Winemaker Profile: Grant Coulter of Flâneur Wines
August special: We have magnums of Grant’s special Pinot Meunier and will be pouring it by the glass all month long! You can also find other selections from Flâneur Wines on our wine list.
We have been longtime fans of Flâneur Wines and their beautiful vintages. Although it takes a considerable staff to grow, harvest and make their wines every year, there’s one brave and talented man orchestrating it all: Grant Coulter. As Flâneur’s Director of Vineyards, Grant oversees the entire lifecycle of their products, from vine to bottle. Not only is he kind enough to share the fruits of his labor, but he also took a moment to share details about his personal story:
Arden: How did you get into wine?
Grant Coulter: I never really knew it could be a profession until later on in life. I eventually stumbled onto brewing and thought that was kind of interesting, but wine was way more up my alley. My mom’s family was in agriculture – cotton and livestock. I knew the farm life and I enjoyed that piece. I applied for a program at Fresno State, packed up everything I had and moved to Fresno, and got my degree. From there I really started to learn, and went out into the world and started making wines with people. I eventually made my way north to Oregon because that’s where I wanted to be. I had been in California and Australia before, and realized the Pacific Northwest was the place. So my fiancé and I moved here in ‘06, and I worked for Eric Hamacher and then Beaux Frères for a decade. This is my fourth year at Flâneur.
Arden: What brought you to the Willamette Valley?
GC: Growing up in California, I had visited the Napa and Sonoma areas as a child. I started watching it grow and change when I was reintroduced to it as a young adult while studying winemaking, and it never really resonated with me. There was grandeur to it and there was history, and there was money, and it just seemed almost too big for me. I wanted something that was more like Burgundy or Italy, small family-run places where they were really making wine in more of a hands-on fashion. I was disenchanted by the homogeneity that was coming out of California. The Pacific Northwest has a pioneering spirit. I got a job as an assistant winemaker for Eric Hamacher in the Willamette Valley. He was making Pinots and Chards and consulting on a few projects. He really immersed me and said, “Go to it, and I’ll give you direction.” That really solidified my love for the Valley.
Arden: How would you describe the style of Flâneur? What makes the wines unique?
GC: Every year, I'm trying to improve upon the past. I’m constantly in a state of deliberating with myself over the past experiences. Working with new vineyards is always a challenge because it usually takes three to four years before you have an idea of the potential of the vineyard, what works, what doesn’t. Every year, I'm constantly modifying and riffing off of successes and learning from failures. I'm always going for native ferments, and really trying to keep the wines as pure as possible while making them unique. There are complexities that maybe aren’t completely identifiable – you know it’s unique but you can’t tell what it is. I’m not looking for wines to always taste the same. I want to be respectful to the place they come from and create interesting creatures of a time and place, but never trying to replicate the same thing twice.
Arden: Does this time of year (harvest) excite or stress you out?
Both. it is a combination, much in the same of a restaurant. It’s like opening a restaurant all over again every year. You have this intense period of time where you have all this preparation. You spend a full year in the vineyards, working with grapes, tilling the soil, managing the canopy, doing everything you can to deliver a healthy and most perfectly flavorful fruit that you can for that vintage. For me, it’s a process all year long because I have a hand in the farming. It never really ends. It’s a yearlong process. Once the grapes come off the vine, that’s one hurdle that we’ve gotten over. And then when it gets into the winery, that’s the second hurdle. You’re running on adrenaline, coffee, and hopefully a Grand Cru Burgundy for inspiration. It’s really a vivid time and I love it.
Arden: What do you do to de-stress during harvest?
GC: I have this ritual that I do. At the end of the day, I'll put an assortment of beers in a bucket on ice and walk around, offering a beer to people. We all get pretty stoked that the end of the night is near and we’ve completed our tasks. It’s funny, in the morning I'm always the most anxious. When I wake up, I don't know if a ferment has gone in a weird direction overnight, or maybe one of the cooling equipment is broken down. I always have raw nerves in the morning.
I also have jazz. I'm always listening to very calm, muted trumpet, Miles Davis-style music – something that’s really mellow is a big de-stressor for me.
Arden: What is your general winemaking philosophy?
GC: I want wines that are unique, that have esoteric edges to them, but always try to keep it as pure and natural as possible. I’m never resting and saying, “I’ve got it all figured out.” There is no perfect formula.
