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In this episode of “Next Round” VinePair CEO and co-founder Adam Teeter discusses the new collaboration between Sonoma-Cutrer and Woodford Reserve, which have teamed up to produce a bourbon-barrel-aged Pinot Noir. While Woodford Reserve has experimented with a Pinot Noir-barrel-aged bourbon as well as another bourbon aged in Chardonnay barrels, this is Sonoma-Cutrer’s first time aging a Pinot in bourbon barrels.

Sonoma-Cutrer‘s Pinot Noir winemaker, Zidanelia Arcidiacono, and Woodford Reserve’s assistant master distiller, Elizabeth McCall, who oversaw the project, discuss how this Pinot stands up to other bourbon-barrel-aged red blends of the past. Arcidiacono notes that Pinot Noir is the only red variety grown at Sonoma-Cutrer, and that the Russian River Valley wine region lends a particular structure and flavor to the wine. McCall builds on this, linking the decision to age the Pinot Noir in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels back to similar tasting notes between the two. She references the red berry notes and spice profiles found in both flavors, and says the collaboration brought together a “superb wine” and “the most superb bourbon whiskey out there.”

Arcidiacono and McCall also discuss how Covid-19 affected production at both Sonoma-Cutrer and Woodford Reserve. With Sonoma-Cutrer taking steps to ensure a safe harvest and Woodford Reserve establishing new safety protocols for the distillery team, both companies have seen their share of stress from the pandemic. That said, sales for both the Pinot Noir and all Woodford Reserve bourbon have remained steady if not improved, so fans should be sure to secure a bottle before they sell out.

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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re having these conversations in addition to our weekly podcast episodes in order to give listeners a better picture on how the Covid-19 crisis has been affecting the entire business. Today, I’m really lucky to be speaking with two amazing women in the beverage industry: Zidanelia Arcidiacono, the winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer, and Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. Ladies, thank you so much for joining me.

Zidanelia: Thank you, Adam.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

A: And Zidanelia, I hope I didn’t butcher your name.

Z: Oh, no, you did a great job.

A: So we’re going to talk about a few things, but obviously what brings us together is that you have a joint project you’re working on, which is a Russian River Valley Woodford Reserve barrel-finished Pinot Noir, which I’m super interested in talking about how that came about, and the reason for that is obviously we’ve seen a lot of red blends in bourbon barrels in the past. I’m curious if we could just talk through what the decision was to do a Pinot in barrel, and then also how the two of you collaborate together, that would be amazing.

Z: Well, from the winery side, this category has been very popular lately and of course we’ve seen, as you mentioned, many red blends. At Sonoma-Cutrer, we only have Pinot Noir. That’s our red variety here. And we thought, what a great idea if we could make it work, and actually we have full access to Woodford barrels. So that will actually enhance the quality of this bourbon-aged Pinot Noir. And so that’s when we started the conversation with Woodford Reserve, which we have done things in the past, but it was the opposite way. I haven’t had the chance to taste it, but Elizabeth, she mentioned that it was delicious. You have the chance to try it, right Elizabeth?

E: Yeah. So we did a masters collection with the Pinot Noir-finished back in 2014, and we actually did a Chardonnay finish in 2007. So we’ve had a good partnership with Sonoma for quite a few years.

Z: Yeah. So when we decided to do it the opposite way, and knowing that we have high-quality barrels, where high-quality bourbon is being aged, and then being able to put our Pinot Noir to be finished in this bourbon barrel. So I think we were able to get the right balance for such a delicate variety as Pinot Noir. So something that may seem a little crazy at the beginning actually came out great. And it was part of this wonderful partnership that we have, being able to work together in order to achieve the balance that we wanted.

A: Interesting, and so where did the decision come to do this in the first place? Were you looking at research? Were consumers of the Pinots asking for this? I get that the brands are owned by the same company, but I’d love to understand essentially as a winemaker what were you trying to achieve from the bourbon barrels? And were you looking at any data or talking to any consumers to make you feel comfortable that this was a wine that would be received well?

Z: Yeah, we’ve gotten a lot of great comments about other bourbon-aged wine, so we liked the idea. We were just a little concerned about Pinot Noir in bourbon barrels, but it’s something that we do every year. We like to come up with new products to keep our consumers excited. And this was one of those ideas. And it was just a matter of how to manage it. So actually, we started earlier, before the 2018 release, which is the winemaker’s release, just trying to see if we could make it work, and we got great results since the beginning. At the beginning, it was only sold at the tasting room, and people loved it. All those bottles sold out very quickly because of the great response from the public. They loved the impact. They loved the balance. They loved that they could have some of this bourbon flavor also with their Pinot Noir. So in 2018, we decided to make it our winemaker selection, and make a batch that was a little larger, so more people could have access, too.

