Nile Zacherle, 36, made his first foray into winemaking at the tender age of 9. While growing up in Napa Valley, he helped his father stomp grapes for homemade wine. But his journey into the wine business actually started with beer, which led him to the University of California, Davis, where he received a B.S. in fermentation science with a concentration in enology, viticulture and brewing sciences. He went on to work for Pierro Margaret River Vineyards in western Australia and in Bordeaux at Château d'Arsac. In 2000, he returned to California as winemaker for Chateau Montelena; most recently he was vineyard manager at Barnett Vineyards.
His fascination with Napa Cabernet Sauvignon has kept him in the region, where he just joined David Arthur Vineyards as winemaker this July. He is currently overseeing the 2008 harvest and is responsible for producing the winery's Elevation 1147 (a wine that earned several classic scores from the late 1990s through 2001, including a stunning 99 points in 1997), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Merittagio bottlings. Zacherle took a break from preparing for harvest to talk about the challenges of overseeing his first vintage for David Arthur and why it can sometimes be tough being the new guy.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Nile Zacherle: At UC Davis—where I went to study beer—I eventually ended up in the viticulture department within a month, where I transferred to study winemaking. It was initially beer-making that captured my interest in fermentation, and from there, the intrigue of wine really pulled me in.
WS: What was the first wine that you made?
NZ: The first commercial wines that I made were at Sterling Vineyards in 1996 as a harvest enologist. The first wines I made from beginning to end were at Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley, but my inception [into winemaking] was when I was a kid, stomping away, helping make my dad make wine when I was 9. He had me stomp and crush grapes. That was the first wine I participated in winemaking. I had red feet at 9.
WS:What is your favorite kind of wine?
NZ: Napa Cabernet, in general, captured my palate and my intrigue, because of its depth and complexity. It has always been a variety that I have wanted to work with and learn more about, like going to Bordeaux and making Cabernet in Australia and at Chateau Montelena. In terms of wine or grape, Cabernet Sauvignon would be my focus.
WS: Who were some of your influences in the wine industry when you started out?
NZ:When I started, it was Bill Dyer at Sterling Vineyards. I worked with Jim Klein at Navarro Vineyards, who had a large impact on me. He's a very talented guy, working with about 20 different varieties—cool climate, warm climate—he juggled it all so well. He probably produced 40,000 cases, and he was doing it nearly single-handedly. When I traveled to Australia and worked with Michael Peterkin [at Pierro], I gained quite a bit of perspective balancing the whole UC Davis [education] (which was fairly modern in approach) with more of a classic approach. In France, I had good people that I met along the way, but everyone spoke French, so there was a bit of a language barrier. When I got back to the U.S. and started working with Bo Barrett at Chateau Montelena in 2000, I took all those experiences and condensed them into more of a definitive approach to winemaking.
WS: What are some of the challenges of being the new winemaker at David Arthur?
NZ: David Arthur will be finished with a new winery facility and new barrels that they really haven't had before. There's the new facility, and working out some of the kinks with that and building relationships with the owners as well. It takes a little while to settle in with the crew and get them behind you and get to know them, and building the trust and respect with the team there takes a bit of settling in. There's no question about it. There's also learning about the different wines and where they are sourced, wanting to taste as much as possible and find out the history of the wines and setting objectives with the team. I'm excited to get in there and make some incredible wines.
WS: And how does this job differ from your previous positions?
NZ: My most recent position was at Barnett Vineyards, and in that period of time, working with Barnett, we used probably 90 percent sourced fruit. So outsourcing fruit to make the styles of wine you want with different quality levels and networking, that is one of the biggest differences. At David Arthur, I'm not required to source as much, because we have quite a bit of planted acreage. That's one of things that so exciting about this property to me. In my experience at Chateau Montelena, there were about 90 acres planted, so we had a lot of viticultural control. When you go from having viticultural control to sourced fruit, that makes a huge impact on your ability to control the vines during the growing season and on the quality of wine.
WS: How is the first harvest going?
NZ:It's going really well. I started literally the very first day of July, and I was fairly adamant about getting in there as quickly as possible. Just being out in the vineyard, there are some very critical times where leaves need to be pulled, canopies need to be opened, and fruit needs to be dropped. It gives me a good foothold on areas I may have to keep an eye on during the maceration period and where and how to handle the fruit when it comes in. The more information I have on the vineyards, the better I can make the wine in the winery. The [growing] season, due to frost, was two weeks late, but it's almost back to where it would normally be, and this [recent] cooling trend lets us slow back down a bit. If we get more up and down heat, it could be an amazing year. It takes a while to know a vineyard, and it's going to take me a while. It could all of a sudden be cooler, and we're hanging fruit until November. Unfortunately, the crystal ball is kind of blurred. But that's part of what drew me into winemaking. You are always at Mother Nature's whim.
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