Dave Phinney in Maury

The guy from Napa is big in Maury. He owns 108 hectares (238 acres) of vineyards and a large state-of-the-art winery where he makes big powerful wines for the American market. He made his name in the US with The Prisoner, a zinfandel-based blend that grew from the initial 385 cases to 70,000 when he sold the label and inventory to Huneeus Vintners in 2009.

Dave Phinney ©2012 Ron Scherl

When I asked Phinney to what he attributed the success of the Prisoner he replied:

“Good winemaking.” He smiled and added: “Of course we were in the right time and the right place and it wasn’t an overnight success. It took 10 years to really establish the brand, but if you have the right wine, at the right price, in the right package, it will sell.”

When I said it really sounded like a triumph of marketing, he said: “I’m not interested in that. I want to make the best wine I can and if I do the rest will take care of itself.”

This is the message and he’s very disciplined in sticking to it with only slight variations. He’s in Maury because of the amazing potential of this terroir. He’s intent on making the best wine he can by respecting the terroir and, is confident that in the long run it will be profitable.

Here, he’s applying his opulent, concentrated, high alcohol style to the old vine grenache that dominates the vineyards to make wine for the American market. The initial label, D66, has now been joined by Shatter, a wine made from vineyards farmed by members of the Cave Cooperative. Phinney and his team selected and managed the vineyards and invested in a renovation of some coop facilities. They then purchased the wine from the coop, bottled it here and sell it in the US in a joint venture with Joel Gott and Trinchero Family Estates. Not your typical negociant deal, but spread the numbers over sufficient volume and the profit potential comes into focus.

Talking with Phinney he seems almost uninterested in the business end of the business, but his success would seem to belie that image. He came to Maury because the vines, soil and climate promised the right conditions to make wine in the style he prefers. And it didn’t hurt that the land prices here are like a rounding error in California. He bought vineyards that were going to be torn out because the families that owned them could no longer work them and certainly that eased the retirement of some residents. The village government was more than happy to welcome him, but rapid expansion in a place where change is usually slow to come, makes some people uneasy. Whether it’s jealousy or foresight remains to be seen. His Maury property and production are growing rapidly and new ventures have been launched in Spain and Italy with more locations to follow. But ask him about the business or marketing side of wine and he’ll respond: “Respect the terroir, make the best wine you can, and the economics will follow.”

I felt like a reporter at a political convention: stay on message Dave.

The Dinosaur

Educated in Burgundy, Marc Barriot, proprietor and winemaker of Clos de l’Origine, makes a Burgundian style of wine emphasizing finesse, balance, ease of drinking and low alcohol. He is out of step with most of his colleagues in Maury.

Barriot: “I am a dinosaur, I don’t follow the market, I make the wine I like to drink.”

Marc Barriot harvesting his white grapes, August 19 ©2012 Ron Scherl

Combine that sentiment with his belief in biodynamic farming practice and you have the village outlier and a guy who appears to relish that role.

Biodynamics marries organic farming with a bit of mysticism to create some practices that go beyond science and cause many to mock. “Burying light” in the vineyard to enhance production is a matter of belief rather than agricultural science; but I want to focus on other aspects of the practice that I think have a more direct effect on the product and the environment. Adherents believe that a parcel of land being farmed is a complete system composed of the soil, insects, and animals that inhabit it and the microclimate that shapes it. It is the job of the grower to work in harmony with this system, managing the land and the crop with as little intrusion as possible in order to create a wine that truly expresses the terroir, which is composed of the grape variety, the soil and the microclimate. Like all other growers, he sprays sulfur to combat plant diseases, but for Barriot, that’s as far as he goes in introducing foreign substances to the land. And the practice continues in the winery: “If you add something not in the vineyard, you change the terroir.”

As you might imagine, Barriot is a very small producer. He owns ten hectares (about 22 acres) of vineyards and in this difficult year will produce only about 20,000 bottles of wine. The early flowering was battered by wind and then several hail storms caused substantial damage. It’s very hot and there’s been little rain. The vineyards appear wild and chaotic, weeds and dry grasses growing everywhere, when torn up by plowing they stay where they fall. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the rows of vines. These are small parcels, as small as .17 hectare and separated by miles. This makes harvesting slower and more difficult and therefore, more expensive, but according to Barriot: “the smaller the parcel, the bigger the expression of terroir.”

Once the fruit is in the winery, the idea is to do as little as possible.

RS: “What’s the winemaker’s job?”

MB: “ The winemaker is a guy who allows the wine to go its own way.”

And when it does, he gets the wine he wants: balanced in minerality and fruit, alcohol and acidity. He feels the finesse and lightness allow the delicate flavors of the garrigue to come through.

Most winemakers here would not agree. They’ll tell you the heat and soil naturally produce a fuller bodied, more concentrated wine with higher alcohol. They’ll say we’re not in Burgundy and the wine should reflect this place. That doesn’t seem to matter to Barriot, going his own way makes him a happy dinosaur. As for me: I’m always glad to have a choice.

Harvest is Over

Photo of Vineyards and moon
Autumn Vineyards ©2011 Ron Scherl


It’s the end of baseball season, a Paul Simon song, a seasonal affliction for sure, winter coming, end of the year, plants go dormant and people die. Less daylight means that life will move indoors and artificial light does not provide the same energy.


Photographing the harvest and subsequent processing of the fruit, I was struck by how much production remains handwork. The grapes are primarily picked by hand; only a few relatively flat, trellised vineyards can be picked by machine and that procedure is mostly shunned by the region’s better winemakers. The selection process; weeding out fruit that is under ripe or overly dried out is done first cluster by cluster, then again, berry by berry. Equipment is disassembled, washed and reassembled every day. Fermentation tanks have to be emptied and the only way to do it, even in the most high tech of wineries, is for someone to jump in and shovel it out.


Photo of hands
Working Hands ©2011 Ron Scherl


Photo of sorting table
Selection of Berries ©2011 Ron Scherl
Photo of Tank Cleaning
Domaine du Dernier Bastion ©2011 Ron Scherl


Hand crafting fine wines is a very personal endeavor. Sure there is some repeatable science, the sugar content of grapes will determine the percentage of alcohol in the wine if certain procedures are followed. Many parts of this can be predicted, but the really interesting element is in human taste and philosophy and the decisions that are made as a result. Certainly winemakers test the chemistry throughout the process, but they also taste, from grapes on the vines to wine in the barrel and decisions are made as a result of both processes, decisions that will hopefully produce the wine envisioned at the beginning. It’s a gloriously human, incredibly imprecise process and that’s where the fascination lies for me. And it’s why I’ll be focusing on the people who make the wine, crafting portraits in words and photos that I hope will express the personalities of a diverse group of individuals who have chosen to make wine here in Maury.

Photo of RichardCase
Richard Case ©2011 Ron Scherl


For the winemaker, processing the last fruit ends the most intense period of labor and that will mean the same for me: wine resting in barrels is not a great photo op. Time to write more, study French, and prepare for several key portraits and interviews while still periodically photographing the vines through the seasons. This is the first milestone in the project. There will be more.


Landscape at Sunset
View from the Road to Cucugnan ©2011 Ron Scherl