wine, but there is nothing like getting your hands dirty with the crew and seeing things first hand. In the four days I was down there, I came away with sore abs, dirty clothes, and a clearer understanding of what it takes to get the grapes from the vine to the bottle.
I have long been a fan of Steele wines. The winery produces three labels, Steele, Shooting Star and Writers Block. Jed, who is responsible for putting Kendall-Jackson on the map is a wine savvy dude. He knows his stuff, and as he put it…”Wine making isn’t that difficult. Just get good fruit, and don’t f#@k it up.” Well, he not only doesn’t f#@k it up, he makes some killer wines.
During the trip, Jed took the Peeps as we were called (there were actually only two of us on this trip…The other guy, Kylie was from Savannah, Georgia) on a tour of the vineyards where he sources a lot of his fruit. There were two vineyards that blew my mind. Catfish Vineyard (which was only about a 1/4 mile from Jed’s house) had Zinfandel vines dating back to 1901. It was a field blend vineyard with predominately Zinfandel, but also some Syrah, Viognier and Alicante-Bouschet vines thrown in the mix (wild!). The soil the vines were feeding on consisted of deep red volcanic material (from nearby dormant Mount Konocti), and there was no doubt the vines were digging the environment. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have stayed so long. Talk about good fruit! The other spot was the Dorn Vineyard, from which you could catch a glimpse of Clear Lake. This vineyard rested on some rustic and dicey terrain. Huge rocks littered the Zinfandel vineyard which sat on a steep slope that required hooks attached to cables so the pickers could send the buckets of grapes to the top of the hill. This is known as the Home Ranch Hillside Vineyard and is also a source for Viognier. I was deeply impressed by this vineyard, and all I could think was that this had to be one of the most awesome sources of fruit I have seen. So, there is no doubt in my mind that Jed gets his hands on some quality grapes.
Once the grapes hit the winery, the attention to detail and cleanliness was obvious. The crew at Steele Winery was awesome to work with and they embraced Jed’s approach to wine making with passion and loyalty. Sure, there were jokes thrown around about Jed’s constant use of the fax machine (so 1990’s), and his insistence on certain requirements. But there was an obvious deep respect for Jed’s experience and proven track record. The fact that they embraced the “Crush Crew” program with such enthusiasm underlined the respect they had for their boss.
As part of the crush crew, I had the opportunity (along with Kylie) to partake in many of the duties the cellar crew performs on a daily basis. I did punch-downs (which are really hard on the abs if you don’t have the balance to stand on top of the bins) and pump-overs. I helped with the press and the sorter as well as cleaning them up afterward. I had a chance to do some lab tests with the field,bin and barrel samples which involved some technical stuff about ph, sugar levels and temperatures. We had a chance to use the hydrometer, a really cool tool that measured sugars by looking through a lens, and a ph reader that I did not really like to use, because I sucked at it. Kylie and I were both amazed with how much water is used in the winery. Not only water, but “hot” water. They used so much hot water that the winery had its own boiler room. To keep things clean, you have to use a lot of water. Steele Winery is a clean winery and now I no why…Lot’s of hot water.
At the outset of this article, I said that Jed was a people person. He was an awesome host. He opened his house to us and took care to make sure that we were well taken care of. He has a loyal crew and he in turn is loyal to them. He reaches out to help those who need it and at the same time expects them to return the favor by giving him their best. He may not have all the latest gadgets and top of the line equipment, but he makes some pretty awesome wine and he has some pretty awesome folks working for him. He knows how to do it without f#@*~ing it up!
I want to give a shout-out to Jason (you were awesome dude, sorry for not coming through with donuts), Dave, Joe, Jeff, Kamlin, Chewy, Marco, Renauldo (thanks for the great meal), Bobby, Janice,Brian and the many others that made the experience fantastic. I gained a greater appreciation for the wine making end of the spectrum and if I had a chance to do it again…Hell yeah!
Cheers! Stan The Wine Man