Tim Slater, who took over in 2001, produces quality Burgundy at his dog-friendly winery
Published in the June 27 – July 10, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life
By Rachele Traylor Gratale
Sarah’s Vineyard celebrated last month 40 years producing fine wine in the beautiful Hecker Pass region west of Gilroy. Owner and winemaker Tim Slater described his philosophy on making wonderful vino at the locally popular winery he took it over 2001.
How has Sarah’s been able to succeed during the past four decades?
“Success” has many definitions. And over the course of 40 years, two wine directors, and a sea change in the style and manner that California wine is produced, there have been a lot of changes. But looking back at the history of Sarah’s Vineyard, the single most important principle has been a consistent focus on making the best wine we can.
Our founder, Sarah (Marilyn “Sarah” Otterman), was relentless in her pursuit of the best wine she could possibly make and was groundbreaking in this region with her efforts. I like to think that I’ve been able to continue that tradition, and our current recognition in the major wine press reflects that ongoing focus.
Times change, people change, technology changes. But as long as we maintain that focus on making the best wine we possibly can, we’ll continue to do well.
What makes Sarah’s different than the other Santa Clara Valley wineries?
That’s not an easy question to answer, especially with so many new high-quality wineries opening up in our area, and with such a diversity among the older wineries. I suppose the simplest answer is, we’re the only Burgundy house in the area — our focus is on the noble grapes of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Oh, many local wineries make a Chardonnay, and a few make a Pinot Noir, but Sarah’s focuses on these grapes to a much greater extent, with five different Pinots and four Chardonnays every vintage.
We also have a pretty large estate vineyard — 25 acres — which lets us closely control the quality of the grapes. Our location at the foot of Mount Madonna, close to a pass that floods our property with morning ocean fog and cool afternoon wind for most of the summer, is perfect for these grapes that give their finest expression when grown in a cool climate.
What is Sarah’s best known for? Do you have a winery mascot?
Outside the local area, we’re best known for our wines, of course. But in the local area, probably the comment that I hear the most are questions about the dogs. How are the dogs? Where are the dogs? Do you still have that crazy dog? That sort of thing. I’ve always been a dog lover, and for many years we had a wide variety of different dogs hanging out in the tasting room — either my own, or an employee’s, or the dogs of neighbors or friends. We’ve been encouraging people to bring dogs here when they visit for 15 years and always have clean water bowls out for our four-pawed visitors. Just please keep them on a leash folks — and no barking dogs inside!
Live music is another well-known theme here, but that’s getting pretty common in the local winery scene. One of Sarah’s famous sayings was “Wine is Music from the Vineyard.” We’ve taken that to heart since 2004. Almost every event we hold here has live music, and for more than 10 years we’ve hosted a Friday night summer music series free to the public.
Where do you see Sarah’s in the next five years? And then in the next 40?
I’ve never thought that far ahead. But naturally I hope to continue to slowly grow the same way we’ve been growing during the last 10 years. We have a large, very loyal local following that has slowly expanded from its roots in Gilroy/Morgan Hill into Silicon Valley and beyond. I’m looking forward to making more wine every year to sell across the country.
But in the larger sense, we do have an ongoing mission here at Sarah’s Vineyard. We want to be the best winery on California’s Central Coast. We want to have the best customer service, friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable. And we want to be highly regarded for the quality of our wine, and sought after by wine lovers from coast to coast. That’s the simple goal. So, please come back and ask me how our progress has been five years from now.
What is your favorite wine to drink?
Lately in the warm spring afternoons it’s a Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t make a Sauvignon Blanc myself and have to buy it at the store, but at this time of year I tend to eat a lot of salads and seafood and Sauvignon Blanc is perfect for that. From our own winery, I’ve really been enjoying our 2016 Viognier. That’s a white wine with aromas of peach and apricot, and I think we make a really good one that’s perfect with a seared scallop or a grilled shrimp.
What is the best wine you’ve made so far?
Our 2015 Estate Pinot Noir was recently given a 93 by Wine Spectator Magazine, so naturally I’m thinking of that wine first. But we started making small lots of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2011, and our 2015 Cabernet is really fantastic. It’s just been put into bottle and we hope to release it early next year. It’s going to really turn a lot of heads. Come back in 2019 and give it a try.
What made you get into the wine business and want to be an owner and winemaker?
That’s a bit of a funny story. In the year 2000, I was still working as a scientist in Silicon Valley, developing optical micro components for the telecommunications industry. I met Sarah while I was looking for a weekend getaway, and right as she was starting to think about retiring. After a while she let me buy her place, and at the time I was thinking the winery would be a weekend hobby.
For several years I was still working in engineering, but in 2003 the dot-com bust finally caught up with us, and our entire division was tossed out. So at that moment I became a winery guy.
The wine industry is full of these stories. It’s a fun occupation and people from all walks of life fall into the biz in different ways. It’s really an industry of kooks and dreamers and mavericks, and that’s a big part of the fun.
Whenever I meet people in the wine biz, sometime in the first five minutes I’m asking them, “so what did you do before this?” And you never know what the answer’s going to be.
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