LABOR OF LOVE
Talbott Vineyards’ Robb Talbott and Dan Karlsen
BY PETE RERIG
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TED HOLLADAY
‘It was abusive work, and in
the first year I had six people
quit. They said I was crazy,
that the work was too hard…
It was a gamble planting here,
and I made a lot of guesses,
but happily it paid off.”
It’s a blustery March day in the hills above Carmel Valley. The whitecaps on Monterey Bay are visible eight miles to the west, as are the snow-topped peaks around Chews Ridge. Winter isn’t ready to call it quits just yet.
Robb Talbott shifts his flatbed pickup into low and maneuvers us down a narrow dirt road through his storied Diamond T Vineyard. “Look over there,” says Talbott, pointing to a row of vines that make up part of the property’s 14 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Buds are starting to pop out. That’s not good. There’s a chance of getting some frost before warmer weather comes.”
Indeed, the night before, temperatures on the mountain dropped to 35 degrees, dangerously close to the freezing point that many local winemakers dread. A good dousing of rain has also turned the clay-topped roads treacherous. Suddenly, the back end of the truck fishtails out towards the edge of a 100-foot ravine, and Talbott quickly puts it in park and stamps down on the emergency break. “I think we better walk,” he says with a smile. “We’ll head back to the house and get another truck.” Sounds good to me.
It used to be that anyone who’d lived on the Monterey Peninsula for any length of time instantly connected the Talbott name to the business Talbott’s father began in 1950—men’s ties and shirts. But more and more, the name is tied to Robb Talbott’s own venture and his abiding love—his winery, Talbott Vineyards. Talbott’s Diamond T Chardonnay vines made a splash with a perfect 100-point score from Wine Spectator in 1990, just eight years after they were planted. And over the years, Talbott, along with his newer vineyard, Sleepy Hollow, and his winemaker, Dan Karlsen, have continued to garner high praise from critics and consumers alike. Both Talbott and Karlsen are profoundly dedicated to making great wine and doing so with minimal impact on the environment. By the end of this year, their efforts should win them Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification for sustainable winemaking.
“I started working at age eight for my father,” remembers Talbott, “making boxes for 25 cents an hour. I also worked the retail store in Carmel Valley and delivered ties on my way to high school. My parents believed in the value of hard work, and they instilled a work ethic in me at a very young age.”
But while Talbott remains chairman of the family clothier, he never liked wearing suits himself—he even joked at the wedding of one of his children, Sarah Case Hawthorne, last year that he’d had to go out and buy one for the occasion.
It was a1959 trip to Europe that changed everything for him. “I got a chance to try white Burgundy wine, which they mixed with water for children,” he says, remembering the fabric-buying trip that he took with his family at age 11. “I remember how much I loved the flavors, and from then on they were etched on my palate.”
Back stateside, Talbott, who grew up in Carmel Valley, eventually left for Colorado, where he majored in fine art at Colorado College, took up motorcycle racing and started an antique car restoration business. After returning to Carmel Valley, he worked in the tie business and pursued a variety of other jobs, including carpentry, plastering, firewood cutting and landscaping. When he married in 1981, he saw his chance to start his own winery, and began planting Diamond T a year later.
“I built a cabin here all by hand, and we didn’t have electricity for the first eight years,” says Talbott, pointing to the original house, where he lives today with his wife, Vivienne. Always a truck fanatic, he named the ranch “Diamond T” after the classic old truck model that he has continued to collect and restore.
The early years weren’t easy: The steep hillsides—including the one we almost plummeted off—threatened to flip over tractors on a regular basis, so much of the work had to be done by hand. “I had to excavate each hole with digging bars,” recalls Talbott, “and then bring in soil from another part of the property and plant the vine. It was abusive work, and in the first year I had six people quit. They said I was crazy, that the work was too hard…it was a gamble planting here, and I made a lot of guesses, but happily it paid off.”
The land has been good to Talbott, and he has always believed in being a good steward of the land.
“I’ve been a recycler since the 1970s. I built my house with recycled materials,” Talbott says. “I treat the land gently, using mechanical weed removal rather than chemical. If we have to use chemicals, we use as little as possible, and make sure they break down organically and don’t harm the soil.”
