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Woodenhead Vintners

Sonoma County region

Some call it bio-dynamic, but we call it old time winemaking

To say that Nikolai Stez had a solid education in the wine business would be a gross understatement of fact. Actually, Stez, now 51, served in several capacities that would make most winemakers envious.

As the co-owner and winemaker for minuscule Woodenhead Vintners of Forestville, Sonoma County, Stez is a refreshing throwback to old style winemakers that are seldom seen in this age of mostly academic-oriented winemaking.

Nikolai Stez is of Russian descent (actually both Russian and Belo Russian), and lived his early life in San Francisco and the Russian River Valley, otherwise referred to by Stez as the North Coast. Bitten early by the wine bug, he began working in various capacities during the early 1980’s for a startup winery in Western Sonoma County named Williams-Selyem. It is well chronicled that Williams-Selyem is now considered the early icon for ultra-premium Pinot Noirs and when he left in 1998, Nikolai was considered the assistant winemaker to owner Burt Williams.

Since Nikolai Stez had made his own wines as a home winemaker since starting in the wine business, he considered it natural to attempt to start his own winery operation.

“It was sometime around 1995 or 96,” he recalled recently, “and I tried to buy some grapes from leading grower David Hirsch, but he turned me down. It took us three more years of trying but around the turn of the century, we finally succeeded in producing our first release of some 270 cases of Woodenhead.

The “we” refers to is Stez’s domestic partner Zina Bower, co-owner of Woodenhead and herself a veteran of several wineries including Napa’s famed Diamond Creek and Sonoma’s noted Hop Kiln Winery. She handles all the office jobs, public relations and marketing functions for Woodenhead.

Just for the record, the name Woodenhead resulted from an old girlfriend of Nikolai’s, who coined the phrase for him when she found him stubborn on certain issues. The name stuck and has provided Stez with a colorful and remarkable tag for his winery.

To fully understand Woodenhead and its wines, you must delve inside Nikolai Stez’s winemaking approach.

“For us,” Stez explained, “the key word is slow. We produce slow wine. Everything, and I mean everything, is hand done. We utilize gas and gravity and probably take longer than any winery I know to do what we do. It is all labor intensive and probably costs more than most. But we are fortunate to control our own destiny and there are no accountants around to tell us we must cut costs to be effective.”

Stez also credits more time in barrel to help achieve the final results he wants for his finished wines.

“It’s all about richness, complexity and power,” he added. All three go hand in hand to achieve the end result, which in our case, is a lot more depth for our wines. I make my wines the way they did it in the old days, and there are plenty of consumers who say that’s what they want in their wines.”

Another key aspect of Nikolai Stez’s program is his ability to search out grapes that are produced from old vines. He says he doesn’t even consider fruit from vines unless they are at least twenty years old. One reason he specializes in both Pinot Noir and Zinfandel is that there is a steady supply of older vine fruit to choose from. He concedes that he has occasionally utilized small amounts of younger vine fruit, but holds steadfast to the premise that truly great wines come from the fruit of truly old vines.

Stez and Bower have also acquired a small parcel of property in the Russian River Valley that will serve as the future home of Woodenhead. With the winery’s annual production now approaching a relatively smallish 1700 case, Nikolai Stez sees a few more years ahead before he starts construction.

“Remember we are a slow winery,” he chuckled. “We even use the weather, moon and stars in our winemaking. Some call it bio-dynamic, but we call it old time winemaking.”

With superior accolades growing rapidly for Woodenhead’s wines, it is difficult to dispute the colorful winery owner’s approach to his craft.

Would that more wineries invest the time and money in their final products to make their wines just a little bit better. If such a philosophy works for Woodenhead Vintners and Nikolai Stez, why not for everyone?