Napa's Innovative New Guard Winemakers
The rap on Napa Valley is that it’s too much of a good thing: too much Cabernet Sauvignon, too much money, too much similar thinking. Yet, every day, pebbles cast by a younger generation of winemakers are instigating a ripple effect of innovation.
This new guard, in addition to making great Cabernet, is taking over the farming of hallowed ground and sniffing out Riesling, Chenin Blanc and high-elevation Pinot Noir in unlikely locations. Others are branching out of the valley to source other kinds of grapes and giving them inspired levels of attention.
Most have day jobs at bigger producers. Simultaneously, they breathe new life into the establishment while working on the side to carve out a broader sense of what’s possible in the Napa Valley, a pocketful of pebbles in hand.
—Photos by Stian Rasmussen
A philosophy graduate of Brown University, Evan Frazier had no intention of getting into wine. A onetime cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery, Frazier was living in San Francisco studying for his accreditation as a “green” builder so he could satisfy his urge to create something tangible.
A chance introduction to another philosopher type, Abe Schoener, through friend Alex Kongsgaard—son of Napa Valley winemaking legend John Kongsgaard—changed everything.
Frazier began helping Schoener, who was making wine in the Suisun Valley, with bottling and off-season chores. He then followed Schoener to Roussillon in 2006 to work a harvest at Clos Thalès.
There, Frazier learned about old-vine Grenache. When he returned, he worked briefly for Elizabeth Spencer Wines before joining the Kongsgaards as a jack-of-all-trades, from harvest intern to administrative assistant.
He now serves as general manager and assistant winemaker at Kongsgaard, where he feels encouraged to do his own thing.
In 2010, he launched Ferdinand, focusing on Spanish varieties from California. His Napa wine contacts, namely winemaker Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars), led him to Markus Bokisch in the Lodi AVA, the guy for Spanish and Portuguese varieties, who put in bud wood from Spain. That first year began with one ton of Albariño from Bokisch’s Vista Luna Vineyard.
“Albariño has great potential in California,” Frazier says. “It fits in the triangle of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay, and has a little of each, but it’s much more compelling.”
Frazier ferments his in old barrels, not looking for crisp, clean, tropical flavors so much as a savory undertone. In 2011, he added a Tempranillo to his lineup, sourced from Ann Kraemer’s Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador County, a high-elevation, meticulously farmed piece of red dirt.
In 2013, Frazier found an additional source of Tempranillo on the Sonoma-facing side of Mount Veeder, as high as Shake Ridge.
The MacDonald brothers preside over a 15-acre parcel of vines in Oakville near To Kalon that has been in their family for generations. The oldest set of vines there were planted in 1954, some of the oldest Cabernet in the Napa Valley.
Robert Mondavi was the first to sniff out its potential, telling the brothers’ grandfather to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, grapes that were originally sold to Charles Krug.
The brothers are adding a single acre of new Cabernet vines, making them the fourth generation to plant in this magical spot. Other parcels are 20, 40 and 60 years old.
MacDonald Vineyards sells the majority of its grapes to Robert Mondavi Winery for its To Kalon Vineyard and Reserve bottlings, a deal sealed on a long-ago handshake with Mondavi.
That is, until Alex and elder brother Graeme began thinking about making a wine of their own. In 2004, while they were working elsewhere in the Napa Valley—Graeme at Colgin Cellars, Opus One and with winemaker Thomas Brown; Alex at Mondavi—they started buying grapes from their family vineyard at market rate.
The brothers began experimenting with winemaking styles and techniques.
In 2008, the MacDonalds produced a first vintage, though their first true commercial release wasn’t until 2010, totaling 92 cases.
Hoping for the best, they made the wine available for purchase online. It sold out in 25 minutes. Word had spread like wildfire about the first wine made entirely and exclusively from the hallowed property.
