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50 Premiere

Winemakers of

Napa Valley

Their Insights and Inspirations


All Photographs © Nicola Siso Photography Text © 2013 Nicola Siso Photography This edition copyright © 2013 ISBN: 978-0-9860515-0-0 Design: Nicola Siso Picture Editor: Nicola Siso Interviews by Nicola Siso Cover Page of La Petite Bottling Co. All images and content were used with permission. The Author hereby asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with section 77 to 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages. Printed in China


A Letter from the Photographer The images that move me most are those t h a t r e v e a l a p e r s o n ’s w o r l d . N o t h i n g is more powerful than capturing an expression that plunges you deep into t h a t p e r s o n ’s s o u l . S o m e t i m e s i t ’s a n expression that pours love; sometimes i t ’s a m a p o f o n e ’s e x p e r i e n c e s ; i n a n y case, once seen, an image is imprinted for life. It cannot be voluntarily erased from your mind. An image, therefore, h o l d s a p o w e r, a n a b i l i t y, u n l i k e a n y other format. It can bring you back in time. It can make you laugh out loud. It can change your whole perspective and m a y b e e v e n y o u r l i f e ’s p a t h . I c a n o n l y hope that my photographs capture you with the same level of enthusiasm that I experience taking them. I owe my deepest gratitude to all of the winemakers that took the time to participate in my project. The kindness and genuine nature of each of these masters was so moving to experience. May you continue your passionate work of delivering to the world this great nectar of the Gods that we all get to celebrate our lives with. Much love,

N icol a S iso


Napa’s Magic + Artistic Farmers What is it about Napa Valley that allures the world’s preeminent winemakers? Clearly the terroir contributes to this magnetism, which encompasses the geography, geology and climate of this unique valley. But there is more to this vineyard seduction, and the generations of families and winemakers that make Napa magic… Napa is a small valley, and yet regularly, and reasonably, compared to the countries of France and I taly. This comparison extends beyond the world of wine and terroir, and into the realm of histor y and place. The first winer y in Napa Valley was established in 1858, an early nod to the location’s potential. But it wasn’t until the victories at The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 that the world was forced to take Napa Valley wine seriously. With the opening of that bottle, awards and recognition began to pour in, along with oenophiles (wine lovers), farmers, and winemakers. In many cases these farmers and winemakers are one in the same with second and third generations growing their own roots. These vineyard ar tists must live and breathe with the land, and see beyond the canvas that histor y painted for them. Each har vest nature brings something new. Winemakers must blend their talents and vision with whatever nature ser ves, and create masterpieces that define Napa Valley. You’ll find our world- class masters of winemak ing in the fields, wineries, restaurants and competitions; fighting for their place in histor y, and for the future of Napa Valley. This book represents a collaborative effor t between these ar tist farmers and author, Nicola Siso, to reveal a glimpse at the lives and passions of Napa’s winemakers. -- Ian White


Kirk Venge I had my first experience with wine when I was 4-years-old at my father’s winery, Saddleback. I’d sit on a turned over bucket and watch while my father would basket press Cabernet. I’d taste the black, pressed wine and thought it was pretty impressive to see the ‘cake’ that little press made. Being a winemaker is all I ever wanted to do. The vineyard and winery were where I grew up. It is all I’ve ever known. I feel lucky that I never had to make the decision about what to do or what to be one day. I never had to choose Napa Valley because I was born in Rutherford. But I’m glad to be making wine in one of finest wine regions in the world. My favorite season is spring when the bud break occurs. I have so much anticipation of the season to come. You can tell a lot about a vintage by how it starts. My personal style is to find a middle ground between passion and hands off. Wine style is a reflection of the winemaker. I try to treat each wine on a case by case basis. I do not live life organically, thus I don’t subscribe to those practices but I do love nature and our vineyards are incredibly sustainable. I can be intense, but I try to remain adjusted and relaxed. I certainly am passionate about wine but I try not to bother the barrels too often while they are aging. I try not to hover over my barrels with too much anxiety. My grapes are special because I am a winegrower and believe that the best wines are made under careful watch in the vineyard. My top three best bottles of wine are the Venge 2002, 2007 and 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Without a doubt, the best place for great grapes is Oakville and its gravely benchland. The question of what makes a wine worth $150 and up is very controversial. Simply put, the value is when the vineyard, the grower, the winery, the winemaker and the several steps and decisions along the way all merge together as one on a consistent basis. It is blissful. The journey is often detailed, laborious and expensive. The result is a truly remarkable wine that will provide its collector immense enjoyment. I do not feel forced to make wines that are drinkable today. Certainly the answer is no. That is the last thought that runs through my mind, although it is an easy trap to fall into, especially when most American consumers enjoy their wines shortly after release. I want to make wines that show balance and creativity. If they need time to peak and come around then so be it. I have been inspired by many winemakers of great talent and vision, including Louis Martini, Andre Tchelistcheff and Justin Meyer. They were among the wine industry leaders that helped sculpt the Napa Valley as we know it today. I prefer cork to screw caps. They are natural and renewable, but those screw caps on picnic wines sure are convenient. I don’t get too hung up in all the hoopla over which is better. But for me, cork is what I like to see in my wine bottles. If I were stuck on a desert island, I would want Krug Rose. If you have to be stuck on an island, might as well enjoy the peace and quiet with great Champagne in your glass! 6


