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Winemaker Dan Karlsen Unfiltered
By W. Blake Gray
Aug 24, 2010
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Dan Karlsen doesn't do a lot of interviews, which is a shame because unlike many media mavens, he has a lot to say. Like this tidbit: "People who do saignee rot in hell."
Karlsen turned a temp job as a carpenter into a 30-year career in the California wine industry, including long stints as winemaker at Domaine Carneros and Chalone Winery. During that time he tried to stay out of the spotlight.
Now he's winemaker at Talbott Vineyards in Carmel Valley, which pushed him out on the road. I need to thank Robb Talbott for the entertainment.
Let me set the scene. My wife and I met Karlsen at Perbacco, one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. His PR handler left the room to fetch a chilled bottle of Talbott Chardonnay. She was gone maybe 10 minutes; by the time she returned, I had filled six pages of notes and was trying to remember all the good stuff I missed.
His handler apologized profusely. Are you kidding, Michelle? I like wine unfiltered; why wouldn't I want the winemaker unfiltered as well?
What made it great wasn't just that Karlsen talked a lot. Unlike better-trained interview subjects, much of what he said was completely counter to what you hear from everyone else.
He's a guy with a track record to back up his views. He started in the wine industry by building a new wing onto Dry Creek Vineyards for $6 an hour, with his only benefit being that winery owner David Stare let him move his trailer to the property and poach Stare's electricity.
Tom Dehlinger noticed Karlsen's palate and hired him as assistant winemaker. Hired away by Domaine Carneros, he became winemaker in 1992 before being recruited by Chalone as winemaker and general manager in 1998. He left when Diageo bought Chalone: "After that it just wasn't fun anymore."
To try to let you share the fun of dining with him, I'm going to run a raging river of Karlsen, with a few notes from me for context. I'll be back at the bottom with a few thoughts on his wines.
Karlsen: "Every great vintage in California is the big-crop year, not the small-crop year. Kids with no experience in farming buy very expensive fruit and ask the farmer to drop half the crop. Then they invented a science called canopy management. They want you to go in and cut off half your leaves. If you want to devigorate your plant, you don't not give it water. You grow a bigger crop."
On the grapes themselves: "Americans are obsessed with the skin layer. I'm obsessed with the center of the grape. Great flavors don't come from the skin layer, they come from the free run (juice). Can you name a good flavor that comes from a grape skin? A skin adds intellectual tension, not flavor."
On bleeding off some juice from red wine: "People who do saignee rot in hell. They talk about the great rose they're making. It's fresh, it's lively. That's what you just stole from your red wine. Wines that are made from saignee have a lot of power up front, but they're hollow. Wine critics don't get this because they don't swallow. They don't notice."
(Oops. But if he noticed me spitting, it didn't slow him down.)
"My least favorite thing is selling grapes to other people. Winemakers drive me crazy. They're buying into a lot of voodoo."

Me: Such as biodynamics?
Karlsen: "If somebody asks us to do it, we kick them off the property. We farm the way we want to farm. We don't farm any differently for other people than we do for ourselves. I wouldn't trust a winemaker to make farming decisions."
(But don't think Karlsen is anti-environment; he bucked a trend by moving Talbott to the lightest bottles available.)
"Every truck that leaves our winery is six tons lighter. Those heavy bottles cost a fortune to buy and an ocean of fuel to melt. When you double the weight of a bottle, you double the environmental impact."
On ripeness: "A lot of the anti-ripeness school is driven by grape growers who are tired of it. We don't have a problem with overripe fruit in California. We have an enormous problem with underripe fruit with high sugar."
"Winemaking is a lot like pottery. Too many winemakers are obsessed with painting the pottery. I'm obsessed with getting the wall thickness the same."
"All these winemakers today are amazing with spreadsheets. But I think commercial wines are not enjoyable."
"Wine is nothing more than the flavor of a grape without sugar. Can you imagine going into a supermarket and tasting a peach with no sugar?"
"My ego trip comes from making the (second label) Kali Hart, that a consumer can enjoy, that can win the empty bottle test."
There was more -- a lot more -- but that's the best of it. We tasted Talbott's current releases and I liked the '08 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both $40). The Chard, "100% malolactic because that's what Sleepy Hollow wants to do," was ripe and luscious, but also had good acidity and felt leesy on the back of the tongue, when I swallowed.
The Pinot had strong notes of raspberry and black tea and was much more savory on the palate than the nose.
Karlsen showed a different touch with the Talbott Cuvee RFT Diamond T Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir 2008 ($75), which had strong notes of root beer spice to go with cherry fruit and dried meat.

Any of those three could have passed the empty-bottle test for me. They're wines with big personalities, and that's appropriate.