Four Napa Winemakers to Watch

Four Napa Winemakers to Watch
Napa Valley constantly reinvents itself. Through passing seasons, vineyards transition from budbreak, harvest and new spring anticipation. In the same way, a generation of winemakers rises, matures and is eventually succeeded by dynamic new crafters and creators. Progress balances with continuity. Here are four vintners who carry forth Napa’s tradition of greatness.
  1. 1

    Alejandro Alfaro

    Winemaker—Sabina, Rutherford Grove, Teachworth

    When Alfaro was a kid in a little town in Mexico, he’d hear stories from neighbors who’d gone to the U.S. to do agricultural work.

    A lot of them went to Napa Valley. “They’d come back and talk about it,” Alfaro says. “I always wondered about this place. So when I was 18, I came up here to find out.”

    It wasn’t hard for him to get work, first at Pine Ridge, then Hess Collection. Alfaro also studied English and winemaking at Napa Valley College. 

    After a stint as cellarmaster at Bell Wine Cellars, Alfaro became fulltime winemaker at Sabina Wines in 2008. A little later, Teachworth, another Napa winery, hired Alfaro as a consultant. 

    At both wineries, “I do it all, from making the wines to cleaning the drains,” he says.

    His third consulting winery, Rutherford Grove, is bigger, meaning Alfaro has more help. But he’s still very much a hands-on vintner.

    Sabina owner David Sabin hired Alfaro when his original winemaker injured his back and was unable to work. 

    Sabin calls Alfaro “a big guy, a gentle giant. I love the way he works with the wines.”

    Alfaro’s content working with just three wineries. “We have small kids at home, and this is enough for me,” he says. He plans to launch his own brand, but that’s down the road.

    When Alfaro looks back at how far he’s come, he shakes his head in wonder. 

    “To be where I’m at now, it’s the American dream,” he says. “I came, worked the vineyards, never even imagined what a winemaker did. And now I’m making wine for three wineries.”

  2. 2

    Anne Vawter 

    Winemaker—Ziata and Oakville Ranch

    Owner/winemaker—Red Mare Wines 

    When Karen Cakebread started Ziata, she wanted the best winemaker she could find.

    So Karen, who had married into the Cakebread winery family, turned to a vintner with a pedigreed apprenticeship. Anne Vawter had worked at Paradigm under superstar winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett.

    Vawter came to Ziata in 2009, crafting its Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Francs and Sauvignon Blancs, as well as her own brand, Red Mare. The Calistoga mom of two has come a long way in making a name for herself in a very short amount of time.

    “I grew up in agriculture,” Vawter says. “My dad was a dairy farmer.” 

    When the family moved to Washington State to take over a heifer business, Vawter was exposed to the wine scene around Walla Walla. 

    “My dad and my uncle were wine lovers and would bring home local wines,” she says. “I’d taste them, and thought it was pretty cool.” 

    Still, she didn’t consider a career in wine until her father told her about the viticulture and enology programs at UC Davis. 

    “Dad thought it would be a good fit,” Vawter says. “So I looked into it, and it just felt super-right. I knew I’d met my people.”

    Her first job was at St. Supéry. Peterson Barrett then brought her to Paradigm. She remained until 2008, when she started a consulting business. 

    “When I told Heidi what I was thinking, she was incredibly supportive,” she says. “In fact, Heidi was one of the people
    who recommended me to every client I have. She gave me the courage to go out on my own.” 

  3. 3

    Jim Heiser

    Winemaker/partner—Michael James

    Heiser is senior marketing manager for Photoshop at Adobe Systems (he was at Apple before that). As you might expect, he works long days.

    But the Redwood City resident also loves wine. He has his own brand, Michael James, co-owned with friend Michael Dekshenieks. 

    Heiser oversees winemaking. His 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, from purchased grapes on Howell Mountain, is superb, despite being only his third vintage.

    In the mid-2000s, Heiser, who’d been making homemade wine, experienced a midlife crisis. 

    “I realized, if I don’t start now, I’ll be over 40, and it will be too late,” he says.

    He earned a degree from UC Davis and began making wine at the old Crushpad facility in San Francisco and then at Dogpatch Wine Works.

    “Winemakers are big Apple and Photoshop fans, so I’ve met a lot of them through that,” he says. “It’s good at opening doors.” Among his mentors are Doug Shafer and Andy Erickson.

    Production at Michael James is only about 200 cases, but Heiser envisions increasing slowly. 

    “Some people come into Napa Valley, throw a lot of money down, and put a team together with all the right names,” he says. “Michael and I take a different approach. We want to let things grow organically.”

  4. 4

    Jeff Fontanella

    Winemaker—Melanson, Partridge Cellars and Hensley Family

    Owner/winemaker—Fontanella Family Winery

    Jeff Fontanella has already had a storied career. 

    After graduating in viticulture and enology from UC Davis, he apprenticed at Opus One and ZD. He was then lucky enough to become protégé of legendary Napa winemaker Nils Venge at Saddleback.

    It was there that Fontanella decided to become a consulting winemaker. 

    “Things were just evolving that way,” he says. 

    In 2005, he purchased property on Mount Veeder, built a small winemaking facility and launched Fontanella Family Winery with the 2008 vintage—just as the economy fell off the cliff. 

    “My wife and I had two small kids and no paycheck,” he says. “It was like, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’” 

    Fontanella learned something from each of his experiences. 

    “At Opus, I had a good look at a traditional approach to winemaking,” he says. “Then, at ZD, it was Davis-oriented, with more
    modern influences. And with Nils, it was instinctual—he shoots from the hip, is more palate-driven.” 

    The combination, Fontanella feels, “gives me a diverse set of skills.”

    His dream is for Fontanella Family to continue its progress. Production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel comes from purchased Mount Veeder fruit. Fontanella’s own five-acre vineyard, planted to Cabernet, should yield grapes in a few years. 

    Through word-of-mouth and tourism contacts, he lures visitors “who want something that’s not on Highway 29, but is off the beaten path.” 

    It’s working: Fontanella sells 95% of his wines through the tasting room and wine club. 

Published on December 7, 2015
Topics: California Winemakers