During the 2012 Aspen Food and Wine Festival we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Sonoma Coast winemaker Kurt Beitler of Bohème Wines. I was excited to meet the energetic and passionate young winemaker; if for no other reason than he is a grandson of one of the winemakers most influential in my early wine development, Charlie Wagner, co-founder of Caymus Vineyards. We waited for Kurt outside an Aspen restaurant, to find him wheeling up through the festival crowd on his mountain bike with a great smile on his face and even better wines in hand.
While Kurt learned much of his craft working with his uncle Chuck Wagner (co-founder of Caymus) and cousins at Caymus Vineyards, he ventured out a few years ago to create hand-crafted Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under his own label Bohème Wines. Kurt’s five small-lot wines are exceptional examples of terrior-driven single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bohème Wines are available from their website and tasting room in Occidental, CA. For those who support small, family and artisan wineries…Bohème is a wine find that will definitely excite your palate and enhance your cellar.
KB – I see an extroverted guy who can’t get enough of friends and family. He loves to ride bikes, ski, cook, prune vines, drive tractors, top barrels, taste wine and visit with customers. Deciding where to devote the precious days has become the greatest challenge.
B&B – You grew up as part of a famous winemaking family. Tell us about that.
KB – It’s tough to accept the premise, but thank you; the wine business has been good to my family. All of my family came from modest beginnings.
My paternal grandfather, Joseph Beitler, was born in Crested Butte and quit school at age 12 to mine coal with his dad, who’d come down with stomach cancer. When he was a bit older, he started trapping for furs in the surrounding mountains. He loved playing music and singing in a band. During WWII Grandpa Beitler made his way to Napa Valley where he worked as a Diesel Mechanic on Mare Island.
My maternal grandfather, Charlie Wagner, lived his entire life in Rutherford, ¼ mile from his birthplace. His dad was a brewer in San Francisco who moved to Rutherford after the 1906 Earthquake, and had a bonded winery there until Prohibition. Starting as a young man, my grandfather logged thousands of hours on a tractor, farming potatoes, prunes, popcorn and grapes. My early memories of him include work around his prune dehydrator and in the garden and fruit trees. On cold days he’d stuff little balls of cotton in his ears for insulation. In the summer he always wore suspenders and a cowboy hat with feathers sticking off like a decrepit rooster. I think his tattered hats were a nod to defiance—a gene that survives today in his kin. Grandpa Wagner’s favorite wine was Trimbach Frédéric Emile, which he’d serve with bockwurst, potatoes and sauerkraut. We enjoyed this spread in July for what would’ve been his 100th.
Both of my grandmothers spent their lives cooking and caring for their families. Through my maternal grandmother, Lorna Belle Glos Wagner, I’m a 5th generation California vintner. Grandma Lorna lives in Napa today and is 97 years old.
My parents were in kindergarten together, sweethearts at St. Helena High School and married after college. Wine was always on our family dinner table—my brothers and I were allowed sips even as babies. Wine is both a staple and a romantic drink for us. It brings calm and happiness to the day; it’s about communion.
KB – My attraction started in college and blossomed with a few special moments.
The first was a specific bottle: 1985 Guigal La Mouline that my uncle Chuck opened in 1999. It’s still, to this day, the best taste I’ve ever had. It was bloody and earthy, like mushrooms, and just matched my constitution. I remember a chuckle and tightness in the cheeks as I struggled for words. It was one of those excited times that cause the eyes to well up.
The second “Ah-Ha moment” came when driving a tractor. It was a chipper spring morning in 2001. Caymus set me up with a Carraro SRX 8400 and Howard Rotovator to till the Taylor Lane Vineyard. An offshore system had opened a heavenly view to the ocean. Green grass, grape canes and redwood trees in the foreground, and a blue Pacific with Farallon Islands poking out on the horizon. Some hawks circled overhead, hunting gophers that might surface aft the tiller. The moist humus smell and diesel thrum are imprinted in my brain today…it was incredible. Peter’s Principle applies, but I know how I’ll spend retirement.
B&B – Before starting Bohème Wines, what roles did you have at Caymus Vineyards?
KB – I managed the Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard in Occidental. This meant directing hand labor (pruning, suckering, shoot thinning, de-leafing, bird netting, crop thinning, harvest) and covering all of the tractor work personally (discing, spraying, mowing, etc).
I also oversaw the conversion of the trellis from VSP (vertical shoot position) to Pergola Trentina—an elevated, overhead trellis from the north of Italy. The added sun exposure afforded by this trellis is thought to improve fruitfulness and ripening, a big bonus on the Sonoma Coast. It was quite an undertaking to prune all of the vines, dismantle the old trellis (vines leaning all over and into the row middles without support), and then install the new structure around them. It looked like a fiasco and the neighbors thought we were crazy, but we had it under control.
B&B – What winemakers either influenced your style or mentored you in your early years?
KB – (Uncle)Chuck Wagner, Ric Forman, Tom Dehlinger, Ted Lemon
B&B – How would you describe your winemaking philosophy and why is it important to you?
KB – Because my experience began in farming, I tend to be most in tune with the vines. Every year I learn more of how farming inputs translate to wine expression. I suppose it’s a holistic approach, and I hope to improve my grasp of the nuance over time. It’s important to me because it seems the highest form of wine and its craft.
B&B – How much control do you have over the vineyards your wines come from?
KB – Right now we farm all of our grapes, but Mother Nature holds many cards, so I feel out of control sometimes, like during a harvest storm.
B&B – Why did you choose to focus on single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?
KB – It was a chance occurrence. I got my start working a vineyard in Occidental, somewhat naïve to what a great place it was for Pinot and Chardonnay. I gradually learned to revere the wines from Sonoma Coast and then grew to love living here, too. These wines naturally became the focus.
B&B – What does the future hold for Bohème Wines?
KB – In the near term I’ll hire an assistant and hope to upgrade the vineyard and winery operations. Over time I’d love to add more Chardonnay and Pinot acreage—possibly Syrah too. There are many wonderful places to grow these grapes besides Sonoma Coast. Santa Cruz Mountains and parts of Mendocino County come to mind first. The sequence will come clear as we make progress.
B&B – Where can people experience Bohème Wines?
KB – Wine Club – visit BohemeWines.com and sign up
Tasting Room at 3625 Main Street, Occidental, CA
Make appointment (call 707-874-3214) to visit the winery in Forestville
B&B – Tell us about your life away from the winery?
KB – My greatest loves are dinner parties and the outdoors, especially cycling and skiing.
B&B – When not drinking your own wines, whose wine do you drink?
KB – Favorite wines are rich Chardonnays, bright Zins, old Cabs and all sorts of Pinots. My favorite labels (when they come my way) are Brick House, Clos de la Tech, Dehlinger, Dutton Goldfield, Littorai, Rhys and Rivers Marie.