Arden: What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
GC: It’s not the most difficult but it’s the most important: Connecting with people. The most important thing is to connect with the person who is imbibing, choosing to purchase your wine, and letting them know why it is the way it is and why we do what we do. And that, to me, is a huge challenge that is often overlooked. People concentrate solely on the making and growing of wine, because that’s also our passion. But connecting with the individual, to me, is paramount.
Arden: Who are your favorite Oregon winemakers?
GC: One person that I've always looked up to a lot is Steve Dormer. He is the winemaker for Cristom, as well his own project called Mount Jefferson. I’ve always absolutely loved his wines, his style, his humility, his ability – year in and year out – to make these incredibly complex wines that have character and soul.
Josh Bergstrom is a friend and an inspiration. His wines are incredible, but I’m also so impressed with his presence around other people and his ability to intellectually, in a very disarming way, explain what he does and talk to people about his wines.
Arden: You make some unique wines that are pretty unique to the Willamette Valley. What made you want to plant Pinot Meunier?
GC: It’s one of the three main grape varieties planted in Champagne. Marty, the owner, wanted to make sparkling wine, so he planted those three varietals all on this one property. When I started working with him, we had just enough to make the sparkling program. And then starting in 2017, there was enough fruit left post-harvest from the sparkling program. For context, we picked a lot earlier than anything else because we’re trying to pick it at high acid. So when we're picking the Pinot Meunier, we left a ton and a quarter on the vine and waited another two to three weeks to let it get riper with the sun. Instead of de-stemming it off the stalk and making it into de-stemmed red wine, I decided to do a carbonic fermentation, which is a style that is synonymous with Beaujolais to capture a very fresh, bright, primary fruit. And so I started playing around with that, and did it again in 2018. Both will be unique, and hopefully complex and delicious.
Arden: You're also working on an exciting sparkling project. Can you tell us anything about that?
GC: We planted those three varietals specifically for the function of making sparkling wines. So starting in 2016, I harvested all three of those in different proportions and made sparkling base wines off of those. So they’re in barrel for a short period of time, and then they rest in bottle with their secondary fermentation, becoming ready in a year or two. In fact, we just disgorged our 2016 sparkling wines a few days ago. It was an interesting project that Marty really wanted to pursue, and I had not made sparkling wine before. The sparkling wines that I had from small growers in Champagne were the ones I liked the most. They had complexity, they weren’t necessarily all primary, completely clean fruit. They had autolytic characters of brioche, they had nuances of quince paste or different idiosyncrasies. They were soulful expressions of sparkling champagne, so I applied what I hoped would reach that type of an end goal. When people try it, I hope people say, “Wow this is more akin to a champagne than a non-vintage that I pulled off of the shelf.”
Arden: What's your biggest pet peeve about the wine world?
GC: This business can be quite cliquey. When you get in a familiar group of people, they'll start railing against another group or winemaker. For me, I always sort of step back and say to those people, “Do you think this person is proud of the wines they are making? Is there a willing and ready customer base? So what’s the problem?” My biggest pet peeve is when people start getting down on other people.
Arden: What’s your favorite wine region in the world?
GC: Willamette is my home. When I was in France years ago and went to southern Rhône, it was amazing to me to see these old gnarled vines that had very little foliage on them, and concentrated-looking fruit poking out from rocks. When I think I have it hard, I think back to the time of looking at this vineyards and how difficult they'd be to farm.
Arden: What’s your go to beverage after a long day?
GC: I do love a great beer. My wife also makes some pretty incredible kombucha that I really love.
Arden: If you had to pick one red and one white to drink exclusively for the next month, what would you choose?
GC: Right now, I’m fascinated by Pineau d’Aunis. It’s a very light, fresh red wine. For white, because it’s summertime and it’s getting hot right now, I would go with Romorantin. It’s from the Loire and is fiercely acidic. It will take the enamel off your teeth, but it’s great on a hot summer day.
Arden: How do you spend your days off?
GC: I spend my days off as much as I can with my children and my wife. But we farm three acres of our own, so I spend a lot of time doing tractor work and working in the vineyard, tinkering with the tractor or things like that. Camping when we can, trying to get to the beach and surf once in a while.
Arden: If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
GC: I’m not a great mechanic, but maybe I'd maybe be a. I really like tinkering with machinery and figuring things out, engineering things and building. I also love working with wood. I find that I love creating things with my hands.
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