Imagine tucking in your three young daughters and heading off to bed each night knowing that you're running one of the biggest fine-wine companies in America -- and you're only 36 years old.
It's a huge responsibility, admits Agustin Huneeus Jr., who replaced his father as president and CEO four years ago when Huneeus Sr. and partners sold Franciscan Estates to Constellation Brands. The kinds of numbers involved -- six wineries, more than 2 million cases and $185 million in revenue -- might be enough to leave someone sleepless in San Francisco, where Huneeus lives with his family.
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, how about starting a winery from scratch, with minimal capital, no vineyards, no winemaking experience and little more to go on than a passion for Pinot Noir, a willingness to work long hours and the hope that one day the ends will meet?
"There are nights when I wonder whether I'm going too fast or whether I'm going to make a mistake or whether this is even really happening," says Brian Loring, 42, the one-man show at Loring Wine Co., in hot pursuit of Pinot Noir. "I really love this business, even though I'm still fairly new at it. I just thank God I'm not selling wine above $50!"
These are trying times for California wine. A wine glut, a grape glut, a recession and stiff global competition have strained nerves even at well-established companies that have weathered tough times before.
Yet for a new generation of winemakers, marketers, vineyard managers and winery executives, the future still looks bright. For all the apparent turmoil and uncertainty, they believe this is still the land where people can make their dreams come true. "You have so much more opportunity in California vs. France," says Philippe Melka, a 38-year-old transplant from Bordeaux. He figures he'd still be washing barrels there; in California, he finds himself embraced by some as a budding star who is perhaps creating the next cult wine.
The road ahead of Melka and the many other ambitious young wine industry professionals will no doubt have its share of twists and turns, but they're determined to succeed on their chosen path, whatever it takes.
As the first generation of modern-era California wine pioneers begins to show its age, a new one is emerging. It is filling in gaps, testing the waters with new wines and new techniques and ideas taken from new areas. It is, in many instances, picking up where its elders, in some cases relatives, left off.
Many icons of the 1960s wine revival that guided California into international prominence are in the twilight of their careers. Ernest Gallo is 93. Robert Mondavi is 90. Julio Gallo, Joe Heitz and Louis M. Martini, three of the state's greatest winemakers, are dead. These trailblazers struggled to create a market for California wine, and at the top end focused primarily on Cabernet and Chardonnay as the wines to tell their story. Others who helped build the California wine industry into a strong, worldwide presence are now challenged not only to hold their ground atop the industry but to resolve issues of succession.
Who will take their places? Who will be the next Warren Winiarksi, Randy Dunn or Helen Turley? Where is the next Martha's Vineyard, the next Ridge Monte Bello or the next Calera? And who will plant those vineyards and transform the grapes into magnificent wines?
As the scene shifts, with scores of new names and faces introducing hundreds of new wines each year, Wine Spectator zeroed in on 10 notables from the next generation who are eagerly pursuing the American wine dream in California.
It's an eclectic mix of men and women, with ages ranging from 26 to 42. They bring widely diverse backgrounds to their careers in wine, and they occupy a variety of roles in this increasingly complex and specialized industry that extends from the most basic levels of farming to the new frontiers of high tech. Some have founded their own small wineries, others are running large corporate operations. Some are winemakers, others are on the business side. But all share the conviction that California wine is just beginning to fulfill its potential, the ambition to make significant contributions and the talent to realize their dreams.
One way to break into the wine business is to start from scratch -- buy grapes, rent or create modest facilities in a spartan warehouse and try to attract attention by making high quality wine. Loring and Mat Garretson, the 40-year-old owner of Garretson Wine Co., are shining examples of bootstrap vintners who grew up far from wine but are tenaciously carving their niches in a turbulent industry. So are Greg Brewer, 33, of Brewer-Clifton and Melville Vineyards, and Melka, whose own label is called Métisse.
Driven by a quirky taste for the less-than-famous French wine Condrieu, Garretson came from Atlanta to Paso Robles in 1994 and quickly became head cheerleader for underappreciated Rhône-style wines. He can take some credit for the fact that these wines today enjoy a growing popularity. Now he's started his own company, focusing on a line of Rhône-style wines.
The proliferation of new vineyards and wineries founded by wealthy outsiders with little experience in the business has created tremendous opportunities for winemaking entrepreneurs. Many of these contract consultants are trying to make names for their own wines while simultaneously overseeing winemaking operations owned by others. Some are carrying a workload heavy enough to make one wonder whether they're stretched too thin for their -- and their customers' -- own good. But the best have proved that not only can they make many good wines at once, they can make them in the varying styles demanded by their employers.
