There’s a popular aphorism in the wine world: “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.”
Most commonly, that refers to the volume of brew consumed during the laborious harvest season. But in the case of Nate Klostermann, it was more about a love of beer bringing him to wine.
Long before he was the acclaimed winemaker at two Oregon wineries, Klostermann was a University of Minnesota food-science major who became an early adopter of the craft beer movement.
“I started home brewing in college,” Klostermann said, “and it opened my eyes to the whole world of fermentation-type stuff.”
He started looking for brewery internships, but in the early 2000s there were few local breweries. Then, in a wine course he was taking, “Potter John” Falconer from the Falconer winery in Red Wing mentioned that he was looking for help two or three days a week. Klostermann volunteered and toiled in the vineyards, cellar and tasting room.
The hook was set.
After graduating, he heard from a classmate that Argyle in Oregon was looking for harvest help, and Klostermann has been there ever since, rising from intern to enologist to assistant winemaker under Rollin Soles. In March 2013, he was appointed head winemaker at the age of 31. He holds the same post for Knudsen, a nascent winery that owns the vineyards where Argyle gets most of its grapes.
Soles calls Klostermann “the best winemaking Gopher in the USA.” He also notes that “I’ve been one very lucky winemaker to have had Nate on the team. He’s turned into one of the most insightful, imaginative winemakers around.”
Argyle was the optimum landing spot for someone with a scientific bent, since a lot of its production is sparkling wines (and stellar ones at that, among the nation’s best).
“I always wanted to be a winery guy, and in that first harvest I got thrown into the lab,” he said. “It was a grad-school-type project, the whole sparkling side of things, with how technical it is. That’s what I fell in love with. It’s such a unique and fun deal.”
It’s also exacting. Patience is an enormous virtue, Klostermann said.
“In every little step along the way, you cannot make decisions too quickly,” he said. “Picking dates, tasting the fruit, flavor ripeness vs. sugar ripeness, the [grape-]pressing program, when to blend. You can never unblend anything. It’s about boiling it down to what really matters and what doesn’t.
“Of course, you have to start off with great fruit.”
Much of that comes from prime Dundee Hills vineyards owned by the Knudsens, one of Oregon’s pioneering wine families. In 1975, Cal Knudsen and Dick Erath started the Knudsen Erath winery, but a decade later Cal decided to focus on grape-growing (Erath still makes wonderful wines).
But a few years ago, Cal’s progeny decided to resuscitate the brand, and since the 2012 vintage, Knudsen has released lovely, balanced, age-worthy pinot noir and chardonnay.
The wines are made at Argyle, and juggling the duties actually has been “exciting,” said Klostermann, who turns 35 this week.
It’s basically the same approach. “We’re always trying to capture fresh fruit,” the Wisconsin native said. “In terms of pinot noir, we are looking for delicacy and silkiness and prettiness, not trying to beat everybody over the head with big tannins and big color.”
That might be why Argyle’s and Knudsen’s wines boast both consistent quality but also vintage distinction. As Soles said, Klostermann excels at “remaining calm, cool and collected when Mother Nature is giving us her least calm behavior.”
Page Knudsen Cowles, one of the partners operating her family’s winery, also praised Klostermann’s low-key, thoroughly Upper Midwest demeanor and approach.
“Nate is very calm, confident without being arrogant, very willing to talk about things,” said Knudsen Cowles, who spends much of her time in the Twin Cities with husband Jay Cowles, whose family formerly owned the Star Tribune. “He’s a very astute and knowledgeable winemaker, extremely attentive and focused on Knudsen.”
He apparently also is a master at overseeing the potentially dicey annual blending sessions, where three Knudsens and some of their offspring proffer their thoughts on the final concoctions of pinot noir and chardonnay.
“We came in with strong opinions, but our palates are aligned so there haven’t been big arguments,” Knudsen Cowles said. “We are developing our own sense, and Nate has been a very good teacher and very effective at guiding us.”
Clearly, he’s also not too shabby at guiding himself — to a pinnacle in the world of wine.
Bill Ward writes atdecant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.