“I like talking about wine,” says TJ Rodgers, speaking from his home in the Santa Cruz mountains. “The only thing I like to talk about more than wine is hydrogen fuel cells.” He really means it—and these sentiments almost perfectly summarize this Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned dedicated winemaker. The man was a multi-hyphenate overachiever before that was cool.
In 1996, he started his Clos de la Tech winery, with just an acre planted adjacent to his residence. Before that, with heavy-duty degrees in physics, chemistry, and engineering, he was a foundational figure in the 1980s Silicon Valley tech boom as founder and longtime CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation. Today, as its website notes, the winery “produces five Pinot Noirs from three Estate vineyards: Domaine du Docteur Rodgers, 1 acre, hand-farmed site in Woodside; Domaine Valeta, 3.5 acres, 2,350 feet above sea level in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA; and Domaine Lois Louise, an extraordinarily steep, ocean-exposed, 163-acre property in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.”
Its bottles, each decorated with a microchip, neatly encapsulate Rodgers’ passions and in many ways their contents reach the very heights of what wine is all about—a complex synthesis of technique, science, tradition, and the vagaries of terroir, all in pursuit of pleasure.
In conversation, Rodgers is as likely to reference a dense scientific paper from UC-Davis as he is to talk about bouquet. In a recent virtual chat, each of us with a bottle of his 2013 Domaine Lois Louise Cote Sud, we spoke of all this and much, much more.
It’s fair to say you’re doing a deep dive on Pinot Noir. How did this passion begin for you?
My hometown is Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I still have a home there. And at home I didn’t drink, as my mother would’ve killed me. Then I went to Dartmouth and made up for lost time. Whiskey and beer. [For graduate school] I came out here to Stanford to study physics. I had visions of the Beach Boys. I didn’t even know anything about Northern and Southern California. I changed to electrical engineering near the end. Fell in love with it and it changed what I do for my life.
And you also fell for California.
I was going to Napa or Sonoma two out of three weekends. I knew the wineries. I’d go and taste and buy and had a 100-bottle collection of current California wines—this was 1971. I am not as big a California Cabernet fan as I used to be — though my collection goes back into the late ’50s. I have pretty much every year. Sometimes I’ll pop a ’64 Martini or a ’64 BV private reserve.
You got in in early!
I had gotten a pretty good fellowship, so I was going to a store called Beltramo’s. The guy there said, ‘You ought to try some French wine.’ And I said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ And he says, ‘Well, you know, they make some really special wines and if you like wine this will increase your vocabulary.’ I argued for quite a while and finally gave in. I had enough money in my fellowship to buy $20 wines—maybe the equivalent of a $30 or $35 bottle today—and I bought a case. So, my first real bottle of champagne, Bordeaux from various houses, and one Burgundy—a Gevrey Chambertin commune wine. I drank my way through the case over a month or so, and the last one I had was the Burgundy. And it blew me away.
Then came a long, deep dive.
I read Alexis Lichine’s Wines of France. I read about Burgundy, and traveled there in 1973. I was walking around in polyester pants and Converse track shoes and a tie-dyed shirt. All the stuff. The Burgundians treat you well, and let you mangle the language and don’t interrupt you or get angry. I got to love Burgundy.
And that’s been an influence on everything you do with your own wines.
I started studying clones and rootstock and hired a technical expert from Littorai. He recommended Dijon clones 113 and 115, certified as truly Burgundian clones. I started with a 1-acre vineyard [Domaine du Docteur Rodgers, the name “a ripoff of a famous French MD,” he says] that makes five cases of wine in a good year, then I did 3.5 acres near Ridge Monte Bello, and 40 acres in the peak of the Santa Cruz mountains. What you have in your glass right now is meter-by-meter planted Dijon certified clones and rootstock, small plants, low yield—a few pounds of fruit per plant.
And more specifically, you’ve been heavily influenced by Domaine de la Romanée Conti?
I visited Romanée Conti (DRC) and I saw how they made wine. We’re talking about handmade wine. His barrel maker is François Frères so I went to François Frères and learned I had to buy a tree. They’re 100 years old and huge and extremely expensive and you have to buy it three years in advance because they have to cut it, turn it into staves, and then air dry it. I use them one year and then I sell them and they go for more money than a California white oak barrel.
So you’re trying to duplicate DRC at a very specific level.
