Friday, August 6, 2010

Artist to Artist: An Interview with Heidi Barrett

Father, chemist. Mom, artist. Child, Heidi Barrett. It’s that formulaic. Well, no. I’m leaving out real winemaking mastery, a pleasant Humanness, and vision. We sat down, artist to artist, at Revana Family Vineyard in St. Helena, to discuss Craft, her life on the stage-without-end that is wine. “I often wonder if I would’ve found this if I would have been born into a different family,” she said. Me, hysterically thankful she wasn’t; Try some of this Dry Muscat I’m sipping and you’ll understand that sentiment. Ms. Barrett has been making wines for about thirty years, and in that span has provided nothing but inventiveness and sagacity, unequivocal prowess. She told me that everything starts with the grapes, and the unavoidable risk entailed in that reality. I sit down with her, eager to learn about Craft, wine, and her, how she does what does, so consistently.

The more Mrs. Barrett spoke, the further fascinated I found myself in her ideas and artistic vision. Her background of this artistic chemistry introduces a veritable verisimilitude of winemaking magic. Don’t believe me, take a sip of my favorite, the Pirate TreasuRed.

La Sirena, Heidi’s new label, offers this stylistically smooth and consistent push that she’s known for. I asked her, “Tell us a little about La Sirena and, my favorite, Pirate TreasuRed. Why’d you pick those names? What was your inspiration?”

H: Well, La Sirena is my own brand, and La Sirena of course means ‘The Mermaid‘ in both Spanish and Italian. And, it’s a way that I could combine my love of the ocean, and scuba-diving and all of that, and the magic element of wine, which we know and are all attracted to, with this magical element of a mermaid being this mythical, magical being. You know, if I wasn’t a winemaker I probably would have been a marine biologist, I just love all things ocean. I’m a big diver, so it’s a fun way for me to combine the two things.

The Pirate Wine is named Pirate Treasure Red [TreasuRed], actually a play on ‘treasured’. And that came about through, really, fluke blending, actually. This last spring, or a years ago spring, where I had made a bunch of little experimental lots...And I made things like Grenache--one of the growers said “I’ve got a little Grenache, do you want some?” I said, “Yes, absolutely. I would love to make a little Grenache.” I had no idea really how I was going to use it. I kind of was thinking that might be fun to blend into one of my Syrahs, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Anyway I made some Petite Verdot, I had Cabernet Franc, which I always make actually, I also made a little bit of Petite Sirah, which was really fun to have in the toolbox. And, so making my blends for ’07, those little odds and ends weren’t really fitting into my set product. We talked about being consistent, they didn’t really go in the Cab, they couldn’t really go with the Syrahs that I make, and certainly not the Dry Muscat. So, I had all these different reds, and I just started creating this whole new blend, and I ended up using seven different varieties for this delicious blend. I was thinking, I love this wine, I wish I had a product for it. I didn’t have a place for it to go, so it was a chance to create something new, create a new name, and I was thinking “Treasure of the Seven Seas.” I gotta be able to name this “Pirate,” so I of course then did the background check on if anybody had that for wine, because I could actually trademark that, and I was quite surprised to see that nobody had that. So, Pirate TreasuRed is our trademark, and it kind of took on a life of its own.

And that’s how it happens, I thought to myself. The project projecting the projector, the creation controlling the creator, orchestra orchestrating conductor. Heidi and I continued to talk about Craft, and where it leads, and then I asked her, somewhat abruptly: “[speaking into the voice recorder like a cheesy sleazy journalist] I’ve been saying for a long time that the art picks you, you don’t pick the art, and I want to see if Heidi Barrett, for the record, agrees with that. Heidi?” She responded with that comforting smile, “Yeah, I would say so, yeah. I kind of fell into it because of my family, I was never pushed into it, but I was definitely introduced to it at a young age.” As she stopped in her speech, I thought to my Self, “these artistically metaphysical strands of winemaking need to be discussed, or at least acknowledged, more, much more. If Heidi Barrett is stating, on record, that they had to do with her development as a wondrous winemaking beacon, then one should heed and reflect.

Another question I had for Heidi directly addressed the spreading trend of wine eduction: “Do you see consumers now as more interested in wine education?”

H: Yeah, I think there is a trend toward that, with both food and wine. As people get more into it, they want to learn more about ‘where does your food come from’, ‘where does your wine come from’. People want to know the source, they want to have more purity in the things that they’re consuming, and wine is definitely one of those. So they’re coming to the wineries and seeing how we make the wine and how it’s handled. And, it is hand-made, a lot of love goes into it. I think that really shows.

Another dimension of this highly heralded artist about which I just had to know, was her general thought process, so I asked “Before you actually begin production of a wine, how does it begin in your thoughts? What is your inspiration, or creative propellant? [What is your thought process?]”

H: Well, it of course starts with when we pick the grapes. So, I’m kind of ready for anything. As a winemaker, you don’t know what it’s going to be until harvest is here. So, I think I sort of have the wait-and-see-what-we-get, almost like you’re over home plate waiting for the pitch, and depending what it is, that’s going to dictate what you swing at. So, be ready for anything. It’s really no different from that. There’s a little anticipation, you never know what’s coming. We’re keeping an eye on the weather, tasting for ripeness, and it all starts really with when we pick. So that dictates a lot of how it’s going to go with winemaking, if you can get that one thing right at the beginning.

There were so many questions I had for her, before narrowing it to the 20-question script I brought to the meeting at Revana. One of the prompts for which I needed an answer, or my curiosity would forever haunt was, “Of all the wines you’ve made and released, which do you find to be the most consistent and structurally stunning, having the strongest character?”

