A New Wave in Napa Valley

Young winemakers are carving out their own niches, overturning preconceptions about the region
Oct 29, 2012

Ketan Mody is a sort of modern-day Thoreau. He's 31 and lives in a one-room cabin on the top of Diamond Mountain that he built from the ground up. His sentences are coated in transcendentalist residue, made modern by his Midwestern-tinged California drawl and affection for the f-word. He's a representative of a new Napa Valley; that cabin sits on a piece of land that he will begin planting to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc next year, to supply his Jasud Estate label.

On a recent trip to the Napa Valley, I ended up at a small gathering at Mody's cabin with a number of young people working in the wine industry in Napa, including Dan Ricciato, 34, part of the production team at Outpost on Howell Mountain, and Christina Turley, 28, responsible for branding and marketing at her family's winery, Turley, and a new Turley Cabernet project called The Label.

Napa, in my eyes, hasn't always embodied the sort of raw enthusiasm and sense of possibility that's drawn me to other regions around the world. Part of that is my own prejudice, certainly. When I first got into wine, the thought of Napa Valley conjured images of middle-aged men and women wearing linen and sipping oaky Chardonnay on a veranda. It didn't carry with it the sort of edgy, counter-cultural allure of some of Europe's less-trodden regions. It was, to be frank, uncool.

But that's changed. I've changed. Napa has changed. I've never felt quite as inspired by this region as I am today. And it turns out I am not alone.

"I thought I'd end up in Paso or Amador or Oregon—someplace a little more esoteric," says Mody. "But you taste some of these old Napa wines and you say, 'Wow, this place can make some truly amazing wines.'"

When Mody first came to Napa, he sent his résumé out to 30 wineries. The only place that called him back, ironically, was Harlan—one of Napa's most sought-after cult producers and a favorite of the linen-wearing set. But there he began to understand the diversity of terroir in the Napa Valley and was inspired to find a way to carve out his own niche.

Through a variety of meetings and fortunes, he ended up on Diamond Mountain, a place that's interested him since he first tasted the Cabernets of Diamond Creek. "I bonded with this piece of land," he says. "This is a difficult place to get ripeness, and all these paradigms here force you to say, 'What do you want to do, piece of land?'"

Mody is fascinated by California vineyards that have survived for decades despite the odds being stacked against them. With the help of Tegan Passalacqua, the 35-year-old viticulturist at Turley—who's got something of a sixth sense when it comes to finding great vineyards—he's been buying fruit from a 50-year-old, head-trained Cabernet vineyard in Sonoma that he will bottle for his other label, Beta, due out in 2013.

These old vineyards and a pay-it-forward outlook are guiding his new project. He'll farm organically, without irrigation, and will head train his vines—all practices he believes will help ensure that he's planting a vineyard that can last a generation. Stylistically, he's driven to make wines that are higher in acid and lower in alcohol, which is he why he chose a site that's exposed to the cooling winds off the Pacific Ocean. Despite his preferences, though, he isn't dogmatic about style—just motive. His hope is that Napa can reclaim the independent, pioneering spirit that defined it in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I don't care what style of wine you want to make. It's not about one being better than the other," says Mody. "It's about making a style of wine because it's what you like."

Like Mody, Ricciato came to Napa with a feeling of reluctance. He studied English literature at Boston College and spent several years as a freelance writer and a publicist. On a trip out to Napa, he met Thomas Brown, the winemaker at Outpost. A year and a half later when he was looking for work, Brown offered him a job doing tours and tastings at the winery. In 2010, he earned himself a spot on the production team.

"I always felt like the people who were interested in coming here and staying here were people with a lot of money," says Ricciato. "Land is expensive."

That is the root of the concern many young winemakers have about the future of Napa. Because land prices are so expensive, it's difficult for independent winemakers to establish small businesses and make wines that are accessible in the market.

"We have designed a system that makes it harder for the guy who wants to make wine that doesn't cost $100," says Mody, who plans to price his Beta label between $65-80.

Both Mody and Ricciato are convinced that land prices will only go up. Napa, Ricciato says, is an "agricultural Manhattan." Costs will always be prohibitive, but a change in the direction of winemaking is what has Mody and Ricciato feeling optimistic.

"My most driving thought is that we are on the threshold of a new time for the valley and American winemaking," says Ricciato. "The days of the biggest and most concentrated, high-alcohol wines being consistently the highest rated and most sought after is changing."

But what, beyond a slow stylistic shift, will define this new time and how does the next generation play in? According to Christina Turley, it's a thirst for independence and an authentic mission.

"What's driving many of the younger winemakers in Napa is something more philosophical," says Turley. "People in our generation don't have the same job for 10 years so they can get the gold watch. You change careers until you find something that you believe in and then you commit like hell to it."

This generation is, in many ways, about passion over practicality and that is evident in the dreams of many of these young winemakers. Turley, for one, wants to transform the estate, whose vineyards have long been certified organic, into a visitor-friendly, sustainable farm with other crops and animals—not only for environmental reasons, but because she believes that it will help people connect with wine as an agricultural product, not a luxury good.

"Here you are seeing younger people taking over and the first question they ask isn't about what people want anymore," says Blake Gilbert, 36, a former sommelier and the director of marketing for Promontory, a new estate from BOND and Harlan. "It's about finding a way to do what inspires them personally."

Gilbert believes that the next generation is about authenticity, but also, as Mody alludes to, diversity, both stylistically and culturally, and in terms of terroir. The trick is exposing the new reality that this generation represents, so that the next generation doesn't grow up with the same preconceptions of Napa that myself, Ricciato and Mody have all harbored. 

"What the valley needs is young people to stand up and say, 'There's a lot of diversity in Napa, and you really can make wine—whether it be from Ribolla or Cabernet or Chardonnay or whatever—that really shows a sense of place here,'" says Gilbert. "I think that hasn't always been the message."

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