Wine 101: Interview With Talbott Vineyards’ Head Winemaker Kamee Knutson

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers sits down with Kamee Knutson, head winemaker at Talbott Vineyards, and talks about the wines, the tasting room, and the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, one of the U.S.’s legacy wine spots. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: Kamee Knutson, thank you so much for hanging out with me here at “Wine 101.” And I want to tell all of our listeners that you and I, we just hung out. And you are, right now, at Talbott, because you are the head winemaker at Talbott. And while we were there at Talbott Vineyards, we were watching a harvest in motion. And I want to ask you how you’re doing.

Kamee Knutson: You were just here and things have changed a lot in just a few days since we’ve seen each other. So I’m doing very well.

KB: Awesome.

KK: I’m a little bit sleep deprived because the harvest has kicked into full effect and we are about 40 percent through our harvest just since we saw you. So things ramped up very quickly.

KB: Wow. You’re 40 percent through?

KK: Yes.

KB: And how long do you think you have to go?

KK: Wishful thinking is, I’d love to be done by Halloween. But typically we go into November but this has been a very quick harvest. So I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that maybe I can dress up as a finished bottle of wine for Halloween.

KB: You could be a decanter and just let it breathe, man. Just breathe.

KK: I love that.

KB: Well that’s awesome. And that’s one thing I love hearing — to hear about the length of a harvest. I like hearing that because in the wine world, we always say, everything starts in the vineyard. And the amount of work that happens in the vineyard is pretty insane. And the fact that we were there, I think, a week ago and you’re 40 percent in,  [and] you won’t be done until Halloween. That gives everyone a sense of how much work it is to make great wine. You really have a lot of work ahead of you. And then, you go into the amazing facility that we were able to see. And speaking of that facility, we had a chance to come to Monterey and meet you and meet a lot of people on the Talbott team. And we were actually very fortunate to go to the Talbott Tasting Room, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is a stunning little town. It’s absolutely amazing. And we did some video shooting; it was awesome. I cannot wait for the whole thing to come out. And that video was us basically saying, “Hey, this is a great tasting room. This is where Talbott is represented. This is a place where you can experience these awesome wines. The history is here and all this stuff. There’s a view of the sea. It is absolutely amazing.” And that video’s going to be very cool and everyone’s going to look at it and be like, “This is amazing. I’m going to Carmel.” So I want to talk to you about the wine. How’s that?

KK: Let’s do it. I love talking about wine.

KB: So I want to talk about Monterey first because I know that there’s a lot of people listening that probably know where Monterey is, but there are people that don’t. So let’s start off with: Where are you? So Talbott Tasting Room is in Carmel-by-the-Sea, an absolutely beautiful place, but where is Monterey?

KK: So Monterey is on the Central Coast. We are just about halfway in between San Francisco and Los Angeles, maybe just slightly north of the halfway point. And Talbott Estates, the winery, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, we are about 20 miles south of Monterey. So we’re just a little bit inland. We are actually in a highly agricultural area that is called the salad bowl of the United States. So lots of agriculture grown here — salads, broccoli, asparagus, you name it. It is all on the flats of this area that we’re in. And then, up on the hills, near the Santa Lucia Highlands mountains, is where Talbott Estates and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard are located.

KB: And this is really amazing because I’ve talked to my listeners a lot about California and these wind gaps that are in California. And you find a lot of vines where wind gaps are and you also find some produce. And this particular wind gap, this goes straight into what’s called the Salinas Valley, correct?

KK: That is correct. And it runs right along the Salinas River.

KB: Yeah, an underground river, which is an amazingly fascinating thing to even just contemplate. There is a river underground; it’s called the Salinas River. And when you’re looking at the Salinas Valley, which is amazing, because you’re looking at basically, like you said, the salad bowl, every vegetable, it’s all there. It’s this huge, huge valley. And then you look to, if you’re in the valley and you look towards the Pacific, you see those Santa Lucia Highlands and it’s pretty stunning to see that. What we’re looking at is the hills of a wine region that was only realized, I think, like you said, I think it was in Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, which is the vineyard that you actually maintain and work with, is one of the first vineyards in the area to prove that wine could be made here. It’s in the northern part of the AVA, is that right?

