Presence of Bob Varner
When I ask Bob Varner if having been born in the Midwest
informs his approach to
winegrowing, winemaking and the business of selling wine, he says flatly, “Um.
No. I don’t think so.” It’s a perfectly Midwestern answer – plainspoken and achingly
uncomplicated. Still, his honest, straightforward manner belies a man of ambitious, sweeping enological dreams. Over the years, Varner has become obsessed
with pursuing as pure an interpretation of Santa Cruz Mountain pinot noir and chardonnay as is humanly possible. Under his Varner and Neely labels
he does just that while maintaining a successful broad market brand,
Foxglove, which is available nationwide and in a few foreign countries.
Varner is the sole worker inside of his small,
meticulously clean winery, tucked away in a lush, wooded estate within
Portola Valley. Content to be able to access each one of his 100 wine barrels
frequently – all of them full with pinot noir or chardonnay – Varner views his
winegrower/winemaker job as a ruminative one, and finds harmony and ease
dividing each day between the winery and the vineyard.
Bob Varner: In
my mind, there is no difference between the vineyard and the cellar. I’m simply just
going from the outdoors to the indoors. They are both here, on this one piece of land.
I walk from the vineyard, into the
cellar, and in my mind, they share the same space. It’s like in France, where you have these small producers who live the
same way. ‘It’s wintertime. I’m going to go out and prune, then, I’ll come in the cellar and I’ll think about
wine’...There’s that same continuity of
creativity there. It follows you around. It’s beautiful. And I think it’s the
most direct way to express site. You’re not
translating your fruit through a
grower or a winemaker other than yourself. My goal is to express site, so this
is the most direct, uncomplicated way I know how to do this.
[As Bob’s white rescue
Shepherd makes itself comfortable at Bob’s feet, we settle into an easy
conversation. Despite its being warm and
nearly balmy in nearby Santa Cruz proper, it’s cold and foreboding today
at Varner’s vineyard and winery site, located in the heavily wooded and
fragrant Portola Valley suburb of Silicon Valley.]
R.H. Drexel: But, making wine where you’re also growing it – that’s a luxury these
days, isn’t it? How many young winemakers can actually afford vineyard land and
their own production facility?
BV: Oh, it is a luxury. It’s very rewarding for the
winemaker to work this way, but, yes, you’re right. It’s a total luxury.
RHD: Can the consumer tell the difference if a wine is made the way we’ve just
described – the way you make your wine – from estate-grown fruit at your home estate
vineyard site or in a custom crush facility?
BV: Well, that’s just
the thing. I don’t know that they would be able to. I mean, there are these young
guys out there, buying fruit where they can and custom-crushing at some
facility. And they’re making beautiful wines. They might not all be beautiful
[laughs], but some of them really are.
RHD: Still, I think for
someone who loves nature and who wants to produce truly site- driven wines…
BV: For site-driven
wines, I think this really is at least the most rewarding approach.
RHD: So, let’s talk
about this site. I was pretty blown away by your Upper Picnic Pinot Noir. What
can you tell me about that block and about the greater estate site?
BV: There’s a presence
at that site [Upper Picnic]. There’s a presence at this entire site. A
presence, and I would say energy. And also, a certain tension. So, everything I
try and do, it’s all to enhance that tension…enhance that energy. These qualities are apparent even right
after pressing the fruit. You know how pressed
wines are kind of raw and strange; I’ll still be able to sense that
presence in the just-pressed juice. And it will persist throughout production.
I think of ways to enhance or maintain these qualities, and avoid doing
anything that might dissipate that presence. I don’t have a heavy hand with
oak. I don’t do acid additions, etc.
With my Pinot Noir, for example, I don’t
put it in barrels right away. I let it stay
in tanks to try and really have a version of a wine that is very much about that tension and that energy. I
like a lot of expressive fruit in my wines. And Upper Picnic – and our other
sites here – they have very expressive fruit.
RHD: I was going to
comment on how I, too, really love the fresh fruit on your Pinot Noir, but then
I thought to myself, ‘Will this be perceived as my suggesting that these wines
are in any way flabby or showing too much fruit sweetness?…because they’re not
BV: That’s just the thing. This site is so cool that
it keeps these wines just naturally balanced.
This site gives me all of the acid and
structure I need, so I get the best of both; I get expressive, fresh fruit, and I get
the structure I need. We’re at about 700 feet elevation at this site. We have bay and ocean influences here, which keep this site very cool. Still, we
have a lot of sunshine because we’re above the fog line. It’s that
wonderful interplay between cool air and sunshine that’s perfect here.
