In his family owned business, he has been both brewer and winemaker. Russell is as conversant with mash tuns as he is with oak barrels. He produces estate wines for Westport Rivers and helped start the Buzzard's Bay Brewing Company.
The Westport Rivers vineyard and winery produces a range of sparkling and table wines, all from grapes grown in the Southeastern New England appellation. Buzzard's Bay produces a line of straightforward ales and lagers from its facility, which is located a short distance from its sister winery.
Russell recently spoke with me about winemaking versus brewing, the value of a college degree in philosophy, and why he hates oak barrels.
ANDY CROUCH How did your family get started in this business?
BILL RUSSELL In 1982, my folks bought the 120 acre farm in Westport with the desire to put grape vines there. In 1986, those vines showed up. My brother Rob graduated from Wentworth the year before and came in to plant them all. It just so happens that it takes three years for a vine to mature. At that time, I was graduating from Boston College and came down and started making the wine.
AC What kind of training did you have for winemaking?
BR As far as the winemaking goes, I kind of took to the John Dewey school of learning - that you best learn when you actually get into the trenches and do something. In 1989, having been a beer advocate in college, I learned very quickly how to make wine. Luckily, we had a consultant, a guy named Eric Fry. He's probably the foremost winemaker on the whole East Coast, and we're really fortunate to have him as a consultant. He's an incredible well of information in terms of managing yeast and understanding where flavors come from.
AC What did you plant initially and how did you decide?
BR 40 acres of vines, about 40,000 vines. Most of that went to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and about eight acres of it went to Johannisberg Riesling. We picked those particular vines because all of them are classic cold-climate varietals. So it was a good mix for hedging your bets in terms of what products could be made from the grapes. It ended up being that this climate was warm enough to do a red, which it's not really. A Pinot Noir can be made into red wine. If it wasn't warm enough to make it into red, you can make it into bubbly. Chardonnay could either go into sparkling wine or table wine. Riesling flourishes in the wicked cold climate of Germany, so we figured that was a very logical choice for the third varietal. So it's sort of hedging your bets. When you jump off a cliff, you might as well carry two parachutes if you can.
AC Coming out of college, what were your thoughts about joining this new family business?
BR I was really weary of it, being in a family business was not exactly what I thought I wanted to do. After a real personal talk with my uncle, who was a professor at Cal-Davis, he talked forlornly about not ever being able to venture into doing something with his brother. That was one thing he wished he had been able to do in his life. When Rob got into the grape growing and I was looking for a source of income, it looked like it might be something to check out. But I was weary of it all. Family businesses can be notoriously difficult. As it turned out, the way my dad chose to manage us was pretty much to let us do our own thing and to find our own way through it. So that worked out very well for everyone concerned. The wines just came out great straight off the bat, and Rob and I developed a unique partnership in terms of how a vineyard and a winery work together. The eyes are always on the wine and the flavors that are going to come out of the grape.
AC With no real experience in winemaking, how did you approach the job?
BR The first thing I needed to do was to learn the vocabulary of it. You get a bunch of winemakers together and they are spitting a bunch of words out at each other. What does it mean? I studied philosophy in college (laughs), which my dad likes to joke that it's the perfect degree for winemaking. But I don't know if it's the perfect degree for anything, but it worked out pretty well. One of the things you learn when you study philosophy is that vocabulary and how you communicate things carry a lot of meaning. So say if you were going to study the philosophy of art, you'd need to learn the vocabulary behind sculpture - how people who do sculpture talk to each other about what they are doing. And there is a certain vocabulary there. If you talk to press people, you guys have a certain jargon for stuff. So with winemaking, it is awfully intimidating, or it can be, when you hear somebody describing a wine or fruit characters or different components they are seeing. So I threw myself into that - being the most difficult part of the whole learning process. So my philosophy straight off the bat was to try and figure out what made wine good, and then not to screw it up. And what I quickly found what made the best wines in the world good was respect for the fruit, and trying to uncover the interesting components of a particular grape and where it's grown.
AC How did you put that into practice at Westport?
BR First thing was not to. . . I've had a love-hate relationship with oak barrels. The love came from the fact that it was one of the first flavors or words I figured out and could taste again and again. If someone put a group of ten wines in front of me, and one of them had seen some oak, I could pick out the oak. Ah, what a relief to actually have something familiar, something you could actually nail down every time. So there was a short period of time when I fell in love with oak because it was the only thing I understood. But very quickly you realize that oak and fruit have an interesting relationship. Sometimes they can dance a beautiful dance. And sometimes oak is a partner best left to the side. It's the kind of person you don't really want to dance with. So in each growing region, the vineyards need to discover how to use oak judiciously.
