Taking a queue from Mother Nature, Kyle and Shala Loudon, co-proprietors of Coterie Cellars in San Jose, believe that winemaking starts in the vineyard.
• By Cynthia Bournellis •
When Kyle Loudon’s son Julian was a tot and just getting the hang of talking, he surprised his daddy one day when he pointed to a barrel of wine in Kyle’s cellar and asked, “Is this one Pinot Noir or Roussanne?”
Now age five, Julian’s attention has shifted: “He really likes the forklift,” emphasizes Kyle, winemaker-proprietor of San Jose’s Coterie Cellars, a boutique urban winery that skirts the edge of Willow Glen, a cozy neighborhood of San Jose, California.
I met Kyle a couple of years ago at an industry tasting. Before I interviewed him for this story, I ran into him at a local farmer’s market. I was standing in line with fruit in hand when I heard this familiar voice. I turned to see Kyle. He was asking the vendor – with the inquisitive enthusiasm only children seem to possess – all sorts of questions about the produce he was holding.
Kyle is just as enthusiastic when he talks about agriculture, a catalyst that led him to make wine. His eyes light up and his exuberance is infectious. Kyle’s appreciation for wholesome, local food stems from his childhood. He was born in California but grew up in New York and then later in Indiana, where he was surrounded by farms. “Growing up in Indiana all I could see were miles and miles of corn, oh, and maybe some soy beans,” he chuckles. “All of this [ag] is a very visceral thing that for me goes back to winemaking.”
Kyle runs Coterie Cellars with his wife and business partner Shala Loudon. She manages the winery’s accounts, while looking after Julian most days. When Kyle’s not in either the vineyard or the cellar, he’s doing what many boutique vintners do: He holds another job – in this instance, in software and aviation. Fortunately his “day job” allows him the flexibility to make roughly 700 cases of wine a year, mainly Rhone and Pinot Noir varietals. Coterie’s first vintages were all 2007: Pinot Noir, Roussanne and a Syrah Rosé.
When it comes to winemaking, Kyle combines his technical skills with the more subjective and natural elements of wine. “It’s good to be scientific at times, but not too much,” he says. “There’s certainly a subjective aspect to how you approach or interpret a wine. And you certainly aren’t going to control nature. You’re working with what nature gives you each year, which creates a lens through which you will view a vineyard a little differently from year to year.”
There’s a fourth, but not final, element that truly excites Kyle – creativity, a process he says results in something tangible when it comes to the olfactory senses. He is rather sentimental about it: “Our sense of taste and smell are some of the strongest things that immediately evoke past experiences and bring people together in the present. I love the thought of each wine being a living thing that will always be just a little different from each day forward. And, I like to think of each bottle ending up a part of someone’s life, and perhaps part of someone’s celebration or memorable experience enjoying wine and food.”
Great Wine Starts in the Vineyard
Being detail-oriented has its advantages, especially when sourcing fruit. Kyle prefers to buy grapes from tiny parcels within distinguished vineyards. Currently, he gets fruit from California’s Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations. His philosophy is simple: Wines are best when they reflect the vineyards from which they came.
Kyle calls his search for the right vineyard an “organic process.” It could take him several years before entering into agreements with growers. During this time, he gets to know the vineyard owners.
Case in point is Tondre Grapefields in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The vineyards are owned by the Alarids, a family that has been farming vegetables in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County for nearly a century.
“I got to know Joe over three years of visiting the vineyard,” says Kyle of Joe Alarid, son of Tondre Alarid. “Joe has lived there all his life and knows the Highlands. He’s a smart farmer and he knows his land.”
Kyle also takes into account viticulture practices that will result in great grapes for making the best possible wines. Avoiding over-cropping, practicing dry-farming when possible, sacrificing a fair amount of fruit by leaving clusters behind (a technique known as “dropping fruit”) to ensure optimal ripeness, or leaving one cluster per shoot are just some of the best practices he seeks in his growers.