All of Talbott’s wines are made from grapes grown at Diamond T and Talbott’s other vineyard, a renowned property called Sleepy Hollow in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The latter is comprised of 540 acres of vines—one-third Pinot, two-thirds chard, with a smattering of Riesling, which is used only for late harvest wines in small batches. Talbott bought it in 1994, but it was already established with an old planting of Wente clone vines.
Talbott’s passion and independence have been met recently by another passionate, independent soul in winemaker Dan Karlsen, who came to Talbott four years ago after about 10 years at Chalone Vineyard, and more than 30 years in the winemaking business overall. Some have described him as being like a wise professor, and at the same time a bit of a pirate and a rebel. (Karlsen also has his own acclaimed label, Chock Rock Vineyard.)
“Robb and I think a lot alike. I said to him, ‘let’s do everything under one roof,’” Karlsen says. “‘Let’s put together the best sales team possible and sell lots of wine. Let’s streamline our processes, from crush to barrel fermentation to bottling and labeling to shipping.’ We’re 100% estate grown, and we don’t sell our grapes elsewhere. That’s why I believe we have a superior product.”
Also like Talbott, Karlsen feels a deep connection to the land they farm, especially Sleepy Hollow.
Robb Talbott and Dan Karlsen at Sleepy Hollow.
“This is a very different vineyard than Diamond T, world class and untouchable by any other vineyard in the world,” Karlsen says. “Everything grows in the same soil, with the same northeast exposure, so everything comes ripe at the same time. It’s just an amazing place to grow grapes.”
“My job as a viticulturalist boils down to one thing—when to pick. There are really only three flavors in a grape; under ripe, ripe and over ripe,” Karlsen says. “Knowing when to pick is the difference between a terrible wine and a great wine—one that makes you want to have a second glass.”
As Karlsen and I move among dozens of stainless steel tanks and row after row of French oak barrels, he opines on the topic of the traditional heavy wine bottles versus lighter Eco-Glass.
“Heavy bottles have to go, and I think we have the power and influence to convince glass producers of this. I’ve seen empty wine bottles that weigh more than one of our full bottles! That’s a tremendous waste of energy and resources, and it’s completely unnecessary for wine quality,” Karlsen says. “We can save more than four tons per truckload during shipping. That translates to significant fuel savings, especially for wineries like ours that produce more than 1.4 million bottles a year.”
Likewise, Karlsen is a big supporter of screw caps. “There’s no doubt that screw caps are the future for wine,” Karlsen says. “Screw caps are superior in every way—they can be recycled, use less energy to produce and help save our product.” Embracing low-energy mechanization is also part of Karlsen’s philosophy, and it shows in every corner of the building, from custom- built crushers with moving platforms to manual punch-down devices. “We even have automatic barrel washers that use a fraction of the water of traditional hand washing.” He also shows me the state-of-the-art machine through which all Sleepy Hollow and Diamond T wines are filtered, eliminating the need for multiple devices that use more energy.
Back outside, I query Karlsen on his personal philosophy about using the land to its highest potential without stressing it beyond its limits.
“The key is to plant vines that love this particular climate and soil, “Karlsen says. “Plant them where they don’t want to be and they won’t thrive, and you’ll spend time and resources—and lots of chemicals—forcing them to adapt. That’s terrible for the vine and terrible for the environment.”
To that end, Karlsen has moved Sleepy Hollow towards a chemical- free existence, using organic products to control mildew and hand tilling under vines rather than spraying herbicides. “Unfortunately, there are some serious pests here because of our proximity to the row crop farms in the valley, but we’ve been very lucky and haven’t seen infestations.”
But all of the science aside, it’s a love of the land and the art of making great wine that ultimately drives both Karlsen and Talbott, and there is no better evidence of Talbott’s love for his wines than the fact that he has named them after his children, Kali Hart, Logan and Sarah Case. And he knows he owes the success of his wines, ultimately, to the land.
“I’ve come to appreciate the fact that we don’t own the land. We’re only caretakers, and we need to respect nature always,” Talbott says. Lucky for us all, the results of his caretaking are worth celebrating.
The former managing editor of Charleston magazine and a lifelong foodie and history buff, Monterey resident Pete Rerig works at Museum of Monterey and as a freelance writer.