By the 2015 vintage, MacDonald will use 20–30 percent of the vineyard. They don’t crush the grapes, nor use pressed wine. They hope to best capture the site, which they find exudes pronounced characteristics of dark chocolate, black olive and ripe cherry, telling since the land was once a cherry orchard.
“We’re new and different, but also old,” Alex says. “There’s an aspect of what we’re doing that’s really real.”
“It’s an exciting time for young Napa people to do something different in the Napa Valley,” Graeme says. “We’re dialing back, but not trying to make a statement.”
Beginning her Napa Valley winemaking career at Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery as winemaker and vineyard manager, Jennifer Williams first honed in on how to balance the region’s ripeness and richness with restraint.
That’s still her aim at her day jobs, making a range of wines for Napa Valley producers Young Inglewood Vineyards, Arrow & Branch and Ziata Wines.
Mark Porembski, winemaker for Anomaly Vineyards, started Zeitgeist in 2005, a year before he met Williams. The two married in 2007, and now have three young daughters. Their brand has grown in kind, producing 1,200 cases a year.
At Zeitgeist, Williams wanted to control the entire winemaking process, he says, as well as to make high-end Napa Cabernet for a reasonable price.
That reasonable price a few years ago was $45. It’s now $70, which says a lot about where Napa Valley prices have gone.
For the Zeitgeist Cabs, the duo have long sourced from several vineyards, including Farella in Coombsville and Anomaly in St. Helena. They recently added Sleeping Lady Vineyard, Moulds Family Vineyard and Llewellyn Vineyard.
“Our goal is to make handcrafted wines from carefully chosen vineyards,” Williams says. “To try and have a nuanced wine, pulling back on ripeness, we partner with sites to accomplish that.”
Zeitgeist also makes a compellingly unusual wine, a Trousseau Gris from Fanucchi Wood Road Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. It’s a 10-acre planting that Williams believes may be the world’s biggest planting of the variety on AXR rootstock, planted more than 30
Per-acre contracts help Williams and Porembski manage farming, where they can control irrigation, cropping levels and canopy management.
Zeitgeist also has a Napa Valley Chenin Blanc in barrel from the 2014 vintage, set for summer release, although those vines have since been pulled out to plant Cab. They are looking for another source.
The winemaker for David Arthur on Pritchard Hill, Nile Zacherle started out as a brewer, beginning his studies at U.C. Davis in beer before switching over to wine.
After working a few years at Anderson Valley Brewing Company, he became assistant winemaker under Bo Barrett at Chateau Montelena Winery in 2000, and later worked at Barnett Vineyards on Spring Mountain.
Around that time, in 2004, he launched his eponymous wine brand with his wife, Whitney Fisher, the winemaker for her family winery, Fisher Vineyards.
The project started with Syrah, as Nile wanted to differentiate from the focus of his day job. Since then, the couple hasn’t followed any specific path on varietals, finding inspiration in specific sites that have popped up along the way.
“Over 10 years, we’ve been a lot of things,” he says. “Zacherle has evolved out of that ultimate relationship with that place, that farmer.”
Today, Zacherle produces two wines, a dry Riesling from vineyards in Oak Knoll and Carneros that he barrel ages, and a Grenache-based blend from a Russian River Valley site called Las Tres Hermanas.
But the most buzz around Zacherle right now is about Mad Fritz, a brewery he’s launched in an industrial section of St. Helena.
Taking a winemaker’s approach, he’s brewing single-barrel barley beers, each named after one of Aesop’s fables—The Old Man and Death is an Imperial Rye Stout—and each using water from different sources.
Frazier’s beers are available on a few selected taps in the valley (Auberge du Soleil, Farmstead and Press), and in bottles whose labels cite the barley and water sources and barrel-aging specifics.
Matthew Iaconis was studying atmospheric sciences and aeronautical engineering and playing football at U.C. Davis before the wine muse called, leading him to harvest stints around the world, including at Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles and Antica Napa Valley on Atlas Peak Mountain.
