“The average aging of a wine takes place in the back seat of the car on the way home.” That’s one of my favorite wine aphorisms. Minnesota native Jeff Runquist clearly follows that philosophy.
At his winery of the same name in California’s Amador County, Runquist crafts what he aptly calls “youthful, zesty wine that is at its peak when it goes in the bottle.
“People ask me all the time in the tasting room, ‘How long will this one age?’ I hate to answer this question with a question, but I’ll say ‘What do you want from this wine in two years that’s not there now?’ ”
But here’s the deal. While Runquist says he stops drinking the old vintage when the new vintage comes out, his wines have the complexity and stuffing to age deftly.
Yes, the Runquist red blends and varietals are delicious and fruit-forward upon release, often winning “best of class” awards at competitions — as they should. But they’re also the kind of wines that are ideal to buy in multiples and taste every six to 12 months for a few years.
Rundquist caught the wine bug early. He was born in 1957 on his father’s first day of medical school at the University of Minnesota. His father grew up in Austin, Minn., where his grandfather and great-grandfather had worked in laboratories at Hormel.
After the family had moved to California, Runquist recalls his parents imbibing that ceramic bottle of Lancers, Robert Mondavi gamay rosé and Inglenook charbono. His dad did a tour in Vietnam, and when he got home the wine bug bit him.
“There was always wine in the house,” Runquist said. In his high school years, Runquist would try light reds and sweet whites such as riesling, gewürztraminer and off-dry chenin blanc.
He ended up enrolling at the University of California-Davis, a mecca for those interested in studying grape growing and winemaking. In his first-quarter Intro to Winemaking class, he sat next to future winemaking superstar Heidi Barrett, and spent his second year as an intern helping make bulk wine at Paul Masson Sherry Cellars. After graduation, he worked at Amador County’s Montevina winery, the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery and J. Lohr in San Jose, before starting Jeff Runquist Wines (jeffrunquistwines.com) in the mid-1990s.
Of course, he had learned a lot along the way.
“When I worked for Cary Gott at Montevina, it was ‘the bigger the better.’ The more alcohol, the big tannins, they got the rave reviews, and you wanted to emulate that,” Runquist said. “I made my share of those wines, and they were tough. I ended up with a cellar full of them, and the tannins are rock-hard and fruit has fallen off, and all prognostications of the agreeability of those wines has been wrong.
“So I told myself, ‘If you get in a position to make a wine, make one that you want to drink: softer, less astringent [with] as much flavor, as much depth, as much intrigue as possible.’ I want them to have what [fellow winemaker] Jed Steele called ‘hedonic immediacy.’ ”
Runquist achieves that with a wide variety of grapes from a wide variety of places (nine around central and Northern California). He maintains long-term relationships with growers but has no vineyards himself and is a strong advocate of separation of powers.
“I really let the growers do their thing,” he said. “Does a doctor tell the driver how to drive the ambulance? If I’m the one having to tell the grower when the flavors are at their peak, I have the wrong grower. I trust them. They know their vineyards better than I do, and it really gets my goat when some of my peers go and tell growers how they have to grow.
“All our wines have the grower’s name on it. We acknowledge their contribution.”
He didn’t start off making many wines. “At first I wanted to make zinfandel and only zinfandel,” he said. Then he decided to make some grenache. “It was an absolutely terrible wine. I kept it in oak too long. It smelled like a lumberyard.”
Undeterred, Runquist started to look into other grapes, some of them out of left field — deep left field. Opening up a tasting room in 2008 has made it easier to delve into the lesser-known varieties. The visitors there can try a charbono or a petit verdot before buying. “You’re not gonna spend $26 on a tannat if you’ve never had tannat before. But they’ll say ‘This would go great with Uncle Bubba’s ribs,’ ” Runquist said.
Among those of his wines generally available in the Twin Cities are zinfandel, barbera, petite sirah and petit verdot. Allocated but often seen here: the Fiddletown and 1448 red blends, syrah, cab and cab franc, sangiovese, pinot noir and touriga nacional. I haven’t sampled all of them, but I can vouch that the ones that I have tried lived up to Runquist’s goal of making clean, vibrant and balanced wines.
When asked about the most important part of his job, Runquist quickly responded, “Balance, that sums it up in one word. If the wine’s not balanced when you put it in the bottle, it’s never going to be balanced. If the tannins are too big, by the time they get knit into the wine, the flavor’s going to be gone.”
He chuckled and added, “I turn up my nose at the Burgundian funk. If I want my wine to smell like a barnyard and taste like cheese, I’ll eat cheese and do it in a barnyard.”
Bill Ward writes atdecant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.