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A Touch of Advice

Author: Virginie Boone
May, 2010 Issue

NorthBay biz talks to some of the industry’s most coveted consulting winemakers.

A consulting winemaker can make or break a brand. So it’s not surprising that there are a handful working in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino who are as sought after as a valuable designated hitter. They may oversee a replanting of vineyards, make crucial picking decisions, certainly recommend the final blends and most definitely help a winery’s wines more ably get noticed by coveted critics and consumers, thanks to the reputations and relationships they’ve built over time. Here are a handful of some of the busiest winemakers for hire.

Kerry Damskey

Longtime Sonoma County winemaker Kerry Damskey likes to call himself the “Wine Doctor” or “Wandering Winemaker,” and it’s apropos—he helps fix wine under his wine consulting company, Terroirs Inc., which counts clients in California, Washington, India and, a few years back, Northern China and Bulgaria.

“I think I was always destined to be a consulting winemaker,” Damskey says, a gig he’s pursued since 1999. “Like a raven on the beach, every shiny new project excites me. And I was gifted with the ability to remember flavors, which lets me manage many different lots without confusion—a quality needed in a successful consultant.”

After earning a degree in fermentation science at UC Davis, Damskey added to his technical knowledge by graduating from a small business program at Stanford University’s School of Business, making him an even more valuable resource for not only how to make the wine, but also how to sell it.

“Having the opportunity to manage all aspects of the industry [has] offered me broad understanding of elements required to make great wines, launch a brand and engage in the financial side of the industry,” he adds. “I’m really glad I chose to work in large corporate wineries as well as with the small, more notable boutique world of winemaking. This early training has allowed me to facilitate unique startups, like Sula Winery in India.” 

For many wineries, Damskey is the go-to guy, particularly when it comes to blending, of which he’s a big proponent. Among his favorite varietals to mix are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a blend that’s been done for decades in Australia but one Damskey has been vigilant about promoting here in California.

“Cabernet Sauvignon holds the structure of the blend,” he explains. “Syrah lends strength, color and another yet entirely compatible fruit component.”

He’s also big into low-yielding, mountain-grown grapes, helping clients such as Dutcher Crossing Winery in Healdsburg identify the best sites from which to make more concentrated wines. He also makes his own wines under the Palmeri Wines label, a classic Damskey blend of Cabernet and Syrah sourced from Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa Valley, in addition to two other Syrahs.

“It’s nonsense to believe all the wines of a consulting winemaker would taste the same,” Damskey notes. “Yes, I do use my stylistic criteria—I like wines that are voluptuous, with balanced tannins and beautifully structured—but it’s the nature of wines to reveal the uniqueness of the terroirs from which they’re born. Respect for the site and the client’s vision is critical in wine consulting.”

Other clients include Godwin Family Wines; Hughes Family Vineyards, an organic grower on relatively cool Sonoma Mountain; and Peña Ridge, for whom he makes a Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc from Bradford Mountain vineyards farmed by John Piccetti. All of these wines (as well as his own Palmeri label) are featured in a Geyserville tasting room opened by Damskey and his wife, Daisy, last year, called Terroirs Artisan Wines.

Damskey is excited about an e-based distribution company called, his newest client, where he’s working with 85 wineries as “Chief Wine Officer.” brings the tasting room to the consumer’s home, offering the concept of “try before you buy” 50 mL samples. The tastes have been transferred from 750 mL bottles using a new process that keeps the wine fresh and accurately represents the large bottle’s essence.

“One of my favorite aspects of my work as a consultant is the opportunity to serve as a mentor to other winemakers,” he concludes. “I love what I do, and I also love the role of teacher.”

Sarah Gott

Though still only in her 30s, Sarah Gott is a very experienced voice in Napa Valley, particularly on the subject of making great value wines.

She attended UC Davis and earned a degree in fermentation sciences with a specialization in enology, then interned at Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma and Wirra Wirra in Australia’s McClaren Vale before becoming a young rising star at Joseph Phelps. There, she worked as the assistant winemaker and then head winemaker from 1994 to 2001, overseeing, among other things, the winery’s flagship, Insignia. In 2002, Gott became the winemaker at Quintessa, helping it earn its reputation for producing highly elegant, Bordeaux-style red wines.

She left full-time production in part to raise the first of her three children but also to work alongside her husband, Joel Gott, in establishing Joel Gott Wines, where she’s perfected the art of making great wines at great prices. Her reputation for knowing where to find the best sources of grapes, along with her meticulous winemaking prowess, have attracted many consulting clients, including high-end Blackbird Vineyards, an Oak Knoll-based vineyard and Bordeaux-style producer she joined in 2003.

