The Decanter Interview: Sashi Moorman

  • Thursday 29 May 2014

One of California's brightest talents, the winemaker for Stolpman in Santa Barbara has also found time to pursue other exciting projects, and to set up his own wine label. Stephen Brook met him during a rare gap in his schedule

Sashi Moorman

Moorman at a glance

Born California, March 1972
Education Geography degree from Vassar (1994)
Family Married with one daughter
Career Winemaker for Stolpman since 2001; founded Piedrasassi in 2003; winemaker for Sandhi wines from 2010; co-owner of Domaine de la Côte from 2013
Hobbies Photography and cooking

It is often noted that there is no word for winemaker in French or German, but it’s different in the New World, where making wine is a profession, a career. In California, the likes of David Ramey, Helen Turley or Philippe Melka are superstars.

Sashi Moorman is of the new generation of winemakers, imbued with a bright intelligence and technical competence driven by a passion for wine. Within a short time he has become greatly admired and influential in southern California, and is equally adept in the vineyard and the winery. His main job is as winemaker for Stolpman, but he is involved in other projects as well as his own label.

His background is a patchwork and his family had no great interest in wine. His mother is Japanese and he lived in Japan until the age of five, then in Alaska for 10 years, before moving to Washington. At university he studied geography, but wrote his thesis on Zinfandel. After graduation he worked in restaurants, where he was exposed to good Italian wines, before joining Ojai in southern California, where he was the sole employee. Owner Adam Tolmach was a veteran winemaker, formerly a partner of Jim Clendenen in Santa Maria Valley. After five years Moorman was ready to move on and became the winemaker at Stolpman in Santa Barbara, where he made his first vintage in 2001.

‘I became intrigued by issues like high-density planting and biodynamics,’ he says. ‘Jeff Newton, who developed the Stolpmans’ vineyard, wasn’t comfortable with a lot of these ideas, but as we talked things through I gained more confidence. I realised there was no way to run a serious vineyard without ruling out herbicides. All vineyards here should be farmed organically.’ Apart from organic farming’s benefits to vines, he also finds that organic grapes are healthier and easier to ferment.

In 2003 he founded his own label, Piedrasassi, but annual production has never exceeded 1,000 cases. In the same year he met Rajat Parr, who became a pivotal figure in his life. Parr was the wine director for a large restaurant group. He was close to Clendenen, sharing his view that even in California it was possible to make elegant wines with verve and modest alcohol. In 2010, Moorman and Parr set up Sandhi Wines, with financial backing from Charles Banks, former owner of Screaming Eagle and now the owner of Jonata and Mayacamas.

Taking risks

But before that happened Moorman became involved in Evening Land Vineyards (ELV), an ambitious project conceived by various partners with a view to making cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Oregon. Domaine des Comtes Lafon’s Dominique Lafon lent the project great prestige by taking a consultant role in Oregon, and Moorman was taken on to develop the Santa Rita Hills vineyards.

Never one to play safe, Moorman selected a lofty and extremely cool, windy site near the town of Lompoc. Instead of planting the fashionable Dijon clones, he opted for Californian clones such as Calera, Mount Eden and Swan. ‘I wanted domestic material that had been selected over decades for Californian conditions, encouraging better acidity and slower sugar accumulation,’ he said.

These are dramatic vineyards, exposed to lots of sunlight but also to temperatures that rarely exceed 27°C. Flowering can be difficult, so clusters are very small, giving great intensity of flavour, even though alcohols range modestly from 11.5% to 12.5%.

At the top of the site is the Siren’s Call vineyard: head-trained, ungrafted vines planted at an astonishing 17,000 vines per hectare. Another site is planted with seedlings. ‘We collected the seeds from Pinot grapes in isolated vineyards in Sonoma. The idea is to allow the full genetic background of Pinot Noir to express itself. Some of the grapes have turned out to be Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris! My purpose is to open the book and allow us to find a new selection of Pinot Noir that’s fully pertinent to California and its conditions.’

The ELV project ran into difficulties in 2011, and its founding partner left. His replacement wasn’t particularly enthralled by Santa Rita Hills wines and in 2013 Rajat Parr and Moorman were able to buy the 17-hectare vineyard with backing from one of the remaining ELV partners. Parr and Moorman now had complete control of one of California’s most remarkable, if idiosyncratic, vineyards, and they renamed the site Domaine de la Côte.