KK: That’s correct. So Sleepy Hollow Vineyard was planted in 1972 and it was one of the first vineyards planted in Santa Lucia Highlands. But the AVA of Santa Lucia Highlands actually didn’t get established until 1991.

KB: Ah, that’s it.

KK: So we have been growing grapes in this area long before the AVA was established. And the Santa Lucia Highlands growing region is actually 18 miles long. And Talbott sits at the northernmost point of that Santa Lucia Highlands growing region. So we are the coolest and northernmost part of the growing region, which is what makes our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so spectacular.

KB: I know, we were sitting in Sleepy Hollow Vineyard — standing, not sitting — we could have been sitting, but we decided to stand. And the minute we got into that vineyard, it was breezy. When people say there’s wind in the vineyards and it really helps the vineyards, you don’t really get it until you’re in the vineyard and the wind begins. Because Paso Robles is just south and something about the wind drawing from Paso? Or into Paso?

KK: Yeah. So Paso Robles sits… we’re about an hour-and-20-minute drive north of Paso Robles. And Paso Robles in this time of year can very often get up to 100-plus degrees. But Monterey and Santa Lucia Highlands, where Talbott sits, rarely get above the mid-80s. And because we sit so close, just 20 miles south of Monterey Bay, what happens is, in the afternoon, that hot air from Paso Robles really starts to draw the cool air from the northern county, Monterey County, south. And so, we draw in all of that cool breeze from Monterey Bay and we get these steady 6 to 13 mile per hour winds every single afternoon. You can almost set your clock by it. And that is what really creates these Central Coast diurnal shifts. So less of a shift in Monterey, because we only get to about 85 degrees during the day and we’ll get down to the low 50s at night. But in Paso, it will be 110 degrees during the day and 40 degrees at night. So we get these huge temperature swings.

KB: Hence the perfect spot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

KK: Absolutely. It gives us a really long ripening season because we cool down at night, and those vines are able to rest and rejuvenate for the next day’s temperatures. And so, it draws out our growing season and we’re able to develop these really concentrated, layered flavors in our grapes as well as preserving the acidity that’s there because we have these long, cool nights. So we get a big punch of fruit in our wines, with really lively acidity and we’re able to tease out all of these different nuanced flavors by the way we ferment our wines.

KB: And what’s really exciting, I think, about the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard and specifically Pinot Noir. I want to talk about Chardonnay as well, but being on the East Coast, I had a wine shop for a little while and I bought and sold Pinot Noir from Monterey. And what I find amazing is that, because the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard was one of the proving grounds for what would become the Santa Lucia Highlands, and in my mind, I feel like there’s a specific style of Pinot Noir from Monterey that sets itself apart from anywhere else in the country, if not the world. And it all began at Sleepy Hollow and it’s just this wonderful high, like you said, it has high acid, that punchy fruit, and there’s a little bit of cinnamon somewhere in there sometimes, and your classic cherry and stuff like that. It’s an absolutely wonderful American Pinot Noir style. And you guys started it there.

KK: Yeah. And the other thing that you get is, we surprisingly have a decent amount of tannins, again because of that longer growing season. And so, what that does is, it creates a lot of mouthfeel that we can play with, but it also really lends itself well to our wines aging really well in bottle.

KB: Right, I was wondering about that. So do you have an idea of the age-ability of Pinot Noir from Monterey, specifically the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard?

KK: Yeah, I think it really depends on the producer and how everybody is making their wines. And our wines, here at Talbott, will have a varying range of ages because we have some that are lighter-bodied and more fruit-forward. And then we have our Fidelity, which is our big, special Pinot Noir that is an estate, hand-picked. We pick the best barrels and we really produce this reserve-style Pinot Noir. So anywhere from drink now on our lighter bodied Pinots, up to 10, 15 years in the bottle, sometimes plus that, depending on the vintage and how everything was fermenting and bottled. There’s vintage variation from year to year. But we have a fantastic wine cage here at Talbott, where we have wines from the very first vintage that Talbott ever produced. So we are still tasting the wines and it’s one of those really special things you get to do as a winemaker, is continue to taste through your winemaker library. And you’re always surprised by, wow, this wine is 20 years old and it’s still tasting fantastic.

