Imagine you are an Idaho winemaker who has grown into the role of producing about 10,000 cases of wine at a boutique-style and -size operation where you are winning awards and gaining renown among Idaho vintners and throughout the Northwest.
Then you get the call. Your parent company, Precept Wines, based in Washington, has tapped you to start making wine at one of its other Idaho locations: Ste. Chapelle Winery in Sunny Slope, the state’s largest with an output of 125,000 cases — which means almost overnight you’re going to take on the 2016 vintage, some of which people will begin sipping next spring and summer.
You have two choices. 1) Freak out about the challenge. 2) Or do what you always do, which is get a handle on what’s going on out in the vineyards, walk the fruit, get to know the people who will make it happen.
Just as she has all of her life, Meredith Smith has chosen No. 2. Her recipe for continued success is the same as that for her past success at Sawtooth Winery: find out what people want and deliver it, but usually by exceeding their expectations. She recently answered questions about her new role.
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Q: Can you frame the challenge you face?
A: The logistics of combining two wineries into one facility — one being Sawtooth that handles barrels and small lots, and then Ste. Chapelle, that handles more tons and larger tanks — I think that will be a majority of the change for me. ... Combine two wineries, make it efficient and try to maintain the quality of wine that I have been making at Sawtooth. What is interesting about Sawtooth and Ste. Chapelle is that when I look across the whole lineup of wines of the two companies — they are different. They range among several different palates and I think that is good thing.
Q: So, what’s the strategy?
A: St. Chapelle has been doing very well as far as catering to palates. I want to try to maintain that. Initially, going in there I’m going to keep things the same and try to bring Sawtooth in as kind of the upper tier. Ste. Chapelle has the panoramic series, which is the upper tier for them. And then they have the mainline wines. ...
“My focus is on quality and the fruit. I have spent time already in the vineyards looking at the fruit and I want to see the fruit coming in with high quality and then I will do what I can do to maintain the quality that I’ve maintained at Sawtooth.
Q: Some of Ste. Chapelle’s wines are on the sweeter side. Will that change?
A: “As far as changing the residual sugar in some of the wines. ... I like to go into a place and see what’s happening. I haven’t had the opportunity to get in front of the customers and talk to the customers or the staff — and find out where their clients are. I will listen to what people are saying and then I will adjust accordingly.
“For Sawtooth I have slowly reduced some of the sugar in the Rosé and the Pinot Gris, but I don’t do it overnight. (The residual sugars in the Sawtooth Rosé and Pinot Gris have been reduced over time to about half of what they were). A lot of customers can pick up on those subtle differences. Acid can balance sugars. You have to be careful that you’re kind of hitting a balance. I don’t want to mess with the success of Ste. Chapelle.”
Q: So, what will be your influence overall?
A: “The way I look at wine making, you have to be on top of it every step of the way. You can’t waffle anywhere along that path — and that starts with the fruit. At Ste. Chapelle I will feel comfortable going into harvest as long as I know what’s going on in the vineyard. I will spend the next month (August) walking through the vineyard.”
Q: What are some signature Meredith Smith techniques?
A: Small, subtle changes will make a difference, whether in extraction of fruit or color. I have a tendency to make different picking decisions, to work with different yeasts and to experiment with (things) Those changes will begin showing up first in some of the 2017 whites.
Q: So, eventually, all Sawtooth wines will be made and bottled at Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth will have its own separate tasting room, correct?
Q: And when that 5,000-seat entertainment venue is constructed, the Ste. Chapelle property will really become a ‘destination.’ Does the prospect of introducing wine to new customers excite you?
A: I think it is just going to explode. I spend a lot of time out there working in the area ... the vineyards that were planted this year and the new buildings that are going up. ... It’s all kind of currently underway but it’s not really seen yet. Once things kind of start to fall into place and the tasting rooms open up and the new vineyards start producing, then people will really start to take notice. ... I think it is long overdue. There are so many people out here. All the construction, all the plantings and the vines. I am super excited to be a part of it.”