His time at Antica in 2011 inspired him to launch his own project with an unlikely wine, a Pinot Noir from Cougar Rock Vineyard. The rocky, high-elevation site farmed by the Antinori family on the easternmost section of Atlas Peak was previously more famous for powerful, tannic reds.
Up about 1,800 feet, between Kongsgaard and Stagecoach Vineyard, Cougar Rock imparts a distinct earthiness and tart red fruit to Iaconis’s Pinot Noir. It’s sourced from two blocks of the 1,200-acre estate that run east-west above the fog line, typically logging cooler daytime temperatures than the valley floor.
For Pinot, Iaconis uses native yeast and some whole-cluster fermentation, but never new oak. From Cougar Rock, he also makes a Chardonnay, also from an east-west block, with high natural acidity and a tart apple character.
For the 2013 vintage, Iaconis has added another unlikely Pinot Noir vineyard: La Perla. The roughly 300-acre parcel was originally planted in the 1870s and sits at 1,700 feet above sea level atop Spring Mountain, within the northwest corner of the Mayacamas Mountains and surrounded by pine trees.
Iaconis gets his grapes from the vineyard’s highest point, a bowl-shaped section with rambling variations in both elevation and slope that’s densely planted. Again, no new oak is used, as the resulting wine is pronounced in structure and intensity as well as floral aromas and a distinctive edge of salinity.
He also makes a tiny-production Pinot Noir rosé from the two vineyards at 12.5% abv, retaining a freshness of tart red fruit and quiet power.
With the 2014 vintage, Brick & Mortar will release about 1,000 cases of wine, including a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay sourced from Sweetwater Springs Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. A sparkling wine from the same source is under consideration.
A degree in religious studies may not seem the likeliest path into the wine world. But for Sam Kaplan, divine intervention came through friendship with a classmate, the daughter of Gary Andrus, founder of Pine Ridge Vineyards in the Stags Leap District.
Originally from Oklahoma, Kaplan had helped his dad make homemade wine and plant an experimental vineyard. So when Andrus noticed that the kid had a good palate, he offered Kaplan a harvest internship at Pine Ridge. Kaplan accepted.
Kaplan had spent a year abroad, taking in the food and wine culture of Spain. Subsequently, he delved deeply into Napa’s vineyards, where his fluency in speaking Spanish allowed him to learn from the farm crews.
“It’s never been work,” he says. “I’m always hungry to do everything better.”
That hunger led him from Pine Ridge to ZD Wines, where he spent seven years as assistant winemaker, learning on the job.
He then met the Krausz family, who tapped Kaplan to supervise their Arkenstone project on Howell Mountain, overseeing both its 13 acres of high-elevation vines and construction of its gravity-flow winery.
At Arkenstone, Kaplan has gained a reputation for crafting vibrant wines, preferring to avoid stewed or cooked notes in his Cabernets.
Last year, he unveiled the first Cabernet for Memento Mori, a 650-case project for three childhood friends who connected with Kaplan’s winemaking approach.
Sourced from several well-known valley-floor vineyards, a preview of that wine drew a eye-popping winning bid of $80,000 for five cases at February’s Premiere Napa Valley auction.
Since 2011, Kaplan’s also been consulting with Nine Suns, a Pritchard Hill-based Cabernet project that will release its first wine, from the 2012 vintage, later this year.
Like at Arkenstone, he’s helped plan and build the winery in addition to looking after 22 acres of existing vineyard. Kaplan is constantly looking to innovate, automating pump-overs for example, so he can gain more time in the vineyard, his first love.
- 1Evan Frazier | Ferdinand Wines
- 2Graeme & Alex MacDonald | MacDonald Vineyards
- 3Jennifer Williams & Mark Porembski | Zeitgeist Cellars
- 4Nile Zacherle | Zacherle Wines and Mad Fritz Brewing Co.
- 5Matthew Iaconis | Brick & Mortar
- 6Sam Kaplan | Arkenstone Vineyards, Memento Mori and Nine Suns