by Laura Ness
There aren’t many of Jed Steele’s contemporaries still making wine. Most have hung up their hoses and gone fishing, or passed on to the great vineyard in the sky. Few have as many stories to tell as this man. And far fewer have made as many wines from as many different places. And fewer still can claim to have been at the forefront of the creation of two powerhouse AVAs: Mendocino and Lake County.
Jed Steele, photo by Muse photography
And it all began with a horse named Stymie.
Both Jed’s maternal and paternal grandfathers were 4th generation Methodist ministers, and his Dad initially followed in their bible-thumping footsteps. Perhaps that’s why he gave his youngest son the distinctive and powerful name, Jedediah.
Says Jed, “They were the fire and brimstone kind of Methodists. No card playing, no drinking, no dancing. Four hours of bible-reading on Sundays. But then my father worked as a newspaperman during the war in Paris. That completely changed his perspective.”
When Jed, who was born in New York City, was 5 years old, his Dad moved the entire family to San Francisco, except for Jed’s oldest sister, who got married just before their departure. Turns out his Dad had developed, along with a very discerning palate and appreciation for wine, a much more discrete, and far more lucrative, taste for the ponies. Rumor has it that it was his secret stash of considerable winnings on a racehorse named Stymie (in his day, the richest race horse ever), that enabled the family’s move to the big time high rolling city of San Francisco.
“I remember my Dad had a big wine cellar, and he was always buying old Burgundies and Bordeaux. I also remember the photo of Stymie that hung in his office.”
After high school, Jed, who had developed a knack for basketball, attended Gonzaga University, a Jesuit college in Spokane, on a sports scholarship. He ended up being a basketball coach. “Nobody else in my family was sports-minded,” says Steele. He majored in law, but after two years, switched to psychology.
His Dad meanwhile, was spending his advance checks for his writings on 1959 and 1961 Burgundies and Bordeaux wines, and learning a lot about California wines. “California was a very small wine community in the 1950s,” says Steele.
It seems Jed was destined to become part of it. His first job after college was in the cellar at Napa’s Stony Hill Winery, which inspired him to go back to school at UC Davis, where he earned his Masters in enology.
Then he went from the nascent wine country of Napa to the wilds of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, where he worked as both winemaker and vineyard manager at Edmeades Winery from 1974 through 1982. It was a small two-horse town, with the two horses being Edmeades and Husch. “All that was planted up there at the time was French columbard (from which Italian Swiss Colony used to make sparkling), chardonnay, gewurztraminer and cabernet. Nobody started planting pinot there until the 1990s. UC Davis at the time recommended it for cabernet. Two or three years out of five, you might get it ripe. Darryl Corti was a real fan of the cabs from here: they were around 12.8 or 12.9% alcohol.”
Always up for an adventure, Steele partnered with the legendary Sacramento retailer in 1974 to produce a private label Mendocino cabernet sauvignon that used artwork on the wine label: a first for a California winery. Prior to this, Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux was the only winery to feature original artwork on its label. Steele says the artist who created the artwork, a painting of an old apple dryer next to Edmeades, was Bill Zacha, founder of the Mendocino Arts Center.
While that wine might have been a great showcase of Mendocino’s artful nature, Steele says it underscored the general unsuitability of the Anderson Valley for growing cabernet. “Funny story. Dan Baron, who I worked with as a vineyard manager in the Anderson Valley, was helping Christian Moieux find a place to land.
It was a rainy night and the winery (Edmeades) had a steel roof. We had Christian taste through our style of Cabernet, and he says, ‘It’s so Bordeaux! I’m going to Napa where they can get the grapes ripe every year!’”
Although he went on to bottle the first California cabernet sauvignon specifically create to benefit a medical facility in 1977, following the tradition of Hospice du Beaune, he realized that cabernet was not the strong suit of the Anderson Valley.
Says Steele, “I was one of the lead guys in setting up the Anderson Valley AVA, back in 1976. It was my idea that was integral to the delineation of the boundaries. Allan Green (Greenwood Ridge) was also instrumental. Husch had vineyards in both Anderson Valley and Ukiah. Lazy Creek was one of the first to use Anderson Valley on their labels.”
After 10 years at Edmeades, it was time for something different. Opportunity came knocking in the form of a phone call from Paul Dolan, asking him to come help salvage a vintage at Kendall Jackson. What would become the most widely known and popular style of Chardonnay ever to come out of California, began pretty much as a giant batch of lemonade.
Says Steele, “They had 20k gallons of chardonnay at 1% residual sugar that wouldn’t go dry. I’d never had RS at Edmeades, but remembered that Dick Arrowood and my former assistant winemaker, Milla Handley, had both made chardonnay with a bit of RS at Chateau St. Jean. It worked for them. I decided to add a big slug of Chenin blanc. And it took off!”
Thus was born the KJ Vinters Reserve Chardonnay. Now, he just had to repeat it every year. This proved easy enough, and production went from 30k cases to over a million in 9 years time.
But not everyone was a fan. Steele says, “Wine writers pilloried me for making chardonnay with RS. I’d say, ‘Wine is not a religion! Look at what Sonoma Cutrer and Bien Nacido are doing!”
And then came the chapter that he continues to write: the Lake County chapter. In 1991, Steele start his own wine brand in Lower Lake in California’s Lake County. He then bought the Mt. Konocti Winery in Kelseyville, where he moved production in 1996.
“When I first came to Lake County, it was an uninspiring scene. Most people were farming pears. The soils were mostly heavy clay, which leant itself to whites, but not reds. Guenoc was 45 minutes away, right on the Napa border. All the others were on the west side of Clear Lake. It was just Wildhurst and Steele in Lower Lake. Then Beckstoffer arrived in 2000, and Greg Graham moved up here.”
