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Sanguis – Blood and Wine

July 9, 2010 Archieves 3 Comments

Artists know a moment in which all natural sensations dim until all that is left is the artist and their art. The mind stops. You no longer think how to respond, you just do. It is as if your hands have always known what they were to do. It would be challenging, if not impossible, to describe the creative process an artist goes through while in this altered mental state. For each artist, the experience is unique and without words to describe it.

For some years, I was in a band called Devore. With influences from Sigur Rós to Mogwai we could be melodic, even beautiful, but more notably we could be loud. My friend Jordan and I wrote everything, from guitars and bass, to many of the drum lines. We didn’t write “songs” in the singular sense, but rather, we labored over long periods of time to craft sweeping events with highs and lows, tension and poetry…and really loud guitars. We loved it and I miss playing greatly. The rush of performing before an audience and sharing something you have spent months crafting is like nothing I have ever experienced. Those live shows, the way people responded, the way I was lost in the creative moments, will stay with me as vivid as the days they were played.

Good music is pleasurable to listen to. Great music, goes far beyond something you hear, it is something you experience and feel, something that joins to our being. When done properly, it’s a living thing. Live music is unique in that it provides a different experience for each individual present. A song will create an experience for the guitarist, but a different one for the drummer. The audience, who takes in the whole performance, will have a drastically different relationship with the piece than any of the performers. Out of these separate experiences comes a living moment that can never be repeated in quite the same way. It will exist in flash of time before it dies and must be born again. When it is born again, it will by nature be different and beautiful in its own way.

I consider myself an artistic pacifist, although my nonparticipation is due to a constraint of time and not conscientious objection. I love the arts, but have little time to pursue my music or the putting of paint to canvas like I used to. I miss both. Maybe I should let winemakers get back to their work and I can return to some other artist devotion. Still, there is this unavoidable allure to meeting winemakers and sharing their experiences with others that make it well worth the effort and sacrifice to do so.

When approached properly, wine like music, is a living thing. Wine breathes, it changes as it ages, and it can even die. Just as brilliant music goes beyond the act of listening, a brilliant wine goes beyond the enjoyment of taste. A true Winemaker spends months and even years crafting, shaping, and shepherding a bottle into something with personality and character. It becomes, or so they hope, an expression of their dedication, their skill, and their craft.

Every once in a while, I get to be thrilled by the wine, the winemaker, and the visual presentation. Sanguis, Latin for blood, is the somewhat sinister offering from German-born Matthias Pippig. He worked as a wine importer for Marc DeGrazia Selections, Estate Wines, as well as Campanile, and the famed Le Brea Bakery with Manfred Krankl before dedicating himself full time as a winemaker in the Santa Ynez Valley. On the day we met, he wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt collaged with naked women, a gift from his wife Jamie. He rides motorcycles and gives individual names to each barrel of wine he produces (names of Popes or Motocross stars).

I had the privilege of meeting with Matthias at the winery he shares with the Grassini family who own it (Matthias is the Grassini’s winemaker as well). It is a dramatic structure both inside and out. The building’s exterior, which rises from the hillside, reflects the history of old-west architecture. Inside, gothic chandeliers, massive wood beams that were salvaged from a long defunct silver mine, and unfinished concrete walls create a somewhat eerie space. It is a perfect settling for the persona of Matthias’ wines. Although a new winery that has only been occupied a few months, it has a built-in sense of history and time. After wondering the winery and its small caves, we sat at a long dramatic table table at the entrance to the winery. There we tasted through a half dozen of Matthias’ wines and discussed his art, philosophy on wine, and what it takes to turn a boulder into an elephant.

Much of Matthias’ approach to vineyard management comes from two lines of thought. The first; you can make bad wine from good grapes, but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes. The second comes from a question his young son asked him years ago.

His son had asked, “’how do you make a big boulder look like an elephant?’ I don’t know, I’m stumped right?” says Pippig, smiling at the memory. “And he says, ‘you chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant.’ And of course that was a really cute thing at the time. But really when you think about it, there is a lot to that. I think about vines that way. If it doesn’t look like it is going to make a great bottle of wine it has no place being there, so we’ll cut it off.”

Pippig is a hands-on Winemaker. Everything is taken into consideration, from the size of the vineyard canopy to individual grapes. “We go as far as sorting by hand,” he tells me, to remove any undesirable fruit. He changes blends yearly in his Rhône based wines, never attempting to create the same wine twice. He produces a Chardonnay aged in both oak and stainless steel to test boundaries, to “take it to the next level.” His interest is in making vibrant aromatic wines with big personalities and enough integrity to stand on their own or with food.

With many of his wines clocking in at 15% alcohol or higher, I ask him what he thinks about the debates surrounding alcohol contents. “There isn’t a right and a wrong. There is a good or a bad. There are right and wrong reasons to do things,” he says. In an earlier conversation we discussed a trend towards lower alcohol contents and the fact that some Sommeliers are refusing to even sample wines above a certain threshold. Matthias sees it a good example of the wrong reason to do something.

“There is an increasing number of Winemakers that try to cater to that kind of thing or believe in that themselves. To me, that is the wrong reason to do something, to pick a number that’s rather arbitrary and really has no foundation, certainly as it relates to California winemaking. That’s not where the number came from historically, that’s people going to the old French style of wine and most of those are at or below 14%. OK fine, that works over there but it doesn’t seem to work here. If we pick at 24 brix, in most cases the stuff just isn’t ripe enough. It won’t smell great; it won’t taste great…If we can get 14% alcohol and get a beautiful wine, great! I don’t care. I don’t care if it’s 14 I don’t care if it’s 16. At some point I have a bit of a problem because I get drunk too quickly, but If the wine doesn’t show [alcohol] in a negative way, who cares?”