A: OK. So I totally understand that the Pinot Noir is something that you decide to do based on talking to consumers and thinking about it. What impact does the bourbon give the Pinot? Just because I always think of Pinot as such a delicate wine. I’m curious, does the bourbon overpower the Pinot? Is it almost too strong in a way? Or what kind of Pinot Noir has to go into the barrel? ‘Cause I’ve had the bourbon barrel-aged red blends and things like that, those red blends are so ripe and juicy and big. I can understand how they’re standing up, but for a Pinot, which I always think of as being so delicate and light. So what style of the wine were you looking for? What ripeness of the grapes, in order to make sure that it could handle that burden?

Z: Yeah, well actually, Pinot Noir it’s a variety that, depending on the grower region, you will have different styles. There’s the very delicate Pinot Noirs from cooler regions. There are more concentrated Pinot Noirs from other places, and we’re in the Russian River Valley. So, we’re capable of capturing a Pinot Noir that has really good intensity, has tons of spices that complement the bourbon barrels very well or the bourbon barrels actually complement the Pinot Noir very well. So we have a medium to a little more intense structure to begin with. So we’re not the very light [Pinot] that could [make] the bourbon barrels a little overwhelming, but I think what was key for us, was the partnership with Woodford Reserve. We knew the type of Pinot Noir we had. We knew it could stand up to the bourbon barrel — the intensity of that bourbon barrel. But in order to achieve that, we needed to have full control of how the barrels came here, when they came here and since, we talked with Elizabeth in this case, when those bourbon barrels were shipped to Sonoma, when we were filling them and for how long. So with Pinot, we had to manage also the time that this Pinot spent in barrels. So pretty much the Pinot Noir that you will be tasting that’s been aged in bourbon barrels is the same one that you can taste in the Russian River Valley without the bourbon. So you can taste side by side what the difference is. For me, I had to think about this bourbon-finished Pinot Noir as a completely new product. And just forget about that comparison and just let myself just enjoy it for what it is. Yes, you’ll lose some of the more fruity characters, the more volatile aromas, but you will gain this richness in this vanilla intensity. Dry fruits coming from the bourbon barrel. So the way I started enjoying it is just letting myself enjoy it as a new product, as something new and different from the regular Pinot Noir line.

A: So do you see this as a product that will bring new people into Pinot Noir or new people into wine? I know we’ve thought about that with the bourbon-barrel-aged red blends in the past, and you attract a bourbon drinker who may not have experienced drinking wine before but is interested. Is that the same idea? But with someone who may want a Pinot as opposed to that red blend, ‘cause the bourbon-barrel-aged red blends can almost sometimes taste, as we were chatting about before we started the recording, the Goose Island Bourbon County Stouts, right? They can be big and thick. And so I’m really curious, obviously it sounds like it makes a little bit of a lighter style, with the same idea that as you said, it’s a different product. It’s a product innovation, but as a way to bring new people into the category. Is that how you see it?

Z: Well, I think it’s a new proposition. I think there’s people that think Pinot Noir, again, it’s always going to be very light. And this is a way of showing no, we can do more things also with Pinot Noir, but of course, you will have your loyal just Pinot Noir wine drinkers, and they can also taste it and see that there’s another product that can be done with Pinot Noir. So I think, yes, we are attracting some people, and I want Elizabeth to actually touch on this because, what she thought as a more knowledgeable bourbon drinker tasting now the Pinot Noir being aged. Elizabeth, can you share that with us?

A: I’m curious, too, Elizabeth when this project came up, were you thinking about the barrels you wanted to send to Sonoma? Had you thought about, “OK, well maybe it’d be bourbon that had been aged in the barrel for 10 years or 15 years.” Or what went through your process as well as this collaboration came to fruition?

E: Well for me, I mean going back to the Chardonnay release that we did in 2007 was one that I didn’t have the opportunity to taste because that was before I was with Brown-Forman. But I did have the pleasure of tasting, and having just started my role as master taster with Woodford Reserve in 2014, with the Pinot Noir finish. I love the Pinot Noir finish, our Woodford Reserve Bourbon finished in Pinot Noir barrels. And so I had that base to go off of for the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot finished in Woodford Reserve barrels. And so I had that going, and I knew that it was such a brilliant idea. I loved it for our bourbon. And so I knew it would only play well with the Pinot Noir. And the reason why I had that feeling other than tasting, was we have a strong philosophy when it comes to Woodford Reserve barrel finishing. And our philosophy is that we’re only going to finish Woodford Reserve in barrels that already contain flavor notes that exist in our bourbon or one of our other whiskeys. So for the Pinot Noir, those beautiful berry notes, that spice character, lots of herbs, savoriness that is in the Pinot Noir, the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, it’s a really robust Pinot. And so it played really nicely for us to finish our bourbon in because we have spice, we have red berry notes. We have those savory and herbaceous characteristics in Woodford Reserve. So by finishing Woodford Reserve in that, in the Pinot Noir barrel, we just further enhanced those notes in our bourbon. And so I knew that. With Z and working with Sonoma, putting their Pinot Noir in our bourbon barrel, it would only play nicely with the barrel with the flavor notes they have in their Pinot Noir and elevate them. So when we did the tasting side by side the other night, I mean, it was the best tasting. You’ve got Pinot Noir, which is the most superb wine. And then we had Woodford Reserve, which I think is the most superb bourbon whiskey out there. And tasting everything, you really could see those differences, and it wasn’t a major shift. It was just such a subtle difference from seeing the spice first to then you see more of those vanilla notes that Woodford Reserve has. And some of those toasted oak characteristics really layered nicely on the Pinot Noir, and it wasn’t overwhelming, and it was just a nice shift to the mouthfeel, and also just the overall aroma flavor. It was really awesome.