RHD: Tell me about your
approach to winemaking.
BV: I’m trying to think
of how to say this…Okay, you can choose to try and make your wine from the
outside looking in. You can try and think of all kinds of manipulations to do
in the cellar. Or, you can start from the inside, and try and understand what’s
there. That’s as true for me in the vineyard as it is in the cellar. The longer
I’m at this vineyard, the more I’m comfortable just letting the vines do their
thing. I just go back to the basics. Always back to the basics. If the farming
is good, if the fundamentals are in check – pHs, etc. – and if you have natural
balance in the vineyard and cleanliness in the cellar, then you’re not going to
screw up. You just have to have the basics covered.
RHD: I like your
practical, non-dramatic way of looking at things.
BV: Well, that’s just from having been through lots of
adventures. You know…good vintages, bad vintages, whatever challenges
you can imagine at harvest. Sometimes, as a winemaker, you wonder how you’re
going to get through the next 24 hours. So, you just start working, and somehow
you get through it.
RHD: What’s the best
thing about being a winegrower and a winemaker?
BV: Probably the
opportunity to get into the cycle of the seasons by just being with the vines and the wine. They flow along with
the seasons...the change of seasons. I think that’s a pretty nice thing. If you
can hooked into that, boy, it’s fun! When
spring is ending, you’ll have this
great, cool morning. You’ll notice this spring-like cloud pattern, but the
scenery will draw in more sunlight. And, you’ll know: okay, we’re experiencing a transition here. You’ll see
it in the vines. They’ll start to change. The same is true in December. The
wine will have been in the barrel, developing over the course of a year, let’s
say. And you’ll taste it at year’s end, and you’ll see that it’s not as primary
as it once was.
RHD: What’s the worst
thing about it?
[Here, Bob stops to think for what feels
like an awful long time, so I try and help him along.]
RHD: When I ask
winemakers this question, most of them say: ‘Compliance or sales calls.’
BV: Oh, I love sales
RHD: Okay. That’s a
first. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone give me that answer.
BV: I really do. You
get to interact with people, and you get honest feedback. I just did a sales
call at K & L the other day. They were really professional and they
provided honest feedback. And, you know, working
with distributors and brokers…I don’t mind that,
either. There’s a place for everyone in the wine business. There’s a place for
distributors, to be sure. Listen, sure, you lose money on the margins, but if
you don’t have them, you have to travel more, rent cars, pay for hotels, worry about collections on accounts… I like
distributors because if they
represent our brands, I can spend
more time at the vineyard and at the winery. That’s how I
like it to be. The more time I can spend
connected to this place – to the vines, to the wines – the better.
RHD: Your brother is
also your business partner – Jim Varner.
BV: Yes, Jim really manages the business side of the winery. And it works
out pretty nicely. I very much respect his opinion on the winemaking side of
things. I may not always listen
[laughs heartily] but I respect his opinion. We realized early on that
it would be smart to have someone in charge of the vineyard/winery, and someone in charge of the business end of things.
What’s important is that each one of us has a say in the other’s area.
Beyond that, it works pretty well.
RHD: Tell me about
BV: We make Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. They are all un-oaked.
RDH: Is that to save
money, as they’re, what…about $15 a bottle?
BV: It helps to save
money, but it was really more of a creative choice. I guess the savings cost would be more in the labor involved in
having barrels, the topping off, etc. But I think I would have gone with un-oaked on these wines, anyway. I wanted to
preserve the freshness of the
berry-like nuances in the Zinfandel. Also, with the Cabernet, I just wanted to maintain that
liveliness, that freshness. I felt the oak would just mute that fresh fruit. And we get our Chardonnay from fairly down
south. It’s a warmer spot for Chardonnay, so I don’t want to weigh it
down further with oak. I like to preserve the white flower component we get
with our Chardonnay fruit.
RHD: So, back to the
other half of my original question. What’s the worst thing about being a
BV: Every job has its
tedious aspects, but I really can’t think of anything.
I was already quite taken with Bob’s wines before I ever met
him. There are those who say a wine just tastes better when it’s consumed on
site where it was made. I don’t know that I agree with that summation. Bob’s
wines were as good the day I had them for the first time, in a private home, as
they were when I tried them later at his winery.
His answer to my final question to him, however, is what sealed the fate
of my fandom for all wines Varner.
Editors Note: This article was first published in Loam Baby, Volume 2