So my hate started coming into the picture when I realized that oak was covering up some of the best components of the fruit. We nickname the oak barrels we have "fruit killers", because whenever we would ferment something in oak, especially putting it through malolactic fermentation in an oak barrel, we'd kill all the fruit. And that was what we liked best about the wine to begin with. Over the years, I've predominantly done stainless steel fermentation. Back when I started making wine, oak fermented and barrel-aged Chardonnay was vogue and the rage. So it's always been kind of difficult to explain to people why it is I have such disdain for oak and such respect for stainless steel. I think some of the public is starting to come around to the realization that stainless steel fermented wine is actually quite delicious, and the fruit derived from fermenting things and keeping all the fruit qualities in it is gorgeous. It's exactly what you want in wine.
AC What are the differences between your Chardonnay and California Chardonnays?
BR Loads of fruit. It's got crisp acidity. It's somewhat refreshing. It's not what you would think of as a cocktail wine. But it's one that goes great with food. In terms of developing a philosophy about winemaking, where is wine consumed? Sure it's consumed at cocktail hour. But the best way, and the most fun to have with wine, is to have it with food. Immediately, it became apparent that the key to pairing wine and food was acidity itself. I was really lucky that I was in a climate where we have some beautiful acidity. We don't lose our acidity in the fall - we actually retain it and create these wines that are structured. The drama that plays out in the wine is the balance between fruit and acidity, and exploiting that in any given year is the fun part of winemaking.
AC How much do you think of food when you are creating your wines?
BR Quite a bit. In terms of balancing the fruit and acidity, there are different tools a winemaker can use. We can acidify if we need to bump the acidity up. We can go through malolactic fermentation if we need to knock it back a bit. So it's a personal choice to decide just how much to go in either direction. I'm always thinking about - the food I think about most is pan-seared scallops. If we're talking about bubbly, it's how would it go with oysters. So I've got a few foods I think of structuring the wines around.
AC You have a pretty varied perspective on the beverage industry, with experience as both a winemaker and a brewer. How did you get into brewing?
BR You know, it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. That's one of the most ancient truths. They are both ancient beverages, so there is an immediate appeal to both beer and wine. There is always an argument between brewers and winemakers as to which came first. We don't even know which came first, which just shows how old both of these beverages are, dating back to at least 8000 or 9000 BC. Right away, I think that is interesting.
As soon as I started getting into yeast at the winery, I started playing with yeast for other things. There is a pretty cool company up the road from me and they make their business selling wholesale homebrew and home wine-making stuff. I think I had been making wine for a year before I realized they were up there. So I stopped by and they gave me a beer kit. And I went home and I made some beer. And it was fun. So I immediately started thinking about the potential with the yeast in general. I started making bread, beer and wine. They're fun to play with, those little yeasty things. So that grew into an avid interest in beer. I would take off a day a week every now and then, and go and work at the Union Station Brewpub in Providence. I learned how to mash-in, run a lauter, run a brew, filter, and I started thinking about flavor profiles in beer. From that, it eventually grew the energy in the family to start Buzzard's Bay.
AC Do you prefer brewing or winemaking?
BR I could do either one of them every day, seven days a week. They're both so fun in so many different ways. Brewing is fun because you get out there, and start making it, and immediately the smells of brewing - you could just go in there 24/7 and enjoy those smells. It's like the best cereal you would ever want to eat. Then you start adding the hops and there are all of those beautiful hop aromas. So from a simple perspective of being around a place and having it smell like that all day, it's pretty cool.
In brewing, it's all about cleanliness, hitting your numbers, efficiencies, extracting flavor from raw ingredients, and then combining those raw ingredients to get particular flavors. It's much like a commercial kitchen would be. If you talk to somebody like Todd English at Olive's, and ask, "why does he use these ingredients", it's because he wants this particular flavor, and that's what brewing is like. It's an awful lot like a big, commercial kitchen that makes 12 ounces of a particular food. It's a lot of fun to make, and gratification is pretty much instantaneous. At the end of the brew day, you can tell how you did with your calculations. Did you do a good job? Didn't you do a good job? At the end of two or three weeks, depending on what you are making, or four weeks for our lager, you get to package it off and drink it. That's pretty cool to have that kind of instant gratification.
AC What are your thoughts on the bigger or extreme beer trend?
BR You mean the monster alcohol beers? Every time I try them - I'll come out of the closet. - I'm not a big fan. They taste so medicinal to me. If I compare those products with vintage port - vintage port is amazing, but doesn't taste like alcohol at all. Some of the beers just have a quality to them I can't quite seem to shake. I can't quite put my finger on it so I do continue to try them, but I'm just not a big fan.
AC Do you see any parallel between the bigger beers and the so-called fruit bombs in the wine world?
BR You know, there might be - the kind of over-the-top thing just to try and get some attention. It might be out of balance and might not be the ideal wine, but because it is so intense and so over-the-top, it gets noticed. I think there is that in everything. It's like the newest television show that goes where no television show has gone before. Everyone is always trying to go over-the-top. I think it's much more difficult to take the other road and try to maintain balance. You don't get noticed as much.