Leo Steen: California's Chenin Champion
Leo Steen is winemaker and owner of his namesake brand, Leo Steen Wines. Based in Sonoma, Leo crafts small lots (less than 1000 cases per year total!) of Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Syrah from select vineyards across California. Leo's wines were featured in the April 2018 Vinfluence shipment. Enjoy my interview with Leo!
How did wine first come into your life?
I was born and raised in Denmark as the son of a chef and hotelier, so food and wine have always been part of my life—I started working in my father’s kitchen at the age of 12. When I was older, I studied at the Kolding Hotel and Restaurant School. During my four-year apprenticeship there, I was very fortunate to work alongside Orla Farmann, a famed Danish Sommelier, and he helped me develop my palate, and further deepened my love of wine.
What brought you to California?
Over the next several years, my love of wine took me many places, from Alsace, Loire, Champagne and Burgundy; also Spain and Italy. Those travels culminated in my certification as a European sommelier, and in 1997, I became the wine director at Kong Hans, Copenhagen’s first one-star Michelin guide restaurant. It was my work at Kong Hans that took me to California to scout out new wines for our list. I felt an immediate connection with California’s vibrant winemaking scene—both the quality of its wines and the freedom given to its winemakers.
In 1999, I moved to California to immerse myself in winemaking firsthand. I spent the next several years working days in wineries and nights as a sommelier. At the same time, I complemented my practical experience by studying chemistry, viticulture and winemaking. I founded Leo Steen Wines in 2004, the same year that I became head winemaker at Stuhlmuller Vineyards an acclaimed, family-run winery in the Alexander Valley.
Why did you choose to focus on the varietals you do?
When I founded Leo Steen Wines in 2004, I wanted to look beyond the standards—Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon—and instead offer people unique and interesting varietals. In many ways, it is only fitting that the centerpiece of my winemaking efforts are Chenin Blancs. Steen is my family’s middle name, and it is also the South African name for Chenin Blanc. I have long been fascinated by this sleek and elegant varietal.
What do you look for when selecting vineyards to work with?
As a winemaker, you learn over time that vineyards are like people—they are living, evolving entities that are shaped by the dual forces of nature and nurture. Some vineyards are beautiful and perfectly manicured; others eloquently show their years in the gnarl of their old vines, with roots that twist deep into the earth.
What thrills and inspires me as a winemaker are vineyards that are rich in character, sites that translate into expressive and enthralling wines that give pleasure, but also make you think. Ultimately, making wines that let the vineyards speak is not enough—a vineyard needs to have something worthwhile to say. The vineyards we work with do just this. They are singular sites that yield equally distinctive wines.
How would you characterize your approach to winemaking?
All of my wines are made by my own hand in small lots using gentle, traditional winemaking techniques. In the spectrum of California winemaking, I pick earlier for lower alcohols, ferment with natural yeasts, use very modest amounts of new oak, or none at all. While my wines offer lovely fruit, I strive to express the purity of these flavors as part of a balanced and harmonious whole. I’m looking for that place where style and vineyard authenticity naturally meet. Finally, to ensure that every barrel of wine receives the attention it deserves, I make less than 1,000 cases each vintage.
Do you have a specific goal for Leo Steen Wines?
I strive to make interesting wines with both a sense of place and a purpose. For me, the “purpose” of my wines has become a quintessential element in my winemaking philosophy. As a sommelier, I guided people through an exploration of the timeless relationship between wine and food. I loved thinking about how food and wine worked together and offering people choices beyond the obvious. The satisfaction of introducing people to new varietals from exciting, undiscovered vineyards and showing how these wines enhanced great food, was and continues to be, thrilling for me.
Besides you, who makes up the Leo Steen Wines team?
My wife, Debbie Hansen, handles all the behind the scenes. She helps with production, sales, and whatever else comes along. We enjoy traveling together with out boys, Max and Aksel, to investigate vineyards near and far.
What is your favorite thing about working in wine?
Working with Mother Nature is always fascinating and ever changing. Constantly creating a twist to every new vintage. Making wine is such and evolving living joy and I love working with nature to create special wine. From a practical side, I like the diversity in the daily work, I thrive on wearing many different hats.
When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?
Being from Denmark, I grew up in a beer culture. During harvest I do drink a lot of beer. Hot days working in the California sun gives me a craving for a light refreshing beer. Besides beer, I am a big fan of avec—not just the drinking part, but sniffing them and checking them out, especially old rum and Armagnac.
Lastly, if you weren’t a winemaker or sommelier, what would you be?
When I was young, my dream was to be a veterinarian, but at the time many years in school seemed overwhelming.