Life on the Vine
Q& A with Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards
By SUSAN SEGREST
How did you get into the wine business?
A. My father wanted to retire and grow grapes, but he’s an extreme type-A personality so he wasn’t happy with just 15 acres. We now have 200 acres. I had gone to Parsons School of Design and was working in the art world in New York, but in 1982 I came home for six months to help set up the winery. Eventually, I was seduced by the idea of artisanal agriculture and winemaking and moved home for good.
What is your approach to winemaking?
A. Instead of chasing the market, we’ve defined our style and we stick to our guns about it. We’ve planted every vine we work and we just plod away. We believe in cuisine-oriented, balanced, vineyard-driven wine making. For some wineries, it is about who makes the biggest, baddest wine on the block. Instead, we think about what we are going to drink with dinner. We are trying to make wines that are in sync with their surroundings and have had little manipulation in the cellar.
Why did you shift to biodynamic farming?
A. My father was from a science background and was a fan of obliterating the competition with herbicides. However after the 1990 vintage, we were looking at one Chardonnay field that was shutting down before the end of growing season and realized that it was sterile media in which to grow grapes. So we decided that we should go organic. Our winemaker Jeff Virnig said that we should do it in a way that’s all about quality, not just for the sake of going organic. We interviewed growers who were doing biodynamic farming and while some of the rituals didn’t make sense to us, the qualities of the wines were wonderful and that convinced us.
How do you describe biodynamics? As you alluded, some of the rituals, such as filling a cow’s horn with dung and burying it in a field, are a bit unusual.
A. I take it with a healthy dose of cynicism. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the rituals, I certainly haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid on that, but I do think that when more care is taken with the soil, it shows. We look at the farm as a living entity and work with nature for the best result. It’s about creating a soil that is rich in organic material that can provide nutrition to the vines. Also, by creating everything on the farm that’s needed for the farm you can truly imprint the regional character. We’ve survived a lot of issues that have plagued other wineries, such as the phylloxera infestation. It’s taken years for us to truly see the results of this approach but it gives more subtlety in the wine making and creates a more expressive and balanced wine.
What are the accolades that make you happiest?
A. I don’t actually send wine out for review. There is often a preconceived notion about what they want and I don’t want to adjust my style. The marketplace sorts it out well enough. However, I do like having chefs on board. It’s rewarding when someone like Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller calls me up and says “Let’s make a barrel of wine together.”
If you knew it were your last meal, what would you choose to have?
A. Fish tacos with a beer on the beach.
Susan Segrest is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.