Grape Ardor
In Sonoma County, Peter Paul '67 learns the art and science of winemaking

By Jane Harrigan
Photography by Perry Smith

Ah, the romance of wine. In the Russian River Valley north of San Francisco, it's everywhere. Take a drive on Westside Road, which curves tight as a corkscrew through the vineyards of northwest Sonoma County. Twelve thousand acres of vines nudge the pavement on both sides, standing like ranks of gnarled soldiers with arms flung across each other's shoulders. Around one curve, a canopy of sycamores flashes overhead, top-lit emerald. Around the next, trees yield again to the vine-soldiers, marching endlessly toward the green-gold mountains with the rhythmic name: Mayacama.

Several times each mile, a sign heralds another winery—more than 100 in a 30-mile radius. Shaded driveways meander toward picnic groves, serene terraces, sensual gardens. Tasting rooms beckon from cozy stone farmhouses, cathedral-like converted barns, elegant European-style chateaus. The wineries promise romance with their sweeping views, romance with their esoteric lingo, romance in the seduction of the sip.


Peter Paul's winery isn't one of them. On a spring afternoon with the sky as sapphire blue as his SUV, Paul tackles the curves of Westside Road aggressively, heading home from Grove Street Winery. Not for Grove Street the chateau or the views—or even the vines. Paul's winery occupies two tan sheet-metal buildings on an industrial park drive in Healdsburg. Like many California winemakers, Grove Street doesn't grow a grape. It also doesn't grow an attitude. While other vintners tout "highly nuanced wines of power and finesse," Grove Street puts it simply: "The best wines from Sonoma County for less than $20 a bottle."

It's wine without pretense, a niche Paul has carved in the wine business using the money he made carving a niche in the mortgage business. He loves wine and finds it plenty romantic when he's dining out or stocking the 1,700-bottle wine cellar in his waterfront home. But people who own wineries don't spell wine with a capital R for Romance. In northern California, they're far more likely to list a catalog of C's: chemistry, commerce, community and cooperage.

Upstairs at Grove Street Winery, the aqua-painted workspace of the winemaker looks like what it is: a chemistry lab. Fifty miles separate the winery from Paul's mortgage company, Paul Financial, in San Rafael. But here amid test tubes and beakers, the businessman whose first job out of UNH in 1967 was teaching high school chemistry looks quite at home. Since he bought Grove Street in 1999, Paul has become a student of wine. In discussions of mortgages, everyone defers to him, but at Grove Street he defers to winemaker Mikael Gulyash. For Paul, walking around his winery is a lot like traveling in his Cessna CJ2 jet: "I don't feel I have to fly the plane, but I want to know what the pilot's doing."

Leaning against the counter, Gulyash engages Paul in a discussion of soil acidity and malolactic fermentation—while somehow simultaneously talking about nature and romance. That's the paradox of winemaking: You can see it as a straight-forward process or explore its layers of complexity; you can savor a sip simply as a pleasure or as a complex series of sensory experiences. After nearly 30 years in the business, Gulyash can talk complexities with the best of them. But his philosophy of winemaking is simple: Let nature do most of the work.

Peter Paul '67
THE VINES: Peter Paul '67 checks wine grapes in the field.

Steps don't come simpler than the basic three of winemaking: pick grapes, crush grapes, let juice sit around. But which grapes? Picked when? Sitting in what? For how long? With what additions? In a time of global grape glut, the answers to those questions can determine whether one wine collects dust while another becomes the toast of the town. Soil, yeast, barrels, blending, time—"those are my cooking spices," Gulyash says. The variations are limitless. Even the untouched grapes offer myriad options, with flavors that conjure up cherry, raspberry, apple, pear—just about every fruit but grape. (Wine grapes don't taste like table grapes.) And each step between vine and bottle changes the wine in fundamental ways.

Take Grove Street's top-selling wine, a 2005 chardonnay. While customers in the winery's industrial-chic tasting room can sip it and simply say "Yum" or "Yuck," Gulyash can narrate its life story: Cool weather in 2005 delayed the harvest, giving the grapes time to develop more sugar without losing their acidity. Though the chardonnay's ingredients are simple (it's a varietal, meaning it's made solely from one kind of grape), its fermentation was complex. Seventy percent of the juice was fermented in steel tanks, 25 percent in wood fermenters, and 5 percent in oak barrels. Gulyash divided the barrels equally between American oak and Russian oak because a different chemical reaction happens with each kind. Only the chardonnay in barrels went through malolactic fermentation (malo rhymes with J-Lo). Bacteria converted the grapes' malic acid into lactic acid, which is less sour and thus lends the wine a softer "mouthfeel."

The quest for the perfect mouthfeel is what gets winemakers out of bed each morning. One expert has developed a "mouthfeel wheel," 53 terms to describe the complex sensations wine creates in the mouth. Few casual sippers will ever use descriptions like grippy or resinous. Even Paul, who says he has evolved from avid consumer to informed consumer since buying the winery, says, "I can't use a lot of those words if I don't have them written on my palm." As Paul chats with another employee in the lab, Gulyash hands him a glass of red wine. It's a blend that's nowhere near finished; its dry astringency puckers the mouth in the same way as drinking too-strong tea. Paul absently takes a sip, then looks up to see Gulyash laughing. Most wine fans know the term for this taste: tannic. Paul has a stronger word as he plunks the glass onto the counter: "Yuck."

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