Happy Nights: A Chat with Don Felipe Hernandez of Feliz Noche Cellars
Since 2001, Don Felipe Hernandez has been producing wines under his Santa Barbara County-based “Feliz Noche” label. “It means ‘happy nights’,” Hernandez says. “If you have a good glass of wine at night, it’s a happy night.” The label itself is modest—nearly home-made looking—but despite having been advised to contemporize it, Hernandez refuses to make any changes. “It has the moon, sky and stars,” he continues. “It’s been the same since day one. I think it’s beautiful.”
Since its founding 15 years ago, Feliz Noche Cellars has grown from 50 to 600 cases annually. Hernandez hopes to top off production at 1,000—“No more. I can put my nose into every single barrel if I don’t grow more than 1,000 cases.” Hernandez anthropomorphizes his wines, calling them his ‘babies,’ as we taste through the wide breadth of varietal wines he makes out of a small cellar on the Koehler Winery property in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation of Santa Barbara County. Property owner Peter Koehler “has a very good heart to let me make my wines here. He is a special person.”
Hernandez makes all of the wines himself, and watches over them regularly and with great intention. “It takes a long time to make a wine, so it should take time for it to taste good. You have to wait until the wine is ready to be released. Doing that is insurance. I don’t want to risk what I’m doing. You have to be patient to make it and patient to release it. This is very important. Making wine is very time-consuming; it’s three years of babysitting. You have to be on top of things all the time. From the day they go to barrel you have to protect your wines. I top off my barrels every two weeks. That’s like religion here. Every two weeks. Every two weeks.” Many of Hernandez’s most recent red releases are from the 2009 vintage. In addition to the three years they spend in-barrel, he likes to practice extended bottle aging, “You have to release a wine when it tastes good, and that takes patience.”
Drawing fruit mostly from the Koehler, Hernandez produces a wide breadth of wines, including his Mi Pasión red blend—an equal-parts blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo and Syrah. “I was going to call it “Mi Locura”—my craziness—but my mentor told me to think of a better name, so I came up with Mi Pasión, My Passion.”
Hernandez met his mentor, a Frenchman named Ramon, in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1976. Koehler had just hired this French consultant to “teach us how to grow vines better and make wines,” says Hernandez. The two men couldn’t understand each other—Ramon spoke mostly French, while Hernandez spoke only Spanish at the time, so as Ramon demonstrated how to graft, build a cordon trellis, manage the canopy, etc., Hernandez translated the instructions into drawings he kept inside a notebook he carried in his breast pocket.
He crossed the border from Jalisco, Mexico only four years earlier when he was 15 years old. “I came to Santa Barbara to work in the fields of Santa Ynez, and I helped plant the Koehler vineyard in 1972. I didn’t even know what a grapevine looked like when I came here. I had never seen one before.” Though Hernandez’s knowledge of winegrowing and winemaking is vast these days, he remains highly inquisitive. “I like to listen to radio stations from other countries, even if I don’t know the language. I was listening to a Canadian radio station and there was a winemaker speaking French on this show, and I could tell he was talking about wine because he started to name barrel makers. So I remembered the barrel makers and I just ordered one of the barrels he said he liked. I want to learn for myself why he liked those barrels.”
At 61 years old, Hernandez has no plans of retiring anytime soon. In addition to making Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah, to name but a few, Hernandez also makes a Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir—a beautiful, delicate outlier in his lineup. A few nights after tasting with Hernandez, I pour two of his Pinot Noirs blind for my tasting group, Wines Without Borders. We’ve been together for just over a decade now and we’re comprised of many winemakers, winegrowers and one chef. In blind flights of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the Sonoma Coast, the Willamette Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, the winemakers in my tasting group guessed that the Feliz Noche Pinot Noirs were the Burgundies in both flights.
“My wines don’t get older. They get younger every year,” Hernandez says with confidence. And, indeed, his 2009 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir from the Rio Vista Vineyard is fresh, bright and savory. I ask him if he included stems in this vibrant Pinot and, though he does occasionally use stems for some of his wines, he didn’t with this particular Pinot Noir. “If you use the right barrel, you don’t need stems for the fruit from this vineyard. There are some vineyards that need stems —to give them a little body—but not from Rio Vista. The fruit is big and expressive enough.”
The aging, he maintains, makes all the difference in his finished wines. “The problem is that a lot of people put wines into a new barrel for only 11 months and then they want to sell. The wine tastes nice at the beginning, but then falls apart because it was not well-aged.” Typically Hernandez ages his red wines for three years in the barrel. He also uses a combination of “neutral, old and new barrels. If you use too much new wood, you kill the juice,” he adds.
When I ask Hernandez to describe his consumer base, he tells me, “All kinds of people buy my wines, from L.A. to New York.” His brand manager joins us for our tasting and prods Hernandez to tell me about an A-list actor who buys Hernandez’s wines 10 cases at a time. Though his brand manager drops the actor’s name, Hernandez stops me short of jotting it down, “That is not important. He’s just a man. When he first tasted my wines (at a restaurant trade tasting in Los Angeles) he was dressed like a homeless man. He didn’t want to be recognized.” Hernandez maintains that his wines sell mostly from “word-of-mouth” buzz. “My customers tell other people about my wines, and then they show up here and want to buy. That’s how we sell a lot.”
