Wednesdays with Winemakers – Chuck McKahn 6 min read
Chuck McKahn has been Winemaker at Wm. Harrison since January of 2016. He was raised in the sleepy almond farming community of Ripon, CA and a keen interest in winemaking and viticulture led him to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he graduated in 2011.
Shortly after graduation he made the pilgrimage to the Napa Valley to work for the Chappellet family as a harvest intern. Hard work and a lot of luck kept him at Chappellet after the 2011 harvest to be their Enologist, and eventually their Assistant Winemaker. Prior to Chappellet he interned for McManis Family Vineyards and Tolosa Winery.
He lives in Napa with his beautiful wife, Brittany.
Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?
When I was 15, I decided to cook Sunday dinner for my grandparents, parents, and my girlfriend. I whipped up a pretty tasty Spanish pork casserole dish out of my mom’s Mediterranean cookbook. I wasn’t of drinking age but I mustered the courage to ask my mom if I could open a bottle of wine to pair with my culinary masterpiece and she said yes. I flipped through the wine fridge and chose a 1997 Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon. Without getting her approval, I opened the bottle, poured myself a small glass and buried my nose in it. It was exceptional and even for a 15-year-old I could tell this wasn’t cheap wine. I heard a deep sigh behind me and found my mother staring at me in disbelief that I had chosen one of her prized bottles. Steven Mirassou had given it to her as a parting gift when she left Wente in 2000. It was a moment of clarity for me though. Right then, I understood the allure of quality and I knew I had to be a winemaker.
If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?
A college history or classics professor. Indiana Jones was a childhood hero of mine and history was my strongest subject in school.
What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?
My greatest strength is my willingness to experiment and try new ideas. I think a lot of people think the secret to winemaking is to do less but that holds them back in a lot of ways.
What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?
Evaluating a vineyard. I work on that most throughout the year and I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. “Winemaking starts in the vineyard” seems like a tired cliché and marketing slogan now, but it’s true. The more a winemaker knows about vineyard management and viticulture, the better they will ultimately be at winemaking.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
I once pumped the wrong wine into a blend. It was the most embarrassing moment of my career and I was sure I was going to get fired. The boss let me off the hook, and the blend ended up tasting really nice. It was the luckiest day of my professional life.
What is your proudest achievement?
Starting McKahn Family Cellars with my parents and wife. It’s been a lifelong dream to own my own wine brand and now we have it.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
It would have to be 2011, the first of my five harvests at Chappellet on Pritchard Hill. I showed up to my first day of work with a big smile on my face, ready to learn how serious wine was made, only to find the bosses depressed because the vintage was turning out to be not so great. 2011 is infamous now as a poor vintage but we made some really nice wines. It was a cold year and it rained hard in the middle of harvest but we were luckier than most.
What is your favorite word? Saying?
“That’s what I do. I drink and I know things…” – Tyrion from Game of Thrones
What is your most prized possession?
My books. Collecting books is one of my many vices.
Great wines have an otherness to them. - Chuck McKahn
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I sing to my cat “Madame Bovary.” She loves it. She thinks I’m a star.
What song best sums you up?
“Juicy” by the Notorious BIG. “It’s all good baby, bay-bay…”
What is your favorite memory?
My wife and I just had our wedding and honeymoon in Maui, Hawaii. The whole trip is my favorite memory.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
My sense of smell. Smells trigger the most concise memories I have more than other senses. I can remember what my great grandmother’s apartment smelled like better than remembering what color the paint was in her kitchen.
What is your biggest motivation?
To make Syrah popular again. Syrah and Rhône varietals in general have played third fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for a while now. It’s my favorite varietal and I am determined to make people understand its greatness.
Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
If I can be stranded with an ice bucket as well, Clos Cazal and Brocard Pierre Champagne. My wife and I are both big sparkling wine fans and those two Champagnes are our current favorites. They’ve ruined the more affordable sparklings for us.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
Complexity. Any wine that is well-made and fault free is good in my opinion. Great wines have an otherness to them.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with?
Anthony Bourdain, Chris Cosentino, and Joe Rogan. Cosentino would be doing the cooking of course.
Who is your winemaking hero?
Bernabe Martinez, the Cellar Master at Chappellet. Thank God he’ll be retired before robots take over cellar work because he is the John Henry of cellar workers. It could be raining Cabernet like the napalm scene in Apocalypse Now and he would still have a smile on his face. His favorite phrase is, “Easy.” He’s a hero now, but someday he will be a legend. A lot of cellars have a guy like Bernabe around and the wine industry wouldn’t be the same without them.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
No one attribute or character stands out above the rest. The aroma should be as good as the palate, the acidity and tannin should be able to coexist, the oak shouldn’t mask the fruit, etc. Everything has its place and the end result should be greater than the sum of its parts.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
I want the last glass in the bottle to be irresistible. If someone doesn’t want one more glass after that, I have failed them. I want them to remember that they were a little wistful when the bottle was empty.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
All the time I hear customers say, “I normally hate…” a certain varietal, “But this is awesome!” It feels great when I can show someone that it’s usually not the varietal’s fault that they “normally hate” it.