Natty & Nasty: Kristie Tacey, Tessier Winery
The image from Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the Velvet Underground line, “Here she comes, you better watch your step,” on the Tessier homepage, may tell you more about Kristie Tacey and her new found fierceness than the subculture of the 60’s. She is on a mission and where it is going to lead remains to be seen, but no doubt about it, no one is going to hold her back.
Originally from Michigan, Kristie received her degree in microbiology from the University of Michigan in 1996 and worked as a scientist, but she began rethinking her career path when she discovered winemaking. In 2006, she traded microbiology in for a job as the Assistant Winemaker/Operations Manager at Lost Canyon Winery, studied enology at UC Davis and passed the CSW in 2013.* During that time, she worked for and consulted with several other wineries and in 2009 launched her own label, “Tessier.”
In the beginning, Kristie played it safe and went down a more conventional path, but as she’s learned more about winemaking and viticulture, tried a greater breadth of wines and, not least, gained confidence in her abilities, she has been transitioning to more “natural” practices.
Recently separated, Kristie has a new lease on life and wine. She is dedicating herself to Tessier full time, increasing her production and working with a wider spectrum of grape varieties. We sat down recently to taste some of her wines and discuss her journey, which seems to be at a crossroads despite having eight vintages under her belt.
PSB: Why did you become a winemaker?
KT: I started my career as a research scientist. I did that for ten years.
That’s why the label is round, it’s as if you’re looking through a microscope. On the back, it says, “Science is art.” I didn’t feel pulled into the science world. My cousin is a winemaker**, but I was really into botany and ecology when I was in college so it sort of triggered all of that. I was thinking about grapes that were producing fruit for this one year and then bringing it to the winery and being able to use a scientific method by using your senses, it’s really cool.
PSB: Do you find that because you have a scientific background you take a scientific, analytical approach to wine instead of just sensing your wine around?
KT: Yes, for sure. Especially when I first started, I was reading a whole bunch, in particular about what kind of yeasts to use and their expressions. But, I like wine because you can’t control it. It’s nice and I’m starting to ease into that as a person and as a scientist, just letting the wine do what it wants to do. And I think it’s way better. It’s confidence too, of doing it for a few years and working with the same vineyards and understanding what those grapes have to offer rather than trying to make it into something I want. Every year I learn something new and I’m growing as a person and as a winemaker and I really like the results.
“I definitely feel like I found my inner voice. I like going all in. I’m invested. I believe in myself.”
PSB: How hard is it to source fruit?
KT: It was nice to have those connections from Lost Canyon Vineyard. I worked with Saralee’s Vineyard – Saralee Kunde, Dutton Ranch, and the Alegria Vineyard. I knew a lot of people in the industry and then I met Ron (Mansfield)*** through the assistant winemaker at Lavender Ridge. It’s who you know, but then also being a cool chill person. That helps to keep the relationships going. Prudy (Foxx)**** is such a cool and chill person, so is Ron. They just tell it like it is. It’s a pleasure to work with them. Plus, they have a lot of experience working with the vines. You can trust them. It’s nice because I can’t be everywhere at once. It’s nice to have good people in the vineyards.
PSB: How do you find the two Pinot Noirs (Morelli Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River and Saveria from Santa Cruz Mountains) are different from each other?
KT: They’re very different. The Russian River Valley is way more earthy, mushroomy, forest floor and a little bit of mint. Whereas the Santa Cruz Mountains is more austere, rose petals. There’s more red fruit.
I’m really happy with this 2014 (Saveria). In 2015, the clusters were smaller. There’s still quite a bit of tannin and texture. It’s sort of macho for Pinot Noir. I didn’t make it (Morelli) for 2016 so it’s good to go out on a high note. I decided to make less Pinot and I’m experimenting more.
PSB: You’re widening your portfolio?
KT: For 2016 I did Gamay Noir, more Cab Franc and I did a Mourvedre from Ron Mansfield, too. It’s pushing me and challenging me to do different things. It’s been great. I just tasted with Ron and he’s really happy with the direction I took with the Mourvedre. He thinks it’s really feminine and nice so that’s a compliment. He likes that I started with Pinot Noir because then I’m more gentle or sensitive.
PSB: Who has influenced you?
KT: Merry Edwards, for sure. I emailed her a couple of times. She was a former scientist, too. She made her first couple of vintages at Moshin as well. My cousin, definitely, he passed on the love or Pinot Noir and appreciating wine. Also Ed Kurtzman.***** He was very helpful to me when Lost Canyon sold and I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” And he was like, “Start your own label.” He’s always been there for me. He’s one of my go-tos.
PSB: What have been some of your obstacles?
KT: Money, cash flow. I do it all myself and you have to wait a whole year and then bottle and then do the sales. It’s really hard when you’re small. If one barrel goes bad that’s 25 cases of my 200 case lot. It’s a lot of stress.
PSB: Has that ever happened?
