April 2010

Sonoma 2.0

By: Daedalus Howell


Of the attempts to attach a name to the emerging school of winemakers whose palates and vintages are poised to redefine the wine market, perhaps the most fatuous are “Wine 2.0” and, even more obtusely, “Generation Yne.” The former suggests that wine and social media are one in the same and the latter, at least in print, reads more like a typo than a buzzword.

Perhaps the best way to frame the bumper crop of winemaking talent emerging in Sonoma County is to do away with nifty neologisms altogether and simply regard them—or, more specifically, their wines—through a glass.

For our purposes, the “next generation” of winemakers includes members of the so-called “X” generation and the more recently arrived “Millennials.” Both cultural subsets are the progeny of the Baby Boom, among whose ranks are many of those who put American and, more specifically, Sonoma County wines on the map. This next generation isn’t interested in redrawing that map so much as refining it, though their techniques often differ dramatically from those of their forebears.

Wise Beyond His Years
Jesse Katz, Lancaster Estate

At 26 years-old, winemaker Jesse Katz has only been drinking legally for five years. Fortunately for Katz (and wine-lovers), the new winemaker at Healdsburg’s Lancaster Estate began honing his palate while a pre-teen when traveling with his photographer father through Tuscany and Burgundy. The elder Katz, Andy, was in the midst of producing a wine-themed book, and he and his son were often invited to tastings. Wise beyond his years, Jesse partook inasmuch as he was allowed and a lifelong love of wine—and a career–was born.

Jesse Katz, the new winemaker at Lancaster Estate. PHOTO: ANDY KATZ
“Wine was always in the back of my mind; I always had a big passion for it,” says Katz, a Colorado native, who moved to California in the early part of the last decade. “Living in Colorado, you don’t really hear ‘Oh, you can go to school for this stuff.’ It’s not like there’s a study in ‘the knowledge of viticulture.’ Your guidance councilor isn’t telling you this stuff."

Katz eventually moved to Santa Barbara and worked a summer job in a winery lab; his career path opened before him. Katz transferred to California State University Fresno, alma mater of lauded winemaker Richard Arrowood, and majored in enology with a minor in chemistry.

Katz followed his education with a series of ad hoc apprenticeships with acclaimed winemakers the world over. Among them was a tour with Hans Vinding-Diers, the South African-born Dane behind the wines at Tuscany’s Argiano and Argentina’s Bodega Noemía de Patagonia, where Katz worked with him. That Katz would eventually also clock time with luminaries Paul Hobbs, Robert Foley and Screaming Eagle’s Andy Erickson is as much a testament to his networking skills as his taste in winemakers. 
“It’s been my goal to go around and follow the best Bordeaux winemakers in the world,” explains Katz. “I think I get it from my dad; he knew everyone in his industry, and everyone in their industry. His first book was a portrait of Napa in Sonoma. I was meeting a lot of these people, and I met Robert Mondavi when I was young. I just picked everyone’s brain as much as possible,” Katz says. “That’s really my goal: to surround myself with brilliant people who make amazing wines and hope that some of it rubs off."

Though Katz’s efforts at Lancaster Estate have yet to be released, he is enthusiastic about his contributions. “I’ve always loved the Sonoma area,” says Katz. “Lancaster has become one of the top Bordeaux producers in the area. And having a proprietor who is so into top-quality, handcrafted wines is very important to me."

“I think that a lot of people my age and younger are starting to have much better palate; it’s not just for older people anymore.” Katz avers. “There’s a lot less BS these days; the consumer is a lot more knowledgeable, and I think it’s helping everyone. You’re not going to be able to fool people with a poor project."

That said, there is still the hazard of industry veterans raising an eyebrow at the wunderkind winemaker’s relative youth. “Maybe right off the bat,” Katz concedes. “But if anything, it’s a conversation starter. There are some people with their doubts —‘What’s this young kid doing here?’—but as soon as we get to talking and going over wines, that all goes out the door.”

Craftsmanship and the Camaraderie
Darrin Low , Flowers Vineyard & Winery

Forty-year-old Darrin Low became acquainted with the vicissitudes of the wine industry through his parents’ wine shop while growing up in Healdsburg. “I was around when wine started becoming big in and around Sonoma County back in the ’80s,” says Low, winemaker for Flowers Vineyard & Winery in Cazadero, on the county’s craggy coast.

hile in high school, Low found seasonal employment at the local wineries doing pump-overs and sundry maintenance tasks, which primed his passion for the trade. “I loved the work and loved being outside, and I saw the lifestyle of how wine and food and friends came together—the craftsmanship and the camaraderie,” says Low.  
While many of his contemporaries pursued their passion for winemaking at programs such as U.C. Davis, Low opted to follow an independent course of study at the University of California Santa Cruz. There, he studied enology, supplemented with hands-on work at a local winery. He also eventually studied in France.