Things have changed dramatically for Lake County in the last 18 years. There are now 10k acres of grapes planted here, mostly at elevations between 1300 feet and 3000 feet. The primary grapes here are sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. Beckstoffer now owns 1500 acres of grapes here. Jed himself owns five vineyards here and leases another three from the Dorn family, original Lake County settlers.
“Lake County sauvignon blanc has stood out since day 1,” says Steele. “It’s our calling card. We also make viognier and roussanne. Cabernet sauvignon, thanks to Beckstoffer’s acumen, has become the #1 red variety here. They age very well, especially from the Red Hills area.”
But what is the grape that has always stood out for Jed? Cabernet franc. “It will always be a minor player, though. It will never surpass cab sauv, but it has a special place in my heart.” He gets cab franc from two sources: a vineyard he owns, and one he leases. “I’ve made rosé from every conceivable varietal without much success. But I’ve been to the Loire Valley, and it’s what they use. I figured, if the red is this good, a rosé should work. It’s beautiful and ages really well.”
As exciting as his Lake County wines are, most of the vineyards there are Bordeaux and Rhone focused. With a deep affection for chardonnay and pinot noir (what doesn’t he love? we wonder, too), Steele has long been affiliated with stellar names like Bien Nacido, Sangiacomo, Goodchild and Durell. The wines he makes from these vineyards are truly stunning. “Good vineyards are the key to great wine,” he says. And he loves Washington grapes, too. Seventeen years of consulting work with Chateau Ste Michelle have brought him in touch with some particularly interesting
grapes like blaufrankisch and aligote. His “Blue Franc” wine with the vaguely Blue Nun looking French woman on the label has a huge following in lots of markets, especially in the Northwest.
If you’ve been keeping track, it will not come as a surprise that this man is making 40 (probably more like 40-something) different wines from at least 16 varietals, under four different brands. Two of them, Steele and Shooting Star, were created in 1991.
Jed’s flagship label, Steele, stems from Jed’s passion for chardonnay, pinot noir, and zinfandel, and features vineyard-specific wines from estate vineyards and from other vineyards he’s worked with since the 1970s. Steele varietals now include pinot blanc, viognier, cabernet franc rosé, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, pinot noir, petit verdot, zinfandel and cabernet franc. His Steele California Cuvée Chardonnay, at $22, is his flagship white wine. But if you’re looking for a solid couple of single-vineyard pinots for $30, both the 2014 Sangiacomo and 2014 Bien Nacido are red-fruited beauties that can waltz their way across a dance floor.
Jed created “Shooting Star” to focus on exceptional grapes that didn’t fit into the Steele program. It includes predominantly Lake County wines that restaurants can offer at a by-the-glass price. The label itself is a great story.
Jed’s father gave him the middle name Tecumseh, after a revered chief of the Shawnee tribe. Chief Tecumseh was born during a great meteor shower and was introduced to his tribe as “Chief Tecumseh, born under the sign of a shooting star.”
Shooting Star now includes aligote, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, barbera, and Blue Franc. Most are bottled under screwcap and are priced well under $20.
In 1999, Jed created Stymie. This is Jed’s homage to his Dad. After his father passed away in 1989, his mother gave him the painting of the horse that had always hung in his Dad’s office. Jed says his Dad liked to joke, “Son, if it wasn’t for a nag named Stymie, you’d never have become a winemaker.”
Only two varieties are produced under the Stymie label: merlot and syrah, sourced from the Silva and Jacobsen properties. These wines represent the best of the best, grown and vinified in Lake County, according to Jed, who feels merlot is underserved in California. “Dan Berger thinks my merlot is one of the best merlots he’s ever had. At the time, there were tons of high-end Cabs, but only one or two high quality merlots.” He charges $45 for it.
In 2002, he collaborated with his son Quincy, also a winemaker with experience in Australia and Argentina, to create the Writer’s Block label. It began with an overabundance of syrah. Jed said, “Here’s a project for you!” Quincy specified the wine making protocols, which include both old and new world techniques. He also developed the clever labels. Writer’s Block is actually prolific, and includes roussanne, syrah, grenache, counoise, petite sirah, cabernet franc, malbec, pinot noir and zinfandel.
Most wines throughout the entire Steele portfolio are under 1k in lot size. How does he do it? That’s begs the question, why does he do it? Because he can?
“I’m actually discontinuing four SKU’s next year,” he says. “Actually, I’ve decided to limit my SKUs to sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc.” It’s a joke, but one that his sales team won’t find amusing.
Speaking of sales, he’s enjoyed some serious recognition of late. His Shooting Star brand was chosen by Wine & Spirits Magazine June issue as one of their 2018 All Stars, an award that honors brands that consistently pass the magazine’s scoring panels with wines under $20.
On the heels of that recognition, his 2015 Shooting Star Lake County Zinfandel was featured on NBC’s TODAY Show on June 20th as a top Summertime Wine pick. TODAY’s wine experts Leslie Sbrocco and Ray Isle appear monthly on the show to recommend some of their favorite wines.
Asked about his philosophy of winemaking, he admits, “For better or for worse, I’ve always considered myself a populist winemaker. I want to produce wines that are a good value, maybe to my economic detriment.”
“I don’t get caught up in trying to make the perfect wine. I don’t make ‘prima donna wines.’ For me, winemaking is darn simple. And lastly, wine is not religion.”
He should know a thing or two about that, given that his Methodist grandmother, when she was too old to go to church, would sit on the front porch in her rocker and spit at the Catholics as they walked by.
Yet, Jed gives his employees Sundays off. His is one of the very few tasting rooms in California that is closed on Sundays. This has nothing to do with religion, he says. “I just think people need a day off.”