Maître de Chai - Masters of Soil and Cellar

10/28/19 -

My first experience with Maître de Chai was at an overwhelmingly large walk-around tasting, where their wines' precision and expressiveness made me take notice. After having the pleasure of meeting the winemakers, Marty Winters and Alex Pitt, I knew I had to champion their cause. Established in 2012, their mission was to create wines that showcased a sense of place and challenge the notion that California wines could only ever be sun-drenched and over-worked. Marty and Alex were inspired by a pioneering generation of California winemakers of the 1960's and 70's, who themselves were inspired by the terroir-driven wines of the Old World. This motivation led them to seek out distinctive vineyard sites, mainly centered around Sonoma Mountain and the Sierra Nevada foothills, all of which, with the exception of their Chenin Blanc sourced from two sites, are bottled as single-vineyard wines.

The wines of Maître de Chai show a distinct lack of ego; unfussed with, pure, and site-specific. The name of their winery translates to "cellar-master", but speaking to these two, it's clear that their work is mainly being done in the vineyard. They do not believe in using any additives (other than a minimal amount of SO2), all of their wines are made with indigenous yeasts, and none of them are made using new oak. All of their farmers are working organically (with the Stampede Vineyard in conversion to organics), employ little to no irrigation, and some have even stopped tilling. The health of the soil and the surrounding environment is extremely important to them, as they believe it is the best chance of getting the full potential from the fruit and their wines.

Although there is a trend among young winemakers to plant obscure varietals, Marty and Alex prefer to stick to the classics; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Zinfandel. These grapes have a great potential to showcase their vineyards, and older, own-rooted plantings of these variets are more prevalent in California. Their Sauvignon Blanc comes from Herron Vineyard; a beautiful, grass-covered, organically farmed site that was planted in 1969 on Sonoma Mountain by the then 18 year-old Rudy Rodriguez. Today Marty and Alex personally manage this heritage site working side-by-side with Rudy and the current vineyard owners. Their Chardonnay comes from the Rorick Heritage Vineyard that sits way up at 2000 ft elevation on the hillsides of Calaveras County. These vines were planted on their own rootstock in 1974 on a patch of blue limestone and schist, and are now prized for their small berries and low-yields, adding to the concentration of flavor in their wine. Perhaps one of their most compelling offerings is their field-blend bottling of mostly Zinfandel from the Stampede Vineyard planted in the 1920's next to the Clements Stampede Rodeo. This property is currently being farmed by the incredibly diligent Jeff and John Pergelos who work closely with Marty and Alex to transform this previously negleted vineyard.

I am not often blown away by expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Zinfandel from outside their native lands, but with the deep respect and appreciation for their vineyard sites, the wines of Maître de Chai allow these grapes to speak volumes to the potential of California terroir. Michelle DeWyngaert

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