Where he does step in is come harvest time. “We get to figure out when to pick,” says Kyle. Otherwise he’s fairly hands-off. “Our relationships with our growers are not about trying to change their way of doing things,” he insists.
In addition to viticulture practices, Kyle also chooses vineyards based on terroir, such as a specific cultivar (clone) or vineyard topography. While getting to know the Alarids and their vineyards, Kyle became familiar with two specific Pinot Noir clones grown there that make up his Tondre Grapefield blend: Pommard 4 and Dijon 667.
The current vintage is 2011, but I’m still drinking the 2010, which I like to describe as a Pommard nose with a Dijon palate: aromas of perfume, cola berry and lavender give way to flavors of dark cherry and raspberry, wood, sage and cloves.
This 2011 vintage differs from the 2010 in that the 2011 harvest produced smaller berries and fewer clusters, which concentrated both the flavors and the acids. The result is a slightly brighter wine with a bit more red fruit. While some Pinot Noirs tend to be lighter in color, body and/or flavors, this one is dark, rich and savory overall, which Kyle says is typical of the Tondre vineyard.
Kyle also produces Pinot Noir from Kirk Williams Ranch, which is a mile up the road to the north of Tondre Grapefields. Both wines are made from the same two cultivars of Pinot Noir and both vineyards are in the middle of the Santa Lucia Highlands. However, the two sites are uniquely different. “They really illustrate how just a turn here or there on the slope can produce something truly different while still reflecting the typicity of the area,” Kyle explains. (Typicity is a term used to describe the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins and demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced.)
Kyle believes wholeheartedly that the quality of his wines depends greatly on place and on the grower’s impact on that vineyard site. So during the “courtship” phase with would-be growers, he and Shala taste wines made by vintners who also source fruit from these same sites, though not necessarily from the same parcels.
Before the Loudons started buying Pinot Noir and Roussanne grapes from the well-renowned Saralee’s Vineyards in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, they attended several annual tastings there with their peers. The parties were hosted by the late Saralee McClelland Kunde. “She [Saralee] had five different vineyards at that time, and we’d taste 60 to 70 barrel samples from different blocks,” recalls Kyle, adding that the tastings helped inform him of what he liked, and of the different stylistic elements of the other winemakers.
Winemaking Where Doing Less Results in More
The same hands-off approach Kyle takes with his growers he also applies to winemaking. “I don’t believe in manipulating the wines,” he says. For example, Kyle rarely, if ever, filters his wines. The exception would be in the case of a white wine that had not gone through malolactic fermentation – the process of converting tart-tasting malic acid in the freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit to softer-tasting lactic acid.
Kyle also practices a method called “elevage,” which loosely means the “breeding” of a wine. The term implies that the winemaker took a lot of time, care and attention nurturing the wine through its various stages. For Kyle, elevage is just a step in the overall viniculture process. He believes that one of the most important phases in a wine’s upbringing is when it is in barrel. So during this time he tries not to rack the wine – move the wine off the yeast sediment (lees) from one barrel or container to another.
Doing as little as possible to the wines takes patience, a virtue Kyle has had to learn over the years. “Sometimes you may not like what’s happening to a wine, but you can’t react too quickly, because wines are living things and will go through adolescence,” he explains. He uses his Roussanne as an example of a wine that went from an awkward stage to a thing of beauty in just two to three weeks of being in barrel: “It’s a wild and crazy wine in the first few months because it’s prone to reduction, and when it’s young it tastes leesy. But this is what Roussanne is like early on.”
Kyle and Shala’s Shared Passions Combine
The idea that wine and food bring people together cannot be truer for the Loudons. It may have been their long-standing shared interest in both – as well as friends with a common interest in aviation – that inspired mutual friends to introduce them in 1998.
