A Conversation with John Olney

The weather in Dry Creek is a dusty 84 degrees and it’s not significantly cooler in John Olney’s office. Lytton Springs winery was built as a straw and clay cave with outstanding insulation but an eccentricity of design left his corner office without air conditioning.

The weather in Dry Creek is a dusty 84 degrees and it’s not significantly cooler in John Olney’s office. Lytton Springs winery was built with straw bails and earthen plaster which provides outstanding insulation but without traditional air conditioning John’s office is sometimes a little warm. Sporting lightweight chinos and a cornflower blue camp shirt that highlights his eyes, John doesn’t mind the warmth as he sits at his desk writing labels for upcoming bottlings of the 2016 vintage. Jovial and optimistic, he’s resigned to the heat and at the mercy of Mother Nature for a few more weeks before harvest. John’s traditional biography can be found here, but we’d like to show other sides of the man who makes Lytton Springs, beyond the typical press release. Here are his answers to a series of questions I recently asked him.

When I first got into wine I was spending a lot of time in the south of France with my uncle and I drank a lot of Domaine Tempier. We would have lunch at their estate starting with an aperitif of Bandol rosé at noon, followed by several other wines of various vintages, usually served with a leg of lamb. The meal would go until around 4pm, when we’d drink Marc (a distilled spirit similar to Grappa) as a digestif. On the way back to my uncle’s house there would always be a case of Tempier in the backseat.

My dad always said “think ahead but don’t think too far ahead”. It helps to keep the anxiety level in check.

In terms of where I would live if it could be anywhere the Amalfi Coast of Italy comes to mind. Having said that, I really love living in Sonoma. Every time I get back from traveling abroad, driving home from SFO and seeing the rolling hills of the Petaluma Gap, I think “not bad”.

I most aspire to Paul Draper’s discipline in tasting the wine throughout the winemaking process. All the decisions he made were based on taste, not formula. If you taste from the moment the grapes are crushed, and keep evaluating the emerging wine during fermentation, you pick up on so much more of the flavor and character. Paul brought the selection process to Ridge, a willingness to leave out sub-standard components of a blend if they didn’t improve the overall wine.

Typically right after work when I start crushing garlic and chopping onions to make dinner, I listen to my favorite music. Most of what I listen to would be divided up into singer-songwriter Americana, classical guitar, and Tom Waits, who deserves a category all his own.

When I was a child, I dreamed of being a professional hockey player. I’m not saying that I would have or could have, but at the time when I grew up in St Louis there was no training that rooted you to professional hockey, it didn’t exist. Someone’s dad would have been the coach and we’d just play. Other than that, I have no idea what I would end up doing!

I’d like to go to Thailand and Vietnam, for the food and culture. I’d also like to go to Brazil and Argentina, I’ve never been to South America. Those countries would be a good start.

Right after pressing, when the must is going dry, at that moment the wines are being born and it’s no longer grape juice. That’s the most exciting moment of winemaking for me.

The happiest time of my life I spent in France. I was in my 20s, single, well-connected in the wine world, eating meals prepared by excellent chefs, and drinking wines that today I can’t afford, and doing so with the growers themselves.

If I time traveled ahead 100 years, I’d like to see people getting in fewer fights about petty things. Cooperating more.

The most challenging thing about being a parent is saying “yes” or “no” and never being able to know for certain that you made the right decision. You’re not allowed to walk down both forks in the road, you have to choose just one.

Integrity, honesty, sense of humor, not taking yourself too seriously. Those are all qualities I admire and look for in my friends.

It’s impossible to know what people think. So many of the things you’re accused of aren’t something you’ll ever hear because people aren’t willing to tell you.

I stress most in the morning. I get up and everything that I need to do, or didn’t do yesterday, comes rushing into the brain. I’m most relaxed at the end of the day, in the kitchen, listening to music, glass of wine in hand.

As a teenager I was pretty easy going, fairly quiet, playing hockey and going to school.

My last meal? How many courses do I get? To start, an omelet with black truffles, where there’s about as much truffles as there is eggs. To drink with it, I’d probably go with a Montee de Tonerre Reveneau Chablis. Another course would be three good sized scallops, wrapped with Parma prosciutto, finished in the oven. Cannot beat it!

If I were reincarnated, I’d love to come back as a Rhodesian Ridgeback, with the caveat that I had a good owner. I do a lot of fostering for the humane society, walk into my home and I usually have a bunch of puppies. It’s like being a grandparent, you get to give them back!

Having a family changes you overnight, it creates a bigger sense of responsibility. It forces you to be more generous with your time.

The soil is the most critical part of terroir because it’s so difficult to change it. Not that you can change the weather but we can practice canopy management or irrigation to work with the climate. When you have the right soil, game over, you’re ready to go.

I’ve got a handful of pet peeves, I know that! People who trespass. People who drive in the passing lane. You’re supposed to pass in the passing lane! In Europe it works, people don’t sit in the passing lane. It’s much safer, there’s no passing around the right side to look out for.

It’s a more complicated question than it seems. Freedom in the base sense is the ability to do whatever you want, with impunity, but it also implies that you have a sense of what it is you want to do. We march all over the world fighting for our freedom and it seems a curious way to approach freedom. Everyone is trying to take away our freedom…I don’t feel that way. I’d be willing to bet that if 100 Americans were put together with 100 Iranians, they’d all get along great. They’re just people.

In general terms, the wines I admire the most have a purity to them. The Domaine Tempier rosé is the only rosé I’ll pay $30 for. I drink wines like Falanghina and Picpoul de Pinet in the summer, their leaner, cleaner expressions are appealing. In the winter months, Chinon, Zinfandel, and Foradori Teroldego come to mind. To me, when the wine stops tasting like the varietal it’s made from, that’s one of my definitions of terrior. If it tastes like La Tache, it tastes like La Tache, not Pinot Noir.

Even as a child, my Uncle Richard Olney was the most influential person in my life. When I was about ten, I went to France to stay with him the first time and then went back at fourteen. We’d go to my mother’s home in Austria and then go to the south of France to visit him. From fourteen onward I kept going back.

Recently I went to Switzerland and gave a half hour presentation on Zinfandel, in French, to 100 of the best winemakers from all over Europe. I practiced for six months and nearly had it memorized. That was the scariest thing I’ve done in recent memory.

I worry about my kids’ well-being, they’re all teenagers now, so they’re out in the world more on their own, as they should be. You always worry about your kids. And I worry about my home vineyard a fair amount. I also worry about whether the Blues will win the Stanley Cup before I die. Fifty years and they still haven’t won!

For someone who wants to make wine, I’d pass on the same thing that Henri Jayer passed on to me. I was tasting with him and he said, “Whenever you judge the color of a wine, look at the glass of the person you’re tasting with, not at yours.” When you’re looking down at it, it’s difficult to judge. Another thing he said was “make the wine that you like to drink and trust that there will be enough people out there who agree with you.”

There’s a fair amount of things I’d never do! Be a politician, for one. Or be a proctologist.

If I quit making wine I’d become a butcher. I don’t know why it interests me so much. I love cured meats, the process of it. I’d also love to work at a fishing dock. The number one way to get fresh fish is to be there when it comes in! A piece of advice for my 18 year old self would be to slow down, learn patience, and take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.

A piece of advice for my 18 year old self would be to slow down, learn patience, and take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.

I’ve been really lucky in my life.

­—Interviewed by Dan Buckler, Regional Sales Manager


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