Matt Courtney, who many thought would become Marcassin's winemaker, is leaving the high-profile winery after eight years and in January will become winemaker for Arista, a Sonoma-based, family-owned winery that specializes in Pinot Noir.
Joining Arista would seem like a good fit for Courtney, 41, since he's been working with both Sonoma Pinot and Chardonnay during his stint with Marcassin. Arista makes a handful of wines, including old-vine Zinfandel, which also appeals to Courtney. He worked with Zinfandel at Martinelli when Helen Turley was Martinelli's winemaker-consultant and also made Zin at Biale Winery in Napa Valley.
Arista, owned by the McWilliams family since 2004, believes Courtney brings a philosophy and approach toward winemaking and winegrowing "that is in perfect alignment with the vision the family has held since the inception, which is to craft elegant, ageworthy wines at the highest level of quality," read a statement issued by the family. Courtney succeeds consulting winemaker Leslie Sisneros at the 5,000-case annual production winery.
Courtney's departure from Marcassin comes after what he described as years of deliberation as to what his role at Marcassin would be. He was widely believed to be Turley's successor as winemaker and was involved in most facets of the winery's operations. Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, are the founding owners of the highly regarded winery, which pioneered Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the Sonoma Coast. Turley and Welaufer are very private and did not respond to a query about Courtney or his departure.
"There's always been some speculation" about his stepping into the role as winemaker at Marcassin, Courtney allowed. "John and Helen talked about it and the answer is it may have been a possibility, but there were never any specifics and that conversation may continue as they get older. They are not spring chickens."
He added, "I'm leaving on exceptional terms." Joining Arista "was just the opportunity to branch out and take my career in a new direction."
"I don't know how much they ever thought about [a transition]," he added. "I once heard John say he wanted to die in the vineyard. I've been there eight years, loved working there, and could have been there another 15 years, and who knows how that would unfold." The winery has scaled back production to two wines, the estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and last year it moved into its first facility, a new winery in Windsor.
At Arista, Courtney said he has a chance to head the winemaking and grapegrowing at a young brand with huge potential. The estate vineyard sits on a sloping bench directly between Williams Selyem and Rochioli Vineyard on Westside Road in Russian River Valley. Like Marcassin, Arista's vineyard is planted to a mix of heritage and Dijon clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is just about to hit full maturity. "The McWilliams family has also just purchased the Martinelli Road Vineyard next to Jackass Hill, which is home to 130-year-old Zinfandel and old-vine Chardonnay," Courtney said. Ulises Valdez, considered one of Sonoma's top viticulturists, does all of the farming. "I'll also be working with a phenomenal group of non-estate vineyards that Arista sources from, including Bucher, Ferrington, Bacigalupi and now Ritchie."
On the winemaking side, he said, the situation is equally compelling, as the McWilliams family is totally committed to crafting the wines at the highest level of quality. "To this end we will immediately begin construction of a new winery at the Westside Road property. This new facility will also be the home of my own small brand of Pinot and Chardonnay that I will launch next year." Courtney has not decided on a brand name.
"As you can probably guess, this was a very difficult decision for me," Courtney said. "John and Helen have been incredible mentors and at this point they are also good friends. But I was presented with an opportunity that I just couldn't pass up."