James the Wine Guy Interview Series: Derek Rohlffs, Bravium Winemaker

Note: interview questions below are a larger more extensive interview to supplement the video interview.


1.  What was the moment that you unequivocally decided to become a winemaker?  Was it tasting a specific wine? And / Or Visiting a wine country?

Derek: I was an Environmental Studies major at UCSB whose only experience with wine was watching my parents occasionally drink Mateus, i.e. I had a typically American upbringing that did not include wine at our dinner table or in our lives.  I worked at casinos [a logical place for an Environmental Studies major to land] out of college and was intoduced to wines at VIP and charity events and became fascinated by the many aspects of wine, from geography to history to agriculture to chemistry.  I then did a brief stint in the Wine department at one of the largest wine stores Colorado with distributors pouring wines for us on a daily basis which really ignited my desire to make my own wine someday.  When I moved back home to California in 2000, making wine seemed like the next logical step in my wine life.

2. How do you describe your wine making style?

Derek: I believe that proper vineyard farming practices form the basis for a balanced wine.  I also believe in “Less is more and no is most.”  By that I mean that, the longer I make wine, the more I believe that less oak, less intervention, and no pumping, no fining, and no filtering of wine makes it better reflect its vineyard source and vintage character.

3. How do you describe your brand – Bravium?

Derek: Bravium is Latin for “reward, prize, or gift” and was a name I chose as I thought it would dovetail with my Sip&Give charitable campaign, which is an important part of the winery’s DNA.  Please vote for your favorite charity at sipandgive.com!

4.You have your flagship brand and your artisan brand?  What are the distinguishing characteristics?

Derek: Bravium is my flagship brand and is solely focused on the small lot production of vineyard designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  My artisan wines represent other varietals and blends, each with its own distinct branding.

5. The Artisan line has great depth of story, label, design and overall packing- was it an evolution?  What was the inspiration?

Derek: Each wine has a unique back story, for instance, White Wedding was a happy blending trial accident when I blended Sauvignon Blanc with Viognier.

6. You packaging is one of the most unique I have seen—the evocative imagein your Syrah is so modern and the back label having just the image is so well done.  What was the inspiration?

Derek: Midnight Oil is a very dark wine and, when pulling barrel samples one night at 2am, I thought to myself: “I’m really burning the midnight oil…and this wine is almost black.”  And the name stuck.

7. How did you choose your current set of varietals that you produce?

Derek: Pinot Noir because it is my favorite wine to produce due to its unparalleled ability to express site and good [light-handed] or bad [heavy-handed] winemaking.

8.You have a variation of locations—how did you choose each AVA?

Derek: When I started out, I took a shotgun approach, working with as many varieties and vineyards as possible and kept the best.  Being located in San Francisco, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino AVAs are all within reach.

9. Your Lucky Proprietary  and White Wedding wines are multi-vintages—what is your philosophy on MV?

Derek: When making a white or red wine blend like White Wedding and Lucky, the use of wine lots from multiple vintages is just one more option available to me as a winemaker.  In these particular cases, I see no reason to limit my options….if it makes the blended wine taste better, then that’s what matters.

10. What is the best part of being an urban wine maker?

Derek: The ability to work with multiple vineyards in all of the most notable AVAs in Northern California.

11. What if any misconceptions might there be about the urban wine making movement?

Derek: That it’s a new thing.  Urban wineries dominate San Francisco before the 1906 Quake and Prohibition.

12. Your wines are optimally produced and are all-approachable on a price point level.  Your Character Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is priced at $39 – a superb price point.  All of your price points are approachable and are not just value oriented—is this a component of the urban wine making proposition?

Derek: I do strive to offer value and making a $100 bottle of wine has little appeal to me.  That said, as grape prices increase, so do wine prices and the wine market does tend to be very cyclical.

13. You have a very nice and full varietal offering—do you have any new wines due for release?

Derek: There are vineyard designated Bravium Pinot Noirs in barrel that I will be bottling soon from two incredible vineyards: Signal Ridge in Anderson Valley and Beau Terroir in Napa Carneros. I am really excited about these wines and they will round out my Sonoma Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinots.  As to Chardonnay, I am working with the Abbassi family with their 35 year old vineyard as well as new plantings in Sonoma Carneros…these wine will drive the Bravium Chardonnay program forward.

14. In a few words how do you describe Bravium?

Derek: Site-specific, traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

15. What is the most challenging AVA to receipt fruit or varietal each year?

Derek: Signal Ridge Vineyard, the highest elevation planting in Anderson Valley, at the ridgetop with a dirt road.

16. Your emphasis has been on crafting wines to pair with food—are they stand alone wines as well?

Derek: Acidity is a key component of a balanced wine and allows wine to be refreshing on its own as well as with food.  That’s why I don’t put all of Bravium’s Chardonnays through secondary fermentation…I don’t want the finished wines to be too heavy.

17. In the decade you have been making wine—has there been changes in what consumers are drinking?  Varietals?  Enjoying wine more often?  Seeking specific AVA?

Derek: No comment..it’s a great question that could result in multiple thesis papers and I’ll defer to other industry experts.

18. What is the easiest thing about making wine?

Derek: It doesn’t ever feel like work…even at 2am in the morning after a full day of harvest in the vineyards and hectic activity in the winery.

19. What is the most difficult thing about making wine?

Derek: Waiting out bad weather at harvest time.

20. What is the aging capacity of your wines?

Derek: Only time will tell but many of my earliest wines still have a lot of life left and I believe that the acidity I retain in the Chardonnay as well as the fact that the red wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered gives them the best possible chance to age well in bottle.

21. What person has inspired you the most?

Derek: When it comes to viticulture and winemaking, Kevin Harvey and Jeff Brinkman at Rhys Vineyards are doing things the right way and I find their work to be paradigm shifting.  When it comes to great people in the wine business, Roger Scommegna, one of the Three Thieves along with Joel Gott and Charles Bieler, has become a friend, mentor, and inspiration.



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About James Melendez

I love wine and have had the privilege of working in the wine trade as a senior national wine marketing manager for a wine, food and home goods retailer in 30+ US States. I executed into making wine experiential and made 'wines of the world' programme work in a highly regulated framework for a successful business proposition. My "wine" site also incorporates those categories intimately involved with wine such as food, travel and lifestyle. This site incorporates my many dimensions of interest. I love to review and also talk about many aspects of wine. I have been privileged to visit many wine countries and find them enthralling no matter how many times I visit. I love all aspects of wine: viticulture, history, winemaking, brand development, wine regions and many more aspects. This is a living tradition that needs documentation, education, reporting and reviewing. Do I have favourite varieties and styles? I love so many varieties and often it is situational and yet there are time honoured wines that I anticipate and I am passionate about. I like all colours of wine and all styles. I have had a mad passionate affair with sparkling wines and they are always top of mind. Wine nourishes our soul and is the key to connecting with other people at our dinner table. Salute, James © 2014, 2017 James Meléndez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved – for my original Content, logo, brand name, rating, rating graphic and award and designs of James the Wine Guy. James the Wine Guy also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social medias.
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