In the beginning I thought, Well, I’m a smart Silicon Valley guy so I am just going to start making some Burgundy and kick some ass, right? But what you find out is the French are really very smart. Even the old guys were really very smart, even before yeast was invented. In all the DRC books they talk about terroir—meaning your wine is the product of its micro climate and the soil and the rain and weather of that year—and terroir dominates, especially if you’re not making fruit bombs. You’re going to get what you get from your land. The great vineyards of France happen to be in the right spot. You put plants in the ground, you don’t use irrigation because irrigation didn’t exist, you hand farm, you get some rain or not.
The wine we’re tasting does strike me as Burgundian.
In this wine, you notice a big bouquet, and that’s Pinot Noir, and a lot of fruit—that’s California. There’s a lot of tannin in it, classic Burgundian tannin, not sharp or bitter but very rich and mouth filling. We tend to think of tannin here as bitter and astringent but it’s not necessarily that way.
How do you achieve that?
There are four basic molecules in tannin and there’s one responsible for that, and that is in the seeds. So if you do foot crushing as I do the seed tannin is largely left behind, and you get the skin tannin—the good tannin. This wine was made from a recipe literally from 1830: hand-grown, not destemmed, foot crushed, native yeast.
And that’s the Burgundy way?
The old guys did it right. They didn’t know why. They tasted their wine and over generations, with a very slow learning curve, they picked the best process and just found their options, through accidents really. Serendipity. I did an experiment with classic California processing: pick the grapes, go to the destemmer, rip the berries off, throw out the stems, put the berries in, try to keep the berries as whole as possible (though they are already damaged), buy some yeast that’s advertised for being good for Pinot Noir. Esters and bouquet. But the fact is when I did that experiment, which I did for a couple of years, I always liked the native yeast wines better. Always. And it was not a slight difference. It didn’t take a statistical analysis to say that one is really a lot better. And I don’t filter. Filtering wine is an abomination, especially with Pinot Noir.
Very interesting. But being where you are, you can’t actually duplicate the conditions of Burgundy, right?
The main difference between DRC and what I make, since I use a process close to theirs, is the climate difference. If you take Dijon, and go across the latitude line, you come to Vancouver. If you take where I live and take the line, you end up in North Africa. And they make wine but in general it’s too hot. Cabernet is OK with it, and other grapes like a Tempranillo; you can always find a grape that likes hot. But Pinot Noir likes it cold. Over the years, the Burgundians produced rootstock and clones that ripen early. But now you bring them to good old California, where everything gets ripe, and you’ve got a problem. In this small vineyard, at 400 feet, I do get fog every day, so its not quite Napa, but it’s still hot compared with Burgundy. After you’ve made your first 14.2 percent alcohol wine you realize, OK, I’m not in the same spot as those guys.
What sort of adjustments can you make?
If you take on the battle of what I call “overripeness” as a battle against high alcohol, to me 13 is about the right number. The next thing is, you cut your canes. Mine are only 26 inches long. The theory is you have to have 14 leaf pairs on a cane to ripen two clusters, and I’ve found out that theory is not right. You can make the canes shorter and shorter. If you get to the point where it’s October and your grapes aren’t ripe yet and the leaves are falling off then you can say, yup, the cane is too short. Next, you be very careful not to let the afternoon sun get your grapes; it will dessicate them and raise the sugar levels even farther. And then you go up. My second vineyard is at 2,400 feet, and it snows up there a little pretty much every year. And my third vineyard is on the ocean, 1,700 feet. It doesn’t have the frost problem, but the ocean moderates and cools. You can let the grapes hang longer.
And that’s what we’re drinking here tonight.
You can see the ocean from this vineyard, Cote Sud. It’s on a slope with good drainage and in the spring the water flows through, right in the middle. About 10 years ago there was the 777 clone, now there’s the 888. It has bigger berries that make a really approachable Pinot Noir and so I planted a hill that goes up to 2,200 feet with 888.
Tell us a bit about your vinification. You really built the winery from scratch, right?
I designed the winery, and that took three years. I had to build a barrel cave and since I built the barrel cave I thought why not build a fermentation cave higher up, so I can siphon into the barrels, then down from the barrel cave to the bottling cave. Gravity flow—no pumps, just like the old Burgundians did it. I invented a press; it’s like the Melior coffee pot with a filter in a glass beaker, except it weighs 20 tons and it’s 18 feet high. The juice is nice and clear.
