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Better With Time

Author: Virginie Boone
October, 2011 Issue

In an era of job-hopping, these winemakers prove consistency can be the key to greatness.

If decades-old vines aren’t considered “old enough” in the eyes of many, what’s to make of a man who’s spent 35 years in the service of one winery? In California, it’s rare indeed to have been at one place that long, especially when one’s name isn’t on the door.

But Rob Davis has been winemaker at Jordan Winery in Sonoma County for a record 35 years, since 1976. Waiting for him at Jordan was André Tchelistcheff, the grand European consultant, who chain-smoked his way to a lively 92 years of age, guiding many of California’s soon-to-be shining lights of fine wine (including Beaulieu Vineyard, Buena Vista and Simi) over the years. Davis still thinks of his great friend and inspiration often.

Davis’ story at Jordan is one of consistency and change, the perfect combination for a man as intellectually curious and scientifically minded as he. Here’s his story—as well those of a handful of other local winemakers who’ve been at the helm of their respective Northern California wineries for a long, long time.

Rob Davis

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Winemaker since 1976

It was 1976 when Rob Davis first came to Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Alexander Valley to oversee its first vintage, a Bordeaux-inspired Cabernet Sauvignon. Davis, originally a pre-med student, had changed majors and was newly graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science.

“I can’t think of another field that has such an exercise of the senses,” Davis says. “It evokes so many memories, the smells are great, there’s tasting and the visual aspects, your intimacy grows with nature every single season. You’re totally alive.”

Already at Jordan was Tchelistcheff, a legend in the wine world, who had been hired as a consulting enologist. He swiftly became Davis’ longtime mentor, the two traveling frequently to France over the years to cultivate and enrich their understanding of traditional and evolving winemaking styles and the relationship between food and wine—always an important facet to winery founders Tom and Sally Jordan.

“Tom’s goal in 1974 when he started planting the vineyards,” Davis recalls, “[was] accessibility over ageability. Wine was always to be consumed with food.”

It was another of Davis’ mentors, wine professor Jacques Puisais, who further led Davis’ thinking on what it takes to make an exceptional wine. “Great wines are due to four things,” Davis says, sharing what he’d been taught. “The correct pairing of cultivar, climate and soil, and the fourth being the proper husbandry of those three aspects.”

Davis feels that over the last couple of years, with the support of founder Tom Jordan’s son John, now the winery’s CEO, all four elements have been renewed. That includes an extension of the release date of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, letting the wine spend five months longer in bottle, a testament to the winery’s commitment to quality improvement.

“I remember André telling me, ‘Every day, I learn something new,'” Davis recalls. “That’s why I’m still at Jordan. The Jordans have allowed me autonomy to express my creative process, and their quest to always get better agrees with mine.”

With John Jordan, in particular, Davis has been able to move away from an estate-only focus and become more open to finding the best grape sources, wherever they may be.

An avid triathlete who loves nothing more than to traipse through vineyards looking for great grapes, Davis had been itching to source fruit from outside the estate. “John told me, ‘I don’t just want to make the best wines from our estate fruit, I want to make the best wines—period. If you can find better fruit, go get it,’” Davis says. “When you have really great fruit, you want to let the fruit speak. The first thing I look for is intensity. André taught me this; you start seeing this quilt being weaved through the whole growing season, [it’s] a tapestry, and you start tasting the differences and how they all fit together.”

Davis has enjoyed the process of finding new Cabernet sources in Alexander Valley to blend with his own estate-grown hillside fruit. “[I told John], if you allow me to not be tied just to our estate, to go out and add to that real blackberry fruit that I’m trying to build on, it would improve the wine,” Davis explains. “And he said, ‘I’m running the show now, go ahead and do it.’ I felt like I had four wings. It almost made me cry.”

Davis also replanted Cabernet Franc vines (that weren’t adding much to the mix) to Petit Verdot, a small percentage of which is blended into Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The Jordans are much more about making wines for the table than trying to win points at tastings,” Davis says. “You can craft a wine to garner a certain amount of points, but they’re not necessarily going to go very well with food. They become a destination themselves.”

Instead, Davis keeps first and foremost in his mind Tom Jordan’s original goal to compete with the best wines of the world, with the benchmark being Bordeaux.

“One of the first things you learn is, wine’s not linear. It’s not true that, if I do this twice as much, it’ll be twice as good,” he says. “One of our goals is to make sure when a Jordan wine is released, it’s round, soft, fruity, very drinkable and accessible. That largely comes from balance. Accessibility will have much more interplay with your palate than if you just go for tannin. Balance is the real key.”

