You can’t come to Sonoma County and drive up and down one valley and call it a day, like you could in Napa. Sonoma County boasts distinct terroir and microclimates in five major Valley’s: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Knight’s Valley. With over 15 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs or appellations) and over 400 wineries, Sonoma County is the most diverse premium wine-grape growing region in the U.S. To ensure the agricultural heritage of the region, the winegrowers are working together to boldly become the first 100% sustainable wine region in the world. It’s a triple bottom line approach that is environmentally-conscious in how they conduct their vineyard and winery practices; is socially-responsible in how they treat their employees, neighbors and local community and economically-viable so the business remains productive and profitable. Each aspect of the triple-bottom line approach must meet strict criteria that was reviewed and vetted by environmental policy advocates, wine industry leaders and other stakeholders.
We sat down with Harvest Council Member Jesse Katz, Founder and Winemaker, Devil Proof Vineyards, Aperture Cellars, and consulting winemaker to select high-end wineries to talk viticultural practices, wine and innovation.
Is innovation important in the vineyard?
Absolutely! Innovation is responsible for huge advances in fruit handling, fruit processing and fermentation monitoring. These changes have empowered the viticulturist as well as the winemaker. From small craft vineyards to large luxury brands, the term “precision farming” is becoming more and more of a reality. Advances in technology such as site specific crop management give farmers the ability to make decisions based on exact information in an exact location in their vineyards. Technological and scientific innovation tools in the vineyard are also allowing us to better understand our vines and farm more sustainably, so we can make more advanced decisions to benefit our fruit, and ultimately the quality of our wine.
How influenced are you by other winemakers, around the world or right next door?
I think anyone who wants to be at the top of their craft must look globally. The world is becoming more and more connected and we live in an increasingly global market making it so much more important to know both what your neighbors are doing, as well as your global competition. Early on in my career I was focused on “New World” wines and I surrounded myself with some of the great estates and winemakers here locally from Hourglass to Screaming Eagle among others. I also knew I had to optimize my time and gain first hand experience in the Southern Hemisphere, which also allowed me to get two vintages a year under my belt as a young winemaker.
After traveling the world and gaining five vintages in three years, I worked on growing two brands as head winemaker in Alexander Valley, while simultaneously creating two wine brands of my own, Aperture and Devil Proof Vineyards. My brands are focused on Bordeaux varietals and because of this, I knew I needed to experience the winemaking process at the top Bordeaux Châteaux. I spent the 2015 harvest working with the winemasters, technical directors, and great viticulturists of Bordeaux, from Pétrus to Château Margaux. That confluence of culture, history, and centuries of experience certainly influenced me professionally and personally. At the same time, I think some of the greatest wines in the world are made right in my own backyard, here in Sonoma County. I am constantly learning from friends and fellow winemakers here locally. Building on experience and tradition with also using innovation to continually improve my craft is my way of always pushing myself and never being satisfied. It’s a never-ending journey and the pursuit tastes great.
What makes Sonoma County wine different?
We have the unique duality of living in a place that feels like both a hidden gem but also the hottest new thing on the map as far as the food, wine, and art are concerned. We have some of the most talented and passionate people, from a variety of different industries and backgrounds, coming here, realizing how special this place is, and staying. In my profession as a winemaker, it’s amazing to step back and recognize the diversity we have here in regards to climate. Within one county, during a normal growing season, we have climates that are cooler than Champagne, France and some that are warmer than Bordeaux that are only miles away from one another. This gives the winemaker amazing diversity not only in what varietals that they can grow but also how they want to express the vintage and wine. This also translates to the diversity of our fruit and vegetable produce that our amazing chefs have the ability to work with and one of the reasons you see such incredible creativity coming out of Sonoma County. I have not seen a combination quite like this anywhere else in the world. Please don’t tell too many people!
How has technology changed the way people talk, share or enjoy wine?
Unsurprisingly, one of the primary ways that technology has changed the way we experience wine is social media. Platforms where people are discovering wine in new ways and sharing their experiences with others from all over the world. Consumers no longer need to rely on the reviews of three or four wine critics that may or may not share their same taste and preferred wine style. The ability to be socially connected across the globe to others is giving a voice to new wine drinkers, allowing them to discover new wines through these networks and ultimately expanding their wine knowledge. As a winemaker, I am able to share both my wines as well as my process and have a real dialogue about my craft with a more educated global consumer.
These advancements in technology and social media have given a voice to smaller wineries that may have had trouble standing out in the past, and this is incredibly exciting. It has empowered smaller wineries to share their story and reach new consumers in a more traditional market place.
Technology is certainly changing how people are physically drinking as well. New devices like Coravin allow you to pour just a glass of wine from any bottle sealed with a cork, and preserve the remainder without ever removing the cork, or introducing oxygen to the product. This is changing people’s consumption patterns, allowing them to drink more often, more moderately, and also allowing restaurants to showcase older and unique wines, while staying profitable.
As a winemaker each new vintage brings new possibilities. What do you think other industries can learn from your annual creation process?
The intermix of art, science and agriculture can be a very interesting model for business. A unique aspect is a relatively short period, three months a year, are so critical to your future annual revenue – for quality, volume, and value. Not all industries have such a consistent cyclical nature to them, there is something to be said for being able to repeat the process with such regularity, and to put into play our learnings from the years prior.
Because so much of our annual process is dictated by nature, and highly fluctuates due to seasonality, there is a need to be versatile and flexible. As winemakers we need to be able to adjust and compensate for what we are given, more quickly than many other marketplaces. We need to learn to work with nature in a way that still gives us consistency in the quality of our product when met with inconsistent, and sometimes imperfect circumstances, which we are certain will happen even in our “best” vintages. This fluidity is something that while not forced on other industries, is something that can be learned from, ultimately building a stronger artist and craftsman across a multitude of disciplines.
Jesse Katz is an award-winning winemaker, he made the FORBES 30 under 30 list and created the wedding cuvée for Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.