There are times when winemakers changing jobs resembles musical chairs. Here are three key changes in Napa Valley of late that bear watching.
Quintessa has a new winemaker. Aaron Pott, who joined the Napa winery several years ago, has departed to focus on his consulting business. The new winemaker is Charles Thomas, who is one of California’s best winemakers and a bit of a journeyman as well.
Thomas was an integral part of the Robert Mondavi Winery winemaking team into the 1990s, then departed (a sign that things were changing at Mondavi) for Kendall-Jackson, where he worked in various roles, including overseeing the company’s Bordeaux knockoff, Cardinale. He then joined Rudd. He should be an improvement at Quintessa, which has, to my taste, not lived up to its expectations.
Dominus, Christian Moueix’s Napa estate, also has a new winemaker. Boris Champy, the winemaker for the past 10 vintages, is leaving and returning to his homeland of Bordeaux. Tod Mostero, who most recently made wine at Viña Almaviva in Chile, is replacing him.
“I am hoping that this [change] will allow Dominus to continue to improve,” Moueix told me last week. And like Quintessa, the Dominus and Napanook wines have not been on par with their best wines the past couple of vintages, so perhaps a change in winemaking will be a benefit.
Staglin Vineyards also has a new winemaker and this may have been a move to maintain quality as much as to improve it. The Staglin Rutherford Cabernet came into its own in the past few vintages and it is now in the position to be one of the premiere red wines of Napa Valley.
I was surprised in 2005 when the winery hired Luc Morlet from Peter Michael, since the Staglin wines had been terrific and the Peter Michael wines, particularly the Les Pavots Cabernet blend, had declined in quality. After the stunning 2001, both the 2002 and 2003 Les Pavots were less impressive. So Morlet leaves after one vintage and Fredrick Johansson steps in as winemaker. He has worked with Thomas Brown, winemaker for several wineries, including Schrader and Nicholson Ranch.
In all three cases, of course, the vineyard is the driver in wine quality, and all three properties have plenty of winemaking expertise at their disposal.
The question in my mind is, when wineries change winemakers, should one be concerned about consistency and quality? Or are these signs that quality expectations aren’t being met? Or is this simply the modern wine world, where winemakers routinely come and go at many wineries and locking in a winemaker long-term is an increasingly difficult challenge?