All Articles
All Articles
FOOD + DRINK

Interview: Justin Willett of Tyler Winery

The young vintner on "restrained" wines and the advantages of not owning a vinyard

by CH Contributor
on 06 November 2013

by Tariq Dixon

Tyler-Winery_3a.jpg

Very few vintners can boast having nine vintages under their belt at 32 years old. Even fewer can claim patronage by so many of America's leading restaurants—Eleven Madison Park, Daniel and Le Bernardin included. But these are just a few of the accomplishments of Justin Willett, founder of Tyler Winery based in Lompoc, CA.

A History of Art and Architecture graduate with no formal education in winemaking, Willett began his career as a part-time apprentice at a local winery in the Santa Rita Hills. After a year of hands-on training, and sufficient savings from a concurrent restaurant job, he made his first vintage of eight modest barrels in 2005.

While Willett's background and training were certainly non-traditional, more fascinating was his unorthodox palate. Emerging during a time when the market’s appetite was for full-bodied wines of high alcohol content, Justin was firmly committed to his preference for lighter-bodied Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. After facing some resistance during the brand’s initial seasons, consumers and critics alike slowly warmed up to Tyler Winery’s more "restrained" approach. Today, the brand has grown from its first eight barrels to over 2,500 cases annually. Willett met with CH to discuss process, consumers' appetites and experimentation.

Tyler-Winery_1a.jpg
You often use the word "restrained" to describe your wines. Could you explain what this means and how this quality is achieved?

Firstly, we pick the grapes earlier so that they have higher acidity and less sugar—therefore, less alcohol. This means that the wine will be a little more vibrant, but also age better.

Then, during production, we try to not over-extract. The extraction process is kind of like making tea; you’re dipping the teabag in hot water to extract the fine flavors and aromatics, but if you leave it in too long it's going to be bitter. Similarly, in winemaking, we’re constantly deciding how much to extract. I tend to do it less than most with the idea that the wine is going to be more refined and red-fruited, as opposed to dark and burly.

Flavor also depends on the type of barrel you use. I tend to lean more on older wood, which is less overtly oaky. I like what wood does texturally—it gives the wine a little bit more weight and rounds it out. But, I like the wines to express themselves, rather than other coffee or chocolate flavors that come from the char inside of the barrel.

Do you think a desire for this type of wine has increased? Has there been a shift in the market?

It’s actually a huge topic in winemaking right now. There’s a very decided divide—you can be more of a "ripe" guy or more of a "restrained" guy. Both sides are pretty loud right now, but the restrained camp seems to be where the market is moving.

When I first started doing it, everyone was like “You’re nuts.” High alcohol content was really en vogue, and I was trying to do things that were a little more elegant and feminine. It just wasn’t what people were into at the time. But the American wine-consuming public has had their time with the bolder, more obvious wines. Now, they want wines that are more cerebral, go better with food and have the ability to age.

There are also a couple of really big names in the wine business that have put their flags in the sand for leaner wines. Raj Par—the wine director of Michael Mina’s restaurant group—is a really big proponent. He’s even started a tasting called “In Pursuit of Balance” that features some great domestic producers—the best in my eyes. It’s really cool to be included in that and help push this new idea, which really feels like a movement.

Tyler-Winery_2a.jpg
There’s been a recent emergence of many other smaller scale producers, much like yourself, which feels like a movement of its own. Correct me if I’m wrong, but historically, those who owned the vineyards made the wine?

When people learn I’m in the wine business, they usually assume I have this big chateau with acres of vineyards. The reality is that wine doesn’t need to be this elitist thing. The majority of the world’s wine is certainly made very humbly.

I don’t own any vineyard land. I lease out acreage from existing vineyards, and I work on-site to make sure everything gets done to my specifications. Whether I own that piece of dirt or not—it’s about the sincerity of the process. There’s an old saying that goes, “The best fertilizer is the winemaker’s footsteps.” It’s exactly that; how much time you’re spending in the fields, really becoming intimate with the environment. A lot of the young guys are doing it that way. Large vineyard owners with a lot more zeroes in their bank accounts don’t necessarily go to those ends.

It also sounds like leasing land allows for a lot more flexibility because you can experiment with a range of vines, rather than committing to a particular type of grape?

That’s what’s cool for me. Tyler Wines is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but within that, I can add things and can take things away. You can buy a half acre here, half acre there and piece it together. I am really stoked about the portfolio I’ve been able to create because I get to work with the oldest and the rarest vines in this county. Creatively, it’s awesome. I look at this like a big lab—and that’s what really gets me going.

Tyler Winery’s 2011 vintage selection is available through their website, with prices ranging from $36 to $75 for 750ml.

Images courtesy of TRNK

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things
Loading More...