Terroirist Weekly Interview with Jan Holtermann
By Alder Pak
Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Jan Holtermann, the proprietor and winemaker at Alma Fria.
Jan grew up in the wine business. After completing his studies, Jan joined his family wine-importing business in Costa Rica. But after two decades of importing wine, Jan was ready to make his own. He moved with his family to Sonoma County. Within a year, he found the vineyard that he liked. And so began Alma Fria.
If there can be said to be different “types” of individuals in the wine business, one “type” is undoubtedly the intellectual — someone who lives deliberately, with careful thought and reflection, and with some struggle for correctness. From the interview, Jan strikes us as such an intellectual. And as expected, his thoughts on wine and winemaking are a joy to read.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in San José, Costa Rica. Upon high school graduation, I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina during the four years of my undergraduate studies and then returned to Costa Rica. In 1998, I married my wife Silvia and moved to Washington, DC and Barcelona, Spain for two years while pursuing my master’s degree. As before, I returned to the family business until 2011 when we moved again this time with our two daughters to Healdsburg, California.
When and how did you get into wine?
Our family was in wine imports in Costa Rica for three generations. My grandfather left his home country of Norway in the 1940s, settled in Costa Rica, and started a food and wine import business that was then continued by my father as second generation and later by me as third.
I vividly recall, during weekend family reunions at my grandparents’, where just before lunch, I would walk with my grandfather to the back of the house where he had a very small wine cellar and I would silently observe his ritual of choosing the bottles he would share at the table. After he walked out of the cellar, I would stay in there, and start my “study” of geography by reading through all of the wine labels, I would climb left and right to grab the bottles higher up, I recall the smells, the sounds, it was a hidden corner full of stories.
As part of our import business, we received frequent visits from vignerons whose wines we represented; many of them would come to our home for dinner and, since a very early age, I would sit at the table the whole time. I remember fondly the long conversations, the stories of their journeys, their perspectives, and their traditions. It fascinated me.
What has been your career path to where you are?
After 20 years working for the family business and representing over 120 wineries from all over the world, I felt I was ready for a different challenge. In a way, I wanted to work on our expression; I felt the need to grow our own undertaking from the ground up. Even though we represented wineries from all scales, from the global multi-million case producers to the limited production ones, the largest share of our managerial time was becoming more and more absorbed by the corporate demands of the big wineries. And it was hard to feel passionate about that side of the business.
The heart and the intuition were already veering to a different place. The thought of growing our own grapes in a special terroir stirred the very core of my emotions. I was ready to shift from a global view of wine to a hyper-local one, to focus on one appellation and two varietals, to go small-scale, to handcraft, to connect with the land, to walk the vineyard rows, to step outside my comfort zone and learn a new craft.
With continued introspection and multiple family conversations came the decision to move to a winegrowing region to initiate the search for a terroir. My very personal preference for cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made it very simple to zoom the search in one specific area but at the same time it made less likely to find the exact potential site within the desired map. As destiny would have it, the opportunity came one year after we moved in the form of a two-and-a-half acre vineyard planted back in 2002 to 4 different clones of Pinot Noir in the very desirable Annapolis, CA region.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
As a region, the West Sonoma Coast with its cold ocean waters and on-shore winds, enjoys cool days and moderate night-time temperatures that translate to longer growing seasons and very balanced development of sugars, acids, and phenolics. This equilibrium provides ideal conditions for delightfully aromatic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines that express a sense of place and that are naturally elegant and complex.
