It’s a blustery fall morning in Manhattan, and I somehow find myself in the basement of a nondescript hotel, awaiting the arrival of Food Network star, restaurateur, celebrity chef, cookbook author, baby food entrepreneur, former Applebee’s spokesman, husband, father, instagram addict and now, apparently, winemaker, Tyler Florence. Appropriately enough, we’re meeting in the Bacchus Room, and we’re about to taste Tyler Florence Wines, the, ahem, fruit of his collaboration with the legendary Michael Mondavi family in Napa Valley.
If it sounds like I’m being sarcastic about Florence, I’m not. When I was just starting to feel comfortable in the kitchen as a young guy, his book Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen helped put me over the top. The recipes were easy; his descriptions straightforward. Plus, he comes off as all flashy on TV, but when he walks in the room to meet me, a gray-flecked stubble in place of his usual smooth-shaved mug, he’s just like any 41-year-old dude who is in town to show off his product — Napa wines mostly in the $20-$65 range.
Over the next hour, we’ll taste (and spit, it being morning) five Tyler Florence wines, and he’ll speak passionately and at length about the Pinots and Cabernets, the winemaking methods, the science, the goals — “I want to build up a wine that is respected and popular. I want the wine be a reflection of who I truly am, and we have to be careful about that so it doesn’t seem like a branding exercise.” And we’ll talk about his new cookbook (Fresh, out next month), his Bay Area restaurants, his family and his fame, even what sets him apart from fellow Food Network star Guy Fieri, who just opened a new restaurant practically over our heads in Times Square. “He’s making money, God bless him,” Florence says. “He’s got new tires for his monster truck. Good for him. It’s a different approach.”
The condensed, edited interview starts now…
Your site for Tyler Florence Wines tells the story about how you and Rob Mondavi Jr. connected and started making these wines…
I thought it would be interesting for a chef and winemaker to collaborate and make really epic food wine that blends with just about anything you could ever want to enjoy. We kept that as our philosophy and we are really excited about it. This is not an exercise like Guy Fieri salsa or something like that. It’s not that in the slightest and I’m very passionate about it.
So you guys are actually sitting down, eating meals and actually making the wine?
I’m there for every single bit of it. We just cleared out the second half of our Pinot. Right now, all of our Sauvignon Blanc is in fermentation and our Pinot is going to the barrels. To me, it’s just such a glorious process to go out and smell what Napa smells like at 6:45 in the morning, getting your hands dirty and start picking the grapes.
You’re actually going out and doing that yourself?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s not like I have anything to prove, it’s just that I love it. I want to own every bit of it from an idea standpoint. It’s an awesome process. It’s something that humanity has been doing for tens of thousands of years.
Were you always this into wine?
Absolutely. I started washing dishes in restaurants when I was 15 and I always sat in when the wine salesmen would come in and the sommeliers would have conversations with the wait staff. Now that I’m a wine restaurant owner, our wine must be taken very seriously. It’s either white or red or blend, and it’s either good or bad, and that’s one way to look at it, but I see the humanity in it. There is a person and a varietal and a terroir and a year. This is my fifth harvest and no two years are the same. Last year was a disaster.
Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had problems with weather in California.
Yeah. Central Valley is like a cartoon and every year is the same and lovely, perfect California sunny weather. But Northern California’s microclimates are either fabulous or not so fabulous. You end up getting good wine but it’s how much you get out of it that makes all the difference. Last year was very cold, very damp and a foggy summer, and you don’t really get the complexity of the wine that you are really looking for. We ended up getting some really great grapes, but not a lot of them.
What about the most recent harvest?
This year was a storybook California summer: long, beautiful, glorious days with cool mornings. The reason we harvested at 6:45 is because when you touch them, the [grapes] are refrigerator cold. If you pick them at 3 in the afternoon, the sugars are starting to ferment. As soon as you pick them, nature takes over and they start the decomposition process. It’s such a fascinating exercise in creating something glorious and natural and it’s something that I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.
You are in so many businesses and you probably have money managers. The restaurant business is bad, but the wine business is even harder, right? Did anyone try to stop you?
I think when you see a business that is really fractioned and where no one has a massive market share, that’s a wide-open situation where you can clearly make a distinction. The quality has to be there and people have to know you are serious about what you are doing. I own a baby food company called Sprout, and we started nine years ago. We’re the fourth largest baby food [company] in the U.S. right now and that didn’t happen overnight. Same thing with the wine business. We’re not blowing up, but I don’t want to blow up. Blowing up is for children. I want to be really good.
So how do you control the quality?
