There were not a lot of vineyards in Steven Urberg’s backyard, not even by a long shot. Gloria Ferrer’s winemaker grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
“I know, it’s not what usually comes to mind as the mecca for wine/winemaking,” says Urberg. “My introduction to wine and winemaking was early on thanks to family friends who produced homemade wine from cans of grape concentrate (I already admitted this isn’t the mecca of wine/winemaking). The wine wasn’t very good but that didn’t stop them from consumption or production. For me, I was less interested in the product as I was the process. I inherited their winemaking gear by the time I was in college and used it to make (a fair amount of) beer in undergrad,” he adds.So yes, making beer during was instrumental in Urberg’s eventual career and so were the science-based classes he attended, however, enology classes were not on his academic agenda. “Most of my initial studying of wine was tasting and reading. Making beer and drinking wine were nice hobbies, but it never even occurred to me that you could make wine for a living!” exclaims Urberg of his excitement once he learned there was a lot more you could do with a passion for Science and more specifically, chemistry.“I graduated from University of Michigan with a BS in Chemistry and moved out to California for graduate school at UC Berkeley to pursue a Masters of Chemistry degree. Living in the East Bay area, I occasionally found my way up to wine country for tastings and tours – an excellent distraction from chemistry,” he goes on.
“It was during a winery tour when the guide mentioned that their winemaker attended UC Davis and had a degree in winemaking, which took me by surprise. A winemaking degree exists? And one could get paid for this? Interested but quite skeptical, I called UC Davis and to my surprise, confirmed this was true!” Urberg swapped the chem lab for a tank room. “I began my wine career at Hess Collection, working in the tank room for six months. It suited me well, so back to grad school again, but this time, at UCD for winemaking! And as they say, the rest is history.” he adds.Of course, the present, is all about making award winning wines at Gloria Ferrer. “We have been farming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here for close to 40 years and are now on our third generation of planting,” says Urberg. “Each time we plant, we use all the knowledge we’ve gained from previous plantings to make informed choices about which clones and rootstocks perform best on each individual block of our estate,” he adds. Gloria Ferrer was the first sparkling winery in Carneros. “After being established in 1986, Gloria Ferrer brought Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cuttings over from Champagne, France, and worked with UC Davis’ renowned viticultural and enology department to determine which clones were best suited for our Carneros terroir. We actually still use six Pinot Noir clones and one Chardonnay clone from Champagne in our blends today,” adds Urberg about the importance and significance of those first years.I was curious how often Urberg barrel tastes his wines? “At Gloria Ferrer, we make sure the quality of the wine is maintained at every point in the vinification process. That said, I taste all of our barrel lots at least once every month.”When I asked Urberg about his favorite grape to work with, the answer was simple. It’s also his favorite grape to drink and the bread and butter at the winery. “Pinot Noir – for drinking and winemaking!” he exclaims. “At Gloria Ferrer, our wines are Pinot Noir-based and I’m fortunate for the opportunity to produce various styles of wine (still, sparkling, rosé) of top quality. I enjoy working with Pinot Noir in both still and sparkling wines.”I was interested in Urberg’s opinion on the matter of wine closures. “Sparkling wines need to be closed with natural cork because it’s able to contain the tremendous pressure. I do like to put still rosé and Pinot Blanc meant for every-day enjoyment under screw cap. However, if I’m creating a still wine with the intention of aging it, then I opt to seal with natural cork.” The same approach goes for kegs. The same sorts of wine that would do well under screw cap do nicely in kegs,” he adds.I wondered what this very busy winemaker does when he isn’t making wine. “I spend most of my free time outdoors and active with kayaking, camping, cycling, hiking, gardening and landscape. I do a fair amount of woodworking. At one point I was building furniture, but now it is mostly home improvement,” he says with a grin. “And like most wine folks, I love cooking!” His go to cuisine? “Like a true foodie, I enjoy almost everything, but Sushi and Thai are my top two. Bonus if it’s spicy.” And that perennial question about the quintessential food and wine pairing?“I can’t say no to Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines with sushi and/or raw oysters.” I say, hands down to both; a bottle of the Gloria Ferrer Anniversary Cuvée with a huge tower of oysters and sushi.