KB: That’s amazing. How big is this vineyard? The Sleepy Hollow Vineyard?

KK: So Sleepy Hollow is 565 planted acres, and that is a mixture of vine age. So we really had some of our original vines up until last year, and we’re continuing to really watch the vineyard grow and as blocks are maybe aging out and struggling, we’re going back and replanting those blocks and looking at the history of Talbott and what are the proper clones to put back in here to really honor our past, all while looking to the future.

KB: That’s awesome.

KK: Part of stewarding a vineyard of this age and this history is, how do we keep it going? And so, sustainability is one of our big things here at Sleepy Hollow.

KB: Very cool.

KK: So making sure that we’re really watching how we’re applying water, watching soil moisture probes, and making sure that we’re only watering when necessary. Giving back to the soil, putting on compost, and really nurturing the soil, cover crops. All of our water at the winery is processed and then used again as irrigation out in the vineyard.

KB: I saw that. Very nice.

KK: So yeah, we’re really trying to leave this vineyard better than we found it and keep it producing year after year and just continuing to get better at it each year.

KB: Oh my gosh, that sounds amazing. And it sounds like it’s just another, or the newest chapter, in what I would consider an awesome American story. Because if anybody on Instagram has been following me lately, I did a history of American wine on “Wine 101,” and it hit me. In 2019, I was in Paso Robles and I had never been there before and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. Why aren’t we talking more about American wine?” And what I love about American wine is, we are a young country, but we have amazing stories, American stories of how we do wine. And I think Talbott is one of those. I guess it’s almost the definition of an American wine story, where you have a family that was in the clothing business, they were sort of high-end tie makers, and with a dream to make wine. And it started there. And then from the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s, and then it became an AVA. And then, the wonderful thing about wine in America is, we continue to evolve and we continue to change. And I think right now, personally for me, I think we are in a very exciting moment in American wine with new generations of winemakers coming on and putting their stamp on the history of wine in this country. And I feel like you, Kamee, have just come on board to Talbott, and I’m very excited to see what you’re doing. Two things are very exciting. Number 1 is that Talbott has a line of wines from both varieties and they are all very different from each other, that you get to actually enjoy wine from one vineyard, in different styles, which is really amazing. And the other exciting thing is that you guys have just brought on a sparkling white wine and a rosé. And I find that this is all part of this newness and it’s just so fun to watch a legacy producer, a legacy name like Talbott, move into this new generation. And I was wondering, with these wines, what kind of approach are you taking to bring Talbott into the next generation?

KK: I love everything you just said. We are producing newer-style wines, but the great thing is that we’re looking to our past to guide us. So exactly what you said, American winemaking, but really steeped in the past. So the Talbott family came here in the 1950s, but they were huge fans of Burgundy. And so, they were really liking the area as to how similar the growing conditions were in Burgundy. And so, there really was that looking to the past, to create something new. And we are still doing that today. So we only produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and we look at the history of Talbott and what has been produced here before. We have three different vineyards on Sleepy Hollow. So there’s Sleepy Hollow North, West, and South. And each of those creates different flavors and each of those vineyards can be explored, block by block, to create new wines. And so, this area is a world-renowned area for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Our cool climate, the area that we’re located in, the soils, and how close we are to the ocean, all provide this really unique climate and flavor profile. And so, we have doubled down on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And how do you keep that fresh? You keep it fresh by really exploring the vineyard and what are the different expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that Sleepy Hollow can offer us? And so, we have lighter-bodied Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs in our block-specific, estate blends, which are exclusive to the tasting room. And then, we have bolder expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from different blocks that might just be across the lane, in the same vineyard. And then, how else do you start to express this vineyard? You look at a rosé of Pinot noir, you look at earlier picks of Chardonnay so that we can create this beautiful bottle of California bubbles off of Sleepy Hollow — and all of these wines I just mentioned are exclusive to our tasting room —and so then you talk about Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is where the Talbott clothing store was first started and the family had always wanted a tasting room over there. And we opened that in 2020. And so, you sit in this jewel box of a tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea and you taste all of these Sleepy Hollow exclusive wines, and you really can run through every expression of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And I say every expression — that’s every expression today, but we are looking at every year. How do we continue to improve this? And every year, is there a block that is developing as it ages that is creating new flavor profiles that we want to go explore and offer to all of our tasting room members?

