Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed.
Actually, aside from being tall and fit, Jed Steele bears virtually no resemblance to the subject of that verse, Jed Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” (And he doesn’t look nearly as much like Wilford Brimley as the photo at left might indicate.)
Well, there is the matter of 21st-century technology, which the down-home Steele wishes he could do without; he’s had a smart phone for all of six months, and “I hate it. I began to text, and it was really difficult to be personal. My son, his palms sweat if he can’t get wireless. I said ‘I think it’s healthier for our relationship if we just talked.’ ”
And Steele took the opposite route from the Clampett clan’s, decamping for Lake County two decades ago after helping concoct Kendall-Jackson’s landmark Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay.
“For decades we had three wineries up here: Guenoc, Steele and Wildhurst,” he said over lunch in Minneapolis last week. “Now there are 30. But we still associate with Mendocino more than Napa.”
So far, Steele said, sauvignon blanc is Lake County’s showcase varietal, but cabernet sauvignon (“definitely distinctive here”) is coming on strong. Steele’s “dream winery” would focus on cabernet’s two parents, sauv blanc and cab franc (his favorite grape, and one from which he makes a splendid rosé).
That’s not gonna happen. “Once a hierarchy has been established, it’s tough,” Steele said. “Merlot went through a crazy [popular] phase, and pinot noir went through a crazy phase. But cabernet has always been No. 1. And chardonnay is still No. 1 [among white wines], although sauvignon blanc is coming on.”
Steele makes a wide range of wines under his own name and for his Shooting Star label (including terrific aligote and blaufrankisch from Washington). And even in his 60s, he’s willing to modernize – to a point. When asked about the most important part of a winemaker’s job, the man with a psychology degree from Gonzaga had a typically wise, witty answer:
“Winemakers are constant tinkerers. But there’s a lot of technology that you have to be careful about adopting. Equipment salesmen are like car salesmen, saying you’ve always gotta have the newest thing.
“But a lot of new technology comes out, and you find out five years later it’s not so great.”