Still, with all the changes in sourcing, Davis’ winemaking approach hasn’t changed a lot. “If anything, we were probably heavier handed on oak in previous years. We backed off on that,” Davis notes. “Style-wise, we’re still below 14 percent alcohol, which is very rare. I feel that between 13.7 and 13.9 percent is more food-friendly.”

Davis had been using 50 percent French oak and 50 percent American oak on his wines until recently, feeling that to make a softer, longer Cabernet, he needed to up French oak use to 66 percent. It’s a significant commitment from the winery, since French oak is more expensive.

“Consistency and reliability are the qualities identified with our brand,” Davis acknowledges. “But I want [consumers] thinking, ‘Wow, the wines coming out of Jordan now are really great!’ That may take some time. I don’t know if there’s a business that’s more humbling than the wine industry, because nature is a stronger force. But André said, ‘I continue to learn things out of wine, one new thing every day.’ Now, after 35 years, I agree with him. Now I can really see details of the craft that I couldn’t recognize before.”

Michael Chelini

Stony Hill

With the winery since 1973

Fred and Eleanor McCrea made their first commercial vintage Stony Hill Chardonnay in 1952 from a 160-acre hillside, former goat ranch on Spring Mountain they’d purchased in 1943.

They started planting Chardonnay in 1947, and soon added Gewurztraminer, white Riesling and Semillon, all dry-farmed. Their winery, built in 1951, was the first built as a winery in Napa after Prohibition.

McCrea was in the advertising business in San Francisco and was only looking for a weekend getaway, but he and Eleanor started planting vines anyway (on the advice of friends). They sold the grapes at first, until they realized they could make wines they themselves loved, notably white Burgundy, after procuring Burgundian clones from the Wente family in the Livermore Valley.

“Fred McCrea loved Burgundy and he planted Chardonnay and tasted the wine and it tasted pretty good,” recalls winemaker Mike Chelini, who first came to Stony Hill in 1973 as its vineyard foreman and assistant winemaker, taking the head winemaking helm in 1977 after Fred McCrea’s passing.

McCrea was frugal, says Chelini, and didn’t want to spend much money on oak barrels. French barrels weren’t even readily available at the time, so the two turned to already-used American oak barrels instead—and a house style was born.

“The wines came out really good,” Chelini says. “We had a great following, the wines are pretty much good by themselves, with a good amount of body. It takes a while for that to come out, but they have a delicate power. There’s an intensity of flavor to these wines and not an over-amount of fruitiness to them.”

Chelini experimented over the years with some new barrels, but found that the oak took away from the character and subdued fruit of his vineyards. “We just wanted to taste our grapes and not the wood,” he says.

Stony Hill Chardonnay settles overnight in stainless steel tanks and is then barrel-fermented in (neutral) French oak. It undergoes no malolactic fermentation. “Some of these barrels I bought when I first came here—and that was in 1973. And those are my favorite barrels,” Chelini says. “I use them every year.”

Now and again, Chelini will buy a few new barrels and ferment some of his wine in those, just to see what it tastes like. But, “I don’t like what it does to our wine,” he says. “We like our wines to be food wines. Chefs happen to love our wines and so do foodies. Others will say, ‘That doesn’t taste like Chardonnay.’ Well, actually it does taste like Chardonnay; you’re tasting Chardonnay.”

Chardonnay is 80 percent of Stony Hill’s production year-to-year, its flagship. It tends to 25 acres of Chardonnay grapes. When young, the wines are almost like Sauvignon Blanc—lean, tart and fresh, great with oysters or any kind of seafood.

After four to five years of cellaring, they’re richer, still full of acidity but a little softer, easy to drink with richer foods, like lobster, quail in a reduction sauce or other meaty fish dishes.

In addition, the winery has made white Riesling since 1957 from grapes grown on its hillside vineyards, off-dry (it has a tiny bit of residual sugar) and its Semillon de Soleil since 1972, a rich, complex sweet dessert-style wine.

Elias Fernandez

Shafer Vineyards

With the winery since 1984

Father and son John and Doug Shafer brought Elias Fernandez to Shafer Vineyards 27 years ago. He was clearly the right man for the job, since over that time, Shafer has earned a reputation as one of the most consistently high-quality producers in Napa Valley.