In the meantime, Sandhi was getting off the ground as a négociant winery buying fruit from exceptional vineyards in Santa Rita, such as one of the oldest blocks (planted 1971) of Sanford & Benedict. The district is hailed as a source of outstanding Pinot Noir, but Moorman believes Chardonnay’s potential is greater. ‘In my experience Pinot struggles to reach phenolic maturity here, and the tannins can be rustic, whereas Chardonnay never has such problems. With Pinot you either decide to pick soon, and risk having greenness, or you wait for full phenolic maturity, and you end up with overripe, dense wines.’

Elegance, minerality, grace

The La Côte Pinots are extraordinary. None of the three bottlings I have tasted exceeds 12.8%. They have very different characters, but share aromatic density, concentration and persistence, and have tremendous drive on the finish. Yet they show no trace of greenness. Moorman explains: ‘Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac once told me that rain before harvest in Burgundy can lead to a softening of stems that remain green. But here we have Indian summers that result in dry, lignified stems, making whole-cluster fermentation risk free when it comes to greenness. I stop irrigation after veraison (when the grapes turn from green to red) to allow the stems to lignify so that they lose moisture and turn brown. Growers who keep watering after veraison risk having green stems, not to mention higher yields and potential dilution. Only if you have full control over the vineyards, as I do, can you ensure the irrigation is switched off.’

Tasting the Sandhi Chardonnays, I was amazed at the minerality of bottlings from the Sanford & Benedict and Rita’s Crown vineyards. ‘Yes! And it’s not hard to achieve!’ enthused Moorman. ‘Anyone can do this if they farm correctly and retain high acidity in the grapes. There’s not much room for innovation in winemaking, yet the Sandhi project gives me the chance to interpret new or revisited terroirs.’ To respect those terroirs, he’s abandoned the use of new oak barrels and the wines are neither fined nor filtered, in contrast to the early years at Stolpman, when he was using up to 100% new oak.

From his own Piedrasassi label I tasted a Syrah from the Rim Rock Vineyard in Nipomo, which is close to the ocean, and remarked on the wine’s graceful character. ‘Graceful is very difficult to do in California,’ agreed Moorman, ‘but the style is what I cut my teeth on in Europe. Terroir matters to me, but winemaking style also plays a big role. My style has changed too, from more extracted, oaky wines to those that show a lighter touch. And I no longer age reds in new oak. Tasting with Rajat helped me make that transition. But it’s still hard to learn to leave stuff behind during fermentation, to grasp that you don’t need to extract absolutely everything. No one in California talks about elegance, but in a place like Côte-Rôtie most producers deliver it effortlessly. It intrigues me. How does it happen: that collective consciousness in the northern Rhône or Burgundy that puts elegance rather than power and concentration
at the top of the list?’

Deep thinker

It should now be clear that Moorman reflects deeply. ‘I remain fascinated by what you might call the philosophical side of viticulture: the niceties of pruning, bush vines, organic farming, and density. At Stolpman we’ve just planted a block of Syrah using provignage, a system that dates back to Roman times and still exists in some pre-phylloxera vineyards in Champagne. You train the shoots of a single cutting to form a new vine, so that eventually the whole block is filled with thousands of vines that all share the same root system. I don’t know how it will work out, but it’s exciting to try. I find that initiatives such as this keep my juices flowing. That’s also why we planted seedlings in one vineyard of La Côte. It was to see if we could produce a vine resistant to phylloxera. It’s a remote possibility but one worth exploring.’

I wondered how Stolpman feels about Moorman spending so much time on other projects. He explained that he remains the Stolpman winemaker but has formed his own company, employing two other winemakers and a viticulturist. Between them they make the wines from Stolpman, Sandhi and La Côte, leaving Moorman with enough time to develop the vineyards. ‘Stolpman agreed to this structure as it allows me to grow and explore. It keeps me fresh, rather than tying me to a nine-to- five routine. Most winemakers, even the most celebrated, are essentially salesmen, spending a huge amount of time travelling to present their wines or hosting dinners and other events. I’ve never wanted to do all that. I value the time to stay in my vineyards and in the winery.

‘I’ve realised that to make good wine you need to have a direct influence on the farming. I actively want vintage variation rather than consistency from year to year, and to do that it’s crucial to understand the vineyards you are working with. Larger wineries and négociants want, maybe need, a consistent product. I like the opposite.’

Moorman is personable and articulate, and a man of astonishing energy (he and his wife have just founded a bakery in Lompoc using their own wheat farm), but the wines need to deliver. There are other winemakers seeking to make wines of clarity and limpidity, but they have had mixed success. Moorman seems to have cracked it after only a dozen years in the business. Endlessly curious, as passionate about viticulture as winemaking, it will be fascinating to see where his multiple intellectual journeys take him next.

Stephen Brook has been a contributing editor to Decanter since 1996 and is the author of more than 30 books, including The Wines of California and The Finest Wines of California

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