Crush Season with City Winery Nashville’s Winemaker, Bill Anton

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When I received an invitation to tour City Winery Nashville’s winery, I was both excited and curious. I’ve very much enjoyed going to City Winery for memorable concerts and wonderful wine events that are both educational and fun. But regarding the wine itself- can an urban winery truly make expressive wine? Well, I can report back that it absolutely can be done, and that Bill Anton, City Winery Nashville winemaker, is doing just that.  

If you’ve been to the Nashville City Winery, you may have noticed the wall of windows in the back of the main concert venue, with shelves of barrels lining it from floor to ceiling. That’s not just for decoration- you’re looking into the cellar where they actually make the wine, and those barrels are full of next year’s goodies! The winemaking facility itself is relatively small, approx. 2800-3000 sq. ft., but Bill is using every inch that he can for production. We began our tour with Bill lifting up the garage door to the CW cellar, as he showed me where trucks pull up to deliver the grapes, sourced from high-end growers in California, Oregon, and Washington state. These clusters waste no time coming off the refrigerated trucks and onto the sorting table, where they are de-stemmed, sorted, and then crushed. Next, they move into their new homes for fermentation, whether that be stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. I asked Bill which of this year’s vintage he is most excited about, “This vintage has been a bit different than the past few years, being that it’s a little later. So far, all the crop that has been received has been very well balanced. Our Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills shows promise.” 

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And with that, Bill walked me up to the catwalk to show me the cap on this promising 2018 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. A cap is the layer of grape solids that naturally rise to the top during fermentation. Because fermentation produces CO2, heat and alcohol as byproducts, the grape skins and any stems or seeds get pushed to the top. You can actually feel the heat if you place your hand even relatively near the fermenting wine. Proper cap management is absolutely vital to winemaking, as you don’t want all that heat trapped under the cap- it would ruin the wine. I noticed that resting near us were Bill’s handwritten instructions to his staff for punching down (literally breaking up and pushing down the cap with a handheld tool) and pumping over (circulating the wine from the bottom of the tank over the top by a hose). Good man.  

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Grabbing a couple glasses, he then led me over to a small row of oak barrels, where his Barrel Fermented Chardonnay from Scopus Vineyards in Sonoma Mountain, CA is doing just that- fermenting. Bill expertly extracted some wine from the barrel bunghole (yes, that’s actually what the hole in a barrel is called), and poured a taste of the hazy, lemon-colored juice. Not at all what I expected- it was on its way to being a crisp, citrus-driven chardonnay. Bill wanted to retain the freshness and more subtle characteristics that are often lost in the oak bombs we’re used to. “I look at a barrel as a spice rack. Each one adds a different character and different toast levels that you can mix and match,” he explained. Obviously, I’m digging what Bill has in the works…so what makes him tick? 

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The former professional horse jockey had always loved food and wine as he traveled, but a 1976 Chateau LaTour was the “ah-ha” wine that took his interest to a new level. Bill values old world, low intervention winemaking. “I like to let the wine do it’s thing,” he told me as he explained their methods of minimal fining and low sulfites. He makes wine with the goal of an elegant, full expression of the grape, without unnecessarily complicating things. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to have some fun with winemaking. We walked over to an upright barrel, and as he removed a tarp, I was met with a beautiful, rich purple cap of grape skins- a small batch Petite Syrah, fermenting in a Nelson’s Green Brier Bourbon barrel. Bill reached in, dug through the thick grapes, and revealed the pungent, bubbling juice of fermentation. I couldn’t help but geek out over seeing the science in action.  

Now that I understood Bill’s personal preferences and old world style, I had to wonder if this translates well in Nashville. I mean, we’re not exactly known for our fine wine, we’re more of a beer and whiskey town. However, the city has gained an influx of ridiculously talented chefs and elevated restaurants which are quickly raising the bar. I’m noticing a lot more wine menus expanding their horizons, and even featuring funkier natural wines that bend the norm of the typical American palate. So I asked Bill what the “Nashville palate” is. He answered that it’s all about the big, fruit forward reds and refreshing whites. And while he’s playing with slightly more obscure (and potentially intimidating) varieties like Marsanne and Rousanne, the final wines are branded with City Winery Nashville’s catchy, approachable labels. “I want to take the snobby-ness out of wine. There’s no wrong or right in wine, it’s what you like.”  

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I couldn’t agree more, and I love that City Winery Nashville is creating an even playing field, where someone may fall in love with a variety that is totally new to them because it’s available on tap. It could even become their “ah-ha” wine. And on the flip side, experienced drinkers can enjoy the diversity of their wine menu and come in to hone their tasting techniques at the restaurant or in a class. Want to dabble in winemaking yourself? You can even get a Barrel Membership, where you’ll literally be part of the winemaking process, owning your own barrel full of wine customized to your liking. I think it’s pretty great that we have this sort wine oasis in Nashville, full of music, know-how, and of course, delicious wine. So thank you to Bill and the whole City Winery Nashville team for opening your doors to this wine lover. Cheers to hard work and a delicious reward, I can’t wait for us all to taste the actual fruits of your labor! 

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As a Scout & Cellar Wine Consultant and full time Sign Language Interpreter, Laura believes in truly loving what you do every day. After leaving the actress life in LA, she moved to Nashville four years ago, and continues to find more that she loves about the city. Community is key to Laura, so don’t be surprised if she cooks you a meal, pours you a glass, and dives into deep conversation; you'll be friends in no time.