Blake and Tracy Eliasson Blend Science and Tradition at Settembre Cellars
Tracy and Blake Eliasson in the barrel room at Settembre Cellars.
Blake and Tracy Eliasson, owners of Settembre Cellars in Boulder, met at a wine bar while they were in college — and they weren’t even there for the wine. Trilogy Wine Bar was also a Boulder music venue, and the two went with friends to hear bluegrass. In hindsight, Tracy realizes that the location of their meeting may have been a sign: It wasn’t too long after they married that Blake took up wine-making at home as a hobby. And a few years after that, the couple opened Settembre Cellars, the north Boulder winery where they produce a portfolio of wines from five Colorado-grown varietals.
Blake was working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering when his appreciation of good wine turned into curiosity about how to make it. “I approached it with a Ph.D. mentality — reading everything I could,” he explains. “Eventually, I decided I had to take a whack at it.”
“Blake is definitely a book guy,” Tracy adds. “When we were dating, I asked him if he was ever in Boy Scouts and he said, ‘No, but I read the manual.’”
He purchased wine kits that were basically concentrated grape juice and also bought a stainless-steel fermenting vat because he didn’t like the idea of using plastic vessels. Still, the wines he made weren’t what Blake was hoping for; from his reading, he knew that using whole grapes was the only way to achieve a better result. With the kits, the important aspects of the wine-making process — harvest, press, pasteurization, sugar and acidity levels — were all controlled by someone else. “It’s such a different process,” he notes. “I was never satisfied with the stylistic control; I wanted to control the nuances and balance.”
He decided to start using whole fruit, so he bought a 300-liter fermenting vat (Colorado law allows hobbyists to produce up to 300 gallons of wine per year) and approached Jackie Thompson at Boulder Creek Winery to buy grapes. Boulder Creek was already selling grapes to home winemakers, generally in batches of 50 to 100 pounds. “Blake bought 500 pounds,” remembers Tracy.
“I wanted to use a French oak barrel,” says Blake, explaining the volume of his purchase. “The smallest I could find was a quarter-barrel.” With the grapes from Boulder Creek, he was able to make enough wine to fill that quarter-barrel; the 300-liter fermenter is still in use at Settembre Cellars today (though several larger vats do the bulk of the work).
Getting serious about wine-making, Blake enrolled at the University of California, Davis, where he earned a graduate certificate in enology and viticulture. It was a time of big changes for the Eliassons: Tracy had also decided to go back to school for a second degree in electrical engineering (she still works full-time in that field while helping to run the winery). And in 2007, they started Settembre Cellars in the garage of their Boulder home.
Blake Eliasson lines up wine glasses for a tasting.
In the beginning, they did everything themselves. A “crush crew” of volunteers helped them sort the grapes delivered from various Western Slope vineyards (and still does), but the couple made the wine, then did the bottling, the labeling, the marketing and even the delivery, when the wine was finally ready after two years. Blake offered bicycle delivery to anyone within a small radius of their home.
Last year the Eliassons moved the wine-making operation to a warehouse in north Boulder and added a tasting room (open from 1 to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday), where guests can sample wines in flights or order by the glass. While the new space represents a considerable expansion over the original 400-square-foot garage, Blake’s approach to wine-making still relies on small batches and long amounts of time. Clusters are hand-sorted twice and extended maceration periods (measured in weeks instead of days) allow him to extract the “sense of place” from the grapes.
Blake works with growers to get the best grapes he can at the right time of year. “We’re very committed to Colorado fruit, but we tend to have it picked earlier than other wine-makers do,” he says. “Balance is really, really important. A lot of New World wines are big at the beginning but leave something wanting at the finish.” Instead, Settembre Cellars aims for the qualities of Old World wines from France and Italy. Rather than going for big, jammy fruit flavors, the Eliassons want to make more subtle wines that build in complexity. Their New World chardonnay, for example, is inspired by the wines of the Burgundy region of France; it spends only two months in new French oak barrels and forgoes malolactic fermentation, which gives it a distinct buttery flavor. The grapes come from Bookcliff Vineyards near Palisade, and the result is a bright, acidic white wine that the two think pairs better with food than heavier versions of chardonnay.
Blake’s scientific mind leads him to analyze and measure every step in the vinification process, which he uses to guide the timing of fermentation, aging and bottling. Still, he allows for the possibility of accidental discoveries. Most of the winery’s fermentation tanks are on raised platforms, but one sits directly on the floor. He noticed that a smaller batch in that lower tank was taking longer to ferment and realized that the concrete floor was drawing warmth away from the tank, thus slowing the activity of the yeast. The result was much more complex and nuanced, and he ended up incorporating the slow, extended fermentation into future batches.
Blake also works with riesling, sangiovese, syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes for the various wines he produces. “Sangiovese is not a grape that’s well known in Colorado,” says Tracy. “We know of only five acres.” The lower amount of pigment in those grapes is similar to pinot noir, she adds; customers are always surprised by the structure of Settembre’s Sangiovese despite its light color.
Blake Eliasson with the crush crew in the winery.
Tracy and Blake both love to cook and to pair their wines with food. They’ve recently been working with Dan Hayward, owner of the Boulder branch of Savory Spice Shop, on a series they call “In Search of Synergy,” that offers wine tastings paired with spices chosen by Hayward. Tracy recommends making a visit to the tasting room into an urban picnic, and also stopping at Bookcliff Vineyards and What We Love Winery, two other vintners that share space in the same row of warehouses.
Since the Eliassons are vegetarians, they often pair wines with food they cook at home, and they like to advise other plant-based eaters how to do the same; for vegetarians, it can be difficult to find a wine-pairing dinner at a restaurant that accommodates their diet. Still, they aren’t too uptight about how their customers decide to drink their wine. “We take our wine-making very seriously,” says Tracy, “but we want people to enjoy it however they want.”
Tracy recommends a polenta-and-bleu-cheese dish to go with Settembre’s riesling. She’s also fond of a farro risotto recipe that she picked up from Jim Denevan’s farm-to-table cookbook, Outstanding in the Field. Here’s a version of the farro risotto that she recommends serving with a bottle of Settembre Cellars chardonnay chilled for thirty minutes in an ice bucket.
5 cups vegetable stock
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 small dried red chile (or 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper)
1 large bunch broccoli rabe (1 lb.), with tough stems discarded
1 1/2 cups farro
1/2 cup chardonnay
freshly ground pepper
Bring the stock to a simmer, then reduce to a very low heat to keep warm. Coarsely chop the broccoli rabe. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot (but not smoking). dd the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds (do not brown). Add the broccoli rabe, season with salt, and stir to coat with oil. Cook until the rabe begins to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add about 1/4 cup of the stock and continue to cook until the broccoli rabe is tender and the liquid has evaporated, about 7 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Stir in the farro.
Add 1/2 cup chardonnay to the farro, and pour a glass for yourself. Toast the farro for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally so it does not stick. Add a little hot stock to cover and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. When all of the stock has been absorbed, add more stock. Continue adding stock, and stirring, until the farro is tender and nutty, 20 to 25 minutes in all. You may not need all of the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and let stand for 2 minutes. Spoon the farro into warm bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
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