Aperture winemaker Jesse Katz had April 17 circled on his calendar for months. The up-and-coming California winemaker was supposed to open a new tasting room for his winery just south of Healdsburg, a project that has been years in the making and a dream of his for more than a decade. But the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders mean it may be months before Katz christens the space.
"Since I started the brand in 2009, I have dreamt of a place of my own to make wine and share it in a unique setting," Katz told Wine Spectator. "The tasting room looks magnificent, beyond what I imagined from our architectural renderings, but I can't share it with anyone."
At least not yet. Shelter-in-place orders in Sonoma County are set to last until May 3, as of today. Katz's grand opening is indefinitely on hold. Other vintners have already adjusted to what has become the new normal, with limited on-site staff, virtual tastings and discounted shipping to encourage sales while tasting rooms are closed.
Katz has had to fine-tune his efforts before even opening his doors. Like other wineries, he is fretting about all the little details like money, inventory and staff. Over the past few years, partners have invested millions of dollars in the hi-tech winery and tasting room, as well as the brand itself.
At age 36, Katz is already a seasoned veteran. During his twenties, he honed his winemaking skills with stints in wineries all over the world, including Pétrus, Viña Cobos and Screaming Eagle. He spent five years as winemaker at Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley from 2010 to 2015. In 2009, he founded Aperture, a collaborative project with his father, renowned vineyard photographer Andy Katz, focused on Bordeaux varieties, predominantly from cool-climate vineyards in Sonoma County. In 2012 he also started a high-end Malbec label dubbed Devil Proof and keeps busy as a consulting winemaker for several other wineries.
Katz previously made his wine at Nils Venge and Mark Carter's Envy winery in Calistoga, but Aperture's growth prompted building a winery. Just a few years ago, it was a 5,000-case brand. Production has since doubled to 10,000 cases, and he has room to grow to 40,000.
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Katz said the new winery, as well as additional vineyard sources, gave him the ability to scale the brand and develop the amount of wine he is able to sell to restaurants and retailers throughout the U.S. "We have been really fortunate that most of our wines, 75 percent, are still sold through our mailing list," he said, noting that he allocated nearly 60 percent of his direct-to-consumer wines for the tasting room. "But now that the restaurant and retail business has come to a complete halt, added to the fact that we can't open the tasting room, it hurts emotionally, financially and personally."
Katz said the construction and growth of the brand have been all-consuming, and his exhausted team was excited to see their hard work pay off. "We have been working non-stop to get this open on time and within budget," he said, noting a lengthy permitting process and more than 18 months of construction. The winery finished construction ahead of the 2019 harvest, but the tasting room needed more time.
Virtual tasting room
Like many wineries, Katz has pivoted to connect virtually. Guests can tune in to Instagram Live on Thursdays for a day in the life with Katz. He said he's less focused on sales with these virtual visits, and more interested in giving viewers a grasp of Aperture's identity, and some of what he plans to do when fully operational.
"Rather than me sitting at the kitchen table, I want to give a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been getting ready to reveal," he said, noting that he will not be solely focused on tastings, and plans to educate and take guests into the cellar and vineyards for a first-hand look. "Tasting wine will be a small part of it, but it will be more multifaceted—maybe even include at-home cooking demonstrations with local chefs, making food to pair with Aperture wines."
This past Thursday he kicked things off by visiting Oliver Ranch Vineyard, the source for one of his Cabernets, but also the future site of Douglas Keane's Cyrus restaurant. Katz showed off the vineyard and talked about food and wine and the new restaurant with Keane (from a safe distance).
Beyond pushing back the opening date, which Katz hopes won't be too long after shelter orders are lifted, he feels fortunate. "As difficult and deflating as it is has been, I see how it's affecting others much worse," he said. "We hired some local restaurant folks that had been laid off to help us with bottling." Katz said he made sure to follow CDC guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety.
"We will rally again, and fortunately at this point, we haven't had to let anyone go, only delay hiring, but it's not going to be easy for other small family-owned wineries like us for a while."