N i l s Ve n g e My first experience with wine was with my father Pere Venge. He would always let me taste the wine. I loved it so much I ended up applying and graduating from UC Davis. My first job out in 1970 was working at the Charles Krug winery in their vineyards and lab. I wanted to become a winemaker after a four-year program that earned me my BS degree in Vitaculture. All my winemaker instruction came from Dr. Maynard Andrew Amerine, Professor Emeritus of Viticulture and Enology at the UC Davis. The strangest part of winemaking that most people definitely don’t realize is the 3,000 decisions a winemaker has to make from the beginning to the end product. I chose Napa Valley because it offered the best chance to be a part of a “new breed” of winemakers. Back in the 70’s we had a opportunity to set the stage for a fun future in winemaking. My favorite season was in 1974. We made the first great cabernet sauvignon at Villa Point Eden. All I can say is “Wow!” My personality shows in both my reds and white in their remarkable agreeability. My grapes are special because they are grown in mid-Oakville. It has a very unique terrior! My top six (not three) best wines are; Villa Mount Eden 1974 and 1978, Groth 1984 and 1985 Reserves, and Venge Family Reserve 1997 and 2002. No doubt, the safest bet to find great grapes is in Rutherford or Oakville. The wines worth $150 and up have a rich mouth feel. They have layers of texture and flavors. I think longevity is also important and a sign of a good quality wine. I do feel somewhat forced to make wines that are drinkable today. It requires a masterful art of balancing one’s tannins. The winemakers that inspire me are Ric Forman and Randy Dunn. The next up and coming winemakers? Two come to mind. Tony Biaggi and Mike Smith. Some of my wines are named after our family and other by geographic sign. Some are named after our dogs! Do I hope to own a winery someday? The more the better! (LOL) If I weren’t making wine I’d be making bourbon. I’d be a master blender. My thoughts on cork versus screw cap haven’t changed. Two and a quarter inch corks are still my favorite. If I were stuck on a desert island, I would bring a sweet Riesling. I’d keep it cool in a sandbox. Hahaaa! 8


Heidi Barrett My first experience tasting wine was with my father, who was the Research Director of Product Development for Gallo Wines from 1958-68. It felt like we were entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory when we visited him. I wanted to become a winemaker after watching Dad at work. I realized it combined all my passions: science, farming, creativity and seasonality. I love growing things and experiencing the changing seasons. What people don’t realize about winemaking is the amount of work that goes into it. People have this fairytale notion that it’s an ideal job, but it involves lots of hard work, raking pomace and heavy lifting. Napa Valley is simply the best place in the world to make wines. This is the place to make an impact on winemaking. My personal style is to produce wines that are elegant with finesse and impeccable balance. I aim for a purity of flavors that express the vineyard but are not wimpy. I hope most would agree that my wines are big and beautiful. What makes my grapes special? In reality they are only part of the picture. You can select the best quality grapes the valley has to offer, but it’s what you do with them in the winery that makes all the difference. You can get great grapes all over the valley. I love Merlot and Cabernet grapes from Oakville, but, even from that region, there can be a huge variety in quality from left to right fields. The price one pays for wine should be based on how much you enjoy it. That said wines priced at $150 and up are more expensive because higher quality grapes and French barrels add significantly to the cost of production. Don’t forget, it can take ten years or more before there’s a return on investment. The first year you plant and grow the roots, at three years you graft, and then it can take anywhere from five to ten years for the best fruit to appear. Then there’s another three years from crush to release (two years in the barrel and often one year in the bottle.) I do not follow trends, such as making wine that’s drinkable today. You can’t build a career by changing your style all the time. The whole process takes so long that you’d be behind the trends anyway if you tried. I find it best to create Cabs that are both drinkable today and age well over 10-20 years. I accomplish this by bottle aging for an extra year. My biggest inspiration was my father, Dr. Richard, Peterson. My first job out of college gave me the opportunity to learn from Justin Meyer at Silver Oak. So lucky! Then the brilliant Alfred Hoffman taught me balance, balance, balance. Bob Foley, Elias Forman— too many to name. Undoubtedly, the next up and coming winemaker is my daughter Chelsea Barrett. We choose the names of our wines based on a story, and we make them memorable and pronounceable. We chose “Pirate” was chosen because it is a blend of seven varietals, comparable to the treasures of the seven seas. It has personality before you even taste it. The same goes for La Sirena, meaning mermaid. It conjures the magical element of wine. Barrett and Barrett was the first collaboration with my husband. I especially like it because we can pass it onto our daughter. We would actually love to own our own winery but the government makes it very difficult and expensive. Just the fees for the studies and reports alone can run in the hundreds of thousands. It’s much cheaper and easier to buy an existing winery. If I weren’t a winemaker, I would have gone into marine biology, oceanography, or new species exploration. I absolutely love scuba diving! I am still a big fan of the best quality cork that money can buy. We take it very seriously and do extensive cork trials. Screw caps make sense for readily drinkable wines but for long-term use, cork is the best.