Pinot Noir especially as it gets farther along needs gentle treatment. Gravity is gentle because it doesn’t stir the wine. You just move the wine and live with the wine and the forces you get from nature.
My bottling cave is 30 feet lower than the barrel cave so when I am standing there with people who are looking out when the truck comes to pick up the very heavy pallets, I always say that the amount of energy the truck has to put in to move the wine is exactly the energy I got from gravity to bring the wine to the lowest cave. Gravity brings the wine downhill and the truck gives the energy back. Conservation of energy always applies, even to trucks.
So for a Silicon Valley guy you’re pretty low tech.
If you went to my winery and I gave you a tour you wouldn’t say low tech. Your criticism would be the opposite: ‘You say you use traditional methods from the 1800s but look at what you do.’ You’d say, ‘high tech.’ Doing spectrophotometry, understanding the chemicals in the grapes, understating ripeness—we don’t even pick on sugar anymore. We have a bunch of indices we look at. Obviously sugar matters. You can’t pick wine in our vineyards below 23.5 brix and you’re taking a big risk above 25. So there’s a range. But in that range there’s good and bad that happens. We’re all over that with technology.
And you do a cold soak.
In Burgundy it’s cold and the sheds often are not heated. They bring in the grapes by hand, in the morning. They sit in the shed and they crush them the first time and they sit and get cold. And the cold stuns the yeast. If it’s below 50F the yeast wont even multiply. And sometimes they sit for a week. That’s when they would go to the local church and pray to St. Francis and ask him for help.
Meanwhile other yeasts, some of which are more cold tolerant, are starting to multiply. Then you get bubbling, and you go and thank God, and then the first yeasts eat the sugar in the must and things take off. People said cold soaking is bullshit and it doesn’t help. But I did experiments on that and it really does help the wine. I have an ice making machine and I make and circulate the ice water around the tanks. Slowly, a gallon per minute.
It turns out, and we do experiments often, if you don’t do it the wine isn’t as good. If you do it for five days the wine is good. If you do it for 14 days the wine isn’t as good. Theres some kind of sweet spot, five to seven days. What happens is you get some beautiful dark color from maceration, the leeching of the color from the skins, but you don’t get fermentation, and the wine likes that for some reason. There’s no paper in the world that I know of where the chemistry is explained. The chemical differences between cold soak and not have been explained—but not why it makes better Pinot Noir.
That sounds like low tech again!
I keep saying ‘French, French, French.’ That’s because they worked on it for a couple of thousand years before we even had any grapes. I started out to just kick ass a la Silicon Valley, and then I realized that the guys from 300 years ago were right and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Being defensive is what the technology is good for. We still have good and bad years. My ’97 never saw the light of day—but that ’97 would never happen again. I’ll never make that mistake again—so technology does work. It’s kind of like a Muhammad Ali fight. He wasn’t a brawler. He’d let his hands go down by his side and he was so fast that his head would be gone before the fist got there. And the other guy would punch himself out trying to chase him around the ring.
For a go-getter entrepreneur, I feel like this project takes a lot of patience.
It’s like good cooking. It isn’t a lot of ingredients and manipulations; it’s using very good ingredients and it’s often extremely simple. So you make the grapes as best as you can make them. The French phrase that the wine is made in the vineyard is absolutely right. You can’t take crap grapes and turn them into good wine. Early on I thought, well, I am a chemist and I will watch the fermentation. But in the past ten years all of my most important experiments were done not in the fermenter but in the field. Still, I watch fermentation very carefully. I don’t have four bad years out of ten, like the old guys did.
By my math you’ve just hit 25 years.
Started in 1996. So, yeah. I always hold my wine for five years; I make wine that is tannicy and grippy up front. I pay for that by waiting to introduce it. No matter what you say, people drink the wine right away. One of my favorite jokes… I was in a commercial winery and the guy holds up his wine and says we never sell our wine before its time—remember the Gallo ad?—and our banker tells us when it’s time.
You’re still enjoying it?
The point is you go to the salt mines and make chips every day so you can do this stuff. Every now and then I get a voicemail… ‘I’m from Oregon and we have close-space Noir and I’ve read some of your things and let’s talk.’ Or I get a letter: I had a bottle of your wine the other night, the ’06, and it was really great. So when I lose money on my winery, which I do every year without fail, at least I feel better about it.