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New Winemakers At Key Napa Wineries

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 12, 2007 1:21pm ET

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?

Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  June 12, 2007 6:38pm ET
To your first question - my opinion is yes AND this is especially so the more expensive the wine. My analogy: if I drove a Porsche and for years went to the same mechanic for a tune up and all of a sudden the head mechanic at the shop changed - I'd be leary of going w/ the unkown commodity in the new mechanic (even if a famous/well known one). This is not to say that the "new" winemakers will not do a good job - its more to answer James' question - should we be concerned about consistency/quality. I say concerned yes. Both at the new winery and the old one the new winemakers will need time to get up the learning curve of the winery's particular vineyard holdings in order to make a long term impact.

On a seperate note will Charles Thomas continue as the winemaker at Rudd as well or as he left there entirely? (I am quite a big fan of his wines and think some of his Rudd wines were the best around in the last few years)
Harvey Posert Jr
napa valley —  June 12, 2007 7:46pm ET
jim -- i'd be interested in your thoughts about the vintner-winemaker power relationship. my 42-year experience is that when the vintner calls the shots, the winemaker makes plans to leave, because in our world there are more vintners than top winemakers.harvey
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  June 12, 2007 8:08pm ET
Actually James, I am not sure you have yet reviewed any of Quintessa's wines yet produced by Aaron Pott. His vintages include the 2004, 2005 and 2006. The 2003 and 2002 was made by Sarah Gott.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  June 13, 2007 10:52am ET
This is an intersting question . . . And one to me that is similar to when a restaurant gets a new chef. You can and should expect some changes when this occurs, for the new chef (or winemaker) needs to make their own mark on the product. That said, if the grapes are sourced from the same places and the wine components will be similar, I wouldn't expect any major shift in quality of the product. There will always be concerns that the new person will not produce the same wines as before - but just as their is downward potential, there is also a very good chance that the wines will be better because of the 'new blood' involved . . .
Mr Randy Beranek
Napa, CA —  June 13, 2007 11:38am ET
Morley's departure after one vintage at Staglin causes me some anxiety about how their 06 will fare. If it was a home run I doubt he'd be leaving so soon.
Sao Anash
Santa Barbara —  June 13, 2007 12:08pm ET
First of all, thanks for letting us know that Charles Thomas is at Quintessa. That could potentially be a very exciting pairing. I think Charles Thomas is one of the most under-rated, hardworking and gifted winemakers in Napa Valley. My gut tells me that he has some of his best wines still left in him.On another note, I've seen winemakers join a winery, and, though the fruit sources remain the same, the wines change dramatically. Much of this, at least in my experience, sometimes comes down to something as simple as a cleanliness issue. Some winemakers are just more vigilant about racking, topping, cleaning, sanitizing, and the wines are better as a result. As for why winemakers shift about like they're playing musical chairs, many winemakers are also artists. I'm kind of guessing here, but I would think that, like other artists, they need new challenges occasionally, to keep their passion and focus truly alive. Sometimes working with a challenging vintage isn't enough. They want to work with different fruit sources, newer or more gentle equipment, work with different varietals, etc.
Jason Fernandez
Boston, MA —  June 13, 2007 1:05pm ET
I agree. I was a little suprised at Staglin for expanding the number of varietals they bottle and even more so when they began to sell Morley's champagne. I am really hoping his departure has very little to do with the quality of the wines made by Morley, especially with the continually rising prices. I hope it has more to do with the winery wanting to confirm their identity and not dilute the quality of their product through the development of the winemaker's side projects, etc.
Agustin Huneeus
June 13, 2007 5:24pm ET
James, The fact is that the wine industry today is exciting and veryactive, so some winemakers can't resist trying out new projects or moving on to be consultants. At Quintessa, we agree that consistency is important and that is why Aaron Pott will continue to work with Charles Thomas as a consulting winemaker. We believe this ensures a smooth transition and allows Aaron to pass the torch with the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated about the Quintessa vineyard.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 14, 2007 7:44pm ET
Harvey, thanx for the book idea...I'll take this up as soon as time permits...Mr. Huneeus makes a good point. There are lots of opportunities for young winemakers (or more mature ones) and from what I understand, the pay is good as well. Still, each winemaker makes wine a little differently, so as long as there are improvements, all the better.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  June 14, 2007 10:41pm ET
A simple question: Why would you call Cardinale a "Bordeaux knockoff"? Is there something we should know about Cardinale, that makes it less worthy a Cab-Merlot based blend than other California Meritage red wines?
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  June 18, 2007 8:35am ET
Still hoping for an answer to my question above. Is it the name, Cardinale, that makes it a knockoff? If so, what does that make Francis Coppola's "Claret"? Or is there something about the blend? Or do you think that it is a knockoff because of how the winery tries to make the wine Bordeauxlike rather than Californian? And does it have anything to do with Charles Thomas?

Cardinale strikes me as one of the least Bordeauxlike of North Coast Cab blends in that its sourcing is deliberately flexible. Composition can vary significantly from year to year in terms of specific Napa and Sonoma vineyards used to supply fruit, not unlike another K-J owned Meritage, Verite. To me this makes the wine more interesting. So I am curious as to why you consider it a Bordeaux knockoff.
Jason Fernandez
Boston, MA —  June 20, 2007 11:08am ET
Oh, I should add that I am very excited to see Fredrick Johansson coming to Staglin. I've found his wines quite enjoyable.

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