These days, she’s busy with, among others, Clif Family Winery & Farm, the approachable, affordable vision of Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson and wife Kit Crawford, who bought land and a home in St. Helena in 1998. Gott’s first vintage for the pair was 2007. All three share a love of the outdoors (Gott herself is an active triathlete) and a commitment to sustainable farming and winemaking.

“We knew of Sarah from before,” Crawford says. “We knew she was a great winemaker, but when we met her and really started learning about her, we couldn’t believe the fit—the athletic part, mom of three, winemaker and consultant at Joel Gott.”

The Clif Family Wines are made at The Ranch Winery, a custom-crush facility in the Napa Valley.

“The model, in some ways, is very similar to Joel Gott Wines, in terms of starting with bulk wine buying,” Gott acknowledges. “You get to know the people you work with and you get to know the sites.”

Denis and May-Britt Malbec

Denis Malbec grew up at Château Latour in Pauillac, France, where his father, Jean-Noël, served as cellar master, and his grandfather, Camille, was vigneron. As a young boy, Denis learned to ride his bike through the vines. He went on to study viticulture and enology in Bordeaux and then Reims, Champagne.

He held subsequent internships at such esteemed wineries as Château Haut-Brion, Château Lagrange, the Pugnac Cooperative in Côtes de Bourg, Léon Viollant and Duval Leroy in the Côte des Blancs AVA in Champagne.

In 1993, Denis started working in the cellar at Château Latour, becoming enologist and cellar master the following year, positions he held until 2000. In 1995, he met May-Britt, a European master sommelier who’d been hired to take on public relations at Latour. In Sweden, May-Britt had worked in many of Stockholm’s highest-end restaurants before opening her own, Le Bateau, on the Royal Star, a yacht built for Denmark’s King Frederic. She also won the Prince Henri-Melchior de Polignac award, acknowledging her as the best sommelier of the Nordic countries. From there, she became a celebrated jurist at Le Mondial, a competition to select the “Best Sommelier in the World,” and for the Trophée Ruinart to identify the “Best European Sommelier.”

Together, the Malbecs have more than 40 years of experience in viticulture, winemaking and marketing, making them a very sought-after pair in the wine-consulting world. They moved to the United States in 2000, setting up base in St. Helena as Malbec & Malbec USA in 2004, where they continue to live most of the time (they also keep a residence in Bordeaux). They also have an import company, Malbec & Malbec Importers, that brings in good value wines from Bordeaux and Champagne.

“Our clients are looking for—and get—a lot of experience, not only from our years of involvement in the wine business,” says Denis Malbec, “but also experience that I received from generations of my family and friends who shared their knowledge and the same passion we have; that’s the communication of what we know and what we have.

“The key in this is to be a good listener and observer, and to have an enormous potential of quickly detecting the best of what a specific terroir can give us,” he adds.

“Our relationship with our new clients always starts the same way. We talk a lot, both sides share a lot of ideas, feelings, interests, tastes and projects. We soon become good friends, which is the most important element in any new venture. If we don’t share the same feeling that we’re first friends and not just clients and suppliers, the association doesn’t work—or doesn’t work very long.”

They’ve consulted for a variety of clients, including the historic Charles Krug in St. Helena, Kapcsandy Family Winery and Blankiet Estate in Yountville, Captûre and Respite in Alexander Valley, Paradise View Wines and Thirty-Seven on the Sonoma Coast and Medlock Ames in Chalk Hill.

“Another factor is that May-Britt and I don’t try to force nature to make a wine we think is going to work or a wine that’s going to get a score,” continues Malbec. “We don’t want to make a wine that’s only about our name or our image.”

At Captûre, the Malbecs are working on a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon project sourced largely from Tin Cross Vineyards, a patch of wild land at 2,450 feet elevation atop Pine Mountain, north of the Alexander Valley, near Cloverdale. Forty acres have been planted so far, 30 of them to red wine grapes, and there are 10 acres of Chardonnay that’s currently being sold to other projects. Eventually, they also hope to grow their own Sauvignon Blanc.