Within these special regional characteristics, each individual vineyard’s expression is further conditioned by soil type, elevation, and distance from the ocean, among other things. Our Holtermann Vineyard is located in the northernmost extreme of the West Sonoma Coast and is only five miles from the Pacific Ocean. As such, it sees frequent morning fogs and heavy winds, along with above-normal precipitation that creates riskier farming conditions; viticulture on the fringe. The very well-drained soil is composed of volcanic origin, marine sediment from ancient seabeds, and rocky formations. Clusters and berries tend to be small resulting in high character wines.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
It is a vineyard first approach. Given the right vineyards and the very meticulous farming practices applied, the aim is to let the vineyards speak. In working with the fruit from optimal sites, the purpose is to grow wines of transparency and purity. A well-tended vineyard, growing healthy fruit picked at exactly the right window will then allow us to intervene as little as possible in the cellar. The beauty of this is that the approach is simple but the execution is very complex when faced with what every season throws into the equation. It is in this complexity, with all the moving needles year-in and year-out, that the winemaking philosophy and practices at Alma Fria benefit from the experience, the counsel, the hard work, and the friendship of Carroll Kemp as consulting winemaker and Greg Adams as consulting viticulturist.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
With our sole focus on Burgundian varietals grown in West Sonoma Coast vineyards, the biggest challenge is the remoteness of these sites, as well as the riskier farming conditions posed by the coastal climate.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Henri Jayer and Bruno Giacosa spring to mind for their humbleness, modesty, long-term commitment to quality, and the very specific expressions that they achieve through their wines. Their experience and their personal voice are profound but the ones talking are their wines, the fruit of their work. Also, Anselme Selosse, as the philosopher of wine that he is. His work reflects a way of looking at life more than anything else. It is very inspiring when the approach that masters take on a specific craft becomes an expression of how they view and decode life itself.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
The effervescence of new regions and talent is very exciting in today’s wine map. It is such that it becomes a huge challenge to single out names, but in looking at regions, there’s plenty of exciting energy in Sicily, Languedoc, Stellenbosch, Bierzo, the Central Coast in California and even our own West Sonoma Coast. The risks and the sheer work volume that up-and-coming winemakers take on when crafting their own expression is worthy of utmost respect.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I’ll split the vote in three: Burgundy, Rhone and Piemonte. Let’s add a fourth one so I can bring in the Mosel.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
With so much great wine it becomes a delicious exercise in subjectivity. The context upon which the wine is tasted plays a major role and a lot has to do with what sticks in one’s memory. I remember fondly drinking a 1961 Chateau Palmer in a dinner right there in the winery’s cellar that was epic.
As for the most interesting, I would have to name a handful of Barolos that have taken me to that space of contemplation and appreciation.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest right now is a 1989 Chateau Margaux. As for the most expensive, not that I’m counting but I know that the two bottles that I have of each of the 1999 Guigal La-La-Las have appreciated quite a bit.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
As I left for work travels one week ago, I had our 2014 Alma Fria Campbell Ranch Chardonnay open, and it was singing. This is the first single vineyard Chardonnay that we’ve bottled. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard is also in the Annapolis region, about three miles from our own estate vineyard. It’s due to be released this coming fall, so I’m uncorking periodically to check (“enjoy”) its evolution.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
I would pick a Pinot, a Riesling and a smile. In putting names to my choices and assuming I have a copy of the keys to many wine cellars, I would line up 30 bottles of the 2010 G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses and another 30 bottles of the 2010 Keller Kirchspiel Riesling Grosses Gewachs.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes! It is no coincidence that during the harvest weeks, after long days of vineyard and cellar work, one mantra is repeated over and over again, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine”.
How do you spend your days off?
At home, down time with family is very gratifying. And, over a longer break, we love to travel together to far away destinations where we are exposed to different cultures and varying ways of decoding life. Our daughters hallucinated during our recent trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. We are after all descendants of multiple migration patterns.
Also, more recently, after a long hiatus of my tennis game, I’ve come back to the courts thanks to my 12-year old daughter who has been enthusiastically playing for several years now. I really wish I had her two-handed backhand back in my days.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’ve always been a massive introvert.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I’m very much attracted to crafting products from specific geographic appellations. The idea of capturing an expression of a site, its topography, its microclimate, its history, its people, is fascinating to me. Having said this, I would probably grow coffee or cocoa in Costa Rica.
How do you define success?
Success is more about being than doing. It comes more from the heart and the soul rather than the mind. It’s about a way of living life every day. For me specifically, it’s about getting to a place of happiness, peace of mind, and positive intention.