His independent spirit and quest for constant change is reflected in the art work of his labels, which Matthias creates for each wine he produces. Several feature scenes from bullfights including, “The Last Dance,” “The Optimist,” and his “Novillero.” “I like drama,” he says when asked about his fascination with bullfighting. “To me, wine has to have drama and tension. Every wine I make hopefully has that component…sort of a nervous energy. Whether that is an acid level or whatever, it has to have that liveliness and tension to it. Otherwise, I find that wine just gets kind of boring…Every wine I make should, if anything, have you wanting to open another bottle after you finish the first one. So the art work is to sort of represents that as well. Bullfighting is literally a ballet of life and death.”

It was in fact the artwork that first drew me to the wines. I had never heard of Sanguis, but the moody label designs grabbed my attention in a small wine shop in Matthias’ hometown of Ojai. Matthias and I share the view that wine should be an experience for all the senses and that the experience starts with the bottle design. “I very much want the wine to be a complete experience. It should ideally be a conversation topic, maybe over a meal, just like food tends to be. If you are cooking a great meal you aren’t going to slap it on a plate and say ‘there you go.’ It’s all important, the silverware, the stemware, the linens, the whole nine yards.”

ALP: Was the artwork always a part of your life, or did it come out of the wine making?

“It has given me a reason to do more of it. I have always dabbled with it.” He went on to speak of his education in a divided Germany. There were studies in art and music as well as Latin. “They placed a huge emphasis on arts and crafts as well as music to some degree. And while the approach to music was much more old fashioned and very much [focused] on the classical, which I couldn’t really deal with at the time, and now I can (an opera was playing in the background  at the time he said this), the approach to art was very liberal very kind of modern. That certainly stuck with me and this gives me a great opportunity to do more of that kind of stuff.”

Music was our constant companion throughout the tour and interview. “There are two things you need in a winery,” Matthias said at one point, “music and duct tape.” The winery is wired with speakers throughout and an eclectic mix compromising of classical, funk, and everything in-between was a fitting soundtrack to our conversation. Our first email correspondence included music, with Matthias recommending an artist he thought I might be interested in. We spoke at length about what excited us about music and how it relates to wine.

In music, you have precision players, who from the comfort of a multi-million dollar studio can produce some of the most technically brilliant music there is. They never miss a note, they have perfect tone. They would however be dreadfully boring to watch. Then, there is the band at The Echo in Los Angeles. They miss a few notes, they don’t have flawless tone, but they play with passion and energy. They are thrilling to watch. Similar contrasts exist in wine.

It is an illustration Matthias relates to the wines he makes, wines of tension and vibrancy. “The product that those studio guys (referring to winemakers more than musicians) put out will always be more perfect…but it will never be as exciting. I will take the flaws and the quirks with the excitement and the style over the perfection, which may not have any flaws that are detectable, but it lacks tension, it lacks life.”

ALP: Do you have favorite aspect of wine making?

“Farming, definitely. If I had to choose only one of the things that I get to do in the whole deal, it would be a pretty tough toss up. Well, farming, that’s the first thing that came out of my mouth. I have come to enjoy things more than I used to…I enjoy the cellar work more now. Harvest is fun, as brutal as it can be; there is something great about it…I guess if you put a gun to my head right now I would say, farming it is.” As it turns out, Matthias was lucky he decided on farming. He never saw the pistol I held under the table.

ALP: Who has inspired you?

“There have been many. Some are winemakers, some musicians. Just people who do things really really well, whatever they do. There’s this guy, I don’t know why he popped into my head, but he’s a good example of this too. I don’t read that much but I do love to read good books and things that make sense. And this guy Malcolm Gladwell who wrote “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers”, I love the way the guy thinks and how well researched and carefully put together and constructed everything is. He just does what he does incredibly well. And that’s inspirational. I guess it would be mostly creative people who have influenced me. Winemakers? An initial influence was Randall Grahm. He was an absolute trailblazer; he did revolutional things…Great musicians, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Jack White. So it’s pretty broad I would say.”

I liked Matthias very much. I can say in confidence that everything he is doing with his wine is a genuine reflection of who he is and I cannot imagine him doing something different. I struggled writing this article though. Even as I sit here, a day behind schedule, I don’t know how to finish. I gave up last night after hours of working on it. I guess meeting Matthias reminded me of how much I miss my art and how great it was to create something. I enjoyed writing this article for that reason too; it reminded me of times past. Maybe that is why I struggle, for some sense of loss.

In the end, someone like Matthias and his wines just need to be experienced, they can’t be explained through numbers, they have to be lived. It is like trying to tell someone how your favorite band makes you feel, it just can’t be done. Now, where did I put that pistol?

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Brian says:

    Visited Grassini and had the pleasure of visiting and tasting each wine with Matthias, to encore one of my best intellectual understanding of winery visits ever. The great understanding and passion he shows with a modest approach to his own wines as well as the Grassini estates. Amazing time and definably and unforgettable. This was one winery and Wine Maker who will be in my cellar and heart for a while

  2. Wayne says:

    I am glad you got to go. It is a beautiful winery and I feel the same way about Matthias.

  3. [...] “stone” was a reference to a story I relayed to him that winemaker Matthias Pippig of Sanguis told me last year. Some years ago, Matthias’ then young son asked him, “how do you make a stone [...]

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