interview: at home with Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast of Waits-Mast Family Cellars

by Stevie on August 31, 2011

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Some of us from the weirdcombos tasting crew had the distinct pleasure of catching up with Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast of Waits-Mast Family Cellars for a fun Q and A and wine tasting. We’d been trying to plan this meeting for several weeks following the recent San Francisco PinotDays, but had been stymied by the complicated remodeling process at the Waits-Mast winery space downtown. Finally, Brian suggested that we meet at the couples charming San Francisco home.

Jennifer Waits

Jennifer Waits

They live with their 5 year old daughter, Beatrice, in a lovely lemon yellow corner house on a hill near Glen Park. Their neighborhood has good views on clear days, but is prone to billowy fog. In fact, on our visit, the fog seemed almost alive, it was racing all around us so quickly. Inside was snug and cozy.

They are an attractive pair and seem to compliment one-another well. After a brief introduction, Brian led us to their dining room, already laid with several bottles of Waits-Mast pinot noir. As he bustled in the kitchen, preparing a cheese plate and some other snacks, Jennifer started chatting with us about her other job, in radio. Both Brian and Jennifer do work other than at winemaking. That, having a young child, and maintaining a house might be enough for most people. Not so with the Waits-Mast family. Winemaking has become a passion for the two, and even after a half dozen years, it has not lost its romance.

Beatrice suddenly burst into the room wearing a startlingly pink “princess dress,” carrying a matching butterfly wand, full of questions and comments about princesses and our visit. Brian explained to us that she has a different princess costume for all her movies on that theme. Jennifer then mused aloud about finding her a book of modern living princesses as strong female role models. These two are cool. (We’ve refrained from showing pictures of Beatrice here by request.)

red red roses

red red roses

Waits-Mast line-up

Waits-Mast line-up

Brian and Jennifer got into wine when first dating. They would frequently visit wine country and soon started going to the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival. Like many, they fantasized about owing a vineyard somewhere in Anderson Valley, but were put off by the high cost and the hardship of living away from San Francisco. But these two were hooked. It was probably a sign when they began attending the technical conference connected to the wine tasting festival. There they learned about filtering techniques, reverse osmosis where undesirable components of a wine can be removed, and other things.

2005 Waits-Mast Amber Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: This wine had a gorgeous color that showed some age. The nose was beautiful, with spices and hints of plum. Medium bodied with some fruit, maybe a hint of raspberry and a long finish.

In 2005 they decided to make their first barrel of wine, as a learning experience. Then CrushPad, a company that provides the equipment and technical expertise to allow anyone to make a barrel of wine, was based in San Francisco. Brian and Jennifer were “blown away” by their 2005 Amber Ridge pinot. We thought it was really good, too. They gave the wine to friends who really enjoyed it, which added to the couple’s inspiration and excitement over this new endeavor.

They’re still quite small. In 2007, they produced 2 barrels of wine; 2008, three barrels; 2009, eight; 2010, 10; and in 2011 they hope for about 10 to 12. Actually, their tiny size was part of what attracted us to them at PinotDays. It has a big impact on the winery. There are limits on blending options, for example. With only one, or maybe two barrels, there isn’t much choice there. If problems arise, let’s say a barrel gets tainted, the entire production can be lost. Plus they cannot yet afford to hold back anything.

Brian Mast serving some pinot

Brian Mast serving some pinot

Their wine is scarce. On first look, that might seem like an advantage. Scarcity increases value. But Brian was quick to note that it affects the ability to promote themselves. Pouring at wine festivals and submitting wine to competitions takes multiple bottles. If they only have 45 cases of a particular wine to begin with, how realistic is it to send it to multiple competitions? So they need to “be selective” in how they promote their product. Even so, they have won competitions and the 2007 Waits-Mast Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley was named one of the top 100 wines of 2009 by the San Francisco Cronicle.

Factors like price and other obligations obviously also have an impact on their winemaking project. We didn’t realize that there’s a rule of thumb in the industry related to pricing a bottle of wine. Brian said that it is fairly standard to price the bottle based on the cost for a ton of grapes divided by 100. So let’s say, if you were to pay $4500 for a ton, the price per bottle should be around $45. For Waits-Mast, that calculation doesn’t quite hold as their expenses are somewhat greater now as they start up the business. And Jennifer reminded us that since they’re small, they cannot really enjoy the economies of scale that larger wineries can by purchasing things like barrels in large quantity at discounts.

