What kind of wine does a skateboarder make? Wines that have grip and structure and age well. Wines with elegance. In short, fine wine, dude.
Ryan Zepaltas moved from Wisconsin to Sebastopol, California after college to skate. Instead, he landed a job at La Crema as a harvest cellar hand. “I cleaned everything, did pumpovers, punchdowns, ran Chardonnay presses, all the harvest basics. Moved up to forklift jockey during the offseason. Good times. Great place to learn the basics, and that is where I fell in love with the process,” says Zepaltas.
He spent two harvests in New Zealand and started in July 2000 as harvest help at Siduri. He was quickly hired on as cellar master, and then moved up to assistant winemaker, a title he still holds today.
Before long, Zepaltas’ curiosity about wine had grown into a full-blown obsession, and he decided to found his own winery in 2005. He’s assembled a small team, including assistant winemaker Doug Weber to help during harvest; an office manager and bookkeeper, Vickie Webber; and his wife and daughter, who provide inspiration and support.
Zepaltas launched a Syrah, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in that first year. A Rose followed in 2007 and a Sauvignon Blanc in 2009. In 2012, Zepaltas produced a Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre and Grenache. They have been very well-received: Zepaltas Wines was named one of the Top 100 Wineries in the 2008 issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine and has landed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of the Year multiple times.
His wines are also on the lists of some of the best restaurants in the country. “I am an old-world romantic,” Zepaltas says, “so I believe that wine goes best with food on the table. I am very honored to be on some the best wine lists in the country. I still get all tingly when I see my name on a wine list.”
His winemaking philosophy is that less is more. And maybe there’s a little bit of skateboard rebel thrown in. “I would say my winemaking is pretty straightforward. We stick to the basics, but are always trying little tweaks here and there. We love stem inclusion on red ferments, and love to not handle whites gently,” he says.
“I feel that you can easily make powerful, intense wines at lower alcohol/higher acidity in California. There is no need to hang fruit until it begins to shrivel to achieve this.”
Zepaltas favors vineyards in the cool Russian River Valley and along the Sonoma Coast, as well as the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. All of his reds are aged in French oak barrels for 12-16 months (about 35 percent new). Recently he’s been destemming and crushing whites, giving the grapes about 24 hours on the skins before pressing. He ferments his whites in both barrels and in stainless steel, but ages in barrels—four to six months for Sauvignon Blanc and 14 months for Chardonnay.
Fans of Zepaltas wines “are looking for a food-friendly wine that is loaded with flavors, yet not over the top in any way. They want a wine with texture, a little rustic grit to it, but still elegant and focused,” Zepaltas says.
He plans to stick with the formula that works. “We are not trying to fit in with any scene or movement,” Zepaltas says. “We prefer to quietly go about our business and focus on the task at hand: to make really delicious wines that are worth every penny that our customers pay.”
And as for skateboarding? Zepaltas still skates a bit and stays in touch with his friends in the industry. But most of the rest of his time is devoted to his wife and daughter and making great wine.
“I love my jobs,” Zepaltas says. “I love going to work. It is my creative outlet, and I am super grateful to get paid for it.”