Fernandez’s parents both picked fruit in the Napa Valley while Elias was growing up, his mother Napa Valley born and bred, while his father came to the San Joaquin Valley first from Mexico. Settled as a family in Napa, Fernandez says his father taught him how to farm, his mother, the value of an education.

After picking up the trumpet as a young boy in school, he eventually received a Fulbright music scholarship to attend a college jazz program, making him the first in his family to attend college.

In 1981, he went to UC Davis to learn enology and served as an intern at Schramsberg Vineyards, Louis Martini and Cuvaison during his college years. Shafer brought him on as assistant winemaker full-time just weeks before his graduation. Ten years later, in 1994, he was named winemaker.

“Being able to work with what I believe to be one of the greatest vineyards in California and be able to live a dream that started at UC Davis in the early 1980s of someday producing some of the world’s top wines is what keeps me at Shafer,” he says. “Of course, the Shafers’ philosophy of producing great wine makes all this easy as well.”

Julianne Laks

Cakebread Cellars

With the winery since 1986

Jack and Dolores Cakebread established Cakebread Cellars in 1973, Jack a former photographer who’d spent time in Napa Valley taking shots for a book on wine. Along the way, he stumbled upon family friends who owned a vineyard property in Rutherford and were willing to sell. A new venture was born.

The Cakebreads’ sons soon became involved as well. After attending viticulture and enology school at UC Davis, Bruce became the first winemaker. Dennis attended graduate school, earned his CPA license and became the winery’s chief financial officer and director of sales and marketing. Oldest son Steve has served as an international ambassador for the brand.

Julianne Laks spent almost 15 years under head winemaker Bruce Cakebread, acting as enologist and then assistant winemaker for the Napa Valley producer of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot (among other varieties).

Having paid her dues over that time, in 2002, Laks was given the chance to head things up on her own, as only the third winemaker in the winery’s history and the first from outside the family.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Laks’ father was an engineer who specialized in energy-efficient equipment design and layout, and who worked regularly with wineries. He took a full-time engineering position at Robert Mondavi Winery while Laks was in college at UC Davis studying fermentation science, one of only two women to earn a degree that year, 1977.

Prior to Cakebread, Laks worked full-time in the lab at Beringer beside winemaker Myron Nightingale, moving for four years to Beaulieu Vineyards before starting a family and then finding her way to Cakebread.

Tom Mackey

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

With the winery since 1983

Tom Mackey has only two more months to go as winemaker and director of winemaking for St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, a near-30-year post he’s retiring from at the end of 2011.

“What’s kept me at St. Francis? Where to begin?” he says. “When I was hired, I was given complete control of winemaking with only the order to make great wine.”

Mackey was the winery’s first winemaker, joining St. Francis at a time when Sonoma Valley didn’t necessarily have its own identity. Mackey helped define what it would become by highlighting varietals best suited for the region’s soils and microclimates by introducing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to the winery’s portfolio, then working to strengthen its reputation for Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.

“We learned what grew best where,” he says. “Early on with our small crew, I received a crash course in winery equipment use and repair. Although we were on a tight budget, Joe Martin, the founder of the winery, and his partner, Lloyd Canton, were almost always able to come up with funds for new equipment to enhance the quality of the wines.”

That included letting Mackey experiment with blocks and varieties and to establish a reserve program with existing and new varieties as well as shift the winery from a predominantly white wine house to a largely red wine one.

“Early on, extraction was the key—deriving maximum color, flavor and aroma from the grapes,” he recalls. “Big wines with balance were the goal. Over the years, elegance and subtlety became as important as structure and concentration.”

Mackey earned 91 points for the 1984 vintage St. Francis Reserve Merlot, and in 1997, Wine Spectator named him “Master of Merlot.” Also, in 1999, Mackey was named Winemaker of the Year by The Quarterly Review of Wines, 2001 International Red Winemaker of the Year at the London International Wine Fair and, in 2005, Winemaker of the Year by the New York Institute of Technology/QRW.

“The advances in winemaking have allowed us to achieve a greater purity of fruit, a greater integration of oak and wine and a balance of richness and longevity,” he says. “However, viticultural advances in rootstock, clones, row spacing, training, crop, canopy and irrigation management, along with an evolving definition of fruit ripeness, have been nothing short of revolutionary.”

Mackey also helped expand the original St. Francis Winery, designing, equipping and staffing the new state-of-the-art facility found today at the corner of Highway 12 and Pythian Road in Santa Rosa. He also assumed control of interfacing with contracted vineyards and works with the vineyard owners to be a bigger part of their grape growing.

