A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to interview one of the better winemakers in Napa Valley and a friend, Rudy Zuidema. Sometimes it is more difficult to interview someone you know relative to asking questions and getting some insight into their lives. So first before going through the questions/answers, I wanted to give some background on Rudy. The following paragraphs came from one of his introductions on his website.
“Rudy was born in Sacramento CA and grew up in the small agricultural community of Davis. He attended the University of California at Davis, studying Plant Science and Agriculture Management focusing on Viticulture. He graduated in 1991 and quickly headed for the Napa Valley wine country to find opportunities in vineyard management and winemaking. He first worked in restaurants where he could gain knowledge of food and wine pairing, and where he happily was able to taste thousands of wines from Napa Valley and other regions around the world.
His professional career start was at St. Clement Vineyards, working with local winemaker Dennis Johns. From there he climbed the industry ladder with positions in turn as assistant winemaker, head winemaker, vineyard manager and general manager at Cuvaison, Honig, Robert Craig, Ehlers Estate and White Cottage Ranch. He studied organic and biodynamic farming, receiving CCOF and Demeter certifications on several ranches. He is focused on sustainability and prides himself on his stewardship of the vineyard sites.
Rudy works with many exceptional vineyards throughout the Napa Valley region, including AVAs of Howell Mountain, Coombsville, Rutherford, Mount George, Carneros, and St. Helena. He uses a natural, respectful, and non-manipulative approach to winemaking that creates wines that tell their individual and unique stories. He believes every wine should speak of the grape that it is: the region, the vineyard, and the vintage year of its origin”.
Here are a series of questions and his responses:
*What was your first memory of wine as a child? Rudy- I remembered my father at the occasional and special dinner table raving about a great sweet wine called Blue Nun. Also Lancers and Mateus.
*When did you know you wanted to be a winemaker? Rudy- In college (UC Davis) I was originally a graphic design major but admittedly a poor one and thought my work to be “terrible”. I was looking for something else to do but was embarrassed. I looked at other departments and decided to take a “blow off course” called viticulture. It is here that “my passion took over”.
*How many wineries have you made wine? Rudy- 13. Those include wineries in Australia and the United States. Some of the standouts have been Robert Craig, Ehlers, St. Clement, Cuvaison, Honig, Patz & Hall, Shadybrook Estates and Red Cap to name a few.
*Which were your favorite experiences? Rudy – St Clement allowed me to cut my teeth, grow and expanded my knowledge and learned under the tutelage of Dennis Johns. Robert Craig was special in that I was able to find a location, help design, and see construction through on a new winery production facility from ground breaking to grand opening.
*How many varietals of wine have you made? Rudy – Up to present I have produced 12 or 13 varietals. The most difficult is Grenache due to it having a light body and can become tannic in a minute. Grenache requires balance and is extremely delicate. It is also difficult as it does not mature on the vine uniformly and must be picked between 22 to 26 brix. It is also my greatest and proudest for achieving acid, aromatics and tannins in balance in a single vintage.
*Can you describe your passion for wine? (MK -Here Rudy mentions some very insightful things) Rudy – wine is a design and art and a piece of history. Wine tells a tale of temperature (hot/cold), rain, seasonality, etc. Wine is a historian and expression of the time/vineyard. The chemistry could be different year to year.
*What is the best created thus far? (MK- He surprised me with his response as some of his best wines that I have tasted have been Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnays) Rudy – The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc at Ehlers Estate. In my opinion is the best hallmark of a varietal that was spot on.
*What will be the qualities or characteristics of your ultimate wine? Rudy – It will be one of my Cabernet Sauvignon’s. It will true and honest to Mother Nature and not forced to be something other than what is was supposed to be. I believe the winemaker should “listen” to the grapes in the vineyard and assist in their ultimate development. (MK-To this end he is doing this constantly for the various wines. We had a sidebar discussion for 20 minutes and what he calls recipe wines which not only destroy the notion of terroir but add residual sugar to appeal to the consumer).
*Happiest experience as a winemaker? Rudy – In 1998 and 2000 making a good wine from a bad year that was weather related. Also in 2011 I made an old world quality wine.
*You started as vineyard manager (still does some today), how did you make the transition to winemaker? Rudy – I originally tried retail wine sales, but wanted something more diverse. I think now my roots of graphic design, is now “in a bottle”.
*Are you married? Children? – (MK- While knowing his wife and that he had four children some insightful things came to light) Rudy – I was at a party at the Calistoga Inn at “Locals Night” and essentially knew everyone there but did not know this nice young blonde who just moved to Napa Valley from Southern California. I introduced myself and now Amy is my wife. We have four children 18, 17 and 15 year old twins. (MK- I will not get into details, but we spoke of parenting and with the same articulation as vineyards and wines, he talked about each one of his children being able to express their own identity. His view is shepherding and not changing their fundamental character. This could have been the highlight of our two plus hour conversation).
*What are you hobbies you enjoy? (MK- Having played a few rounds of golf with Rudy, I knew the answer before I asked it) Rudy – I enjoy golf and recently experienced an odd round due to time constraints. I played 9 holes early in the morning, worked during the day, had some after school activities with the kids and then at dusk finished the back 9 holes. I am fiercely competitive golfer but currently have little time to devote to it right now. My other passion is cooking.
At the end of our conversation, we both forgot to taste any wines and hurriedly tasted a 2016 Rapp Ranch Chardonnay from Carneros and soon to be released 2016 Shadybrook Cabernet Sauvignon. Will make up for this on the next visit.
This is one of the few formal interviews I have conducted and the only one with an established friend. Amazingly, you come to find out more in depth and personal convictions about a person than playing a round of golf trying to understand grunts and an occasional “high five”. Rudy is a poetic winemaker and exceptional father. Kudos my friend and keep making excellent wines!
For other stories on Rudy’s wines click below: