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Don Van Staaveren

Meet the Winemaker
  Don Van Staaveren joined Artesa Winery on January 2, 1997, after more than a quarter-century in the wine industry, 20 years of it making wine at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County. He had six months to make profound changes to a five-year-old, $30 million sparkling wine facility, shifting its focus to ultra-premium still wine production.

We sat down with Don to reflect on the recent past and the life of a winemaker.

Question Although you had plenty of winemaking training and experience prior to coming to Artesa, I think of you as a well-trained astronaut being dropped on a new planet and expected to function well there. Is that accurate?
Answer I'd like to think I was well-trained. And this was a brand new frontier - new vineyards, new growers, brand new equipment and a staff with limited experience making still wines. This facility was designed to produce a large quantity of sparkling wine, so professionally and emotionally, it was a big turnaround for the people here. They may have been bewildered, but they performed admirably and exuberantly.

Question Was it fun to design your own facility?
Answer It really was exciting. We set it up to give ourselves lots of winemaking choices. We made a big commitment to Carneros Pinot Noir, so we installed 17 open-top fermenters for high quality Pinot Noir production, for excellent tannin management. And we added closed-top tanks for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other reds. We had to reconfigure an efficient mid-size sparkling wine facility to accommodate a multitude of small lots of still wine from multiple appellations.

Question And all the time you were installing equipment, you were trying to secure the best possible grapes?
Answer Right. Our estate vineyards had not produced significant amounts of still wine, so there was no track record. Then we had to go out and source grapes at a difficult time. Every winery wanted fruit, and initially the best growers weren't committing to sell any excess tonnage. Fortunately, the 1997 vintage was both high in quality and yields. So, even during harvest, I'd get a call in the early morning, check out the vineyard that morning, call the grower with a yea or nay, and sometimes the fruit arrived in the afternoon. We met some of our best growers that way.

Question What are some things most people might not know about successful winemakers?
Answer It's a cliché, but success results from a lot of hard work. Beyond that, I think good winemakers have an intrinsic feel beyond applying good techniques. They intuitively know when to push ripeness, when to back off on tannin management, what the wine will taste like when they taste the grapes in the vineyard. You need a sense of what's going to happen, like an athlete "in the zone."

Perhaps it's because the good winemakers have paid their dues. And continue to. You just can't kick back. We have had four vintages at Artesa, and not one is like any of the other three.

Question Anything else?
Answer Unless you are at a really small winery, one person cannot do all the work. You have to train your staff as well as possible. You instill a sense of the goals and of maintaining every increment of quality, give them the tools and let them go. You have lots of input, but you have to let the growers and your staff perform their tasks.

Question What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses as a winemaker?
Answer I'm enthusiastic about what I do. I really, really like making wine. I have a good sense of what a grapevine goes through, of how wines develop during the winemaking process. I'm skilled at the logistics - when to bring in the grapes, how to handle them. It's important to organize what we do so we don't unnecessarily move grapes, must or wine. Less is definitely more. The less we process, the higher quality wine we make.

Let's see. . . I'm a conceptual guy, but I'm also a tinkerer. I like playing with the nuts and bolts and setting things up to flow smoothly so there is no need to panic or be aggressive. We're efficient here.

As for weaknesses, I'm most disappointed in my palate. I think it could be better. Some people can taste more subtle differences. My palate memory could be better. That said, when something is really good, I know it.

When I was younger, I had a killer instinct; I went for things flat out, no holds barred. Maybe it's wisdom not to charge ahead so much. I'm a little more cautious. Regarding the 1997 and 1998 vintages here, those were intense years. I wasn't in a state of panic, but I was anxious. I felt fine about the wines we had made, but until we showed them to the world, until strangers liked them, I didn't feel sure that we were really in business. I guess it's like a playwright finally seeing an audience react to his or her play.

Question What's most important in your life?
Answer Family. My wife. Raising our kids. Our social responsibilities - to give back to the community. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be a winemaker. Now that I've reached this point in my life, it's time to pay back on many levels, teach my kids to help out the homeless guy on the corner, support the less fortunate.

I want to take care of the environment. We're very careful in developing and farming vineyards, respecting nature. Just like in our winemaking, we take a minimalist approach.

I hope I'm more accepting of other people now, giving them the benefit of the doubt. That kind of acceptance rounds out your own life. I feel I understand why many people of wealth practice philanthropy. There's tremendous reward in trying to live a moral and responsible life. I like to think I'm doing some mentoring; I hope that's the experience both ways.

Question Who were your mentors?
Answer I've been blessed with three. My Dad, who taught me how to work. Bert Ballatore, the grower who taught me about the passion of grapes and wine. And Dick Arrowood, who taught me how to make wine.

Question What role does wine play in your personal life?
Answer A pretty big one. This industry becomes your life style. A lot of my life revolves around wine. It's hard to separate the professional from the private. When you're at a friend's house or in a restaurant, you're always on the job.

If you sell widgets, you might entertain a client over lunch or dinner with a bottle of wine. My product is the bottle of wine, and I entertain the same way.

From a consumption standpoint, my responsibility is to be an example of moderation. Our kids see us tasting and spitting out wine. They see us pour a glass of wine that is two or three ounces in a 14 ounce glass. They see us swirl the wine and sniff it and put it down, then come back and savor the aromas. I have the same responsibility to model how to enjoy wine in public - it's part of the lifestyle.

Question What about the feedback you get from the public? Is that satisfying?
Answer I think any craftsman would appreciate feedback. When people like what you make, you smile inwardly. I love to bring people down into the cellar, hand them a glass without telling them what's in it and watch their reaction.

Question What's your biggest professional challenge?
Answer I think our whole industry needs to de-mystify wine. People can get too caught up with the trivial - the right wine, the right words to describe it, the correct food match, the right stemware and temperature. It's fine if you enjoy that part of it. But don't get anxious about doing everything correctly. It's just a beverage, after all.

When people find out you're in the wine industry, they are often intimidated. I taste wine out of fermenters with grapeskins floating around, out of barrels, out of buckets. I sometimes serve wine in tumblers to guests to put them at ease.

Question You met your wife, Margo, at Chateau St. Jean and worked together with her for 16 years. How is it with two winemakers from different wineries under one roof?

Answer When we were together at St. Jean, basically she was in the lab and q.c. and I was in the cellar. Since I left, she has moved more into the cellar as well. As associate winemaker, her responsibilities include daily winemaking tasks involving pumps, barrels, presses, filters and cellar procedures. She's overseeing everyday duties, and because we're small here, I'm hands-on and doing the same things.

Question So you continue to have a lot in common professionally?
Answer Yes. We have equal stress, too. Our lives get more or less difficult at the same times of the year - like going through crush together. The good part is that we understand each other. We both have climbed in the industry from the bottom to the upper rungs. We know what it takes, through personal and personnel issues, to get the job done. When we take time to sit back, we have empathy and can diffuse each other's frustrations.

Question Do you still feel excitement when you open a bottle of wine?
Answer Oh, yeah. It's not ho-hum. There are infinite variations to discover. In the privacy of our home, we can be pretty picky. We pour some down the sink. That's because we're privileged to have access to a lot of good wine. I'm pretty competitive internally. When she brings out a really nice bottle of wine, I'm inclined to try to one-up her. For domestic tranquility, I need to not do that.