Winemaker Focus: Stephen Ross Dooley | Stephen Ross Wine Cellars
It’s a long way from Mankato, Minnesota, to the Central Coast of California, but Stephen Ross Dooley harnessed the tailwinds of passion and heeded the pull of the grapes. Here’s what happens when the whisper of a passion becomes the clear voice of a life aligned with purpose.
“Turning sunlight into wine.”
This simple yet profound phrase has been Stephen Ross Dooley’s calling since he was a child making apple and rhubarb wines in the basement of his family’s home in Minnesota.
Now, after 40 harvests – with two in the southern hemisphere – Dooley’s alchemy of grapes, water, air, and time, strengthened by his wife Paula’s shared passion for wine and the support of his dedicated winery staff, have created the magic that fills the bottles at his renowned Stephen Ross Wine Cellars.
Where It All Began
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Andrew asked as we passed an emu living in the backyard of an old homestead on Suburban Road.
“Trust me,” I said, “and turn left into this driveway.”
Like a piece of rare blue sea glass hidden among gray and green beach pebbles, Stephen Ross Wine Cellars is tucked into a mixed-use area on the southern edge of San Luis Obispo. Housed in a two-story sage green building, the tasteful sign hanging outside confirms we’ve arrived.
As we open the door, we breathe in the satisfying aroma of wine; any residual, random, and pointless worries swirl away. This is a good place to be.
It’s 10:00 on a rainy Friday morning, and the tasting room crowd won’t arrive for another hour or two. Stephen and Paula Dooley walk down the stairs that lead from the second-floor offices and welcome us to their winery.
This is where the magic happens today. But it didn’t start here.
It started in 1977, when the crew at Louis Martini (Napa Valley’s oldest vineyard producing renowned Cabernet Sauvignon since 1933) had finished bringing in the harvest of 7,000 tons of grapes. Among the crew is newcomer Stephen Dooley. This harvest is especially significant for Dooley: it’s his first harvest in what will become a long and storied career in the wine industry. It also confirms his path: this is what he’s meant to do.
After graduating from high school in Mankato, Dooley attended Mankato State University and majored in biochemistry. He then headed west to the University of California – Davis to earn a degree in Enology.
“For the next 10 years, I worked in Napa Valley making wine and also worked two harvests in South America and Western Australia,” said Dooley.
The Next Steps
He made his way south from Napa Valley to the burgeoning wine region of Edna Valley. “After returning from Western Australia in 1987, I was an unemployed winemaker, and the winemaking position at Edna Valley Vineyard in San Luis Obispo caught my attention,” he said.
“I had the great opportunity to work at Edna Valley Vineyard for seven years, from 1987 to 1994,” he shared. “We produced 35,000 cases in 1987 and about 65,000 in 1993. During that time, I refined my knowledge of the winemaking process, which is art and science.”
After working at Edna Valley Vineyard, he also had the priceless experience of working on the design-build of Tolosa in 1998. “Seeing a winery built from blueprint stage to tasting room grand opening was a true gift,” he said. “After Tolosa was built, I moved in as a client and made Stephen Ross wine there.”
At Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, we believe elegant wines start in the vineyard and are guided into perfection by a skilled, passionate and committed winemaking team.
During these pivotal years, he also had the life-changing good fortune to meet Paula, who is the winery’s business and operations manager. “We met in 1989 and were married in 1995 – a year after we created and launched Stephen Ross Wine Cellars. Our daughter is now a sophomore in high school and our son a freshman at Humboldt State University. They grew up in the winery and among the wine business, and we feel fortunate to have this experience as a family.”
As we join Dooley at the beautiful plank table tucked under the stairwell, we learn that he made it – he’s a master woodworker and a master winemaker – and we learn a bit about this space and the wines that call it home.
“We opened this tasting room in 2008, and we designed it to highlight the wine,” he said. “For example, the surface of the tasting area bar is white Corian so you can better see the hue of the wine.”
He added, “I made this table so friends old and brand new can sit and enjoy our wines. To me, that’s a big part of our winery – it’s about good people sharing time together and enjoying a glass of wine.”
The tasting room looks into the winery, where 650 barrels hold this year’s vintages of the Stephen Ross label estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Gris, Albariño, Grenache, and Zinfandel.
Today, Stephen Ross Wine Cellars produces about 16,000 cases of wine annually. About 5,000 cases are made for the Stephen Ross label, and another 3,000 cases are made for the Flying Cloud label, which was launched in 2003.
“Flying Cloud is named after the small airport in Eden Prairie,” shared Dooley, “and it honors my Minnesota roots by featuring wines with excellent values and of other varieties than our main business line.”
They also make 8,000 cases for Jackhammer, and produce wine for four other wineries.
Coming Full Circle
With 40 harvests (so far) under his belt, how has his winemaking – and the winemaking industry as a whole – changed over the years?
“Like with many areas, there are trends in winemaking,” he said. “If you’re in any industry long enough, you’ll often see things come full circle.”
Cases in point: concrete fermenters are coming back, alcohol content is going down, levels of oak influence are decreasing, and more natural wines are being produced without added yeasts and yeast nutrients.
“Technological advances allow us to use some of the older methods in new and safer ways,” he said, “which creates room for creativity that was not as possible with older technology.”