KB: See, this is what I also love about American wine. Sometimes we have to travel and go to the thing, go to the place. And what I love about one thing, well the thing about wine is, not all wines are all over the market. There are some wines that the production is such that it needs to be experienced somewhere a little more specific. And that’s why I believe that the Talbott tasting room is an awesome place as a destination because if you’ve had Talbott out there in the world, I think you were telling us this at the winery, you’ve had Talbott out there in the world, that’s awesome. You’ve fallen in love with it. That’s great. Come to the tasting room and see the even more focused wines that they have. And also, there’s a wine club you can join because, like you said, if you’re learning every year and you’re evolving every year with what you’ve learned and you’re just a little bit here and a little bit there and maybe this vintage is going to be different. And the Fidelity is, by the way, if you just go for the Fidelity, that’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s only available there, and is block-specific as well. It’s an awesome thing to be able to sit down… and by the way, this is not your typical tasting room. This is a tasting room where you walk in, people say hi to you right away, and you don’t have to walk across a big room to a bar. Also, there are two really cool small bars there. But you walk in, take a right and there’s tables. This is one of the more unique tasting rooms in America, where you can actually sit down at a table and have a wine tasting experience that you would not be able to have at a bar, where you have somebody dedicated to your table to talk to you about every wine going through these wines. What’s really great about this is, if every year things change, that is an even better way of doing a tasting room, because that personalized service with the changes, for example, if you are a club member and you do go every other year or something like that or every year, you have somebody who’s going to guide you through what’s new from Talbott, with what you, Kamee, have made.

KK: Our tasting room is the best experience, I think. Like you said, it’s quite small. It’s intimate. It’s indoor/outdoor. It has a very small café and Carmel-by-the-Sea feel. And you go in and you have a one-on-one experience with our tasting room staff. So you sit down at a table, and you can choose from a variety of flights. We have three different flights. Our Estate Flight, which is two Chardonnays and two Pinot Noirs that are grown on the estate; our Signature Flight, which actually is customizable, so you can sit down and choose five different wines that you want to taste, and our host will sit down and guide you through every single wine; and then my favorite, which I partake in, which is a little weird to say as the winemaker.

KB: You’re the winemaker. Yes, exactly.

KK: It’s our Legacy Flight. So you go through all of the Talbott wines, well five of them, but they’re each paired with a cheese from a local cheese shop. So you get to hear a little bit about the local food as you taste the Talbott wines. And the pairings are absolutely fantastic. Customers very often will leave, buy the wines, and go across the street to the cheese shop and buy the same cheeses, so that they can go home and do those pairings on their own.

KB: Yeah. Are you kidding?

KK: Did you miss out on that while you were here?

KB: Uh, yeah.

KK: We have to keep little nuggets so that you come back and see us again.

KB: Oh, that’s good. I’ll be back, absolutely. I also love that food. The Salinas Valley and the Monterey and the food interacting and the local food. “Grow together, go together” is great anywhere. But here, it also has a special meaning for this place specifically, because of where you are.

KK: Absolutely. And we’re sitting here talking about the tasting room and the exclusive wines, and people are going, “Well this is no fun. I’m never going to taste any of these Talbott wines unless I fly to Monterey.” But we do have two wines that are nationally distributed that you can find in fine wine retailers, which is our Talbott Kali Hart Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which is really where we started. And it is a spectacular wine and it’s readily available to anyone. It is my house wine, but it features two of our estate wineries, so Sleepy Hollow is very dominant in these blends. But then also, about 20 minutes south of Sleepy Hollow is Olson Ranch, and it’s even higher up in the slopes of Santa Lucia Highlands. And so, we have these beautiful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blends. And then, we also have our Sleepy Hollow Vineyard line of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that is also nationally distributed, and that is purely off of the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So you get to see two distinct wines and expressions of Talbott Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. That is the perfect teaser to get you to then come visit us and see all of the small-production, tasting-room-exclusive wines.

