Leaving aside qualitative descriptors better suited to critics such as Robert Parker, fill in the blank: Heidi Peterson Barrett makes ______ wine. "High-scoring" might be as good a guess as any; the aforementioned Parker awarded 100 points to her '92 and '93 productions of Dalla Valle's "Maya" and another pair of 100s to the '92 and '97 Cabernets from Screaming Eagle. "Cult" would do nicely; besides those two just-try-to-find-'em labels, she has made wine for Grace Family Vineyards and Vineyard 29. You could even try "a parade of" -- Screaming Eagle is just the start of her client list, which includes Showket, Paradigm, Lamborn Family, and Lynch, among others.
A more unlikely choice would be "bulk." Bulk wine is wine destined to be sent into the wine-producing world sans pedigree, where it is blended or simply repackaged by some other outfit, then sent to market. There is no shame in bulk -- Castle Rock has built a solid brand by buying and blending others' excess, and premium wineries are surely glad to have somewhere to go with juice they can't get rid of at their higher (image-mandated) price point. But if you're used to seeing your wines hailed as royalty, it can be disconcerting to see one headed down into the anonymous throng.
That was the situation Barrett faced in 1994. "One of my custom-crush clients wanted to make a little bit of Sangiovese," she explains, "and they hired me to make it for them. Then the client ran into a conflict-of-interest situation. The rest of the family owned another winery, and they said, 'You're either on your own or you stick with the family. '" The client stuck with the family and the wine was headed for bulkworld. "I thought, 'This is my chance. Why don't I buy it?' I went to the bank, got a loan, and within a month I had put the whole thing together -- came up with a name and a label, finished the blend, and got the thing bottled." She made La Sirena Sangiovese from '94 to '99, when the vineyard she bought fruit from was sold. In '96 she started producing Cabernet, the varietal that had made her famous, and 2000 saw her first Syrah.
"The Sangiovese was a good ride," she says, though she grants that "it probably wouldn't have been what I would have chosen to start with." I remember thinking it curious when I first heard about the wine. I wondered if the Cab queen was indulging a secret yen for less commercial varietals -- it's my label and I'll make Sangiovese if I want to. But if Sangiovese seemed odd, then imagine the befuddlement that struck a taster at Fat Tuesday's In Vino Unitas tasting, a tasting that saw Barrett standing behind a table at Baleen and pouring samples for the trade. The first thing she offered him was her Moscato Azul, a dry-style Muscat Canelli served from a cobalt-blue bottle.
"For dessert?" he queried, perhaps wondering why he was getting the last wine first.
"No, not necessarily," replied Barrett, smiling.
"As an aperitif?" he asked, perhaps thinking along the lines of Sauternes with foie gras.
"No, not necessarily," said Barrett, still smiling, before mentioning Pacific Rim, the go-to cuisine for rich white wines that offer a touch of sweetness to counter spice. The Moscato wasn't rich the way Sauternes is rich, however, or even like some Viognier. It was lighter, and its floral notes were more rose than honeysuckle. Unlike Sauternes, it was nearly dry, and it offered more acid than most Viogniers. "It doesn't even read as sweet," says Barrett. "It reads as more of a fruity character."
The Sangiovese was serendipitous; the Muscat was a deliberate experiment. "I just love the variety personally. It's something I would like to drink; I like how it has tropical, perfumey, floral qualities to it. I was also challenged by the fact that there aren't really very many Muscats made in a dry style, and I was wondering, 'Why not? Why can't you do it?'"
One reason you can't do it is because there isn't that much Muscat around these days. "I had been looking for five years," she recalls. Then, in autumn of 2003, "I was driving home from work and I saw that my neighbors were harvesting. I pulled over to chat -- and they were picking Muscat. I couldn't believe it; they were right in my neighborhood. I was sticking my head in the gondola full of grapes and the perfumey smell coming out of there... I was just, like, 'Oh, my gosh, I would love to get this.' Three days later, I picked a couple of tons."
The resulting experiment yielded about 125 cases of wine. "I sold out of it pretty quickly. People tasted it and loved the wine. So in '02 I crushed four tons instead of two, and now I've got about 250 cases. I named it Moscato Azul; 'Muscat Canelli' was too boring, and people wouldn't know if it was dry or sweet or what it was. So I named it something else, to draw attention to it. The bright cobalt-blue bottle is also something different. Then it says 'Dry Muscat Canelli' under Moscato Azul, so the customer can figure it out once they pick it up." When it comes to Muscat, even Heidi Barrett has to pay attention to marketing. And marketing is what brought her to San Diego.
In Vino Unitas is a small consortium of wineries, nearly all of which have always maintained a winery-direct sales policy -- no brokers, no distributors. For the past two years they have been touring California en masse, in what Barrett calls "a great way to showcase small wine producers in a more intimate setting. It's an efficient use of our time and resources -- to be able to see all of our accounts in one place. This was the first time I've done the Southern California tour, and I definitely made some new contacts, which is terrific. I'm still kind of building the brand, and it's really valuable for a small business to have direct contact with new accounts. It's hard for a little winery. You have to be efficient with your resources and just try to stay in business for the first few years."
That's hard even when you're a celebrity?
"It is. I think part of it is that people assume I'm sold out, so they don't even call. It's not the case -- so call! Ask, you know? I don't have trouble selling it, but I still need the contacts. I try not to put all my eggs in one basket. I try to sell as much as I can by mailing list, but consumers are finicky. They like to try whatever is the next hot thing. So I don't count on only mailing-list customers. The market changes," so it's wise to woo new fans through restaurant lists and shops. "It's easiest for me when people call and ask for the wine, and I say, 'I'd love to sell you some.' But you can't count on only that. You've got to go out and pound the pavement a little bit."