Mark Bixler, an MIT graduate and a former chemistry professor, is the co-owner and Business Manager of Kistler Vineyards. Yes, Chardonnay fans, that Kistler.
Like the fog-shrouded vineyards of the Sonoma Coast, Kistler thrives behind a veil of secrecy. The winery is closed to visitors. No tours, no tastings, no exceptions. Also, Mark Bixler rarely grants interviews. So we're honored that he's made an exception for our Director of Wine, Maeve Pesquera.
Mark, thank you so much for meeting with me. So, first question, how did you meet Steve Kistler?
Well, I met Steve in a wine group at Fresno State, and he and I just hit it off. It was a serious group of guys tasting serious wines. There is nothing better than to sample a series of wines to illuminate different styles and points of view. That's really the best way to learn. But it was completely happenstance, our coming together. Oh, another member of that Fresno wine group was Byron Brown, who would go on to start Byron Vineyards in Santa Barbara.
When did you and Steve decide to open a winery?
That was 1976. Steve had gone on to UC Davis, and I continued teaching at Fresno. We remained close, and soon it became obvious that he was seriously interested in opening a winery. Now at Fresno State, a lot of people talked about opening a winery, but Steve had some money to actually do it. But first, we needed to learn the business. He went to Ridge Vineyards for a couple of years, and I went to Fetzer to work with winemaker Paul Dolan, who was also a member of our Fresno wine group. Then in mid-1978, Steve, his brother and I started looking for land to buy and soon found some acreage in Sonoma. Our incorporation date was October 6, 1978. What came after has been a lot of fun.
When all of Napa was Cabernet crazy, you decided to concentrate on Chardonnay and finicky Pinot Noir. Why is that?
Well, we originally set out to make Cabernet — our original site was planted for Cabernet. But Steve had made Chardonnay at Ridge and soon decided that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were much more interesting. It just pushed us out of Cabernet. Steve has always been our vineyard manager, the one who decides what rootstocks to use, what vineyards to buy, lease, plant. All that has been Steve.
Your Chardonnay is described as "Burgundian." Did you set out to make Chardonnay in the style of Burgundy?
That was always our goal. Unlike Kistler, typical California Chardonnay goes through cold fermentation to keep the wine's sweet, fruity ester smells. It's done in giant stainless steel tanks and is often complemented with big amounts of aging in oak barrels.
Our style, which is the style used in Burgundy, utilizes warm fermentation, so it eliminates some of the fruity tropical smells like banana. Our fermentation is done in 60-gallon oak barrels instead of big steel tanks. When wine ferments, it gives off a lot of heat, so you need to carefully control the temperature. It's tricky. In the Burgundy style, the flavors and smells aren't as extra-sweet. And we don't want too much oakiness. We want a more subtle influence of oak.
Robert Parker wrote in The Wine Advocate, "If the Kistler Winery could be magically transported to the middle of Burgundy's Côte d'Or, it would quickly gain a reputation as glorious as any producer of Burgundy Grand Crus." What was your reaction when you read that?
Very nice of him to say that. It was a very clever line. He also said that we produce more excellent wine than any other winery in the world. It was a good day when we learned of those quotes.
Kistler wines are sold primarily to consumers through a mailing list. Was that part of the original business model?
It evolved that way. In 1981, when we released the '79 vintage wines, we started selling direct to consumer. There wasn't a whole lot of wine those first couple of releases. Fortunately, people were interested in what we were doing, and that's just how it happened. We were much more concerned about making wine than we were about how people or restaurants were going to buy it.
Kistler seems to almost shy away from the spotlight. How come?
That's just the way we have done things. It seems to have made us mysterious, and that may have worked to our advantage, I guess. We let our wines do our talking for us. Talking and boasting doesn't mean much. I like for people to taste and draw their own conclusions. I am the designated spokesman, having been the chemistry professor teaching large classrooms of 300 people. But actually I'm sort of shy and like to keep to myself.
Your wines are submitted for review to only two wine critics, Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer. Why is that?
These are two people who we respect very much. Parker came every year from early on. He knows so much, and he still astonishes me with his ability to remember tastings from year to year. Tanzer is just a really smart wine writer-reviewer. They are the people who I read when I make my decisions on what wine to buy. We enjoy having them come to the winery. There are other reviewers, of course. But it's time-consuming to meet with reviewers, and our goal is to make the very best wines we can.
Last question: Can you share with us your most memorable bottle of wine?
One occasion, it was not long after I'd met Steve (Kistler) at the wine group at Fresno State, we were over at my place, and we both really liked to cook. I was trying to impress, so I had a great bottle of 1969 red Burgundy from La Romanée, the smallest Grand Cru vineyard in France. Only 300 cases a year are produced. I was trying to make a black butter sauce to go with some fish. It's kind of like brown butter sauce, but you cook the butter past brown, where it takes on this great nutty flavor. Anyway, in my enthusiasm I gave Steve a spoonful to taste — it was probably 300 degrees. He burned his tongue and was so mad! So much for him enjoying the subtle flavors of the La Romanée.
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