As someone who’s been a wine enthusiast for nearly 15 years, been a wine and travel writer for 12 years, and worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley for almost 10 years, I’m often asked for wine tips. People also get tips from friends, family, and staff at restaurants, wine shops, and wineries.
But what about winemakers? It is not as common to meet a winemaker and get to speak to him or her firsthand about wine. So I thought it would be fun to sit down with a winemaker I’ve worked with for over three years – Matt Parish – and pick his brain on all things wine.
Matt’s background includes spending decades globetrotting as a “flying winemaker” for renowned companies like Constellation and Treasury, working harvests in both hemispheres, and crafting wines from many of the world’s most notable wine regions – before settling down in Northern California to focus on his namesake brand sold through Naked Wines, Lula Cellars in Mendocino County, and various winemaking consultancies.
His portfolio includes wines from Northern California regions like Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Carneros, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Napa Valley, and Sonoma’s Petaluma Gap – as well as wines from France, Spain, and Portugal.
His experience makes him a wealth of information for wine lovers, from novices to experts.
If I were chatting with someone who’s never had wine before, the first thing I want someone to know is that all that matters is that you enjoy it – and that it’s fun. “You’re in for a treat,” agreed Matt. “What makes wine special are the stories behind the winery, wines, and the people who grow and make them.”
When I worked at wineries, guests were often afraid to ask questions. As a newbie myself 15 years ago, wine was initially intimidating, and I was nervous visiting wineries and tasting wine in front of others. So I tried to pay forward my experience by breaking down barriers.
I explained wine in everyday language and gave guests enough information so that they felt confident and empowered for their next winery experience. “For wineries truly passionate about wine, they want to share, said Matt. “They understand guests may have little understanding and experience in wine, so don’t be afraid to ask the obvious questions – it’s how we all learn, experience, and enjoy. “
However, a common question usually involved the winemaker’s story – and Matt said he’s often asked how he became a winemaker.
For him, it started through his father’s job in the liquor business. “During the 1980s I spent my school holidays working in bottle shops and warehouses. There was a huge buzz around wine – both international wines and the quickly developing New Zealand industry. With that interest, I went on to complete a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Applied Science specializing in the growing and making of wine. From there the rest is history.”
Let’s Talk Terroir
Another topic that came up frequently was that of terroir. It’s a term that winemakers and other wine professionals use that’s quite elusive to people outside of the industry. It’s a French word whose literal meaning is land or soil, but in wine, it means more – it’s everything that ‘touches’ the grape affects the final wine – like climate, vineyard, farming, the cellar, and the winemaker’s hand – all of which can affect quality and style.
“A loose translation of terroir is ‘sense of place.’ A wine’s characteristics reflect the environment in which it is grown – everything from the climate and soils of the vineyard, how it’s farmed, the microflora of the vineyard and cellar – and how the wine is made – have influence,” said Matt. “Understanding the terroir of a vineyard or region can provide a lot of insight and intrigue for consumers and producers alike, from knowing what to expect to knowing what’s possible.”
If done right, winery experiences ultimately should be experiential and emotional – guests should leave feeling special, happy, and relaxed. “Understanding the backstory of a winery, winemaker, and wine really elevates your whole experience – learning and discovery are pure joy,” said Matt. “The sights, sounds, and aromas all influence your impressions of a wine.
About Wine and Food
I was taught an uncomplicated way to serve wine if you don’t have a temperature-controlled cellar – pull whites and rosés out of the fridge 20 minutes before serving and put reds into the fridge 20 minutes before serving.
As for sparkling, serve them cooler so they remain lively and vibrant. When I mentioned this, Matt shared his thoughts. “My view is people serve Champagne, whites and rosés too cold and reds too warm. When whites are too cold, it’s difficult to smell and taste all that the wine has to offer – and when reds are too warm, the alcohol dominates, particularly in wines from warmer areas. The typical cellar temperature (50-59F or 10-15C) is a great start – with Champagne, whites, and rosés being served closer to 50F and reds around 59F.”
While I know that certain flavors do not complement each other – like a bold, tannic red wine and peppery spice – I also know that no two palates are the same – which is why we all don’t like the same foods, wines, and other beverages.
It’s normal to enjoy unconventional food and wine pairings. For example, I think sparkling wines go with nearly everything because of their effervescence, lively acidity, and bright fruit flavors. Matt chimed in. “Pairings like Chablis and oysters are classic for a reason – the combination of aromas, flavors and textures is amazing. With so many different wines and cuisines available these days, it’s great to mix and match to see what works,” he said. “A cheeseboard goes with just about any variety and style, so don’t sweat it. Champagne is more versatile than you think, it even works with a rich juicy steak.
Pinot Noir goes great with a delicious pasta dish or richer, firmer fish and seafood dishes, such as lobster, swordfish and Cioppino.
Different lots of wines – whether they be single varieties or different – are blended to create the optimal expression of the variety or varieties in terms of color, texture, aromas, and flavors. A winemaker like Matt Parish is always blending to create the absolute best. His philosophy? “Wine should be an interpretation of a vineyard, region, variety, and style guided by one constant…make, blend, and bottle absolute pleasure.”
Matt also likens blending to food and cooking. “Blending is simply the combining of different wines to create a particular taste profile or wine style – like what we do in the kitchen every day when we marry flavors and textures to create a certain dish or cuisine,” he shared. “Most winemakers begin blending in the vineyard by mixing different vineyard, blocks, and clones and continue throughout the winemaking process mixing different varieties and winemaking components. That’s why there is such a great diversity of wines.”
Speaking of food and wine, many of my favorite pairings involve Champagne (and other drier style sparkling whites and rosés) – like potato chips, oysters, steamed shellfish, fish and chips, and smoked salmon. I am also a fan of cool-climate Syrah with hearty meat dishes, especially pork. My most recent discoveries include Hungarian wines of all styles – and I am especially enamored with Kadarka and spicy fish soup and fuller-bodied Hárslevelű paired with roasted duck. Matt shared a few of his favorites:
Coastal California Chardonnay and a seafood platter – clean, fresh, and mouthwatering.
New Zealand Pinot Noir and lamb – savory, sweet, and gamey.
Barolo and Barbaresco with wild pork ragu – complex and hearty.
A Bordeaux-style red and steak frites – simply perfect.
Since Best Wineries features so many California wineries and wines, I thought it would be fun to conclude our chat with our favorite Northern California wine regions. Mine are cooler climates like Anderson Valley, Carneros, and Petaluma Gap for lively sparkling, bright whites, and lighter-bodied reds.
I also love wines from hidden gem regions like Contra Costa, the Sierra Foothills, and Suisun Valley. And I am a fan of wines from century-old (or older) vineyards – the intensity of fruit can be astounding. As to Matt, he had three recommendations:
Petaluma Gap for Chardonnay – a relatively new AVA – the wines have great focus, persistence, and complexity.
Anderson Valley for Pinot Noir – entering the AVA is like stepping back in time – the wines are pristine, plush and timeless.
Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon – for me, the most picturesque part of Napa – the wines are vibrant, intense, and scream luxury.