Tim Slater says his passion is Rhone style wines
Published in the August 20 – September 3, 2014 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Robert Airoldi
Tim Slater likes to say his job is turning fruit into liquid sunshine — the true music of the vineyard.
“The philosophy of Sarah’s Vineyard brings together the world of fine wine, fine food, and fine music,” Slater said.
Slater, the owner of Sarah’s Vineyard since 2001, is now working on his 14th harvest. Tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills near Hecker Pass Highway, the vineyard enjoys a coastal microclimate of foggy mornings, sunny afternoons tempered by strong ocean breezes, and chilly nights that is ideal for the premium Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rhone varietals that he grows.
In the past 13 years, Slater said he’s learned much about making fine wine.
“I understand what’s going on a lot better now,” he said, acknowledging the industry has changed and he’s always learning.
“It takes a good five years to learn what’s going on,” he said. For example, 2011 was a challenging year. It was very chilly, foggy with a lot of moisture that encourages mildew and rot. “Those who weren’t careful saw losses that year,” he said. “The more fruit you have on the vines, the more the risk you’re taking.”
The 28-acre property includes more than 10 acres of Pinot Noir grapes, and another 10 acres of Chardonnay, and Rhone varietals that include Grenach, Carignane, Mourvedre, Counoise, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc.
Slater is a scientist, engineer and inventor who worked for 20 years in Silicon Valley at a variety of small startups in a little known field called micromachining.
Before becoming a self-proclaimed “Mad Scientist (mad crazy, not mad angry),” his life was marked by a different spectrum of creativity revolving around wine, food and music. His undergraduate and graduate studies in college were mainly scientific, but were tempered by stints as a DJ and as a member in a variety of garage bands. A formal introduction to wine appreciation in 1986 nearly derailed his career in favor for a life in the world of wine. Several years later, while working at a research institute near Brussels, Slater took an extended vacation in Paris to deepen his understanding of French cuisine by attending Le Cordon Bleu Academy.
Over a decade later, the well-publicized dot-com implosion in Silicon Valley convinced him that it was time to seek a new kind of life. Long searches and a surprising serendipity brought Slater to Sarah’s Vineyard, which he purchased in 2001.
Along with the climate and the terroir, the character of their estate grapes is influenced by the age of the vines and the clonal selections planted. The original vineyard was planted in 1978 with Chardonnay — at the time there were 600 wineries in California, now there are more than 6,000 — supplemented in 1989 with additional plantings of clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Additional expansion is planned using cuttings from 1989 Pinot clones, which express a marvelous earthy, mushroom character, he said. Three more acres were planted in 2006 with Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Counoise and Grenache Noir to continue and expand their commitment to Rhone style wines.
Slater, like many winemakers in the area, said the past decade or so has seen all the wineries in the area step up their game.
“We started seeing all the wineries making much better wines than they did collectively more than 10 years ago,” he said.
Slater said he enjoys what he’s doing, despite the hard work and the unknown as each harvest approaches.
“Farming always has that tension between what happens and what you expect to happen,” he said.