JED STEELE: Letting the GRAPE speak for itself -Fall 2016
by: Caroline R. Stanton
When making wine, it all boils down to the experience of the consumer for California winemaker Jed Steele.
“You never can forget the end-user. Some winemakers make wine for themselves, but I try to make wine that has a hedonistic base that people are going to enjoy. That’s the end game.”
Steele, the founder and owner of Steele Wines, has been fermenting grape juice into that great Dionysian drink for almost 50 years.
For the past 25, Steele has been running his own winery in Kelseyville, Calif., which sits east of the Mayacama Mountains and west of Clear Lake, the largest fresh-water natural lake in California.
Grapes grown in this region are largely characterized by the high elevation they are grown at and the relatively short and dry growing season. The elevation affords grapes a higher UV exposure, which results in thicker skins and greater tannins in the wine. The elevation also allows for cleaner and clearer air for the grapes to grow in. The lack of humidity and shorter growing season
help stave off rot and pest growth in the crops.
Steele’s career in the craft of winemaking began as a young man’s response to the Bohemian call to return
to his agrarian roots in the late 1960s and 1970s.
“I ended up going back to the land by getting a job
at a small winery in Napa Valley,” Steele said.
in 1968 and 1969 he was hired by his parents’ neighbors in San Francisco to work at their winery, Stony Hill Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif. After a brief foray on the East Coast working in restaurants, Steele returned to the Golden State to get a master’s in enology from the University of California Davis.
After college he helped get the Edmonds Winery up and running in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino. After spending 10 years cutting his teeth at Edmonds, he joined the Kendall-Jackson partnership – now a household name in large-scale wine production. At the time Steele worked there it was only a small winery in Sonoma County.
Steele eventually left Kendall-Jackson, which he had watched grow into a mammoth winemaking operation in his decade there.
“We were making over a million cases, which wasn’t in the original plan,” he said.
He left Kendall-Jackson with a very specific vision of winemaking in mind, one that he decided to realize in his own operation, aptly named Steele Wines.
Steele’s vision consisted of a much-smaller-scale production, driven by his own belief about size and quality.
“I liken it to being a chef: If you’re making a million cases, it’s like having a 4,000-seat restaurant. If you’re making the kind of wine we do at Steele, it’s like having a 40-seat restaurant. And I don’t care how good your purveyors are, how good your staff is, try to serve 4,000 people a night, and the scale just makes it impossible to put out the highest-quality product, “ he said.
A focus on small-production winemaking not only allows Steele greater control over the quality of his wine, but enables him to offer more variety to customers.
“The world of wines is fascinating because there are probably thousands of varieties and it’s really fun to make a different variety and see how it turns out,” he said.
This delight in discovering a new variety is a main pillar in the Steele Wines approach to winemaking.
“The company culture is to be really diverse in the types of wines we make. People say, ‘Wow, you make a lot of wine,’ but not really. We make a lot of different kinds of wine, but if you add them up, we’re really not that huge in terms of production,” Steele said.
The imperative for variety has created a need for grapes from a wide geographic area, but Steele's 10 years at Kendall-Jackson helped him become well-acquainted with growers from all over California.
“We bought from everywhere in California, so I really got to find out what a lot of these vineyards and regions were like, and found some vineyard spots and locations that I thought were really tremendous through that experience,” he said.
Steele currently presses grapes from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills and even Washington state.
Although the list of vineyards that he buys from may seem long, Steele has been buying from most of them for more than 20 years. His most recent addition to the collection of vineyards he buys from was added 14 years ago.
“It’s not like we’re buying grapes from somebody we don’t know. We build those kinds of relationships over decades,” he said.
While it may seem like a complicated process with grapes coming in from all over California and about 20 different varieties bottled each year, Steele argued that the complexity is all man-made.
“Winemaking is really not that complicated, but, like any other human endeavor, people try to make it complicated,” he said.
Steele’s adamant focus on the simple beauty of a grape – which can produce such complex flavors on its own – is a characteristic of his wines that has attracted customers.
“He has a more hands-off approach, which I really appreciate,” Nantucket Wine & Spirits co-owner Alanna Walsh said.
By sourcing grapes from different regions of California, Steele is given more flexibility in creating his flavor profiles, which allows him to “Let the grapes do the talking,” she said.
A heavy-handed winemaker, Walsh said, typically utilizes new oak barrels to impart its flavor to the wine as it ages. As a result, a winemaker can engineer the flavor profile of a wine, neglecting the flavor of the terroir that the grape brings on its own.
With his hands-off approach, Steele puts the flavor of the terroir up front and center in his wines.
Steele first came to Nantucket in the fall of 1992 where he promoted his wines at a clambake in Tom Nevers.
He became fast friends with many of the island’s restaurateurs – Seth and Angela Raynor of The Pearl and The Boarding House, Alan Cunha of Le Languedoc, and Wendy and Peter Jannelle of Fifty-Six Union to name a few.
Steele has made a few island-specific wines that are bottled for and sold exclusively on Nantucket, including Grey Lady Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, a Pinot Noir for Fifty-Six Union, and a Pinot Noir for Le Languedoc called Remember February.
That wine was made in homage to a sign that hangs by the podium at Le Languedoc as a reminder to the restaurant’s servers who feel overwhelmed during the high tide of August business to remember the quietude that awaits them come February when the restaurant is closed.
Walsh described the Grey Lady Chardonnay as somewhat drier than most Chardonnays with “nice fruit and weight, but not overly buttery.” The Pinot Noir, which Steele produces under the same label, is a “medium-bodied pinot, juicy, easy to sip, with nice red fruit,” Walsh said. ///
Caroline Stanton is a Nantucket native and a freelance writer living in the Bay Area. She is an occasional contributor to Nantucket Today.