Winemaker Talk: Andy Erickson

Andy Erickson, 40, was hired as winemaker at Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle in 2006, when Jean Phillips, the founder of the winery that practically invented California cult Cabernet status, sold it after 20 years on the 54-acre Oakville estate. Erickson had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett, but his pedigree indicated he’d be up for the task—Erickson started his winemaking career at Harlan Estate and was then named winemaker at Staglin in 2001 before founding his own winery, Favia, in 2003 with his viticulturist wife, Annie Favia; in addition to his duties at Screaming Eagle and Favia, he is consulting winemaker for HartwellOvidDancing HaresDalla Valle and Arietta in Napa and Jonata in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Erickson’s first vintage of Screaming Eagle, the 2006, has not yet been released, but is expected to be reviewed in 2009. His debut vintage from Ovid, another Napa Cabernet project in which, like at Screaming Eagle, Erickson partners with vineyard manager David Abreu, earned 94 points in James Laube’s first blind tasting of the wine. The 2005 Dancing Hares debut, another “dream team” collaboration between Erickson, Abreu and winery consultant Michel Rolland, scored 92 points. A third 2005 Cabernet, Erickson’s Hartwell Stags Leap District Reserve, received a classic 95 points. While wrapping up this year’s harvest, Erickson took time to talk about getting into the wine business, the challenges of this year’s harvest, and the sweet life of Rocky, Screaming Eagle’s vineyard dog.

Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Andy Erickson: During college, I spent a summer in the Haute-Savoie in France, and studied in Geneva, Switzerland. The husband and wife I lived with were avid wine collectors. Not first-growths, but mostly village wines from all over France. We would carry the dining room table outside every night and eat a modest feast, drink wine, and talk into the night. That way of living stayed with me.

WS:Why did you want to become a winemaker?
AE: I grew up in the Midwest, not involved in agriculture, but surrounded by it. I have always been a country boy, and the idea of being involved in farming was interesting. There is also part of me that has always wanted to be a craftsman. Making something with my own hands and then presenting it to people and gauging their reactions gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

WS: What was your first harvest in the wine business?
AE: In 1993, I was working in advertising in San Francisco and becoming increasingly interested in wine. I decided to combine several interests and moved to South America for 18 months. I traveled for half a year, then settled in Mendoza for nearly a year, working in vineyards, in the winery, and for harvest of 1994. At that time, very few Americans had traveled to the Argentine wine country. One person who was there was Paul Hobbs, and I was fortunate enough to meet Paul, who helped me get landed in Napa when I returned. I worked harvest of 1994 at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where Paul was consulting.

WS: Who have been some of your other influences in the wine industry?
AE: I was very lucky to meet John Kongsgaard shortly after arriving in Napa in 1994. His soulful approach to winemaking, using native yeasts, letting the wine express what the vineyard site gives, has stuck with me over the years. I also had the pleasure to work with Bob Levy and Rosemary Cakebread, both very meticulous, more technical winemakers, and I learned from them to up my game in terms of organization and precision. No one has done more for me than vineyard manager David Abreu in terms of helping me understand the importance of a year-round, long-term focus on the vineyard in order to maximize its potential. And of course Michel Rolland has been a great influence on me, pushing me always to improve things in the vineyard and winery. He has become a great friend and mentor, and we work well together.

WS: How is making wine for Favia, your own brand, different from making wine for your consulting clients?
AE: Virtually all of the wineries where I have worked, and where I continue to work, are small, estate properties where the vineyard site is the most important player in the scene. With the Favia wines, Annie and I are sourcing fruit from exceptional vineyard sites [including the Abreu and Meteor vineyards in Napa] and putting just as much care into the farming as we would anywhere else. Probably the biggest difference is that while my clients are focused mainly on Bordeaux varieties, with the Favia wines we can experiment with just about anything. We do make Napa wines (mainly blends of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon), but we also experiment with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. I love wines from all parts of the world, and it is fun to try techniques from different regions. The great thing is that sometimes a winemaking technique used in one variety can be adapted to another, and I always continue to learn and evolve what I am doing.

WS: What is it like working for California’s premier cult Cabernet winery as well as consulting for so many startups with high aspirations?
AE:The best thing about Screaming Eagle is that I have been working with Charles [Banks, part owner of Screaming Eagle] for the last five years on Jonata, in Santa Barbara, and we share a commitment to work hard and to producing the best wine possible from these two beautiful estates. In the end, it’s smart farming and careful winemaking. I’m lucky that with all of my clients, I share a passion for great wines from special sites, so with each winery we’re working toward a similar goal, whether it’s an established vineyard or a new project.

WS: What have been some of the challenges of the 2008 harvest?
AE: Probably the greatest challenge for me was that different varieties were ripe at different times than “normal.” We were having to sample every vineyard multiple times per week to get a handle on which varieties were going to come in at what time. Then we were picking Cabernet Sauvignon before Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot before Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville before St. Helena. After working with vineyards for several years, you get used to a certain rhythm, but this year we had to throw the rules of thumb out the window. But in the end I am very happy with the way things are turning out.

WS: Other than one of your own, what is your all-time favorite wine?
AE: Château Ausone is for me the most inspirational wine I know. It is the ultimate expression of what for me is one of the most breathtaking pieces of vineyard land in the world. It also seems that Alain Vauthier and his team are able to continually improve on what they are doing, something I hope to do myself.

WS If you could be one other person in the wine business for one day, who would it be, and why?
AE: Rocky, the vineyard dog at Screaming Eagle. He chases rabbits until sunrise, swims in the reservoir, then sleeps in the sun all afternoon.

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