“Everything was coming out of Davis. People from our generation coming out of Davis obviously have that network, but also have that Davis ‘taint’ on things. Coming from a different approach of living and making wine in Europe, you’re not so squeaky clean in your winemaking as some Davis grads,” Low suggests.

Whether or not it’s squeaky clean, for Low, the endgame is balance. “I just love balanced wines. If I can get the acid and alcohols to just hit the mark, I’ve succeeded. I’m not a big fan of over-the-top wines,” says Low, who adds that his 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is “really hitting its mark right now."

One defining characteristic of this generation of winemakers, according to Low, is openness. Says the winemaker, “There’s more consistency of open information. We help each other out a bit more; we tend to share whatever we find out.”  

A Common Thread
Erich Bradley, Audelssa Estate and Sojourn Cellars

“My sensibilities are geared toward Pinot Noir; when I’m making Rhônes and Bordeaux, I use traditional Burgundian techniques to get there,” explains Erich Bradley, the winemaker for both Audelssa Estate and Sojourn Cellars, where he is also a partner. “So, small lots, open tops, hand punch-down, gravity flow, native ML—and trying to stay out of the way. Get the best vineyards you can, and handle them meticulously."

Bradley grew up in Palo Alto, CA and studied biochemistry at the University of Chicago, which resulted, perhaps predictably, in a degree in philosophy and modern European intellectual history. A foray into a career in education was sidelined after his parents acquired a property in Kenwood, in Sonoma Valley.

“They had a small vineyard going there. I’d come up every once in a while and make home-grown wine. I caught the bug, went back to Davis and got the basics,” recalls Bradley, who launched his career in viniculture in the late ’90s by answering a help-wanted ad. Soon, he was a harvest-time lab tech at Arrowood.  “It was great timing to be there,” says Bradley, whose two-month gig blossomed into a three-year mentorship under Richard Arrowood.

“I got to sample all the vineyards. It was like going to grad school for winemaking,” says Bradley. “I don’t make wine anything like the way Dick did. My way would drive him crazy, because he’s such a control freak. I let the wine make itself."

Letting the wine make itself is echoed throughout this generation of young winemakers. “The older generation said, ‘We want stainless steel; filtering is better than non-filtering,’ and my generation is sort of against that,” says Bradley.

David Ramey, cult winemaker and contemporary of Arrowood, consulted with Audelssa Estate several years ago, putting Bradley in proximity of another marquee name in Sonoma County. “For being peers, Ramey and Arrowood don’t agree on much,” observes Bradley. “It was good for me to see these guys, so different and yet both so successful. And I’m a good kind of blend of their sensibilities. David is very much an artist, but he’s a technician when it comes to Chardonnay. Dick is a scientist."

Bradley knows what he expects from himself as a winemaker. “I like wines that get interesting in the bottle, so I want acid; but I also want to manage texture so you don’t get punished for opening wines too early. There are a lot of guys out there who find that sweet spot, but texture is what I’m hyper-focused on,” says Bradley. “I think there’s a common thread amongst all the wines I make. I really think the longer I do this, the easier it is to see ‘me’ in my wines."

Ongoing Legacy
Anne Dempsey, Gundlach Bundschu

Blood is thicker than water, but wine might be thicker than blood—at least for Anne Dempsey, who recently graduated to the rank of Lead Associate Winemaker at Sonoma’s Gundlach Bundschu. The 29-year-old Dempsey is the third generation in her family to work in winemaking, though following that tradition was not her initial inclination when she enrolled at U.C. Davis. However, a genetic disposition toward a viticulture and enology degree came to fruition with her graduation in 2003.

After that, Dempsey worked harvests around the globe, including jags at J Vineyards & Winery and Alderbrook in Sonoma, Mud House in New Zealand and Rupert & Rothschild in South Africa. At Napa’s Clos Pegase Winery, Dempsey progressed under the tutelage of Shaun Richardson and consultant Paul Hobbs. She now works closely with GunBun’s Keith Emerson, a fellow Davis alumnus.

  Despite her relatively rapid rise through the ranks, Dempsey has remained circumspect about her career and learned all she could before committing to the course. “I wanted to see what it was first. The more I’ve been learning, the more I love it,” says Dempsey, who first joined Gundlach Bundschu as an enologist three years ago.

“The whole philosophy of the company is what drew me here. Working as a GunBun winemaker you have to learn how to adapt to its ongoing history. It’s changing over time; it’s not a five-million-dollar Napa winery that has everything laid out as you would like it. Here, you learn how to be really creative, which, in the long run, is one of the best skills to learn."

Throughout, she’s remained keenly aware of her place in the GunBun legacy, which spans over 150 years and has consequently seen dozens of winemakers pass through its cellar doors. “I hope I can add my two sentences into the long novel that they’re working on,” says Dempsey. “It feels like being a part of their family. Working for someone you respect to carry on their legacy is something I feel proud to be a part of.”





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