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Jed Steele: Populist Winemaker
By Marguerite Thomas
Jul 31, 2018
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Tall enough to have been a basketball player (which in fact he was, at Gonzaga University), Jed Steele is also distinguished by a broad brush of white mustache fanning out above his upper lip.  As a youngster growing up in San Francisco’s Bay Area he had no more than a vague notion that he might want to pursue a career in winemaking, but when Fred and Eleanor McCrea offered him work as a cellar rat at their Stony Hill Winery in 1968 it turned out to be a job that would define the rest of his life.

After earning an MS in enology from UC Davis in 1974, Steele moved on as winemaker and vineyard manager at Edmeades Winery, in Mendocino.  From there he moved to Kendall-Jackson Estate Winery where, as head winemaker, he took the winery’s production from 35,000 cases to one million cases in 9 vintages.

In 1991 Steele decided to start his own winery.  Five years later he moved his start-up production to Kelseyville, in Lake County, where he has been ever since, pretty much pursuing his original vision of producing small lots of varietal wines.  Today, he crushes 22 different grape varieties, from Aligoté to Zinfandel, and produces 40 different wines, most in lots of under 100 cases.  Shooting Star and his flagship Steele brand were launched in 1992, Stymie in 1999, and Writer’s Block (produced with son Quincy) in 2002.
 
A few weeks ago I interviewed Steele via email.  Here are the slightly edited results of that interview:

Q.  Many vintners concentrate on grapes growing in their own backyard, so to speak, whereas you source grapes from your own five estate vineyards in Lake County, California, as well as from 16 different vineyards that range up from Santa Barbara County to Washington State.  The driving distance from Santa Barbara to the Washington border must be more than 1,000 miles! What is it that attracts you to this geographic diversity?

A.  While working for nine years as the founding winemaker for Kendall-Jackson I had the experience of sourcing multiple grape varieties from one end of California to the other.  Prior to my involvement at "KJ," I had been a winemaker in the Anderson Valley and had worked only with grapes from Mendocino.  This process allowed me to be able to detect a number of quality matches of specific varieties to specific locations.

Q.  Instead of concentrating on popular, “same-old/same-old” grape varieties you seem to have been willing to take a leap of faith with grapes that are relatively obscure, at least to American wine drinkers.  What inspired you select Aligoté, for example, or Blaufrankisch?

A.  I have a long association with Washington State, having gone to college in Spokane.  I planted a small vineyard up there in the 1970’s, and worked for the Chateau Ste. Michelle group for seventeen years.  During that time, I noted that there were two grape varieties being grown in Washington but not in California--Aligoté and Blaufrankisch (a. k. a. Lemberger).  I had visited Burgundy a number of times and had become a big fan of the underrated Aligoté there.  Similarly, a trip to Austria introduced me to a bevy of wonderful Blaufrankisch wines.  In addition to my fascination with these two varieties, a special bonus to making these wines also allowed me to continue my connection to Washington State, where I had many friends and connections.

Q.  Your full name is Jedediah Tecumseh Steele.  Your father, who was a writer specializing in American history, chose your middle name in honor of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who was born in 1768.  Can you tell us what the connection between this and Steele “Shooting Star” wines is?

A.  My father was originally a newspaperman, a copy editor, who later in life wrote historical biographies.  He had thirteen books published.  The historic American characters he focused on were relatively unknown but very important in the unfolding of our national story.  The night Tecumseh was born, there was an incredible meteor shower.  The elders of the tribe determined that this was a sign from the heavens that the baby born under the sign of these shooting stars would go on to be a great leader and chief--which he was.  Tecumseh would always be referred to as “The One Born Under the Shooting Star.”  Hence the connection between my middle name and our Shooting Star brand.

Q.  You have described yourself as a “populist winemaker,” and have said your winemaking style is “minimalist.”  Can you explain?
 
A.  When I refer to myself as a populist winemaker, I guess that I have always believed in offering wine to consumers at a reasonable price.  I have also tried to avoid all that elite pomp and circumstance that developed as California evolved into a world-renowned place for fine wine.  A connection to this theme is that I’ve always chosen to work my craft in regions such as Mendocino, Lake County and Walla Walla, places that are somewhat out of the glitzy glare of other, more famous American wine regions.

Q.  The Dalai Lama apparently said, “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” Are there any wine regions in the US, or anywhere else in the world, where you’ve never been and might like to visit?

A.  I have visited just about every major grape growing region in the world save Argentina and South Africa.  Argentina in on my bucket list, but I don’t know if I’ll make it to South Africa.  Also, though I have visited a number of Australian wine regions, I have yet to make it to Tasmania and would like to check out grape-growing on that island.

Q.  I love the creative and complex label representing a French Franc note on the “Blue Franc” bottle.  Is there a story behind this particular design?

A.   The Blue Franc label came into existence in 1995, which was before the Euro was adopted.  At that time each European country was still using its own currency.  Our label is an old French 50-Franc note (to which we gave a blue cast).  We figured that “Blaufrankisch” was too much of a tongue twister for the average wine drinker so we anglicized it to the simpler “Blue Franc.”  (There is a water-mark on the left side of the label which, on the original Franc note, looked blank unless you held it up to the light.)  For each vintage we insert the portrait of a particular winemaker I respect, or of a very special supporter of our wines.  Note that the original Franc note that we submitted to the BATF was a different denomination that depicted a comely French lass storming the walls of the Bastille.  Since she was in a “Janet Jackson pose,” the BATF nixed this version as too risqué.

Q.  What is your favorite weekday dinner--both the food and the wines (but not your own wine)?
 
A.  As far as a weekday dinner, all depends on the season.  When Dungeness crab is running, I love it with a very crisp Sancerre.  And lamb with a big Zin from Mendocino or Lake Counties.  Another favorite would be sockeye salmon with a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir.

Q.  You’ve been making wine in California for some fifty years.  Any plans for the next half century?

A.  It’s time to kick back a bit and delve regularly into my cellar to enjoy all the wines that I have cellared over the past forty-plus years….