“With our successes, we were able to gradually expand the old winery to accommodate new wines,” he adds. “What kept me at St. Francis was the trust given me to participate not only in year-to-year winemaking, but to expand the winery, vineyards and types of wines made—to be part of an ongoing evolution.”

Mackey will continue to consult at St. Francis and will be succeeded by a strong team of winemakers he helped nurture and assemble, among them artisan winemaker Heather Munden and associate winemaker Katie Madigan, who will now become St. Francis’ Sonoma County winemaker.

Rick Sayre

Rodney Strong Vineyards

With the winery since 1979

When Rick Sayre was hired as winemaker by ex-danseur Rodney Strong, Strong had already become one of the big three names in California winemaking. There was Ernest Gallo in the Central Valley, Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley and Rodney Strong in Sonoma County. Strong was a pioneer, an entrepreneur who had fallen in love with wine while touring in France.

Strong founded his namesake winery in 1959, and the 1974 Alexander’s Crown was the first Sonoma County single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Strong was also among the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley and among the first to champion Chalk Hill as its own appellation.

In 1970, 19-year-old Sayre began his winemaking career as assistant winemaker and cellar master at Simi Winery, working with the likes of Zelma Long, Robert Stemmler, Mary Ann Graf and André Tchelistcheff (the same man who would soon be mentoring Rob Davis at Jordan Winery).

“It’s so important to be aware of everything,” Sayre says. “André taught me that a winemaker must live with his wine; even the smallest details can have an effect.”

From an agricultural family, Sayre was a quick study, having run his family’s prune and plum orchard in nearby Windsor, as well as serving time with the California Forest Service, cooking for fire crews from the Occidental station.

Strong came calling in 1979, and Sayre signed on to make the winery’s estate, reserve and Sonoma County varietal wines. After visiting many of France’s best cooperage houses in the 1980s, Sayre brought back barrel toasting techniques to Rodney Strong and became the first California winemaker to install an in-house cooperage to toast American oak barrels.

“I always wanted to work for a strong company,” Sayre recalls. “And one of the reasons I came to Rodney Strong was to be involved in the vineyards. Rodney owned some of the best grapes in Sonoma County, and that’s what attracted me.”

For a time, Sayre was making a wide range of varieties, from Johannesburg Riesling to Chenin Blanc to Gewurztraminer, as well as a table white and a table red wine. In 1989, when present owner Tom Klein took over the winery, he and Sayre cut production to what they knew Rodney Strong grew best, eliminating the other wines to concentrate on improving quality.

“What makes it home for me these days is that it’s privately run by the Klein family,” Sayre adds. “They’re farmers who don’t like debt and believe in good stewardship of the land. I can be proud of where I work.”

Today, Sayre oversees the production of just less than 1 million cases per year of six varietals: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from mostly the Russian River Valley; Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel from Alexander Valley; Merlot from throughout Sonoma County; and Sauvignon Blanc.

The winery offers several tiers of wine, from top-tier, mountainside-grown, single vineyard Cabs that score highly with the critics to more readily available, lower-priced offerings found in the grocery aisle. Every tier is made from grapes grown in Sonoma County.

In 2005, the winery also built its “winery within a winery,” a smaller, more focused part of operations where small-lot fermentation can be done using five-, seven- and 10-ton fermenters to minutely hone in on the best fruit from the best sites. There, Sayre works with one of his team, winemaker Greg Morthole, and consulting winemaker David Ramey, to produce 15,000 to 20,0000 cases of high-end wines such as Rockaway, Symmetry, Brothers Ridge and Davis Bynum.

Sayre has also worked closely with viticulturist Doug McIlroy, who’d previously overseen the vineyard holdings for Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson, in acquiring new estate and other vineyard sources, as well as improving the hundreds of acres already being farmed—14 vineyard sites consisting of close to 1,200 acres, which supply about 40 percent of the winery’s production.

The long view

In the end, what keeps these talented, hardworking winemakers committed to their jobs are many of the same things that keep any passionate professional doing the work they love to do: a shared commitment with their employers to a high level of quality; the chance to take risks, evolve and improve; and the ability to be true to who they are. They’re able to make the kinds of wines they can get excited about tasting and sharing with their peers, year after year. To echo Rick Sayre’s sentiment, it’s about being proud of where one works.



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Harvest Tunes

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