KT: That hasn’t happened.
PSB: Well, it will. Maybe not that, but everybody I know has had something happen.
KT: I had some things happen. When I was bottling my 2012 vintage the corks weren’t coated and I was on a super fast pace bottling line and they were like, “The corks are having a really hard time going in.” I was like, “Keep going, it’s fine.” And they were like, “Seriously, we can’t get them out.” And I’m like, ‘What!” They were just shredding. So I had to do a whole rebottle and it’s Pinot Noir and it’s super sensitive. And then harvest was starting so I had to get through harvest with that stress and then deal with the rebottle. That was the worst.
PSB: I’ve been hearing a lot more about your wines in the last year or so. It often takes people ten years or so before they hit their stride. Do you feel like you’ve gotten there?
KT: I definitely feel like I found my inner voice. I like going all in. I’m invested. I believe in myself. I’ve been doing it for some time and I like the way the wines have turned out but it’s challenging. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s something I believe in. You have to have a thick skin.
PSB: Why are you making lighter wines?
KT: It’s to my liking. Ultimately, if I can’t sell these wines I have to drink them all so I should make stuff I want to drink. It is hard when I drink my wines at home; I’m more critical. It is hard to disconnect, but that’s why it’s great to trade with other winemakers because that way you can see where your wine fits in with the gamut of theirs.
PSB: As you know, I’m hyper critical of California Pinot Noir. There are some good ones, but when I think of the wines that really stand out, I go to the classics like Mt. Eden, Hanzell, and Calera. I recognize there are people such as yourself who are making very good wine. I like what Kenny’s (Likitprakong) doing with Ghostwriter.
KT: I like Radio Coteaux and Littorai.
PSB: Littorai is a classic, too. But then you think about all the Pinot Noir on the market, and just let’s limit it to the natural ones, there is a lot of stuff that is fine, but if I have an Aglianico or Cab Franc I usually find it to be more exciting. What do you think?
KT: People started planting a whole bunch of Pinot Noir because you can get more money per ton. In the Russian River Valley, I see there is more of a riper style, more new oak. They haven’t gotten the memo, “Back off, pick earlier, people don’t want it really hot.” That’s starting to happen up there. At Dutton Ranch, I couldn’t get them to pick early and in 2015 there were more people on board to get them to pick earlier. A shift is happening. So I wouldn’t give up on Pinot Noir, but just pick it earlier and don’t let it get ripe like Zinfandel. Stuff over 14.5 % feels really out of balance. You have one glass of wine and you feel loopy.
PSB: Is there any advice you care to give someone who wants to make wine?
KT: Get involved, taste lots of wines with many different groups to give you perspective and to find out what inspires you and turns you on. Then connect with growers that you trust and like to work with and hopefully the rest will fall into place. You’ve gotta start with quality product!
2014 Tessier Pinot Noir, Saveria Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains, California) $42
Prudy Foxx, who is one of Kristie’s heroes, manages the Saveria Vineyard. It was fermented and aged in 33% new French oak. At at nearly three years old, this wine seems to be in a good place, with cherry cola, pomegranate and red fruit.
2015 Tessier Pinot Noir, Saveria Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains, California) $45
Twenty-fifteen was the first vintage all the Tessier reds underwent native ferments and so far, so good. This Pinot Noir was whole cluster pressed and aged it in 25% new French oak with low grade filtration. The fruit jumps out of the glass and as one of my complaints about California Pinot Noir is that it is often too tutti frutti you might guess I wouldn’t dig it but I actually do. What sets it apart is that it has a high toned, red fruit character accompanied by well defined acidity and texture. It has the components for aging as well, which helps justify the price. Lively and even a little slutty, this is a California Pinot Noir with charisma!
2015 Tessier Cabernet Franc, Alegria Vineyard (Russian River Valley, California) $32
This is Tessier’s debut Cabernet Franc and it’s a solid effort. Twenty-five percent whole cluster pressed, fermented in T-bins, “lady foot” stomped, daily punchdowns and aged eight months in neutral French oak, Kristie really wanted to see what the fruit could do and it’s promising. Soft on the palate with plum, blueberry fruit, subtle hints of red pepper and tomato and a long, fruit driven finish, this is a good example of California Cab Franc that is not trying to be a lighter version of Cabernet Sauvignon or a Loire look-a-like but its own thing. I look forward to future vintages.
*Certified Specialist of Wine, an exam given by the Society of Wine Educators.
**Kristie’s cousin, Mat Gustafson, is the winemaker and owner of Paul Matthew Vineyard.
***Ron Mansfield is a well known grower and vineyard manager in El Dorado County.
****Prudy Foxx is a highly respected vineyard manager and viticulturist who works primarily in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
*****Ed Kurtzman is a veteran winemaker who is especially known for his work with Pinot Noir. He makes August West, Sandler, Mansfield-Dunne and has consulted to a number of other wineries including Freeman.