Great Wine Via Corporate Management Principles?

With his closely cropped beard and an almost flattop-like haircut, Kaj Ahlmann (pronounced Kye) could double as a slide-rule toting engineer from the 1950s.  His winemaking philosophy confirms your first impression when he emphasizes, ‘we collect data all the way through’ and the name of the winery, Six Sigma, accurately reflects his mantra.

Six Sigma Philosophy

The Six Sigma philosophy, a concept introduced in manufacturing that Ahlmann brought with him from his former life as a Vice President for General Electric and a member of the Board of Directors of GE’s Capital Services, emphasizes collecting and analyzing data to reduce defects in products.  The rationale is that by identifying and measuring defects you can systematically eliminate them and achieve a near Zen-like perfection.  It’s paradoxical that a manufacturing concept should be applied to winemaking, where everyone ‘crafts’ or ‘sculpts’ their wines and no one manufactures them.  But after tasting Six Sigma wines–which are fabulous–you immediately realize that whatever he and his team are doing must work.

His team certainly has an all-star quality to it.  Denis Malbec, former winemaker at Bordeaux first growth Château Latour, and his wife, May-Britt, are in charge of winemaking.  David Weiss, owner of Bella Vista Farming Company, is their highly regarded vineyard manager.

By constantly measuring everything–temperature, moisture, rainfall, soil composition, to name just a few–he aims to achieve as he puts it, ‘consistency in the quality of the fruit.’  (He even monitors the pattern of use of their website by consumers so he can improve it).  Although he has a rigorous, objective, scientific approach to achieve the highest quality grapes, he and Malbec still taste them before harvest to make sure no bitterness in the skins and seeds has escaped the detailed chemical analysis.  He is insistent about quality and purposely keeps production low to keep quality consistently high.  He’s even willing to discard finished wine when it fails to measure up to his expectations.  Last year, he just dumped 300 cases of what many people considered perfectly fine rosé just because he ‘Didn’t like it.’

Lake County. . .The Next Napa?

Ahlmann’s choice of Lake County for his vineyard seems curious at first blush, since the area is not yet on the consumer’s radar for top tier California wines. Although Lake County has a long history of grape growing, growers have long sold much of their fruit to wineries in Napa, where it was blended and then bottled under the more prestigious Napa name.  (In the past, government labeling regulations required only 75% of the grapes to come from the indicated geographic area.  Currently, the minimum has been raised to 85%, but that still allows for a considerable amount of non-Napa grapes to wind up in Napa Valley labeled wines).

Ahlmann looked at more than 20 properties scattered throughout Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, many of which were already planted with vines.  In 1999, he settled on a 4,300-acre undeveloped ranch in Lake County and planned to plant vines on about 200 acres.  He thought the area reminded him of what Napa looked like in the 1970s–pristine and full of potential.  Plus, he wanted undeveloped land because he has firm ideas about how things should be done.  In his mind, all the planted properties he looked at had defects that would require extensive replanting.  He wanted to do things right from the beginning.  It’s easy to see how the Six-Sigma philosophy pushes him to strive for perfection, whether it was at GE or now in the wine business.

An Ideal Site

Ahlmann believes that the future is in Lake County because of great red volcanic soil and the moderating influence of Clear Lake, California’s largest lake.  When he saw Malbec on his knees smelling the handfuls of red dirt and kind of sighing, he knew he must have been impressed with the soil as well.  He and his team found slopes at good elevation–none of his vineyards are lower than 1,400 feet–that allowed for drainage, proper exposure to the sun and cooler environment.   He says his land in Lake County is truly in the middle of nowhere, ‘clean and pure’ with clean air.  (Visitors frequently arrive by helicopter to avoid the time-consuming trek).  Although it sounds corny, he believes that cleaner air is better for grape growing and winemaking.  And though this sounds a bit wacky, after tasting his wines, I wouldn’t argue.

To date, Ahlmann has about 50 acres under vine, focusing–not surprisingly, considering the winemakers–on Bordeaux grapes, chiefly Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  He has planted small amounts of the other Bordeaux varieties–Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (but no Malbec, despite the winemaker’s name) as well as Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.

Ahlmann is not alone in his assessment of Lake County as prime vineyard land.  Andy Beckstoffer, perhaps the wisest and the most widely known landowner in Napa, purchased land in Lake County at about the same time as Ahlmann.  Jed Steele, the first winemaker at Kendall-Jackson, has vineyards there as well.  Kathleen Heitz, President of Napa Valley’s Heitz Vineyard, owns an 800-acre vineyard in Lake County along with her husband, from which they sell grapes to other wineries.  Ahlmann notes that the producers in Lake County have formed a winery association comprising more than 20 wineries.

The Wines

Six Sigma produces five wines commercially–two Sauvignon Blancs, two Cabernet Sauvignons and a Tempranillo.  All are easy to recommend; two are stunning.

