Ladies of “The Dust”
An interview with Honig winemaker Kristin Belair
A few weeks ago I attended a private tasting focusing on Cabernets from the Rutherford, CA viticultural area. The Rutherford appellation located in the Napa Valley area of northern California is comparatively small but mighty. It is approximately 6 square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars and BV Vineyard #2 along Highway 29. It ends at Zinfandel Lane, 3.3 miles to the north, and stretches across the valley 2 miles at its widest point from Mt. St. John on the West to the Vaca Mountain Range on the East. There are 77 property owners and 48 wineries. Wines produced from the grapes grown here reflect a distinct Rutherford character. Commonality includes notes of luscious cherry, plenty of juicy blackberry, bright plum, elegant cassis and some agreeable black pepper, caramel and herbaceousness.
The term “Rutherford Dust” is often defined by sources as, “The legendary reason why Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the soil of the Rutherford area produce such excellent wines.” In my opinion, one of the reasons this legend perpetuates is Kristin Belair, winemaker for Honig Vineyard and Winery. Among her many many (did I say m-a-n-y) awards is a recent Wine Spectator 93 point award for her 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was also designated as one of the top 100 wines of 2013. Pretty much a walk-in-the park for Ms. Belair.
As you read through the interview below, you’re going to get a delicious peek into Kristin’s life as one of the “ladies of the Dust.” This is a light-hearted, but serious interview from a woman who makes magic in the vineyards and the bottle – a true dust to bottle kind of woman. I am thinking you’ll enjoy this chat as much as I did. As Kristen has been heard to say, “Wine has an extraordinary way of connecting together people, places and experiences.”
Name: Kristin Belair
Winery: Honig Vineyard and Winery
LK: When did your interest in winemaking begin?
KB: I was a struggling undergraduate biochemistry student at UC Davis, when a chance conversation with a classmate pointed me in the right direction. He had just entered the winemaking program and was very excited about it.
LK: How long have you been a winemaker?
KB: I experienced my first harvest as a cellar intern in 1981, so over 30 years.
LK: Which of your jobs has made the biggest impact on your success?
KB: I’ve been the winemaker at Honig since 1998, so coming up on my 17th harvest here. Prior to that I was at Johnson Turnbull/Turnbull Wine cellars from 1985-1997.
LK: Did you do an apprenticeship or go through a formal wine school, program or course? If so, could you tell us about it? If no, how did you learn to become a winemaker?
KB: I am still in wine school! LOL, I have a BS in Enology from UC Davis and gained practical experience from some great cellar and lab internships, mostly here in Napa Valley. Even though I have been out of formal school for quite some time now, I still attend seminars and classes so I can stay current on new developments and research. Every vintage offers opportunities to learn something new and refine my craft.
LK: What is your favorite part of your job?
KB: The creativity and the comradery. And, I am involved in making something that is tangible and ephemeral at the same time.
LK: Which one of your current wines would you recommend for a novice drinker? Which one for the aficionado?
KB: Honig Sauvignon Blanc offers an approachable experience for a novice and enough complexity to be enjoyable to an aficionado.Perfect! They can share!
LK: What is your favorite type of varietal or blend to work with?
KB: I don’t have a favorite per se, but we have a saying here at Honig, “Friends don’t let friends drink chardonnay.”
LK: How much time do you spend in the vineyards?
KB: Lots! With grapes being our raw ingredients, it is important to understand how the season is influencing the grape characteristics. This allows us to adjust our winemaking protocols to produce delicious wines year in and year out.
LK: What is your favorite time of the growing season?
KB: Winter! I love to ski…oh wait, growing season, Harvest! It is the most intensely creative time of year, full of surprises and challenges and comradery is at its best.
LK: What are the highlights of your career, your “ah ha” or “wow” moments?
KB: Tasting some older wines that I made and recognizing that there was a consistency of style and structure, even though the grape sources and production protocols were very different. Then, having a random winery visitor sharing the same observation without knowing my history.
LK: When you go out for a glass of wine, where do you go?
KB: A brew pub. I enjoy craft/micro brews and after working with wine all day it is nice to have a change. For wine, it is usually a special bottle chosen for a dinner with family and friends, often cooked at home.
LK: How do you work with local growers, if you do?
KB: I work closely with our growers throughout the season and as it gets close to harvest we talk a lot. We have worked with many of our growers for several seasons and some for more than 10 years. With that amount of time, they understand what we are looking for in the grapes that go into Honig wine. I always try to connect what happens in the vineyard and the growing season to the final outcome in the bottle.
LK: What is the one thing you haven’t done yet in your winemaking career yet that you would like to accomplish?
KB: My 65th Vintage!
LK: Anything else you would like to share about being a winemaker?
KB: I love knowing that I play a part in creating something that people are enjoying in many different settings with family and friends. Wine has an extraordinary way of connecting together people, places and experiences.”
LK: Would you share a recipe with us that incorporates one of your wines?
KB: Early fall simplicity: Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Oysters (raw) under a full moon.
Honig Vineyard & Winery
850 Rutherford Road
Rutherford, CA 94573