H: Got to be, probably, a lot of the Cabs I’ve made over the years. [They] are really quite consistent within each winery. So, producer by producer, I try to keep that consistency really true, and set the style based on what happens, what type of vineyard I’m working with. If this is a hillside vineyard it’s going to gear me in a different direction than if it’s a valley floor type fruit. If it’s Oakville fruit versus Howell Mountain, for example. Or of it’s working with fruit from Calistoga, or Pritchard Hill. They’re all a little bit different, they all give me clues of how I should handle them in a winery.

I had other questions for her, like if she liked beer, on account of the expression that goes something like ‘it takes a lot of beer to make good wine’. She told me that she does in fact enjoy beer. Colder, and lighter. Above all, “it’s gotta be cold,” she enforced, with her reassuring smile. She also told me that she hopes her wines create a fun and festive occasion, anything from a family dinner to something more formal, as long as everyone’s having fun.

I also wanted to know some basic, Human, info on the artist that is Heidi Barrett. “For all those new to Earth, tell us a little about Heidi Barrett.”

H: [laughing] Well, I grew up on this planet actually. I like it quite a lot, quite a beautiful planet that we have here. I grew up in Napa Valley with a winemaker dad and an artist mother. You hear about wine being a combination of science and art and here my dad is this Ph.D scientist winemaker and my mom being the artist, so if you did a genetic cross between these two people, you’d get a winemaker. That’s exactly what happened with me, and my love of wine. I’m just sort of built for this. My genetic background is a fusion of those two things, and I find that they’re both really helpful. I actually really enjoy science, I love chemistry, I love how flavor chemistry works, and it really helps me with my blends and understanding how flavor profiles go together to give you a certain impression. But then there’s the artistic side which is the part that you just get a feel for, ant that also comes in really handy with fine wine making and fine tuning to make something just purely silky and delicious.

I remember thinking to myself, “interesting.” Artistic chemistry incarnate, right in front of me, with a scorecard that any artist, of any genre or field, would envy and attempt terminally to emulate. So, on this note of enhanced artistry, I asked her: “Like writer’s block, do you ever experience similar stalls? How do you get through them?”

H: Well, you know, I’d say the only time that it might be considers writer’s block is when I’m struggling with a blend, and I just can’t figure it out. Blending is one of my favorite parts, but it’s also one of the most challenging to get it right, but I also feel that’s one of my fortès where I really earn my keep is on the blending, ‘cause you can really elevate, or, the opposite of that with how you put your blend together. So, sometimes it goes together really well. I might even get it on my first guess. And sometimes I’m coming back, day two, try some other ideas, sleep on it and come back and see how it strikes me the next day. So, it might be just ‘okay, I’m tired, I need to start over’. But, not that often. Usually I have pretty good raw materials.

She urges to all artists: “Listen to your gut, learn as much as you can about what you’re doing.” We could all say ‘big deal, we’ve all been urged the same’. I would respond, ‘oh really? You’ve recently had a professional and highly successful artist urge you this, only inches in front of you?’ I remember this conveying comfortable chills. And as I sit here in edit mode, with a glass of her Muscat, they return.

I confessed that I loved her Dry Muscat, the Moscato Azul. And, she agrees that it makes a great pool wine. I almost leapt onto the table, to find someone else who believes in the “pool wine.” And, I’m going to further evidence my obsession with this Barrett bottle, as I re-emphasize my sipping it right now, as I edit and re-type this article. Yes, it’s that delicious, crisp, consistent, and colorful in its bright flavor profile.

Our discussion also yielded the reality that she and her husband are currently working on a project, “Barrett and Barrett.” They have an ’08 Cab that’s scheduled to be released next year, as it still gathers its posture and vivacity in barrels. This winery of their own they hope to pass onto their two daughters, one day. Family, Mrs. Barrett said, was very critical in her existence and performance. Can’t wait for this ’08 Cabernet to be out. I sense another interview (?).

One of the final questions I asked her was, “What’s the most challenging element in the winemaker’s life?”

H: Sheer stamina and determination during harvest. Trying to stay focused and rested and fresh and make constant good decisions over and over everyday. It is a marathon from the beginning to the end. You cannot miss a beat to do what we do. So, it’s harvest for sure.

So the interview was over. As quick as it commenced. My understanding of Heidi Barrett, if I’m capable of “understanding” an artist of this magnitude embodies unadulterated mastery, humility and Humanness, that artistic chemistry, determination, and vision. Just as the mermaid is mythical and primordial, so be the winemaker that sat before me and my mic. With my glass of the Azul empty, I here close the Barrett piece. But with each future lift of the glass’ stem, I’ll reflect with her words. All of them. Artist to artist, I’m thankful. Those sipping her creations, be more than thankful. Be moved, reflective.

As artists, we need to trust what we have a feel for, and just leap. Just as Mrs. Barrett did with her blends, we need to continue to try new approaches to our respective Crafts. Interviewing her was more rewarding than I projected. I edit this piece emboldened, focused, and assured, swimming in my own ocean. Listening to my Self, my instincts, prepared for any variable that the work could my way hurl. Recognizing my own chemistry, within a knotted literary artistry, I spring from this chair. Thankful to Heidi, and eager to pour myself another glass of her Muscat. I’ll come back to my writing, with a full glass, eager to swing, even if the pitch is away from the plate. Thanks, Heidi. My fellow artist, new and treasuRed friend.


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