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Interview with Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores

November 26th, 2017

Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores

By Brent Bracamontes

This next week we will be hosting a tasting with Julie Johnson, proprietor and vintner for Tres Sabores, located in Rutherford, California. I had the great opportunity to correspond with Julie in preparation for the event, in order to get a bit more information about the Tres Sabores operation. We exchanged emails and engaged in a phone conversation, which covered topics such as the origins and evolution of Tres Sabores, her views on working with different grape varieties in Rutherford, advice for future winemakers, among other issues. I trust you will find Julie’s comments as astute, refined, and insightful as I did.

The first topics addressed were the origins and evolution of Tres Sabores. Julie founded Tres Sabores in 1999 with three other winemakers, who developed unique styles of Zinfandel from grapes on her own estate vineyard. As Julie explained, “Each winemaker had ‘carte blanche to craft their own Zinfandel cuvee – their own ‘taste of terroir’ – from a section of my estate vineyard.” This dynamic inspired the name Tres Sabores, but also inspired Julie to begin thinking more about the ways different winemakers may interpret a vineyard site. By this point Julie had been living on her vineyard for a decade, so she had a good feel for its future potential. When combining this understanding with her twenty years of marketing and sales experience with her first wine company (Frog’s Leap), essential variables seemed to be in place for a successful operation. Along with these other founding winemakers, Julie’s first wine, ¿Porque No?, was first released in 2000. By 2005, she was producing all of Tres Sabores wines on her own.

I also asked Julie to comment on her views on working with many different grape varieties. According to the Tres Sabores website, the wines currently available for purchase include a Sauvignon Blanc, rosé (the 2016 vintage was made up of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah), a varietal Zinfandel, the ¿Por Que No? red blend (typically a bend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and tiny proportions of Petite Verdot), a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, and a varietal Petite Sirah. One doesn’t need to spend too much time studying wine production to understand that there are some major differences in working with different grape varieties, as well as to know that not all can be handled precisely the same way. Julie noted the different challenges of working with Zinfandel, a variety that is known for uneaven ripening, where in a single grape cluster you are likely to find berries of different conditions (some almost raisins and some not mature enough). For Julie, this means having a thorough understanding of your vineyard, sampling “intensely and repetitively.” This sort of repetitive, analytical tasting is especially crucial when working with Zinfandel, as Julie also noted her perceptions that overripe flavors mask flavors indicative of terroir, or site-specific characteristics in the eventual wines. As I read over this response, it seemed like another solid illustration of the continuous care and attention vintners put into their products. In Julie’s case, she aims to make a particular style of Zinfandel, one that reveals an array of flavors, fruit and non-fruit. As she stated in our exchange, “All this hard work pays off in the beautiful range of fruit that comes as a result – from the deepest black raspberry to rich, ripe dark cherry – spice, rich, floral – it’s all there.”

During our chat we also discussed the nuances of working with some of the other grape varieties that go into Tres Sabores wines (e.g. Petite Sirah), as well as Julie’s thoughts on the Rutherford bench as an area for fine wine production. Julie’s ranch is located on the west side of the Napa Valley. She noted, “Our vineyard is in shade from the very late afternoon/early evening on, which gives the vines extra time to recover from mid to late summer heat, cool down and rebuild acid. We get great balance in all of our wines as a result.” This insight on the uniqueness of her vineyard site certainly connects with her approaches to winemaking, looking for wines that strike a balance between assorted fruit flavors and terroir-specific flavors as well. When discussing the vineyard site, Julie also noted the importance she places on engaging in organic farming. Her vineyard is dry-farmed (no irrigation), and was one of the first vineyards in the area to be certified for organic growing, which is a certification contingent on annual reviews and inspections to ensure upkeep of organic farming practices. On this point, Julie said, “The symbiosis that develops between mature vines and healthy soil is in full force here. You can literally feel the energy in the vineyard.”

The final portions of our chat turned away slightly from focus on topics specific to winemaking, but still covered issues related to being “in wine.” For example, I asked Julie about a recent feature of her in Wine Country Women of Napa Valley, a book that profiles the accomplishments of women winemakers in one of the world’s most acclaimed viticultural areas. As Julie put it, “It’s just plain fun to be in a book like this.” I also asked her if she had any advice for any upcoming women winemakers. Her comments seemed more generally applied to all aspiring winemakers. She noted, “My advice is pretty simple: Taste widely and thoughtfully, network efficiently, attach yourself to any mentor(s) you can and train for a ‘jungle gym’ of experiences in the business rather than thinking about climbing any particular ladder.” I was especially intrigued by the notion of tasting “thoughtfully.” When I asked Julie for some elaboration, she discussed the importance of having some sort of system of analysis for tasting, where we attempt to more concretely analyze what’s in our glass. Considering the meticulous thoughts and analyses that seem to have gone into Tres Sabores, this seems like pretty sound advice.

To close, my conversation with Tres Sabores’ Julie Johnson was a very informative and enriching chat about various important issues in wine production, as well as other fun topics. (See the Tres Sabores website for a list of the different dogs they have on property.) We look forward to learning more about her, her experiences, and her wines when she visits The Twisted Vine this Wednesday, November 29th.