Six Sigma’s two Sauvignon Blancs demonstrate the wide spectrum of wine that grape can produce.  Ahlmann avoids the very grassy, piercing style of Sauvignon Blanc because, as he puts it, ‘I don’t like it.  I realize lots of people do, but I don’t.’  One of their Sauvignon Blancs, labeled Rooster Vineyard and fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel, is reminiscent of white Bordeaux from properties that use a high percentage of Sauvignon Blanc.  Ahlmann says it’s very popular in steak house restaurants where it is sold as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to seafood.  His other Sauvignon Blanc, designated as Michael’s Vineyard, is entirely barrel fermented and stylistically similar to those Bordeaux properties such as Domaine de Chevalier or Château Smith Haut-Lafitte that use oak fermentation and aging with finesse.  It’s rare to find a winery that produces excellent examples of both styles of Sauvignon–in California or elsewhere–but Six Sigma pulls it off.

Six Sigma’s two Cabernet-based wines are Bordeaux-like, and reflect that region’s practice of enhancing the quality of the primary wine by creating a ‘second’ wine, in this case Cuvée Pique-Nique, whose name accurately reflects its character.  The Six Sigma Cabernet, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, weighs in at less than 14 percent alcohol and is a vivid demonstration that flavorful wines need not be overly alcoholic.

Six Sigma’s most impressive wine–perhaps not as exciting as the Cabernet, but certainly more surprising–is their Tempranillo, made exclusively from that grape.  Although I haven’t tasted all the Tempranillo made outside of Spain or even all those from California, it’s hard to imagine there’s a better one.  Ahlmann worked in Spain intermittently during his 35 years of corporate life and adores Spain and its wines.  While visiting Ribera del Duero, he felt that places in California might be similar.  Ahlmann transported another practice prevalent in the corporate world, the ‘best practices’ approach, into the wine world.  This approach essentially dictates that, when learning a new field, one should always learn from the best in that field.  Ahlmann’s translation of this into the wine world entailed sending Dennis Malbec to visit Spain’s uncontested leaders in the art of making Tempranillo-based wines, Pingus and Vega Sicilia.

Judging by these Six Sigma wines, Ahlmann’s corporate management techniques seem to have served him well in the wine world.

Six Sigma, Lake County (California) Tempranillo 2005 ($42):  Certainly the best California Tempranillo I have ever tasted (which may not be saying much given the poor track record of that grape in California) the Six Sigma bottling is simply marvelous.  Exotic spice and savory notes coupled with ripe fruit character meld together seamlessly. A deft hand is apparent in the winemaking because although it was aged entirely in new oak, the wine is not ‘oaky’ or overdone, just beautifully balanced and polished.  The tannins are softer compared to the Six Sigma Cabernet, which makes the Tempranillo all the more immediately appealing.  Yet, it should evolve nicely because it has sufficient structure for the long haul.  The challenge will be resisting its charms now.  94

Six Sigma, Lake County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($42):  This wine, only their second vintage, is mostly (84%)Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  All the grapes are from their vineyards. The tannins are firm, not hard, and soften considerably with just 15 minutes in the glass to reveal lush fruit and an intriguing spicy, savory component.  It has the cedar, mineral and earthy notes, reminiscent of Bordeaux, with ripe fruit flavors that are the hallmark of California.  Without a trace of over-ripeness, it weighs in at less that 14% alcohol and is a powerful argument that flavorful complex wines need not be high in alcohol.  With many top notch California Cabs going for twice the price, this one is a bargain.  96

Six Sigma, Lake County (California) Sauvignon Blanc Rooster Vineyard 2006 ($20):  Although Six Sigma doesn’t own the Rooster Vineyard, the farming is supervised by David Weiss whose Bella Vista Farming Company owns it, assuring that the care the vines receive is identical to their own vineyards.  Fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel vats, the crisp, clean, but not grassy signature of Sauvignon Blanc is apparent.  It conveys a slight pungency characteristic of the varietal along with green apple-like notes without the herbal, sometimes piercing quality emblematic of many Sauvignon Blanc.  Its brightness makes it an especially good foil for simple seafood. 90

Six Sigma, Lake County (California) Sauvignon Blanc Michael’s Vineyard 2006 ($28):  Named after one of Ahlmann’s children, this 100% barrel-fermented wine is a gorgeous example of Sauvignon Blanc.  The oak aging adds a slight creamy texture and breadth to the wine without obliterating the lively aspect of the varietal.  It’s a hard line to walk–often the result is a Chardonnay wannabe–but Malbec and his team pulls it off, achieving a subtle and harmonious effect.  92

Six Sigma, Lake County (California) ‘Cuvée Picque-Nique’ 2005 ($18):  A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (43%), Cabernet Franc (22%), Petit Verdot (21%) and Merlot (14%), this wine is an outlet for grapes not up to the Six Sigma standard for their flagship Cabernet.  The result is an easy-to-drink Bordeaux blend that manages to marry earthy savory non-fruit nuances with a healthy dose of ripe red and black fruit flavors.  It’s another good buy.  88

May 6, 2008