We’re very particular about what we blend and about the editing process – almost like a filmmaker who goes and shoots and shoots and shoots. When we start the blending, we essentially take a week off and lock ourselves in a lab. You walk in and master a flavor. You start to develop a winemaking style. When we’re all dead and gone and hopefully these are on someone’s shelf someplace, they can hopefully crack it open and say, “This is something that tastes good.”
That’s pretty philosophical. Do you actually think about immortality through wine?
That’s exactly what it is. It’s a time capsule. I enjoy the process because I enjoy the product, but I enjoy the lore just as much. When you see rare wines from 70 years ago go to auction, somebody made that! That’s what I really love about it.
So you have Fresh coming out next month. This is your first book since when?
We published Family Meal in 2010 and we produced Start Fresh in 2011, which is a cookbook [aimed] towards parents with young children. It gives parents a direction to go in from the first spoon of food and helps parents understand how children react to food so we can make a difference from a very early age. When Jamie Oliver in the first season of Food Revolution is sitting in a class of first graders and holding up vegetables and they don’t know what they are, I think that’s too late.
You have to start making a difference in a child’s life via nutrition from the very first spoon of food that you put in their mouth. It’s got to be densely nutritious and it has to taste amazing. Baby food companies don’t necessarily understand that because it’s designed by scientists and thought up by marketing people. No one in the middle took taste into consideration, because they assumed that children can’t taste or can’t complain. But would you eat something that you don’t like? Your infant feels the same way.
What about the new book?
Our new book is taking the idea of California food — the philosophy of the word “fresh” — and the first part is political and talks about where we got off track as a country about 40 years ago, why we’re overweight, how this food slipped into our food system and what we don’t know about it. It starts a conversation about owning your own health and owning what you put in your body.
You’ve done some commercials for some food companies, though, who don’t really have the best reputations.
If you are going to affect change, you have to affect change at a high level. Applebee’s paid me a lot of money, dude – they paid me $3 million for 10 recipes and 10 days of my life.
That’s hard to turn down.
It wasn’t so much that it is hard to turn down, because we did turn it down five times. I got into business with them because I thought we could actually make a difference on a really broad level. It’s the largest restaurant corporation in the world and we completely changed their pipeline and got them to think about fresh ingredients. Instead of a fried piece of chicken, it was a roasted piece of chicken. We got ingredients into their menu that actually had a pretty decent level of nutrition and tasted really great, and things that they had never thought of before. We were even in conversation to bring organics to Applebee’s.
So you said that the intro of Fresh has a bit of a political slant to it? What is the cookbook really about?
The cookbook is about taking personal ownership of your health and nutrition. You are what you eat – there is a face behind a tomato and there is a story behind a clam. There are stories behind micronutrients that you aren’t even aware of – like how good quail eggs are for you. I locked myself in my office for about six months – the recipes are stunning and the photography is beautiful. It’s a very pure book. The conversation is really about how amazing ingredients are for your health and what you eat has massive impact on your body at a cellular level.
Was it a challenge to write?
It was the hardest book I’ve ever done. This one took me about 14 months to make because it’s kind of wordy, but I think that the information is fantastic. It’s also the first thing that I’ve done in a long time that didn’t have an immediate Food Network filter attached to it. This is really the other side of the coin – it’s me from a chef’s perspective. It’s not Eleven Madison Park, which you can never make at home, but it’s food that is incredibly well thought-through and the flavors are just awesome.
We have a design section on Food Republic. Can you tell me about the labels and bottles you’ve chosen and what kind of thought goes into that?
I designed everything. Everything has the same DNA – this font is the same font we have on our brand and logos. With our big tier [of higher priced wines], we really wanted something that had a handwritten feel to it. I found some library cards from the 1930s that had notes and signatures from when people checked books out. I thought there was something very simple about that – it was a different age and a different time – and I thought that was compelling. I basically designed our big tier wines after a library card in the 1930s. I write all this myself and the “blend number four” on the top is what the final combination was, when we felt we got it perfect. It changes every year.
What’s the ratio of the blend of the Sauvignon Blanc, for instance?
It’s 100% Sauvignon Blanc but it changes because no two years are the same. We start out matching what we did last year and taste it. We question whether we like it — maybe not because the amount of days of direct sunlight was different; there was more rain, we harvested earlier. We always taste the first thing we ever did and know that that’s the goal or that we want to make it better. It always goes slightly different and we develop a winemaking style. It’s about developing clarity – a high definition channel – and there are no distractions. Have you seen Ratatouille?
When Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille and drops the pin and goes into his mind and sees himself as a child, that’s the high definition channel. When you taste something that is the definition, it is supposed to just hit it.
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