“There are so many assistant winemakers and cellar masters with brands that are going so against the grain, and their wines are unbelievable,” says Jason Driscoll of his fellow winemakers’ side projects. “When the price of Napa Valley Cabernet is far beyond what any cellar master can afford, fun things happen.”
In Napa, where grape prices are high, a small, personal wine label can be the chance for wine professionals to make what they really like to drink. They can highlight unusual varieties that might not please the masses or pay all the bills. It’s an opportunity to explore other sites and grape varieties and make experimental, affordable bottles that combine adventure with the avant-garde.
Wine is a $9.4 billion business in Napa and it provides 44,000 jobs, according to the Napa Valley Vintners. So it can be difficult for major labels there to take creative risks. An estimated 51% of Napa plantings are Cabernet Sauvignon, with the two closest varieties in acreage, Chardonnay (13%) and Merlot (9%), well behind.
For some winemakers, after-hours passion projects are a way to exercise creativity. Driscoll launched his personal company, Driscoll Wine Co., and labels Tilth and Hibou, in 2014, while he was assistant winemaker at DeSante Wines. Prior to that, he had been a cellar hand at Hunnicutt Wines and worked as a chef.
“I had no business plan,” he says of Driscoll Wine Co.’s early days. “I left the kitchen to be in the wine business, so I was really just happy to have a job in production. When the opportunity to get a couple of tons of fruit came about, I was excited just to see what the fruit would do.”
He started with 300 cases of Tilth Lake County Zinfandel. A few years in, he and his wife, Hilary, ramped up to 2,000 cases. His side gig was turning into a full-time job.
Driscoll wanted to try fermenting grapes without sulfur and enzymes, and to use stems and try different frequencies for pumpovers and punchdowns. He knew that if he had to buy grapes at $30,000 per ton, the going rate at his day job, he would not be able to take these sorts of risks.
“I didn’t want to be scared of the fruit,” he says. “ I honestly just wanted to have fun and learn on the side. With Tilth and Hibou, we find grapes from killer sites, and also friendly growers who are willing to take a chance on us.”
These passion projects are a way to empathize with average wine drinkers, instead of increasing a bottom line for owners or investors.
“Our average bottle price is $30, and our single-vineyard Hibou bottlings are $50 to $60. We want to live in the $20 to $30 range. If we can continue to overdeliver in that price point and make money doing it, then I am absolutely stoked,” says Driscoll.
Such creativity also appeals to Sam Kaplan, who has made Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for sought-after brands like Arkenstone, Vangone Estate, Nine Suns and Memento Mori. In 2015, he and his wife, Nancy, a chef, started Maxem Wine, named for their kids, Max and Emma.
At Maxem, the couple makes single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from sites farmed by one of Kaplan’s inspirations, the late Ulises Valdez.
“Having been the first winemaker for and starting several projects over my career, it was time to do something of our own,” says Kaplan. “We love to drink Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from both Burgundy and California, but we needed the right spot. Site was everything. And so I waited and waited for years until I met Ulises Valdez.”
Valdez opened the door to his UV Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and the Kaplans started with two specific blocks. When Valdez passed away unexpectedly during the 2018 harvest at age 49, it further motivated Kaplan.
“His tragic passing has taken the project to a different level for me, given the connection to my kids and how I am working in the vineyards with Ulises’s kids now,” he says. “That is why I love this business. Farming and wines are generational, and farming vineyards and crafting wines to be shared over the years is incredibly powerful.”
The decision to start Maxem was thought out. With Pinot and Chardonnay grapes from the coast, Kaplan begins harvest with those first. He then finishes with his Napa Valley projects from his home base at Arkenstone, where he’s both winemaker and general manager.
“I’m not racing around from one winery to the next, and none of my wines would be possible without my assistant, Roberto Alfaro, and our cellar crew,” he says. “It’s about creating the right team and culture. With any project, attention to detail is everything.”
Scott Kirkpatrick understands the value of a good team. Formerly the cellar master at Eleven Eleven Winery in Napa, Kirkpatrick left to focus on Mountain Tides Wine, a project he began with his wife, Allison Watkins, in 2016. He specializes in small-production, elegant Petite Sirah from sites across Northern California.
“It seemed like a rare opportunity in the wine world to try something different,” says Kirkpatrick. “I really just wanted to see if it was possible to make a Petite Sirah that was lighter, aromatically focused and compelling without being abrasive and overly structured.”
Making his own wine gives Kirkpatrick a chance to understand wine and winemaking in a much deeper way. It fulfills a desire to be creative and provides an avenue to work for himself.
“What I didn’t expect was how rewarding it would be to collaborate on such a big project with my wife,” he says. “I make the wine and have the wine background, but as a profoundly talented visual artist and photographer, Allison made everything come to life.”
Watkins designs the labels using her own photos, which evoke some of the couple’s favorite natural landscapes across California.
They began with just 75 cases, but things started to go well enough that Kirkpatrick had to think about leaving his day job altogether.
“Harvest started to get very difficult,” he says. “After four vintages of Mountain Tides while working full-time, it started to become clear I couldn’t do both. My sleep and overall health were starting to be significantly affected, and something had to give.”
This year, he left Eleven Eleven to concentrate on Mountain Tides.
Now, he focuses on making wines in accordance with his belief in treating the earth and its people with respect. He hopes that his wines will facilitate and improve human connection.
“And hopefully it all shows that if you open your heart and mind to question what is accepted, the world can yield colorful and wonderful results,” he says.