Kristie Tacey started Tessier (the original French spelling of her last name) in 2009 after spending three and a half years as the Assistant Winemaker and Operations Manager at Oakland’s Lost Canyon Winery (until the brand was acquired by Fritz Winery of Sonoma). Kristie then decided to go off in her own direction, focusing on producing barrels of distinct clones of Pinot Noir, making them in a small century-old warehouse near Oakland's Jack London Square. Her wines are elegant and structured, and completely unexpectedly produced in an industrial area in the Bay Area.
Q&A with Kristie Tacey of Tessier Winery
What made you decide to get into the wine industry?
I was a research scientist for 10 years, working at the University of Michigan medical center, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and then a local biotech. After being published several times in scientific journals and working on the human genome project, I felt I had achieved what I needed by then. Plus, life as a scientist was turning more from lab work to computer analysis and statistics, which got me wondering what else I could do with my microbiology degree.
Luckily, my cousin Mat Gustafson (who is the winemaker/owner of Paul Mathew Vineyards) in Sonoma and kept urging me to consider his path. Since urban wineries were cropping up all over the East Bay and one had an opening for an interesting position.... I made the leap. The wine industry was just what I was looking for—a blend of science and art.
What is the story with your label?
The label is an homage to my past career as a scientist. The front label features an image of yeast cells, and it is round in order to appear as if you were looking through the microscope, shown on the back label. Yeast is the most important microorganism in winemaking, it consumes the sugar and makes alcohol as a byproduct. So we wouldn't have wine without it!
How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
I strive to make a well balanced wine with subtle complexities. My 2009 Pinot Noir is more Burgundian in style, while my 2010s seem to yield a more fruity Californian style.
What wines or winemakers helped influence your philosophy?
First, my cousin took me wine tasting when I was in my early twenties. He cultivated my love for Pinot Noir. Then later talking me into taking the leap from my biotech job into the winery world. Secondly, I was also heavily influenced by Lost Canyon Winery, this is where I got my start with actually making Pinot Noir. Jack States was a great mentor, very encouraging, good palate and a mellow personality. Finally, I was very inspired by Merry Edwards and her wines. She is a wonderful Pinot Noir winemaker and had a strong science background, similar to myself.
How involved in grape-growing are you? Is there a particular vineyard site that wows you year after year?
Since I am relatively new as a winery, I have only worked with Saralee Kunde. She has been growing grapes for 26 years and is very humble and down to earth. I love the fruit from Saralee's and Trenton Station Vineyard. Another vineyard that I love is Keefer Ranch in the Green Valley AVA, a sub-appellation of Russian River Valley. I am on their wait list for Pinot Noir.
What is your production level like?
My first two vintages—2009 and 2010—produced about 8 barrels, less than 200 cases. We will see how 2011 turns out.
How is the urban winery scene/community evolving? Are there any disadvantages?
It is really nice for events and getting people together. Everyone tries to help each other out, since we are all small. I really like the community side of it, it is a great support system. In fact, I probably wouldn't have gotten started if it wasn't for all the advice and help I received from the local wineries.
What advice would you give to people considering getting into small production winemaking in an urban setting?
It is a social industry and people are very friendly and helpful. But there are long hours from August or September through November. After all, it's not called "crush" only because of what happens to the grapes.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the wine industry today?
The biggest challenge for me right now is the economy. Folks want a cheaper Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is particularly hard to keep the bottle price low. This is due to the cost of good fruit, French oak barrels (about 30-50% new) and sensitive conditions that Pinot Noir thrives in.
What changes are planned for coming vintages? Any new (top secret) varietals, blends or propriety wines on the horizon?
In a couple weeks, vintage 2010 will be bottled. There are 3 different Pinot Noirs: Las Brisas Vineyard from Carneros, Saralee's Vineyard from RRV, and a RRV blend.
This year, I will be attempting to make a Grenache from the Sierra foothills. I wanted a hotter region than RRV for the Grenache, something more similar to the Southern Rhone region in France. That is how I decided on the El Dorado AVA, which is a sub-appellation in the Sierra Foothills. They get the hot days at higher elevations with no coastal fog.
You focus on specific clones, generally what do they yield as far as variation?
There are subtle differences between all the Pinot Noir clones, which I find fascinating. My interest was originally piqued back in the Lost Canyon days when we attended Saralee Kunde's annual tasting for winemakers for the 2006 vintage. This was a particularly hard year for color extraction, but clone 37 had a beautiful purple magenta color and it really stood out. In 2007, we added clone 37 to our portfolio, in addition to the our other clones: 777, 4, and 115. This was a fantastic harvest year. The clones were able to ripen and be picked at their own rate, which allowed us to keep them separate until just before we assembled the blends. It was at this time that I tasted clone 37 on its own and loved the structure, color and flavor profile. Single-clone Pinot Noirs are relatively uncommon, but I like when they can stand on their own. Clone 115 is another favorite, which you will soon be able to taste on its own in my 2010 Tessier Saralee's Vineyard, Clone 115.
Is there a style of wine that you think appeals to critics that might not represent your favorite style? How do you deal with it?
I'm not a big fan of "fruit bombs" that have extra-heavy oak, and little acidity with no structure. I think you have to keep it real to you. It's important to make wine that you love, in case it doesn't sell, and you will be the one drinking it all.
The 2009 Tessier "Trenton Station Vineyard Clone 37" Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($37.99) is elegant, structured, and beautifully balanced. In stock now at K&L!