When asked to describe his approach to winegrowing, Hernandez says, “Every year is different. First of all, you have to make sure that the minerals are there for the vines, because they eat like us—they have to eat healthy to be healthy. Rule number two is you have to read the water gauge every year and see how much rain you get, then be on top of it. If you don’t have enough rain, you have to compensate with irrigation. You have to really manage the water in the ground in order to have the fruit be the same every year. Otherwise, the fruit is always all over the place. Don’t stress the plants at the beginning of the season—stress them at the end. Use less water closer to harvest. A lot of people use water right before harvest because they want a lot of weight in the fruit, but that’s not the time to use it. The fruit loses flavor that way.”
Hernandez’s 2009 Grenache is a restrained, balanced and lovely effort. “A lot of people around here manipulate Grenache because they want more color in it so they add Syrah, but it should have a lighter color.” I tell Hernandez about Rayas, which he has never heard of, and I cite its light color and black tea and citrus peel aromatics—qualities apparent in his Grenache as well. I find it endlessly fascinating that many of Hernandez’s wines carry within them the kind of typicity demonstrated by some of the world’s great benchmark wines, yet he hasn’t had many of those wines. It’s a luxury he cannot afford. “Maybe my wines taste like the wines you’re talking about—from France, and other places—because I make them in an old-fashioned way. I learned from my mentor, a French man. He taught me old-world techniques.” Hernandez didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time spent with his mentor. “He taught me for two harvests, and then he died of a heart attack. He was a great man. He taught me so much.”
I’m also very fond of Hernandez’s Sauvignon Blanc, and tell him so, enjoying its bracing acidity and linearity. “Sauvignon Blanc is very touchy,” Hernandez tells me. “Too many people remove too many leaves from the canopy. The sun beats it up. Then it tastes like Chardonnay. You have to keep the leaves on the canopy. Sauvignon Blanc loves that. Not too much sun. The right word for Sauvignon Blanc is ‘crisp.’ It has to be crisp.”
His Tempranillo includes 50% stem inclusion. “There was a couple who came to taste from Los Angeles. They said that my Tempranillo tasted like the wines of Spain. They asked, ‘How do you do this?,’” he says, chuckling. I ask him why he chose to make a Tempranillo in the first place; it’s not a variety widely planted in Santa Barbara County. “A few years ago, an English guy told me ‘you have to plant Tempranillo,’ so I grafted some over. I think the climate here is good for it. I like it very much.” Indeed, Hernandez’s Tempranillo is reminiscent of Spain’s Ribera del Duero’s offerings—regal, earthy, nuanced. His is surprising in its sophistication.
When I tell Hernandez that I love his Cabernet Sauvignon, he’s seems very pleased. “I play a lot with the barrels for this wine. It either has to be the same every year, or better—never worse—so I play a lot with barrels to make sure I’m using the right ones for each vintage.” How does he like his Cabernet? “It has to be big, but not too big, because it has to go with food. It has to have some spice in it. And it has to go with red meat.”
We’ve been sitting inside his cold, small cellar for hours when I ask if I can stand and stretch. We go outside, where there’s a chilly breeze, but an early sun peeking through the clouds warms us a little. He pours his Riesling for me. Despite being impressed with Hernandez’s wines thus far, I’m dubious as to how I’ll like his Riesling. It’s hard to find an American Riesling with just the right amount of petrol, feral notes, lively fruit and an inherent balance between acidity and viscosity. Happily, the Feliz Noche Riesling delivers on all fronts. “It’s good, isn’t it?,” he asks, smiling broadly. “It’s very beautiful, and it ages well.” I ask Hernandez if he ever worries about whether or not people will enjoy his wines. “If I like them, I know other people will. This little palate I have—there are a lot of palates like that out there.” I ask him if by “little” he means “inexperienced.” He says, “Yes,” and explains that while there are many people who have never had the world’s greatest wines, they know what they like. “There are a lot of new ways to make wines; people manipulate them with tannins, and other things. For me, if I have good fruit, I know I can make good wine. I make wines the old-fashioned way—with good fruit. And then the right barrels. That’s all.”
We round out our tasting by delving into his 2015 Chardonnay, only the second time he’s made Chardonnay in his life. It’s a real beauty—at least according to my palate, which favors leaner Chardonnays—possessing some salinity and not a lot of butter or oak. “The clone we grow here is very special for this climate. It’s clone 4. The plants are very mature—over 40 years old—so the wine is very high-quality. It’s very important to use the right barrel for this wine. There are barrels that will kill this juice. This was aged in a lot of neutral barrels.”
A few days prior to our interview, Hernandez attended a seminar about pruning, ever eager to learn something new. “Some Italian farmers came here to teach us how to prune better. They told us what we were doing was wrong, and they were right! That’s important for every human being: to have an open mind and listen to other individuals. You can learn from anyone. Even if you think someone cannot teach you anything, if you listen to them, you will learn something.”
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