At that time, Kyle and Shala were both living around the corner from one another in Campbell, a quaint city in Santa Clara County, but had never met. Interestingly, given their shared passion for food, especially locally sourced food, Campbell holds a special place in Kyle and Shala’s hearts: It once was a thriving farming community that in the late 1800s became the center for shipping fruit grown in the surrounding area. While the canneries have all been converted to mainly office space, the historic part of Downtown Campbell has been the hub of the city’s famous farmers’ market– which, not surprisingly, often is the Loudon’s Sunday morning hang-out.
A Passion for Wine Takes Root in the Land
Six months after he and Shala met, Kyle accompanied her and her parents to Northern Italy, where he met their extended family, some of whom have wine in their blood. Shala’s late grandfather on her mother’s side was a cooper in Sicily and continued his craft after moving to San Jose, California where he eventually worked for S&W, a Del Monte Foods brand.
Other family members are grape growers. During their stay in Italy Kyle recounts the many meals they shared amidst the family’s vineyards of Barbera, Ruchéand Nebbiolo grapes. “I was honored to make the trip with them,” he says, joking about how he learned to pace himself during meals.
Kyle too comes from a family of people connected, in one way or another, to the land. His paternal grandfather lived in Louisiana, where each morning he’d conduct the radio broadcast of the Ag Report for the state’s farmers. Whereas Kyle’s maternal grandfather, who owned a country store in Louisiana, taught him how to catch crawfish and eat off the land, activities he remembers fondly.
Kyle and Shala married in 2000 and soon after began taking winemaking classes at the University of California at Davis. They worked several harvests at two wineries in Berkeley, Eno Wines and Harrington Wines (Harrington is now in San Francisco), before making their own varietals. These were their formative years when they were part of a coterie of six winery workers. The name “coterie” means a small group with shared interests or tastes. In fact, the grape cluster on the Coterie Cellars label is a nod to the six people with whom the Loudons made wine prior to venturing out on their own.
Coterie’s Rhône Revival
In addition to Coterie’s current offerings, Kyle is producing a 2014 Pinot Noir for release sometime in 2016. A late-harvest Viogner will be available by the end of this year. Both wines are made from grapes grown in Catie’s Corner, a vineyard in the Russian River Valley named after Saralee’s daughter.
What has Kyle equally, if not more, excited is a 100 percent Grenache Blanc (also from Catie’s Corner), which is a first for the winemaker. “It’s a wake-up wine for me,” he says. Grenache Blanc is a mutation of the Spanish red grape Grenache Noir (Garnacha Blanca in Spain). From Spain it spread to the Rhône Valley wine region in France and is an important component in the white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Kyle’s interest in the variety – which he admires for its fresh taste of floral and peach, as well as its crisp acidity – was sparked by a tasting he attended at UC Davis featuring the wines of Château de Beaucastel, a winery located in the Southern Rhône Valley; and wines from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, a partnership of Château de Beaucastel. Cuttings for the Tablas Creek vineyards came from the vineyards of Château de Beaucastel.
The tasting allowed Kyle to compare each individual variety (red and white grapes) from both wineries that would go into their finished blends. As much as the event inspired Kyle to make Grenache Blanc, it also heightened his appreciation for Roussanne, another major white grape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.
Regardless of variety, Coterie’s wines will always reflect their vineyards. “It is the fruit,” says Kyle, “that will always shape and inspire our winemaking.”
Coteire Cellars is open two weekends each month. For additional information on tastings, events, classes and winemaking programs, visit http://coteriecellars.com/.
Coterie Cellars is located at 1805 Little Orchard St, Unit 110, in San Jose, California.
Phone: 408-288-5553; Email: email@example.com
Featured image above: Kyle Loudon, winemaker-proprietor of Coterie Cellars in Willow Glen, California enjoys a spot of his 2010 Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Dark and savory with aromas and flavors of deep raspberry and plum, and hints of dried herbs and orange rind, the 2010 Pinot Noir pairs nicely with roasted lamb and rosemary. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)