A: Cool. So that makes sense. So I’m interested when you had the decision to make this wine, obviously it was pre-Covid. How has Covid impacted the release of this wine, in terms of your plans for this wine? Has it at all? What has happened for both of you and just your normal day to day making Pinot Noirs, normal Pinot Noirs, as well as Woodford Reserve bourbon, and dealing with that in the shadow of this pandemic?

Z: Well for us, the product actually got released before the pandemic. I think people continue to order and people were excited about the product, so we continued to sell it. But now, how it changed here in the winery: Well we finished harvest mid-September, so the challenge started much earlier in “how are we going to manage this situation here at the winery?” And working with a perishable product is, you can’t just go, right? We need to be here. We need to be taking care of the wine, but we put in place a very strong protocol also, of when we come in, who comes in, working in groups that can be isolated, also, in order to try to minimize any chance of contact with Covid. And also in our team, whoever was able to stay at home, let’s say from admin, they did. So they’re currently also working from home. And we only kept the core group here that need to come to take care of the wine. So during harvest, it was just a matter of keeping our team safe, making sure we were following cleaning protocols. And so we’ve been fortunate to be out of that time when we have most of our people here, and just past harvest and being all healthy. So we’re very thankful, but yes it was completely a different way of going about harvest for us.

A: Elizabeth how about you?

E: For us, let’s see. Well, going into quarantine back in March. The last time I was at the distillery at that time was March 7th. And then we got the news where it was just, OK, similar to Sonoma where only essential production workers were to be on site. And then we shifted, we stopped all specialty products that we were working on so that Chris Morris and I didn’t need to be there. It was just the core group. We have our distillery operators and processing operators and the bottling operators. So just operations were there and getting their health screenings prior to coming on shift. And then we put a mandatory 15 to 30 minutes in between each shift, so that all equipment could be cleaned and keep each shift isolated. So Chris Morris and I did not go to the distillery during that time. But at the distillery, we continued operating under those circumstances. All non-essential workers were asked to work remotely just to keep everyone as safe as possible and cut down as much interaction between people. And so we continued producing bourbon, and man, our bourbon, our sales — people are enjoying their Woodford Reserve during Covid. And we have seen a great shift in the 1.75-liter sales. So people are now buying in bulk. They’re buying in bulk, and I love seeing it. It was just so great when we started reviewing everything, and it was like, “Oh my gosh, people are loyal.” They know Woodford Reserve is good. They know it’s going to always satisfy, and so they just figure, “Why buy the 750-milliliter when I can buy a 1.75 at a better cost value?” So we’ve seen a huge shift in that. So our team is going strong, and our team at the distillery has kicked butt. I can’t say anything bad about that team — they’re amazing. And I actually was pregnant, and I’ve had a baby and been on maternity leave. So during three months of that time, I was just at home with my little one, but things stayed the course. We shifted to a lot of virtual tastings, our personal selection program where you can do your own batch of Woodford Reserve has been shifted to virtual, so we’ve got the team out there pulling samples and mailing out samples to people. And Chris Morris has been doing that, and I’m starting to get back into it now that I’m back to work, and so we’ve just kept on going full steam ahead. It just looks a little different than it was. So we haven’t — knock on wood — seen any Covid issues at our distillery, because we’ve got really good practices in place. Since coming back to work, I have been back out to the distillery, but I try to limit it. And also just making sure I’m doing all the health screenings to keep our team safe. Because the last thing we want to have happen is get someone sick and then have to shut down operations. People need their bourbon, they need their Woodford.

A: That makes a ton of sense. I mean, for both of you with what you’re dealing with I think it makes a lot of sense, where people are still consuming, and as long as we’re able to produce the liquid safely, that’s a good thing. I really appreciate you both taking the time to join me today to not only chat about the Pinot, but also chat about how the business has changed a little bit under Covid. So thank you both so much. Please take care.

E: Awesome. Thank you, Adam.

Z: Thank you.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again right here next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity

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