Raising a Glass

Interview by Josh Kopelman |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

After growing up in the town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Craig Larson began his working career as a graphic artist. European wines had been a hobby since his youth and years later, Larson abandoned graphic artistry to pursue his dream of becoming a winemaker. In the beginning, he worked in the cellars of several Washington state wineries and received hands-on experience with some of the area's most respected winemakers. Larson's formal training began in 1996 at the Covey Run Winery in Zillah, Washington. Within a year, he accepted the position of cellar master at the Paul Thomas Winery in Sunnyside, and then became the assistant to the winemaker at the Washington Hills Winery.

In order to expand his knowledge of worldwide wines, Craig received his certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers and joined the renowned Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California as its wine director and sommelier. This invaluable experience exposed him to a wide variety of fine wines and instilled in him an enthusiasm to produce the best vintages possible.

Larson's most recent position—prior to coming to Callaway—was winemaker at Maryhill Winery in south central Washington State, where he had the opportunity to produce a wide array of quality wines.
Now at Callaway, Larson is looking forward to bringing his passion for Old-World wines joined with New-World winemaking techniques to the Temecula Valley. Between vintages, we got some of his insight on the business and the craft of good winemaking.

You produce a number of different wines and have won a number of awards. What wines are you most proud of?

I’ve been very influenced by French wines for decades, and especially the southern Rhône Valley. The wines I’m most proud of, then, are undeniably French, including Calliope Red, a blend of five varietals—Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, and Counoise; Syrah, a wine with distinct French origins; and Viognier, which I consider a red wine-drinker's white wine.

Callaway is known for food-friendly wines. Is that your focus as a winemaker?

I tend to have a more traditional, “European” attitude towards winemaking. That is, I allow the character of each varietal to come through instead of manipulating the wines into some pre-planned style. Enjoying the wines with cuisine is always in the back of my mind, reflecting my background as a sommelier and wine director at The Ritz-Carlton.

Along those same lines, what wines are the most challenging to produce?

Definitely the Rosé of Sangiovese and the Calliope red. Making Rosé takes patience. The amount of time the juice spends in contact with the skins must be precise, in order to get just the right color and character.

Alternately, the Calliope red is a blend of five Rhône varietals, each vinified and barrel-aged separately. It takes a great deal of planning with regard to the style of oak, toast level, and time in barrel to get the right balance—not to mention the blending. I want each grape variety to shine but still play its part in the final blend.

You collaborate with Chef Michael Henry at Meritage Restaurant on some amazing dinners. Tell us how you approach these, particularly as far as pairings are concerned.

I choose the wines with the owners and then Chef and I discuss the overall flavors that we want to focus on for the dinner. The right wine can enhance a dish perfectly, so we want to get it right. While there are no hard and fast rules on matching food and wine—because it's ultimately a matter of personal taste—we do engage in a bit of back and forth until we have the perfect combinations that will showcase both the wine and the food.