Among the most successful consultants in the younger generation are Brewer, who works for Melville, in the Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County; French-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker Melka, who counts Bryant Family among his many high-profile clients; and Thomas Brown, 31, who currently works with seven wineries, including Outpost and a new Sonoma estate, Nicholson Ranch. All told, the three represent nearly 20 wine brands. They produce everything from Cabernet to Zinfandel, but are also exploring up-and-coming varieties such as Pinot Noir and Syrah, and they juggle tight schedules with absentee owners, some of whom won't settle for less than the best -- and make a point of saying so.
All around the world, wine is often a family business, with one generation succeeding the next. Sometimes the new generation fails; sometimes it carries the family name to greater success. Three of the new faces we profile have family ties to the wine business: Huneeus; Marc Cuneo, 26; and Cecilia de Quesada, 33.
Of the three, Huneeus currently carries the greatest responsibility. The head of Constellation Brands' vast California wine holdings is the son of the man who revived Franciscan, started Estancia and now owns one of Napa Valley's newest showcase estates, Quintessa.
Cuneo grew up in the winemaking Sebastiani family, but just recently began working with the Sonoma operation as it undertakes a risky but so far successful turnaround -- that being the repositioning of century old Sebastiani Vineyards from one of the state's behemoths to a finely tuned, fine-wine machine that produces excellent wines at competitive prices. Though Sebastiani is still large, it operates as if it were a winery within a winery, producing small lots of vineyard-designated wines while maintaining a highly visible presence in the market. Cuneo is working deligently behind the scenes as the winery is transformed.
De Quesada is the University of California, Berkeley-educated daughter of Brunno and Urannia Ristow, owners of Ristow Estate in Napa Valley. She grew up watching her parents' painstaking attempts to plant a vineyard in the stubbornly rocky soils of the Napa Valley floor. She is now in charge of marketing the family's $60-a-bottle Cabernet in what has become a tightfisted economy that is suddenly saying "No thanks" to high-priced wines, including America's most famous, Napa Valley Cabernets.
It would be easy to say that they inherited their jobs as much as earned them. Yet they're still accountable to a higher authority -- be it the family boards of directors at Sebastiani and Ristow, or the scrutiny of the publicly traded Constellation, which carefully watches revenue.
Female winemakers have been successful in California; now their numbers are growing and their horizons are limitless. Vanessa Wong, 33, of Peay Vineyards, and Kris Curran, 36, of Sea Smoke Cellars, are two of the new guard with university training to back up their talent and ambition.
Wong is well-traveled for her age, having made wine on three continents. She left the high-profile job of winemaker at Peter Michael to join her husband-to-be, Nick Peay, who has the ambitious goal of turning a remote Sonoma Coast hillside into a great vineyard estate.
Curran, who grew up in Santa Ynez Valley in northern Santa Barbara County, is a local girl making good. She considered becoming a veterinarian before turning instead to winemaking studies, and upon graduation happily returned to her roots. At Sea Smoke Cellars, she is working with a site she has dreamed about for 20 years.
As diverse as they are, these members of California's next winemaking generation have many traits in common. Curiously, most of our young winemakers have no formal winemaking education. Brown, Brewer, Loring and Garretson learned by reading books and by working in vineyards, cellars, wine shops or tasting rooms, where they listened closely to those with experience and knowledge. They are guided as much by passion as by professional training.
They also share a commitment to terroir and a willingness to take risks on unproven sites and grape varieties. Each of them is dedicated to working with wines that express specific vineyard sites; more than half are working in relatively new appellations; many are taking on challenging wines such as Viognier and Syrah.
Their payoff might be the production of one of California's next great wines. But there are huge risks and unexpected obstacles along the way, however carefully laid one's plans.
"It's a wonderful time to be in the industry, with so many changes and so many new technologies," says Cuneo. "But I think my generation is going to be much more challenged, because it's turning into a much more global industry. I think the 20 to 30 crowd can often be seen as the young guns, but I also see some of the older generation being refreshed by some of the new ideas the younger generation is bringing to the industry."
When the current California mainstays began their careers, many of them lacked technical training and were inclined to take risks too. It took years, for example, for the pioneers to appreciate the importance of grapegrowing and of matching grape to soil and climate, and to understand that winemaking begins in the vineyard, not in the lab. They also faced the real marketing challenge of trying to convince people outside California that Golden State wines had character and quality and, ultimately, that they could compete with the venerable wines of Europe.
Today, these 10 young professionals, and dozens of others like them, are pushing the wine industry in new directions. Wine lovers can only benefit from their energy and their talents as they blaze a new trail for California wine.
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