Changing winemakers is never easy. After all, our business is predicated first and foremost on producing outstanding wines that satisfy our customers each and every vintage. So when Bill Knuttel, our winemaker since 2003, decided to pursue his consulting business, the search was on. And what an exhaustive search it was! In fact, a good chunk of 2011 was spent looking for the next great Dry Creek Vineyard winemaker. We spent hundreds of hours in interviews, tastings, discussions, more interviews, fact checking, pondering…you get the idea. We did our homework. And finally, Tim Bell rose to the top of the list.
Tim joined us just before harvest last year and officially took the reins from Bill in January 2012. Tim has more than 20 years of winemaking experience at such esteemed California wineries as Kunde Family Estate and Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley. Experience, however, was just one of many factors as to why Tim was chosen for the job. We could wax poetic for quite awhile about what a great guy Tim is and how fond we are of him – but we thought it would be much better to hear from him in his own words. Earlier this year, after the official baton was passed, we sat down with Tim for some one-on-one time to find out what makes him tick.
Q. So Tim, why winemaking? Where does the passion come from?
Well, this might sound just a tad cheesy, but the honest truth is that I’m sort of a romantic at heart. I find a lot of beauty in things. I love music. I have a passion for the outdoors. I feel deep connections to things of simplicity. I think that really speaks to how I feel about wine. There’s so much beauty and romance surrounding wine. It’s the vineyards, the wide open country, the beauty of the surrounding hills and valleys. I’m passionate about taking grapes from these places and being respectful to them and creating a wine that has meaning and care put into it.
Q. Wow, Tim. That’s pretty great. We love passionate people. Can you tell us more about your early years – where did you grow up? How did you get your start in the wine business?
I was born in Iowa, the youngest son in a family of farmers and laborers. I think a good bit of my creative side came from my upbringing. My parents worked hard all day and found some joy in music at night and in church. Music is a huge part of our family gatherings today – lots of singing and people playing different instruments. My family is very down to earth – salt of the earth kind of people.
As I grew up, I hung out with a pretty eclectic mix of friends. I found myself, though, more often than not spending time with my intellectual buddies – sort of science geek type personalities. I suppose that’s where I got a lot of my stimulation for chemistry and lab work which are important parts of being a winemaker.
My start in the wine industry was a bit unusual by winemaking standards. From the age of 18 to about 28 I was in the retail side of the business as a store manager and wine buyer at a large retailer in Southern California. I think this was where I realized that wine has a great history and romance (as well as science) behind it. Also, this is where I had my wine “moment.” I was at this trade tasting and tasted a super Tuscan called Viticcio Prunaio. I was blown away. It was a symphony of flavors and layers. It was such a moment for me; it was profound. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a winemaker. I attended the University of California at Davis from 1990 to 1994 and did internships at Franciscan Winery and Mt. Veeder Vineyards, as well as Gloria Ferrer Wine Caves.
My first full time job was at a winery called Arroyo Seco which was a custom crush facility in San Martin near Gilroy, CA. I refer to this period in my career as my boot camp training for winemaking. During harvest, the facility operated 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. I learned a lot in a very short period of time. Also, I was never so tired in my whole life!
Q. How would you characterize your winemaking style?
I’m looking for boldness and intensity in the aromas and flavors, but a wine that never loses its balance. I’m not making a cocktail; I’m making wine that goes with food. That syncs up with Dry Creek Vineyard’s philosophy. Ripeness and full body are important, but the wine should have good acidity and tannin structure.
Q. We’re sure you’ve thought about this. Why Dry Creek Vineyard?
Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and the Bordeaux varieties are wines I love to make and wines that Dry Creek Vineyard has championed for 40 years. It’s so satisfying to work for a family and be involved from grape to glass. I feel like I am really in line with the family’s vision for the winery going forward. It’s not often that you get to work for people who are willing to give you all the tools necessary to make great wines. Plus, Kim, Don and Dave are really passionate about making great wine – as am I. This is a great situation for me.
Q. What is your long term outlook? Do you see any significant changes on the horizon?
First of all, I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. I want to stay within the house style of wines. These wines have made Dry Creek Vineyard successful for 40 years so there’s no reason to try and fix something that is not broken. That being said, I will always strive to produce the best possible wine and make suggestions for improvement. There are some areas that I think I can be of assistance. For example, some more attention to detail in the vineyard with different pruning techniques or canopy management, particularly in the Endeavour vineyard, are just a few thoughts that come to mind. Really though, it just comes down to having a dedicated focus to Dry Creek Vineyard. It’s all about planning, precision and execution.
Q. What is your “desert island” wine?
Zinfandel is for sure my favorite grape variety, but Cabernet is a very close second. I love Zinfandel because it is so versatile. Hopefully, I don’t get stranded on a desert island but if I were, Zin is definitely the wine I’d want to have in lots of supply!