The 2008 vintage was the first at Captûre, with 2009 the first year of any volume—1,500 cases altogether—predominating with two traditional Bordeaux-style blends. The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, recently released, is sourced from Bennett Valley’s Kick Ranch and Windrem Ranch in Kelseyville. It relies on no Semillon and no oak, with the Malbecs opting for a pure style with texture instead, including extensive stirring of the lees in stainless steel to help get an extremely aromatic nose and creamy texture in the mouth. The first reds should be on the market later this year.

In addition, Malbec & Malbec have their own wines, Notre Vin, which includes a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and Alienor Grand Vin, a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend.

Philippe Melka

If you’re making high-end Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley, chances are you have—or have tried to get—Philippe Melka to consult. Bordeaux-bred, Melka is among the top of the top-tier names on many a producer’s list, having helped establish such brands as Bryant Family, Seavey, Quintessa and Hundred Acre.

After a childhood spent wanting to be an oceanographer, Melka graduated from the University of Bordeaux in the late 1980s with a degree in geology. After graduation, he completed a masters of ampelology and enology with a specialization in terroir; his reasearch subject was “the relationship between Cabernet Franc quality and soil types.” During this time, he also took a winemaking class, which, he says, changed his life.

“Because my first love was geology and agronomy, a striking wine is a true and pure reflection of a place,” Melka says. “I strive to make wines that are elegant with subtleties enhanced by a distinct sense of place.”

He soon was spending time in some of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Bordeaux, then earned a degree in winemaking, which led to an internship at Chateau Haut-Brion. He soon met the Moueix family of Chateau Petrus, one of the region’s most elite producers. They also own a property in the Napa Valley, the Dominus winery in Yountville—and soon dispatched Melka to California to learn more.

Between studying the soils in Yountville and tapping into Moueix family connections around the globe, Melka did a stint at Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello property in Cupertino. It was there he met his wife, Cherie, who was working as the lab manager. Melka was there to do a soil study in the presence of one of his winemaking idols, Paul Draper. The Melkas then returned to France, but not for long. They returned to California in 1994, what Melka refers to as a booming time for wine in California.

“Starting my business in 1995 was perfect timing, as Napa Valley was developing more and more the concept of small estate wines,” he recalls.

“It was a natural transition as small businesses back in the early 1990s didn’t need a full-time winemaker, and it let me work in many different appellations. This is something clients know about me when we start the process of working together. When you look at the history of my work, I think you’ll see my wines are very different from place to place, depending on their different appellations.”

People were starting to invest in land and vineyards, needed help and were willing to tap people like Melka to pursue making great wine. He soon was on his way to becoming among the first names many called.

His specific expertise remains soil analysis, but his services extend from making the call on where and how grapes will be grown to choosing percentages for a final blend. Among his early clients were Seavey Vineyard in St. Helena, Lail Vineyards in Rutherford and Constant Wine on Diamond Mountain.

The reputations he helped build at those places led to more work for a pantheon of other terroir-driven cult Cabernets, including Bryant Family Vineyard (where he took over from another famous consultant, Helen Turley), Caldwell Vineyard, Marston Family Vineyard and Vineyard 29. He currently works with Hundred Acre, Dana Estates, Roy Estate, Vineyard 29, Parallel, Gemstone and others.

“I think clients hire our company, Atelier Melka, because of our experience in many different fields—winemaking, vineyard management, marketing and sales—but also our vision is to create a true relationship,” Melka says.  “Because our clientele is usually focused on small production, we feel a part of the family. Therefore, all the decisions we make are beyond just winemaking.”

Newer clients include Cliff Lede, a noted Cab house on Yountville Cross Road; Rutherford’s Moone-Tsai; and Skipstone Ranch, a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused property in Alexander Valley, where he works alongside full-time winemaker Andrew Levi.

“[Melka] is one of the great winemakers going right now,” Levi says. “He’s a winery starter and, in most cases, if somebody wants to start a winery and they hire Philippe, he puts the team together. As we were already on our way at Skipstone, it’s a matter of him truly coming on as a consultant. He’s here to help with tasting, blending, brand development, vineyard, winery and the like. He’s an integral part of the team.”

But Melka also works hard to define the specific personality of each venture.

“We customize every part of the realization of the wine, from vineyards to winemaking,” adds Melka. “Each vineyard will be farmed differently based on its location, and the winemaking will be minimalist to enhance the character of the site.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Melka also makes his own Cabernets under the Metisse and CJ labels, something he’s done since 1996.

Kirk Venge

Venge grew up in Rutherford, the son of Nils Venge, who made his prestigious reputation at the family’s Saddleback Cellars—he was the first winemaker to earn a perfect 100 points from critic Robert Parker—after successful stints at Villa Mt. Eden and Groth.

