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Wine and Spirits : WINEMAKER OF THE YEAR : Civilizing the Central Coast

TIMES WINE WRITER

The best winemakers are great improvisational dancers.

In addition to possessing technical skill and artistic creativity, they must be able to adapt to changes in vineyard conditions on a year-to-year basis.

Chuck Ortman, Meridian Vineyards’ winemaker and my pick for winemaker of the year in 1994, has shown the ultimate in flexibility: Not only was he a great winemaker in the Napa Valley, but now he has used his skill to create great wines in an entirely different region, California’s Central Coast.

It’s true that Ortman has two things going for him that make his job seem easier: He has some of the best grapes in the world, and he works for a company (Nestle) that is not so bottom-line-oriented that it expects a profit from every grape.

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Yet Ortman has defied the odds. He has taken Meridian from nowhere in 1988 to a position of national preeminence in far less time than any other start-up winery in memory.

He has done so with a broad array of grape varieties, some widely produced (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon), some difficult to make (Pinot Noir), and some simply rare (Syrah, Pinot Blanc).

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And he has done it in volume, making hundreds of thousands of cases of wine of impeccable consistency. And he has flatly refused to cut corners. If there’s a single barrel of wine that isn’t perfectly within the house style, no matter how good the wine is, it won’t get used.

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Spectacular the Meridian wines are not. Dependable and perfectly crafted they are. Some younger winemakers may use more exotic techniques than he, but what they are missing is that, for Ortman, consistency and incremental improvements in winemaking are more the marks of greatness than an occasional headline-grabber.

Ortman is a virtually self-taught winemaker who left a career as a graphic artist with a degree for one as a grape artist without one.

A graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, with a degree in graphic arts, Ortman was designing business forms in 1968 when he and his wife Sue agreed they should raise their then-2-year-old daughter, Gretchen, in a quiet area like the Napa Valley.

“I had always liked wine,” says Ortman, “so I drove up to the Napa Valley and interviewed with (the late) Fred McCrea (owner/winemaker at tiny Stony Hill Vineyards). But Fred hired someone bigger, someone who could move the barrels.” McCrea suggested that he see Joe Heitz at Heitz Wine Cellars. Heitz had an opening.

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Knowing little about winemaking and knowing that Heitz had a reputation as a crusty perfectionist, Ortman didn’t think he stood much of a chance to catch on there. However, Heitz was looking for a helping hand, liked Ortman’s attitude and hired him.

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“I’ll never forget my first month’s check,” says Ortman. “It was $650.”

It was hard work. He cleaned barrels, hauled hoses, did all the grunt work. Meanwhile, he watched Heitz, a brilliant technician and artisan who had worked with the late Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard, and Ortman took notes from the master.

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In 1971, after three harvests with Heitz, Ortman had learned the basics and left to make the wines at Mike Robbins’ Spring Mountain Vineyards, then four years old. That year, Ortman recalled, Spring Mountain “made” a Cabernet by buying some barrels of wine from Heitz, some from 1968 and some from 1969.

“We put both lots in a tank mounted on a truck and drove it around the valley to mix it,” he says. Today the Spring Mountain ’68-'69 blend is considered one of California’s great historic wines.

Ortman made Spring Mountain wines until 1979, then left to open a consultancy. For the next seven years, he was swamped with work.

He set the style for young St. Clement Vineyards and helped hire Dennis Johns as winemaker. Johns and Ortman remain good friends and stylistic Bobbsey Twins.

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In fact, the year Johns got to St. Clement, he was faced with two curious Cabernet Sauvignons still in the barrel, from the 1975 and 1976 vintages. As Ortman had done with the Spring Mountain wines earlier, Johns blended the two vintages, and today that ’75-'76 St. Clement Cabernet is considered one of the finest wines of the era.

Into the 1980s, Ortman helped set the style for the wines at Far Niente Winery, Shafer Vineyards, Fisher Vineyards, Monticello Vineyards and Robert Pecota Vineyards. He even assisted at Beringer Vineyards when the late Myron Nightingale was retiring.

In 1984, Ortman began his own project, making wine under the Meridian label using Napa Valley grapes. Soon he was gaining recognition as one of the top winemakers in California.

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Then a funny thing happened. He got sick of the Napa Valley with its pretension, its goal of making showcase wines by tinkering with good fruit. He was also tired of roads that were jammed with people. It wasn’t the same idyllic place he had moved to 20 years earlier.

Too, he said, by 1988 he realized he was caught in a system that irked him. He was being pressured to make wine in ways he didn’t like. The artist in him asserted itself. It was time to move on.

The answer came from Wine World. The U.S. wine division of Nestle S.A. of Switzerland had acquired hundreds of acres of prime vineyard land in Santa Barbara County as well as the bankrupt Estrella River Winery near Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. That winery, which would be redesigned, would need a new name. (The Estrella River name had been sold to another company.)

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Wine World president Michael Moone made Ortman an offer for the Meridian “package.” Moone wanted the Meridian name and he wanted Ortman to head up the budding project in California’s still wine-isolated Central Coast.

But leave the Napa Valley? The mecca of winemaking in America? Most winemakers would eschew the very thought.

“I was ready for a change,” Ortman says. “I asked Sue and she just said, ‘Well, I guess we’re off to the new frontier.’ I couldn’t have been happier. Just about then, we were looking for a new challenge.”

When he arrived in San Luis Obispo, he wore button-down shirts and crisply ironed Dockers. And he found wild, passionate, bearded winemakers who were taming the raw grape land with inventive and intuitive winemaking. Guys like Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Gary Eberle (Eberle Vineyards), Rick Longoria (Gainey Vineyard), Bruce McGuire (Santa Barbara Winery), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), and independent sparkling wine specialist Harold Osborne.

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“I need guys like Clendenen,” says Ortman. “They’re fun and they know wine. I would never say I’d never go back to Napa, but it just got too crowded there . . . and here you have cowboys who love what they’re doing.”

He adds: “Here there is a challenge every year. It’s still a young area, but the potential is fantastic.”

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Even more than his wines, Ortman’s greatest contribution to California winemaking may be his stabilizing influence on the young Central Coast region. He was the first North Coast superstar to make wine from these grapes on a more than casual basis, and though others have pushed the envelope farther and have walked closer to the cutting edge of winemaking theory, Ortman has helped focus attention on precision winemaking and leading-edge grape growing.

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One recent day, Ortman sat with Wine World’s senior grape grower, Bob Steinhauer, to discuss pruning decisions for the year, and how to strip leaves from vines at certain times during the growing year to intensify flavor.

“There’s so much more we can do,” he says.

Ortman’s finest hour here came last August at the annual KCBX-TV Wine Auction in Avila Beach. At a banquet at which he would be honored by his fellow vintners, Ortman showed up in a Brooks Bros. suit, white shirt, tie and spit-shined shoes. Most of the other winemakers wore jeans, beaded or tie-dyed shirts and boots.

Finally it came time for Ortman to receive his honor. He strode to the podium to receive a plaque from bearded, beret-topped Archie McLaren, coordinator of the dinner.

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Ortman gave a few mild opening remarks. Then, to the recorded strains of “The Stripper,” he proceeded to remove his suit, revealing outrageous pink pants and a psychedelic T-shirt. He said he had decided not to fight it any longer. He was joining them.

Chuck Ortman is now a permanent fixture of Central Coast winemaking, and the wine world is the beneficiary.


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