For example, Dooley is going back to the original methods of winemaking, using the natural process instead of adding ingredients that speed up or affect the fermentation in various ways. “When grapes come in, we add minimal amounts of sulfites to the grapes. At the beginning of fermentation, we introduce air to the indigenous yeast with a diffuser to create tiny bubbles to assist the yeast in their growth,” he explained. “We allow the grapes and the indigenous yeasts to begin fermentation.”
He added, “With today’s steam cleaning of barrels and the ability to finely control temperature and humidity, we can make wines naturally and safely, without the past concerns of unwanted bacteria and yeast growth.”
Dooley’s decades of experience and innate talent as a winemaker allow him to experiment and adjust the winery’s processes with a science-meets-art approach.
Like any master, when the foundation is unshakeable, it allows for creative expression and experimentation. Making great wine is a given at Stephen Ross, based on years of honing the technique and process to a razor’s edge of perfection and predicable outcomes. This established process allows Dooley to adjust elements to reach desired outcomes.
“I’m continually seeking to improve as a winemaker, so I implement changes based on knowledge combined with instincts about how an alternation might affect the wine.”
Stephen Ross was founded on the principle of working with quality vineyards and hand-crafting the best wines possible from the grapes they yield. The winery started small, grew as financial resources allowed, and we stuck to our principles in winemaking and business – great, small production wines, solid business practices, and a nice, engaging place to work for our crew.
As an example, over the past few vintages, Dooley has been working toward fully unfiltered wines (except for the aromatic whites). Of course, this decision was made knowing it affected several steps in the winemaking process.
“You can’t make the decision not to filter the wine when it’s coming out of the barrel,” he explained. “If you’re going to not filter, this decision has to be made at harvest and kept in mind with every step of making this vintage.”
To achieve this, he and his cellar staff have made several adjustments to ensure the quality for which Stephen Ross wines are known. “One of the changes we made was building a shorter stirrer, to allow mixing without churning and creating unwanted turbidity and suspended solids from the lower layers in the barrel.”
For the 2015 vintages, all wine except aromatic whites will be unfiltered. For 2016, all Stephen Ross wine will be unfiltered and with no added yeast.
Dooley is also adjusting the amount of whole clusters used in the fermentation process. “Right now, we’re including 25% whole clusters with stems and berries,” he said. In comparison, some Burgundian wines use 100% whole clusters.
“Using whole clusters assists with carbonic maceration, where the whole berry in effect self-destructs and fermentation can take place without using yeast,” he explained, when contrasting this approach to the more typical process of crushing the grapes to extract the juice and adding yeast to start fermentation.
“The whole clusters aid fermentation, and the stems add tannins and fix the color,” he added. The use of stems can also vary greatly, ranging from no stems, to 25%, 50%, and 100%, and then to 100% dried stems.
The whole clusters are put in the fermenter first, then destemmed fruit goes on top.
With indigenous yeast, the first fermentation is slow. The second malolactic fermentation goes quickly. “In this phase, the indigenous yeasts don’t take all the sugars and nutrients, so the process goes more smoothly and more quickly.”
But the big advantage of these natural methods? “By adding less cultured yeast and yeast nutrients, it results in better wine.” Like Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Just because we can do something (i.e., add yeasts and fermentation enhancers) doesn’t mean we should.”
Similar to organic farming, where rainfall, temperatures, days of sun or clouds, and so on affect the quality and yield of a crop, winemaking changes every year, too. The condition of the grapes resulting from drought or wet years influences the wine and the processes used in coaxing the best from what Mother Nature has provided.
The Terroir of the People
We all know the term “terroir” – the place in which the grapes grow, including the sun, the soil, the rain, the air – all the vital elements that create the grapes that then create the wine. But are people part of the terroir?
“Absolutely,” shared Dooley. “It takes good people to make good wine.”
In the book, “The Hidden Messages in Water,” researcher Dr. Masaru Emoto showed that water molecules respond to music, compassionate words, and a nurturing environment. While this concept is pretty far out there, could it be that grapes, on their journey from vine to bottle, respond to the people working in the winery?
Maybe. And maybe not.
But at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, it’s clear that everyone at the winery shares the passion and dedication to creating elegant, quality wines.
“We have the best people here,” said Dooley. All the wine cellar staff are Cal Poly enology graduates or current Cal Poly students in the enology program.
“In many ways, wine makes itself – it’s the combination of the science, artistry, agriculture, and the people,” said Dooley. “I’m thrilled to have the life-long joy of turning sunlight into wine and witnessing the magic of winemaking.”
This year marks Dooley’s 40th anniversary of making wine. Instead of the getting the feeling he’s coasting toward retirement or complacency, Dooley extends the opposite energy. He’s continuing to learn, experiment, grow, and he’s loving every step of the way.
It’s clear that the fire of Dooley’s passion for winemaking, first kindled by creating fruit wines in Minnesota, stoked by his early years in Napa, and growing stronger every year for nearly 25 years at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, is captured in every bottle of wine.
We can’t wait to see what develops inside the bottle and out.
Have you visited Stephen Ross Wine Cellars? What’s your favorite wine of the Stephen Ross and Flying Cloud labels? Do share and leave a comment here or on our Facebook page. The Flavor Team will see you there soon.
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