“I’ve been a fan of wine since I was 12 and got drunk for the first time at Thanksgiving,” says Phillip Staehle, winemaker/owner of Enkidu Wines. For some reason, Staehle won’t provide information on how he gained access to the wine at that age, so for now, it’ll have to remain a mystery.
What’s not a mystery is, in that defining youthful moment, Staehle found his true calling. Oh, if we could all be so lucky. And even though he originally went to school at UC Davis to study political science (we all fall off the path sometimes now, don’t we?), he also took a couple wine classes while he was there. That was also the time he began his first wine collection. “Unfortunately, the entire 50-bottle collection was consumed by my roommates and I.” Live and learn.
Staehle’s winemaking career began in 1987, when Pam Starr (a sorority sister of Staehle’s wife, Melissa), then an assistant winemaker at Carmenet Winery, phoned him about joining the winery as cellar master. He jumped at the chance.
“The emphasis there is on quality and small batches. I couldn’t have picked a better place to learn,” he says. He worked there from 1987 to 1994, at which point he changed gears and climbed on board at Wine Cap Company, which makes wax and paper disc wine closures. And while it’s been a highly successful endeavor (he’s still involved with the company), his heart remained with the dream of one day having his own winery.
In 2003, a former colleague from Carmenet approached him about making some wine together—and Enkidu was born. And no, the colleague’s last name isn’t Enkidu. Nor is it Staehle’s maternal grandmother’s maiden name. It actually comes from one of the oldest stories known to man (it predates Homer’s Odyssey by about 1,000 years)—a Sumerian myth called “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
In the story, the character Enkidu was created by the gods as the lover of land and protector of animals. He was sent to balance Gilgamesh (who didn’t appreciate the beauty around him). They fought for three days; the battle ended with them respecting one another and with their positive aspects bestowed on each other. When they ended up falling into the trap of abusing their newfound power, however, Enkidu ultimately gave his life to spare that of Gilgamesh—who had only just learned to appreciate things when he was about to die.
Staehle likes the story so much, he not only named his winery after it, but his dog’s name is Enkidu, too. “I designed the packaging [for the wine] with the Sumerian symbols for Enkidu on the label,” he says. “I didn’t intend it to have the effect it has, though. People recognize the symbols right away.” And the dog, well, he’s become the winery mascot.
“Now we’re going on our fifth harvest,” says Staehle. The first was in 2003, with the initial bottling in 2005. “It seems like it was just yesterday.”
Enkidu produces Pinot Noir (which makes up the majority of its output), Petite Sirah, Syrah and (new this year) a dry Rosé that’s made from 100 percent Syrah and is sourced from the same vineyard as the traditional Syrah offering.
“People sometimes wonder how I can make Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah at the same facility, since they each require completely different winemaking techniques,” says Staehle. “But I make the wines I do because I like them.
“You have to have a passion for what you’re making.
“My style is to make wines that are balanced and complex. It’s like cooking food: You pay attention to the look, aromas, flavors and textures,” he says. “I want to maniplate the wine as little as possible. We do very little fining. I want to capture what’s happening in the vineyard as much as possible.”
In 2003, Enkidu produced 260 cases of Petite Sirah. Syrah and Pinot Noir came next. Last year, production increased to 2,000 cases. This year it’s 3,000. The end goal is 4,000 to 5,000 annually. In the future, Staehle will add some Rhone-style blends.
Staehle also emphasizes his relationship with growers and says being outside among the vines is one of his favorite things about what he does. “I enjoy working with small vineyards. Most of them are five acres or less. My intention is to have long-term, one-on-one relationships with the growers. I have very, very good growers, personality-wise and also their dedication. You can screw up good grapes, but you can’t make fantastic wines out of mediocre fruit.”
Up until recently, Staehle used a custom crushing facility to make his wines, but recently moved his operation into an area some are now calling “winery row” in Sonoma (several wineries have moved into the same warehouse-style group of buildings, including Patz & Hall, Robledo Family, Tin Barn Vineyards, Ledson, Castle Vineyards and Three Sticks, among others). It’s a 17,000-square-foot space, where Staehle will be offering custom crushing and barrel storage of his own. “A lot of wineries choose not to do this, because they don’t want people interfering with production. But my background is in production. I like having other people around. It’s better to have a collective mass of ideas.”
Staehle admits it’s been a tough road moving from custom crushing to his own winemaking facility. But he also says it’s been worth it to realize his dream. “My wife, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, says this is my dissertation,” he says.
The end result? Wines with distinct characteristics, which represent their place of origin—much like Enkidu himself.
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