2009 Waits-Mast Amber Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: This was more purple than the 2005. It is creamier, fuller and more lush with lots of fruit—sort of strawberries and cream. It too had some spice and a good finish. They believe that 2009 was a good warm growing season that has the potential to make great wine.

Jennifer and Brian are both attuned to their wine drinking public. “People are more sophisticated in terms of the range of foods they eat… and the same is true of wine,” Jennifer said. Brian works in marketing full time and was really impressed when the pair attended a seminar about bottle labeling. Their original label for the 2005 Amber Ridge shows a sepia black and white alpine scene in fog on a roughly conventional picture-shaped label. They’ve modified it now by stretching it out to make it wide and narrow, taking out the sepia and adding a red stripe to be more eye-catching and “sleek.” They kept the fog both because they produce “cool climate pinot noir” and because of the connection of fog to San Francisco. They also mentioned that word of mouth as well as having someone pour wines at a shop are two personal and effective ways of getting people to taste and get excited about their wine.

here you can really see differences in the labels  Which do you prefer

here you can really see differences in the labels: which do you prefer?

2009 Waits-Mast Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir, Mendocino County: A deep red to purple color, this has a musky, spicy nose, orange peel, a rich full body with lots of red and black fruit notes and a peppery finish. This is a powerful wine.

Locating fruit to turn into wine is an art in itself. Oppenlander Vineyard is one of only two vineyards in the tiny town of Comptche, CA in Mendocino County. The town sounds very remote and hard to find. When they started out, their grapes got sourced for them through CrushPad. Now that they’ve become independent, that aspect of the job falls directly onto their shoulders. That’s where all their networking at technical wine conferences and more informally has been paying off. Still there’s a bit of anxiety over the fruit. They’ve limited control over vineyard factors, now must directly develop contracts with growers, and since their winemaking facility is in San Francisco, transportation remains an issue.

Even in the winery, there are so many technical decisions to make that the job of winemaker is quite complex. Everything from types of barrel, stems or whole fruit clusters, blending and when to bottle, and a host of other decisions constantly crop up. They’ve learned a lot but Jennifer admits “It’s hard for me to know what the wine will evolve into.” Brian chimes in, “It’s a total crap shoot.” They do continue to use a consulting winemaker as they gradually define and refine their style.

Both believe in terroir and try to be “as hands off as possible.” Brian recommends: “Try lots of wine,” “Drink what you like,” and “The more you drink and the more you try you begin to identify different things.”

2009 Waits-Mast Deer Meadows Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley: This was a rusty red with herbs, musk and hot stones leading the way to a creamy, full bodied pinot with red fruit, caramel, raspberry and hints of coffee before finishing with some spice.

glowing glasses of Waits-Mast pinot noir

glowing glasses of Waits-Mast pinot noir

For the future, both hope to keep making great wine. Locally they’d like to see their wine on offer at fine restaurants in San Francisco as well as at local wine shops. “It’s a lot like music” Jennifer concludes. “People into music like to try new things.” Plus much of wine and music writing struggles to “capture” the true essence of their subjects. Jennifer mused on the possibility of wine and music pairings: “What does this music taste like? What does this wine sound like?”

By then, all five adults were making jazz-hands for Beatrice’s amusement, so it was clearly time to go. Brian gave us the rest of the 2009 Oppenlander to take home.

This was a brilliant experience. We never did ask the obvious question: Why pinot noir? Nevertheless, we left Jennifer and Brian feeling a warm glow of friendship. Their wines are hard-to-find but worth the effort. Once their new winemaking facility us up and running, you can contact them for a tasting and tour. Tell your friends. Taste with them. Get the buzz going!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelley September 5, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Great interview! They sound like a lovely, and very busy, couple. I nmed you wine expertise. We’re headed to Seattle next month and would like to check out some WA state wineries. Any reccs?

Shelley September 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm

I also need spellcheck. Obviously I meant need, not nmed 🙂
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