Published in Taste California Travel magazine, Summer, 2004
Ortmans’ find a new direction and a new passion in SLO
By Mark Storer
Chuck Ortman is perhaps one of the most venerated winemakers in California—even in the world. His younger years at Joseph Heitz, Spring Mountain and throughout Napa Valley are now nearly legend. And then there was the founding of the winery that would eventually lead Ortman to the Central Coast, a place called Meridian.
As Meridian’s founding winemaker, Ortman was handed the reins to a whole new kind of operation. Wine was being grown and made on the Central Coast and he would be at its forefront. The rest, as they say, is history.
Leave it to Ortman, however, to shift gears and bring about more change just as most people his age are retiring. “Retirement isn’t in my vocabulary,” he said by phone the other day. “I wanted to get my nose back into the barrels and follow everything through the whole process.”
Chuck’s son, Matt, spurred his father on even more and the two have begun Ortman Family Vineyards based in San Luis Obispo. For three years now, the duo have been producing award winning wines that stand out because of the quality and the time that goes in. Sourcing grapes from their favorite places all over the state and even planting new vineyards of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Ortmans are working as a family in the one passion that seems in their blood.
“Actually, I went to college, got out and went to become a brewer,” said Matt. “I wanted to make beer and did for a while.”
“But,” his father interrupts. “He got the bug from me and it bit him.” The ‘bug’, of course is the winemaking bug and Matt seems to have suffered it beautifully. Working out of Orcutt Road Cellars outside of SLO, the Ortman’s are producing top quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
“We like to make wines that we enjoy,” said Matt. “I fell in love with Sangiovese when I went to Italy with my wife and spent some time there. I exchanged working in a vineyard for housing and Lisa and I lived in a 17th or 18th Century house that had a full walk in fireplace. It was totally different–just great.”
As far as the decision to base the business in San Luis Obispo, a smaller but decidedly up and coming wine region, Matt said, “We really feel strongly about Edna Valley Chardonnay and Syrah.” Many winemakers feel that the cooler climate in the Edna Valley produces a much better Chardonnay fruit while certain Northern Rhone’s also prefer the cooler temperatures.
Now selling their wines all over the United States and even in Dublin, Ireland, the Ortman’s have committed themselves to wines that will match themselves with cuisine. “That’s what we try to do,” said Chuck. “We want to make truly great food friendly wines.”
I tried both the 01 Pinot Noir and the 01 Chardonnay. Both were delicious and I’d gladly buy more. The Pinot had the classic profile of being light ruby in color and lusciously fruit forward with notes of black cherry, plum and even a hint of mineral reminiscent of French Burgundies.
It was the Chardonnay, however, that really took me aback. Living in California, I seem to have gotten too much American Chardonnay for my system and it is a wine that I don’t find very exciting anymore. Either it’s too over oaked and becomes a butter and vanilla bomb or it’s too acidy in profile. Only recently have I found some Australian Chardonnays with their no oak approach to my liking.
But the Ortman’s have done something different with their wine. First, they chose fruit from both the Edna Valley and from Santa Barbara County. “The Santa Barbara Fruit gave us that mineral and flinty aspect while the Edna Valley fruit provided those deep tropical flavors,” said Matt. Then, rather than using American oak, the Ortman’s used 100% French Oak, which, since it is toasted, doesn’t impart the vanilla flavors as strongly as the American oak does. “We also used a strain of malolactic acid that isn’t as buttery,” said Chuck.
The result is a wine that defies the normal Central Coast Chardonnay profile. Lighter, with more acid and fruit on the approach and the finish, the Ortman’s Chardonnay is versatile. As Matt pointed out, it really does have the core of tropical fruit flavors that are topped by the flinty and mineral addition of the Santa Barbara fruit. The result is a truly nuanced Chardonnay that opens up on the palate and doesn’t finish syrupy or buttery, but with a smoothness and mineral quality. It’s great with lighter fare and appetizers but can stand up to heavier fare like salmon or even pork. They seem to have taken the versatile Chardonnay grape and turned it into something more….well, versatile; no small feat.
The Ortman’s currently crank out about 3,000 cases of wine a year. While they look forward to their operation growing, they seem just as happy to keep quality control tight. “We made 800 cases of Chardonnay this year and we were able to taste through every barrel. Just by doing that, we knocked out four barrels that just didn’t measure up.”
The versatility of the Central Coast is one of the reasons that Chuck Ortman came here with Meridian wines. Now, that versatility has turned itself into a whole new winery with a whole new direction—and Chuck’s family right by his side.
By Mark Storer