A Conversation with Kent Humphrey of Eric Kent Wines

When you pick up a bottle of Eric Kent wine, you know it. There’s no line drawing of an elaborate château, no fancy script, no coat of arms. What you see is an arresting piece of art or a poem, and, though each label is done by a different artist, there’s a sensibility that connects them. It’s a sense of humor. It’s a sense of whimsy. It’s a sense that you’ve entered a world through an artist’s unique looking glass.

At the heart of that sensibility is the husband-and-wife team of Kent Humphrey (winemaker) and Colleen Teitgen (curator). They’ve been making wine since 2003, but the art came first. Kent studied French literature; Colleen went to art school. “Art was a part of it from the get go,” says Kent, whom I got to chat with yesterday. “We began determined to keep the art pure. We don’t commission artists, so they’re not thinking about what they might do if they were going to make a wine label. It starts with the art—we want to show that artist to the world.”

The art on the label certainly draws you in, but stay for the wines. They’re soulful: single-varietal bottlings from Sonoma—mostly Pinot, Chard, and Syrah—from an ever-growing stable of excellent vineyard sites. When talking with Kent, I got a sense that that desire to sort of purely put art out in the world translates to their philosophy on winemaking. It’s not style- or trend-driven, but guided by each vineyard’s own idiosyncratic strength. Kent says, “There have been very polarizing movements in wine. The old school approach to California wine, then a decade or two ago wines were made for critical palates, then there was the backlash against that. We’ve seen the pendulum swing from one to the other. There are always people at the forefront of movements but I have chosen to not be at the front of the trend, but to make a balanced wine. Our team tries to achieve a refinement in the middle, it’s not about the easy extreme.”

Colleen is an artist herself—a painter photographer, dancer, dj. Kent, too, is a jack of many trades. He was on track to be a professor of French lit before he got a distaste for the politics of academia. He then landed in advertising—a far cry from the ivory tower but a good match for the writing skills he’d picked up in the humanities. But wine was a long-time hobby for Kent, one he’d developed as an exchange student in France, built on an appreciation he’d learned from his family, who’d always had wine at dinner and let him drink it mixed with water from a young age. “I had an understanding that some tasted good and some tasted bad. That grabbed my attention. So then when I decided I wanted to make it more than my hobby I was looking back at what we enjoyed ourselves. A large majority were from Sonoma.” He began with one vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and from there his contacts and his collection of vineyards grew.

After 15 years, they’re deeply enmeshed in the Sonoma, and Kent talked quite a bit about this idea of community, especially after the fires last year, when their house was burned down. “We were reduced to literally the shirts on our backs. We had to get out of the car and run on foot.” The community rallied around Kent and Colleen and their two kids and dog. Kent called it “life affirming.” The more Kent and I talked, the more it became clear that community has become the heart of it for him: “I started out in wine thinking that it was all about the wine, and I now have this really strong feeling that it’s all about the people who make the wines—the growers, the farmers, the consultants, the winemaking team in its entirety. Wine tells a story that is more than dirt and wine. When you get a group of people together to produce a wine, it says something about that group of people. I’ll make wine out of the very same grapes harvested the same day as someone else, and we’ll make two very different wines, and not because one is making the true wine but because of the people involved.” And that’s the beauty of it, right? It’s not an industrial, predictable product. It’s a reflection of a moment and a place and the sensibility of people who have their noses in a glass. Kent and his team are definitely telling a story with their wine, and they’re showcasing some innovative artists who are telling theirs. Along the way, they’re making terrific wines with a whole lot of heart.

- Kate Soto