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Stuck on a desert island, I’d bring rum so I can make my favorite Mount Gay Rum with tonic and lime—that or tequila to make margaritas.


Mike Hirby My first sip of wine was from my father’s small collection of cheap Mosel Rieslings. I was maybe 10 years old. The potent acidity and intensity of flavor are still vivid memories for me. My journey as a winemaker began growing up in a family that loved food and ate well—if frugally. In college, I had many friends who loved to cook. I nearly dropped out of college in sophomore year to attend culinary school. I didn’t, but my friends and I started to cook in earnest. Wine was naturally a part of this. By my senior year, wines took a more central role at our dinners. I met someone who began introducing me to great wine he had inherited from his grandfather. I postponed grad school to learn more about wine. After three years working in a restaurant, including two years as a sommelier, I knew I had to make wine. I chose Napa Valley because I have always thought of it as one of the world’s great wine growing regions. With its unique coastal setting, it has a diversity of soils and microclimates that very few other regions can match. The opportunity for strange beauty and personality in wine is remarkable. Fall has always been my favorite season, and as a winemaker it still is. An entire season’s hard work culminates in the harvest, and that is when the bulk of the magic happens. A winemaker works very hard in the fall to accomplish goals of quality and style. The result is a thrilling combination of adrenaline, insight, and natural beauty. My personal style is one of moderation, and I think that most famous wines have followed that path to achieve balance. This style is not a simple matter of picking early, loving acid, or loving the aroma or the taste of stems, but requires a greater understanding of what is profound, harmonious and delicious. I want to let the discovery of a vineyard happen through the wine, rather than imprint my stamp on the wine too strongly. To me, the strangest part about winemaking is the trust we put in micro-organisms! You have to have faith, and try to do everything you can to keep them satisfied. However, the science remains a work in progress, and taming these wild beasts is sometimes more difficult than training a cat! In the end, more often than not, and with a little coaxing, the microbes do their magic and the ethereal beauty of wine appears. What makes our grapes special is our intense involvement in farming. Relic is a small artisan project. We work closely with growers with sites as small as .8 acres in single bottling of wine. Larger production wines can be good, but will never have the same character. The Valley has no safe bets for growing great grapes! Great sites are plentiful, but they almost all have poor spots as well. I personally love the area around Pickett Road in Calistoga with its young, deep, well-drained volcanic soils. A wine is worth $150 or more if it can find buyers at that price. Seriously. Some areas, like Burgundy, have a natural supply and demand for cherished, tiny brands like Chapelle-Chambertin, or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. In other cases, the market is manipulated to make you think the demand justifies the price. I am inspired by winemakers who are iconoclasts and make surprising wines. Three who inspire me are Christophe Perrot-Minot, Olivier Humbrecht, and F.X. Pichler. We will have our own winery soon. We are building it in the Soda Canyon area. The wines will be at home in their new cave soon! If I were not a winemaker, I would be a chef or a musician. My thinking on cork versus screw cap is this: I like natural cork. It is sustainable, renewable, historic, and reliable. We still do not understand enough about how wine ages anaerobically in the bottle to know exactly how a screw cap with rubber or tin seals affects the aging process. Cork-taint is a consideration, but to me the benefits of cork outweigh its risks.

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My desert island wine? Montrachet!


50 Winemakers  

This sophisticated coffee table book boasts gorgeous portraits of 50 premiere winemakers of Napa Valley. Each winemaker shares their persona...