Bob Coleman, Technical Winemaker, Treasury Wine Estates
Bob Coleman is a third-generation Sonoma resident and has spent nearly his entire career at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood and its parent company, Treasury Wine Estates. He grew up raising cattle before studying at Santa Rosa Junior College and U.C. Davis. Together with his winemaking mentor, Margo Van Staaveren, he has helped create many of Chateau St. Jean's most revered wines, including the Cinq Cépages Bordeaux-style blend. Last month, he passed the final exams for his Ph.D. from U.C. Davis and now advises fellow Treasury winemakers on new technologies. Bob and his wife Cynthia live in the area and have a daughter at Kenwood School.
Q. Growing up here in the county, did you know that you wanted to work in wine?
No, not at all. After college, I raised cattle in Missouri for a while, and then I came back home. I know as young adults, we all want to think the grass is greener, but when I came back, I knew this was where I wanted to be. I had my first harvest up at Chateau Souverain and I thought it was so amazing - it was very intense, very focused. I loved the energy behind it. Soon after that, I came to Chateau St. Jean and essentially I've never left.
Q. So you've seen every stage of this business.
Oh yeah. I loved dragging hoses. I'll still work in the cellar anytime I can get the opportunity. I joke that my retirement job is going to be pressure washing, because that's what I started with.
Q. What are some things people don't understand about being a winemaker?
There are a lot of fun times, and you share a lot of wonderful experiences, but behind the scenes it's hard work. It's fatiguing. Margo and I will always tell you that just to make Cinq Cépages alone takes months of blending. On top of that, there are the business aspects of the job, directing the work at the site. So there are many facets to it. And we're just representatives of a much larger group of people who work so hard. Being the person that came up from dragging hoses in the cellar, I totally appreciate that.
Q. What is it like to blend a wine?
Every harvest presents a slightly different face, gives you slightly different fruit. You're taking the raw materials Mother Nature gave you and trying to maintain that vision of what we feel best represents Cinq Cépages. We go about it systematically, adding and subtracting different amounts of the varietals, back and forth with pipettes and beakers and the whole bit. Sometimes it's a gut feeling, sometimes it's play.
Q. Is it difficult to know when a blend is finished?
Yes, absolutely. You're always going to question yourself and say, “Is there something more that I could've done, is there some other tweak I could've put on this?” Fortunately, there are bottling deadlines, so eventually you have to put it in the bottle.
Q. Did you know you would be good at tasting?
I think anyone can be. For me, feelings and taste memory go together. I can spit out descriptors, but when it comes to blending I'm not looking at the descriptors so much, but more what I remember from different vintages. There's a sensory part, but there's the feeling part as well.
Q. What's your current role?
My role now is technical winemaker. I'm interfacing with new winery technologies, some of them right out of Davis, many that haven't been applied commercially yet. I'm striving towards innovation to improve wine quality, but I'm also thinking about how we can do this sustainably. And it can be done. There's some really neat stuff around energy, water use, CO2 capture, that we're moving towards.
Q. What was it like to go back to school in the middle of your career?
It had always been a lifelong goal to get my Ph.D. It could be very unnerving to go back to school after 17 years. But my mom had done the exact same thing. She was an LVN and there was this move to RNs, so she went back to school at the same age I was, almost spot on. And she was wonderful at it; she set a great example.
Q. You did both coursework and research, right?
Yes, I drove to Davis four days a week. The first two years, you do some work towards your research but it's a lot of classes. Taking tests again was rather exciting. You do appreciate it so much more. Later on, my research was looking at finding a mathematical model to help explain oxygen uptake during wine aging in the bottle.
Q. What do you love most about Kenwood?
Kenwood has this wonderful elegance, in a very rural country background. The beauty in this valley really gets me; I love the old walnut trees down on Frey Road. And we've got that amazing one-class-per-grade school. No one has that anymore. It's a great place to raise my child.Oh, and trick-or-treating in Kenwood is a lot of fun!
Q. Looking forward, what are your hopes for the wine industry?
I really want to make this sustainable, so that my daughter can have a winery to come work at someday. I want to make sure that these grapes are going to be here for her to make whatever she wants to make. It's going to be a really wonderful industry to be in. It is now, but it will be in the future as well.