“For us, less is more,” explained Eric Sussman, the proprietor of Radio-Coteau, as he described his team’s winemaking style at his small winery in Sebastopol. “Letting the process take its course without intervening is challenging. Of course there are decisions to be made in winemaking — but I try to minimize them.”
Eric Sussman is obsessed with minimizing those choices. He describes his style as “non-interventionalist” – and refuses to fine, filter, or even inoculate for either the alcoholic or the secondary fermentation. (In case you’re wondering, I had to look up the definition of inoculate.)
He’s laser focused on handling his grapes carefully, harvesting most of his vineyards at night (see the video below), light pressing the reds with a basket press, and using a bladder press for his Chardonnay.
That less-is-more approach is the reason Eric named his winery Radio-Coteau. Eric first heard the phrase while in Burgundy. And although it’s colloquially used to mean “word of mouth,” the literal translation is “broadcasting from the hillside.” And Eric thought that translation captured a winemaker’s role perfectly — as his job is to “broadcast the vineyard into the bottle.”
Born and raised in New York, Eric went to Cornell University to study agriculture. During his sophomore year, Eric became “intrigued by the transformation of grapes into wine,” so started gearing his studies to viticulture.
He soon landed a viticulture scholarship through Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, to study the feasibility of organic wine grape growing in New York. And after graduating in 1991, he headed to Washington’s Yakima Valley to take a small producer with a 14 acre vineyard through the organic certification process. Within just a few years, Eric took over the winemaking responsibilities – and by then, he was certain he wanted to dedicate his life to wine.
So in 1995, he headed off to France, where he landed a job at Châteaux Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Pauillac. The next year, he headed to Burgundy – and soaked up as much wine information as he could, working at both Domaine Comte Armand of Pommard and Domaine Jacques Prieur of Meursault, visiting countless legendary wineries, and studying winemaking at a “vocational school for adults” in Beaune.
“Burgundy was totally different,” Eric explained, while sharing his story. “The winemakers there were incredibly in touch with the land. And their techniques were passed down, from generation to generation. Their winemaking was natural, traditional.”
When Eric returned to the States, he headed straight to California – where he worked alongside Randall Graham at Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz. Back then, the Bonny Doon operation was churning out about 100,000 cases annually. It was a huge production, but it exposed Eric to countless new varietals and blends.
But he missed the wines of Burgundy. So he headed further north, and spent 1998 to 2001 as the associate winemaker at famed Russian River producer Dehlinger. It was there, according to Sussman, that he realized the “potential of Goldridge soil” and the unique terroir of Sonoma.
After four vintages, Eric decided the time was right to launch his own label — and wanted to work exclusively with fruit California’s northern coastal areas. So he secured grapes from some of his favorite vineyard sites in both the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County, and produced his inaugural vintage — Pinot Noir from the true Sonoma Coast and Savoy Vineyard in the Anderson Valley — in 2002.
He also made the decision that all his focus would be on his own wines. “I don’t make wines for any other wineries,” he explained, when I asked if he consulted anywhere, “because I want to dedicate all my efforts and attention to my own wine.”
All that effort and attention is paying off. Pinot Noir is still the priority at Radio-Coteau, but Eric also produces some Syrah and Chardonnay (and he has an Old Vine Zinfandel in the works). And everything Radio-Coteau puts out is fantastic.
We tasted through two current releases — the 2009 Savoy Chardonnay ( $48)and the 2009 La Neblina Pinot Noir ($42) — and three barrel samples: the 2010 La Neblina Pinot Noir, the 2010 Savoy Pinot Noir, and the 2009 Timbervine Syrah.
I rarely use the word “compelling” when talking about wine, but that’s the best way to describe the wines of Radio-Coteau. They’re fresh, elegant, and pure, and have a powerful sense of place. When you taste them, they demand your attention.
Eric also has a second label, County Line, under which he makes some appellation blends of Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay — and a killer Rosé, which we also tasted.
The story behind the County Line label is interesting, if a bit tragic. Eric loves Rosé, and desperately wanted to make one. He was concerned, however, that if he made a Radio-Coteau Rosé, people would wrongly assume that it was a Saignée. It’s most definitely not.
The Rosé is made from a Champagne clone of Pinot Noir, and harvested from a single vineyard — Anderson Valley’s Elke Home Ranch. Eric harvests the grapes when sugars are low and acids are high, whole cluster presses the fruit, and ferments in natural oak. It’s really special stuff, and I’ll certainly be stocking up on some this summer.