How Kivelstadt’s Sam Baron Brought The Orchard Into The Winery

Kivelstadt Cellars & Weingarten Winemaker Sam Baron said he’s never been one who’s afraid to experiment.

When he’s not making wine, the potter, painter and woodworker said he can be found working in his backyard studio and said his penchant for creative pursuits has always encouraged him to bend the rules and go places some may find uncomfortable.

If you’ve read the dossier, his latest wine experiment — co-fermenting Sauvignon Blanc with Gravenstein Apple — sounds pretty on brand.

“It seemed exciting to try this new project, it’s the kind of thing where in your mind it sounds like it would work,” said Kivelstadt’s winemaker, who joined the Sonoma-based winery in 2017. “We love heritage varietals at Kivelstadt, and what’s a more heritage varietal in California than Gravenstein apple?

“Fermentation-wise, I love co-ferments and I love ambient yeast, so the way I did it was to have the ambient yeast take off in the Sauvignon Blanc, and then I added in the Gravenstein apple when they were around the same brix, so I got this really clean ferment.

“If I have one issue with cider, it’s that there isn’t enough acid, and the tartar we get from wine grapes can really elevate a cider.”

The end result was a 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Gravenstein apple hybrid Kivelstadt calls its Gravignon Blanc. With an ABV between 9-10%, it has a lower alcohol content than a majority of wines that come out of Sonoma County and Napa Valley, he said, but that was the goal.

“For a long time, there’s been this sort of race to the top with alcohol (concentration) and now it seems like that race is going in the other direction,” Baron said. “People are becoming more interested in low alcohol, low ABV wines. And it makes sense — it works with the high-end restaurants around here that have tasting menus, and you don’t really want to start the night with a drink like a Manhattan, you want something more like an Aperol Spritz.”

The challenge of making the wine was just part of the fun, Baron said. Adding nutrients for the yeast to take off was part of the process.

“Nutrient-wise apple cider just has no yeast, or any yeast assimilable nitrogen, and YAN is a huge thing for fermentation because it’s what yeast consumes,” Baron said. “So I ran the panel and was like, ‘We really need some nutrients here.’ 

“But because we’re so sophisticated on winemaking now, I can apply those techniques to almost any fermentation and make it work. It was exciting to troubleshoot like that.”

It was a departure from making traditional wine, Baron noted.

“I usually incentivize myself to be pretty formulaic with my fermentations because I want them to represent terroir, so I try to do the same things to wine year after year so that the variations come from the vintage,” Baron explained. “It was so fun to get out of the standard formula and think critically. It was like being in school again. It was really fun and I’m really happy with the product.”

It’s been a hit. Baron said he made 300 cases and sold out of all of the wine marked for wholesale in under three weeks, though some remains available for tasting at Kivelstedt’s weingarten. He’s enjoyed the positive feedback he’s received from customers and the food pairings they’ve tried it with, which have included Foie Gras Tofu.

Baron said he looked forward to further experiments with other fruit.

“I think I would love to try pears, or break out into blueberries and blackberries — that could be very interesting as well,” he said. “I’m taking it one step at a time, and at Kivelstadt I have free range to experiment. That’s an unusual thing in Napa and Sonoma — people are pretty focused on what they do and once they get it right, the get it right. That’s not the mentality for us. There are myriad possibilities.”

This article originally ran in the May/June issue of Vintner Magazine.

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