Kirk remembers helping his father, as young as age four, basket-pressing Cabernet Sauvignon. After graduating from UC Davis, the younger Venge then went on to Mumm Napa Valley as experimental winemaker for five harvests under the guidance of sparkling winemaker Gregory Fowler. In 1999, Venge went to Marlborough, New Zealand, to work a harvest at Rapaura Vintners.

But the Napa Valley and home beckoned, and he returned to work alongside his father to develop Venge Vineyards and a line of reserve wines. The original vineyards, based at the historic Rossini Ranch, were sold in 2008. Venge Vineyards is now in Calistoga.

“My philosophy for winemaking is very simple,” Venge notes. “Either grow the best, or find the best fruit you possibly can. Let the vineyard express itself in the wines and whenever possible, have a hands-off approach. Do the majority of the winemaking in the vineyard.”

Only 34, Venge has nonetheless become one of the rising stars of the wine consulting worlds on his own terms, an able force behind such brands as Igneous, Hunnicutt, Macauley, Bacio Divino, JAX, B Cellars, Trespass, JR Wine, Frazier, Janzen and Calistoga Ranch.

“When clients hire me, I think they’re looking for more than just a wine at the end,” Venge adds. “I think I bring to the table viticulture, creative marketing and overall product strategy as well. I love consulting. It’s very, very exciting and what I love the most is the ability to have five, six or seven vintages in one.”

His newest client is Tudal Winery off Big Tree Road in St. Helena, a historic vineyard spot owned by the Tudal family for about as long as Venge has been alive.

“Kirk is such a natural fit for us, given the friendship our fathers shared and his roots from the vineyard to the cellar,” says John Tudal, whose father, Arnold, founded the property. “We’ve asked Kirk to make the best wine possible without the pressure of creating the next Napa Valley cult wine.”

At Tudal, whose first Venge vintage from start to finish will be 2009, Venge works alongside Tudal’s nephew, Matt Tudal Fidge, who will be his apprentice as they produce about 2,000 cases of two estate Cabernet Sauvignons. Venge will also be putting his own stamp on a 2009 Maldonado Chardonnay, a vineyard from which he also sources for Venge wines, and a 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from the Baccigalupi Vineyards, all tiny productions, the winemaker still experimenting with new yeasts and barrel types as he goes along.

“It all comes from the owner’s mind,” Venge says of how a wine is ultimately produced. “The truth is in the wine. But I think, in this case, the sky’s the limit."

A Cabernet for Charles

By Julie Fadda
On a bright, chilly afternoon in February, a small group of people gathered at Dutcher Crossing Winery to create a special blend. The goal was to come up with a small-lot, 2007 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon in memory of owner Debra Mathy’s father, Charles Mathy, who passed away in 2006 after a long fight with melanoma. The end result would be a wine from which 100 percent of proceeds would benefit melanoma research.

The base was a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery’s Mountain Terraces vineyard on the Sonoma side of Mt. Veeder. Blending elements included a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from the same vineyard, two separate vintages (2007 and 2008) of Syrah from Napa’s Stagecoach Vineyard, and a 2008 Merlot from Bennett Valley’s Nelson Vineyard.

Each wine was tasted separately, so participants could make notes about their appearance, aroma, taste and finish. The question: What could make the bright, spicy, tannic 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (which would constitute a minimum of 75 percent of the blend) better? Winemaker Kerry Damskey led the panel’s efforts toward its final decision. “I look for what I want on the nose and the palate. Then I ask what’s missing; what could improve the wine?” He explained the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rules regarding percentages of vintage and location, and the blending began.

The 2008 Cabernet also had some spice but also some blueberry flavor. The 2007 Syrah was smoky, earthy and smooth, while the velvety 2008 had elements of caramel. The Merlot had bay leaves, mint and strawberry on the nose, with a sweeter, more feminine taste. Our work was cut out for us.

The idea was for each person to vote on which blend was his or her favorite. But after four distinct and separate blends, there was one that absolutely stood out to everyone—80 percent 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5 percent each of everything else. Turns out not only every person, but every wine, had something to bring to the table.

With that consensus, we said “Cheers!” to Charles. And when Debra was asked if she thought he’d like it, she responded, after thinking for a moment, “He would if there was brandy in it!”

The final blend will be on the market in June (with Damskey’s final touches, of course), so you can see for yourself if you agree with our choice. Only 150 cases will be available, and you can find some at



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