KB: And I feel like Chardonnay is getting jealous right now, because we haven’t talked about Chardonnay yet, but the Pinot Noir just has such a distinctness to it. It’s really great. And maybe you just riff a minute on Chardonnay from Sleepy Hollow, and I know Chardonnay is a very fun variety for winemakers to play with because it’s so malleable, is what you guys always say. And I know that there’s multiple styles from Talbott, but if there’s anything in general you’d like to talk about with the Chardonnay because it cannot be ignored.

KK: It cannot. Chardonnay is queen.

KB: Yes.

KK: And I have been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for over 20 years now. And so, I have really gotten to play with-

KB: Oh, wow. This is like a 20-year vintage.

KK: I know, it’s exciting. It’s like a milestone. I feel like I need a party. After the last fruit is in, we’ll celebrate. But I really have experienced Chardonnay from all over the Central Coast. And I joke, I’m sure that Chardonnay would not appreciate this, but I say that Chardonnay is like the tofu of the wine world. It really can become whatever we imagine it to be. So at Sleepy Hollow, it’s really about not messing with the Chardonnay and letting it express exactly what this vineyard presents in the fruit. And so, what does that look like? It is very bold fruit, like I said, very lively acidity, but with these really nuanced flavors. So our soils here are mostly sand. And so, there’s not a lot of water-holding capacity in our soils. And so, that stresses the vines, and stressing the vines is actually a good thing. Our clusters stay very small, the berries stay very small. We get these really concentrated flavors. And so, as you’re tasting through our Chardonnays, you can see in an earlier picked Chardonnay, something like our block-specific SH 50 Chardonnay is going to have much more lively acidity. There are some flinty and mineral notes there. We use some floral clones of Chardonnay in it. So there are little hints of jasmine and floral star fruit, yellow fruit, very bright, vibrant, fresh yellow fruit flavors, but a really creamy texture and mouthfeel. And then, as we move through our harvest and we get to these later harvests of Chardonnay, you start to get into these poached pear and baked apple fruit aromas. And then those are barrel fermented. And so you get these really lovely, creamy mouthfeel, brioche notes in the wines. And it is the same vineyard and blocks that might just be meters apart from each other, but there is such a wide diversity in the flavor profiles, that you can have a very zippy, fun, early Chardonnay and a very serious, creamy, textural, nuanced Chardonnay that was picked at the end of harvest.

KB: So it sounds like these Chardonnays, not only do they have a sense of place, but sense of places because it’s in multiple places in the vineyard and the different ripening, and that’s amazing. That’s what’s so exciting as someone who’s just a wine drinker. I’ve never made wine. That’s so exciting about Chardonnay and it’s exciting to hear, taking advantage of the sense of place and saying, “This area of our vineyard where the Chardonnay is, we’re going to let this Chardonnay do its thing here. And over here, we’re going to let it do its thing.” And this is what’s really cool is, when it’s all over, these are two different expressions of Chardonnay and whether you blend them or not, doesn’t matter. That’s why, when I say you go to the actual tasting room and you get to taste through these different styles and it’s actually, it’s amazing. And I will say that, if people do have Talbott, they will be online and they will be looking at the tasting room and they might just book that ticket and get going sooner than later, because when you’re tasting Talbott and you’re enjoying Talbott, there’s something about going to Carmel and seeing where all this happened and experiencing an American wine story, in real time, that is now evolving again and going through its next chapter, and it’s going to be even awesome-er — I made that word up — than it was before. Even though, before, it was just as awesome.

KK: Yeah, it’s very enticing. Not only visually, because it’s just a beautiful place to be and experience, but also just super pleasing to the palate, wonderful wines to taste through, and amazing food to enjoy in the area. And it really invites you to come and explore and stay a while. And I think that’s the best place to be in a wine region that really captures you and invites you to stay and explore.

KB: I cannot wait to come back. Kamee, thank you so much for taking the time. What are you doing talking to me? Aren’t you in harvest or something? Shouldn’t you be doing something? That’s crazy.

KK: I know.

KB: I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much.

KK: You’re very welcome. Thanks for chatting with me again, and hopefully we can entice you to come back out here and do one of the pairings and we’ll get you some local cheese and you can taste all the new things I’m doing with the wines this year.

KB: I cannot wait. Awesome. Thank you so much, Kamee.

KK: Thanks, Keith.

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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

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