Thacher Winery produces some of Paso Robles’ most authentic wines. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite producers from California’s Central Coast. The family-owned and operated winery is nestled on Vineyard Dr. in the west side of the region. Winemaker Sherman Thacher, a former award-winning brew master, and his wife Michelle founded Thacher Winery in 2008.
Working with notable Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, and Monterey County vineyards, Thacher delivers nuanced, refined and innovative wines. By embracing diverse varietals and an array of winemaking techniques, Thacher consistently produces stunning and exciting wines that uniquely represent each vintage.
I recently interviewed Winemaker Sherman Thacher to get a behind the scenes look at what it means to be a winemaker. This interview was for a Wine Folly article I wrote called What Winemakers Don’t Tell You About Making Wine. Since not all of Sherman’s generously shared insights could fit into one Wine Folly article, I wanted to share the interview with you here.
What is one unusual wine making practice you’ve encountered in your career and its purpose?
ST: What may seem unusual is commonplace elsewhere. With some lots or portions of lots, we ferment carbonically. While this is not common for most ferments in our neck of the woods, it’s a normal practice in Beaujolais. In past vintages we’ve utilized this for small lots that end up as portions of bigger blends.
This last harvest we made a small lot that was bottled up by itself. We picked some Valdiguié fairly early in the season and put it straight into a fermenter, whole cluster. The grapes were covered with a layer of CO2 snow and then we completely sealed up the tank. We didn’t touch it for five weeks. The fermentation started with native yeast and did the majority of primary anaerobically. After five weeks, we lightly pressed it in a basket press and moved it to a neutral puncheon where it completed malolactic fermentation. The wine was then bottled in February. The result was a bright, lightly colored red wine with an amazingly fruity nose.
Making Pet Nat
In 2019 we made a Pétillant Naturel / Pet Nat / Méthode Ancestrale for the first time. This has been a been a really fun project at Thacher. Our base was from our normal rosé made out of Cinsault. Instead of letting the rosé go completely dry we took off a small portion and bottled it up a little sweet (about 1.5 brix) in sparkling bottles, under a beer crown.
At this point it was still fermenting but not yet dry. With no way to escape the CO2 produced was then absorbed into the wine, carbonating it. As the pet nat started to go dry the yeast began to settle so we inverted the bottles to catch it in the neck of the bottle. After the yeast dropped out we dipped the necks in ice and rock salt to freeze the yeast plugs and then disgorged them. The result, a beautifully fruity, lightly carbonated rosé
What is something you experienced in the cellar or the vineyard throughout your winemaking career that you could have never previously imagined?
ST: Most recently we completed a native 14 month primary fermentation of our Grenache Blanc. We blended in Viognier to help nudge it along, but it didn’t speed things up. As tempting as it was to interfere further it was always gradually ticking along and tasting and smelling great. It picked up speed towards the end of our following harvest and crossed the finish line!
Can You Please Briefly Describe Your Average Work Day During Harvest at Thacher?
ST: During harvest the daily goal is to go out and check as many vineyards as possible before the fruit you are picking that day comes in. It’s a great time and you get a morning hike in. After assessing the vineyards, the focus swings over to the fruit in the cellar. We will check all the ferments for progress and tend to them with various protocols. The most common is a punch down, but that can be substituted with a pump-over, délestage or sometimes no interaction if we are minimizing extraction or finishing up fermentation.
Next, we prep for grapes to arrive. We assemble the equipment and give it a once over with the ozone machine to clean. We then process the fruit, which sometimes means we just dump it into a fermenter and other times means we completely de-stem, sort, and crush it. Midday we will do another round on the fermenters and go back to processing. When we are done processing the fruit from the day we clean up and do one more round on the fermenters.
Whats Your Average Work Day Like In The Months Following Harvest?
ST: Post harvest, we go straight to blending our previous vintage. These lots have all sat separately till this time. We sample mock up blends and when we are happy with them we will take those blends to tank and then return them to barrels to complete their aging as a blend. We also prep any whites or rosé wine that isn’t going to have a prolonged aging.
What are you doing in the spring and summer at Thacher?
ST: In Spring, we bottle up the rosé, maybe a white and some of our lighter reds and red blends that we age 18 months. Then it’s into the vineyards. Pruning, training and tractor time doing weed abatement with the mower and our Clemons weed knife.
We are outside a lot [during summer]. The vineyards need to be closely monitored. We will be suckering, shoot thinning, leafing, cluster dropping/thinning, watering our non dry farmed blocks and checking for problems such as mildew. As we approach harvest we will start to check sugar, pH and acid levels.
What are your considerations when making decisions throughout the winemaking process?
ST: During harvest, decision making is constant and often the most important. Things change by the minute and improvising is paramount, especially during a heat wave when things are moving quickly inside and outside of the cellar. We are constantly planning and re-planning the week ahead to try and prevent log jams.
This can happen anywhere along the line and can create a pile up if you’re not careful. It starts with coordinating picks, deliveries, processing times, available tanks and fermenters, press times and getting wine to barrel. Sometimes it all works out, usually not. Sluggish or stuck ferments drive everyone crazy as they tie up much needed equipment and space.
Once pressed off, aging begins and where the wine goes for that will determine many things. Some our most robust wines will be aged in small 225L barrels, but the bulk will go to larger format puncheons. Most of the barrels we use are neutral to preserve freshness in the wine. We also employ concrete tanks and terracotta amphorae for the same reason. Once safely into a vessel there is more time to plan things such as topping, checking malic levels, getting things stable and eventually bottling.
Can you please provide some insights into the blending process?
ST: During the season we will periodically pull all our barrels down and taste through them. This is usually done in conjunction with a round of topping for the barrels. During these times we will asses the wines and discuss the possibilities for their future. Blends can be derived from other regions, other wineries, a whim or just a crazy idea. We’re just looking for lots to complement each other and produce a complete wine. Being a small producer our options are wide open.
As we get closer to blending we will start to narrow down our options and lay out volumes. At the start of blending we will pull all our barrels down to one or two barrels high so they are easy to access. All the blending is done by myself and my assistant winemaker, Daniel Callan. Starting with some of our bigger blends we will pull 10ml samples from each barrel we have proposed for the blend. From there the discussion starts.
A blend can take a whole day but generally we’ll get three to four done daily. We blend almost all our wines as even single varietal wines are often broken up into lots from different vineyards, picks, oak regimes and fermentations. At the end of the day everything is tasting great (and yes, we do spit). So, the next day we start by blending up a fresh version of our blend and discuss. If it passes, we move on. If not we continue working on it and will resample again the next day. As soon as we finish and are happy with the blends we start to rack them to tank and back to barrel as a blend so we don’t deliberate further and can move on. We all need our sleep.
What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of starting your own winery?
ST: The most rewarding is always getting the finished product sold. If that doesn’t happen things will be short lived. Harvest can be challenging at times, but is definitely the most fun. As far as owning a winery I think managing the inevitable cycles is the single most challenging aspect. This includes harvest size, quality, employees, seasons among others. These all dramatically affect the bottom line which keeps the ball rolling.
I have never made wine for someone else, but have enjoyed watching and learning from the many wineries I’ve done harvest at. I fully enjoy the freedom to create my own product.
Thacher Is A Must Visit Winery
The passion for what they do extends from vineyard to bottle and is felt with every visit to their charming property. So, if you’re looking for good vibes and unbeatable wines, then plan a visit to Thacher on your next Paso Robles wine country getaway. For those who can’t make it to wine country anytime soon, check out Thacher’s online wine shop. The Cinsault is one of my personal favorites.