Joe Freeman, Winemaker for The Rubin Family of Wines: Hearing The Vines Speak

Joe Freeman, Winemaker for The Rubin Family of Wines: Hearing The Vines Speak


Joe Freeman, Winemaker for The Rubin Family of Wines: Hearing The Vines Speak




Featured Interview Written By:

Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham

Joe Freeman remembers hearing somewhere that in the process of winemaking, there are about 300 different decisions that have to be made throughout the year, “and a lot of those decisions involve deciding not to do anything.”

I decide I really like this. I like that winemaking can’t be distilled into a soul-less system, ten rigid steps. It means that every wine is truly unique. No wine can ever be exactly duplicated. As Freeman says, winemaking is “not a template and it’s not a flowchart. But we know exactly when to make determinations on each of our vineyard blocks.”

So winemakers like Freeman, who works for the Rubin Family of Wines in Sebastopol, California (, seem to rely partly on knowledge and experience, but partly on instinct, too. As Freeman walks among the vines, he seems to have honed a talent for hearing them speak. As he listens, he asks, “What are these vines telling me they need to be?

True artistry of winemaking

Joe_barrels_1-300x225It would seem that the true artistry of winemaking is found at the intersection of information and intuition.

Freeman gave me a closer look at what those hundreds of little tweaks of winemaking look like. He said having the right equipment was important, “where you’re not going to interfere with the expression. And then, once you’ve got those grapes into these tanks, you’re looking at yeast selection, fermentation temperatures, how much time in the fermenter, how much handling, how many times are we punching those grape skins into juice every day? (There are) numerous different ways we can impact the final quality of that wine.”

He continued, “It carries into the barrels and which cooperage and what particular forest sources and toasting techniques we’re using…the way that we handle and care for those wines as they’re in the barrels. We can basically fine-tune every aspect of that process from growing the grapes, all the way through to when the wines are in bottle and we’re determining when to start sharing them with the public. When are they ready and when are they expressing their maximum potential?”

When Freeman brought the conversation around to barrels, my curiosity was piqued. “Hey, can we talk about oak for a minute?” I asked. I’m no wine expert. I’m continually learning. And along the way, it seemed I’d heard so much said about “oak-y” flavors in wine, alongside floral, herbal and fruit flavors. Now I understood that a wine could have a cranberry-like flavor without containing actual cranberries. So I wondered – how does the “oak” get in there? Does it always seep in from the barrel, or are some grapes inherently oak-y right from the vine?

Woody characteristics

Freeman was generous with his explanation. “The wines would never be naturally oak-y,” he told me, “but there are other woody characteristics that you might get, depending on the grapes and depending on the fermentation techniques. But if you pick up a green, sappy, or a resin-y character, that may be from stems that were in the fermenter, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes, you get dusty or hay aromas that just seem to be the result of particular yeasts strands or fermentation characteristics.

“But once you get into actual oak-y character, whether it’s a plank-y, raw wood, or some of the different more enjoyable characteristics like vanilla, custard, caramel, (or) some of the clove, cinnamon, spice, or even some char — all those things are coming from oak barrels. You have to be really careful with the use of oak barrels because we don’t want to make whisky, we’re making wine. So we want the character of the grapes to be the star of the show. And… we want (the wood) to be a supporting element.”

I wondered, then, since wooden barrels are responsible for adding so many flavor dimensions to wine, how might a winemaker choose a barrel? At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I asked Freeman, “Is there such a thing as barrel-tasting? I mean, how do you decide?” I imagined someone like Freeman requesting barrel swatches from a cooperage. I mused, “Do you lick wood chips or something?

To my relief, Freeman didn’t laugh. “Your instincts are really quite good,” he said kindly, and explained, “When we’re working with a new cooperage or a new type of barrel that they’re producing with different forest sourcing or different type of toasting, we’ll actually bring in a few barrels of this new style and trial it one year…So we’re taking that same wine that we’ve pressed off of those fermented grapes and we’re putting it into twelve different barrels. And we’ll watch how that wine evolves. It is amazing how impactful one barrel can be against another barrel over the course of four, or six, or nine months, or 14 months in some cases…you can almost get a sense for the flavors and aromatics you’re going to get from a barrel by smelling the new barrel before you fill it.”

Joe with barrelsJust as with the many decisions that go into the craft of winemaking, it would seem another whole universe of variables goes into the making of barrels, from cultivating particular trees in specific parts of the world, to toasting the barrels at different temperatures and for varying lengths of time. Freeman calls it “a really, really cool process,” and conveniently, Rubin’s associate winemaker Ed Morris comes from a coopering background. A “barrel nerd”, you might say. And to be clear, I say that with reverence.

Pams Un-Oaked ChardnonnayPamela - Un-oakedIt seemed fitting that I should get an education in oak from the Rubin Family of Wines, considering that they’re the first winery I’ve discovered that offers “unoaked” wines specifically: Pam’s Un-oaked and Pamela’s Un-oaked. So if the thought of all that toasty, charred caramel barrel seepage turns your stomach, you have alternatives.

Freeman shared, “When Ron (Rubin) came in, he purchased the winery in 2011, and his wife Pam does not like oak at all. So he asked if we could do something for her on some of the chardonnay we’re making.”

I kind of dig the oak-y thing myself, but as Freeman explained, “For some reason, the oak is a bad signature flavor and aroma to a lot of people. It just makes the experience completely unenjoyable from the get-go.” But the Rubin Family of Wines recognized that while rejecting the oak qualities, these folks were also missing out on the beauty in chardonnay. “Putting two un-oaked chardonnays out there gives us an opportunity to express chardonnay in different ways,” says Freeman.

Wine can be a beautiful experience for anyone with any type of palette. In fact, the Rubin Family of Wines has chosen for its slogan, “A beautiful experience”. It’s even how they sign their emails. Let their appreciation for the unending variety of beauty add a beautiful experience to your life.

To learn more about The Rubin Family of Wines, please visit them online at



Pams Un-Oaked ChardnonnayWe truly enjoyed this Chardonnay. The majority of our group conducting the New Bottle Experience for the Pam’s Un-Oaked Chardonnay 2013 truly loved the flavors and smoothness of this wine.

This lively Un-Oaked Chardonnay is perfect for a backyard BBQ. Refreshingly fruity and light-bodied with a touch of sweetness, this wine is bursting with flavors of Golden Delicious apples, Asian pears and tangerine blossoms.


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