february 6 2017 | jenny
Meet the Winemakers
Spencer Spetnagel and Brent Stone share more than the winemaker’s title at King Estate. Their fascination with wine, respect for the growers and innate good natures all come together in a collaboration that is proving to be very, well, fruitful.
Put simply, they make great wine together and have fun doing it. As serious as they are about wine, they are equally determined not to do anything to compromise wine’s natural elegance.
“Sometime I think the best approach is just to get out of the way and don’t mess it up,” Brent says.
A longer conversation reveals that there is, of course, a little more to it than that. Although they come to wine from different backgrounds, Brent and Spencer share a love for the whole winemaking process – from bud to bottle.
Spencer’s story starts in Georgia where he was waiting tables in a fine-dining establishment while working on a degree in marketing. At the tender age of 22, Spencer knew he had found his calling, although he didn’t narrow his focus to wine for a few more years.
“Everything about it appeals to me – fine food, pairing food with wine, going to tastings, meeting winemakers,” Spencer says. “I never wanted to work in a cubicle, and I found an industry where my love for activity and the outdoors was a job. With wine, you’re a farmer.”
He worked his first vintage in 2004 with Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, Calif., and then moved to New Zealand to pursue his education in Oenology and Viticulture while continuing to work for various wineries and learn his craft. He returned to the U.S. and Ravenswood in 2008. The next year he was named assistant winemaker at Bargetto, the oldest winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he met his wife. They relocated to Eugene in 2012 and Spencer joined King Estate, working harvest that year. He was named Assistant Winemaker in 2014 and Winemaker in 2016.
Brent came to King Estate in 2011 as Lab Manager, a less visible but no-less critical position than the one he holds today. An experienced research and development chemist, this was Brent’s first foray into the wine business. Previously he spent 10 years in quality control; his last position was in the dairy industry. As his responsibilities expanded at King Estate, Brent oversaw bottling operations and packaging supply chain in addition to quality assurance. He was named Winemaker last year.
Brent has a degree in environmental science from Utah State University and is completing graduate work in agricultural food and life sciences at the University of Arkansas. Since joining King Estate he has completed a two-year program to earn an Enology Certificate from Washington State University.
Fast forward to February 2017 and the winemakers have a moment, while the vines lie dormant and the wines age, to talk about their work, their wines and their love of the craft.
Both winemakers like making – and drinking – Pinot Noir, Oregon’s most famous variety. “The winemakers’ stamp is much easier to see in Pinot Noir,” Spencer says. The options for blending make it interesting for the winemakers, who draw on their knowledge of the different blocks on our estate as well as fruit from our vineyard partners to achieve the taste they’re after. Ask for a current favorite and both cite the 2012 King Estate Croft Pinot Noir.
King Estate is best known for its outstanding Pinot Gris, and Brent notes that this grape is a different beast altogether. “With Pinot Gris, the goal is preservation of the aromatics,” he says. “That’s particularly important in white wines. We ferment it cold and slow to preserve the fruit.” King Estate has a recognizable Pinot Gris style – bright and clean with just the right balance of acidity to pair well with food. The King Estate Domaine Pinot Gris is currently Brent’s favorite go-to wine.
There’s a saying among winemakers that wine is made in the vineyard, and that’s where Brent and Spencer wish they could spend more time. Being out in the field with the vineyard manager and viticulturists helps the winemakers understand the fruit and think about how they want to use it. It’s something they don’t get to do enough. Fortunately King Estate has a strong viticulture team, led by veteran Ray Nuclo, that carefully tends the vines on our estate and spends months on the road visiting our vineyard partners. Their combined efforts will give the winemakers the best possible fruit to work with – a responsibility the winemakers take very seriously.
“You can only make wine as good as the fruit,” Brent says. Spencer adds, “You need to do the grapes justice.” This is the one time in the conversation that both men are dead serious – almost reverent. Fruit is no laughing matter.
Rare among professions, winemakers are connected to their product throughout the entire process. That’s part of the allure of the job.
“Think of the effort that goes into getting wine into the bottle,” Brent says, “from all the people who are pruning in the vineyard now, and then the explosion of energy that happens around harvest, through to blending and bottling. It takes a lot of steps, a lot of people and a lot of collaboration.”
“It’s literally my blood, sweat and tears – hours, weeks and months – in every glass,” Spencer adds.
Knowing when to intervene in the winemaking process and when to leave it alone is part of the art, and the mystery. Whatever else winemaking may be – farming, science, alchemy, magic – it is never boring.
“It’s a profession you never master,” Brent says. “It allows you to change your mind.”
Spencer agrees. “Once it’s made, wine continue to evolve, and how you set all the reactions up from the beginning to create those long-term effects…”
Brent finishes Spencer’s sentence: “… that’s what makes it awesome.”