Log In / Join Now

A New Wave in Napa Valley

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

Posted: Oct 29, 2012 9:00am ET

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."

Karen Peterson
Great Falls, VA —  October 29, 2012 1:45pm ET
Welcome! I heard you on The Crush blogcast...great insights! I'm looking forward to reading more of your columns.
Thomas R Riley
Alameda, CA —  October 29, 2012 3:17pm ET
Congrats on the new gig, and kudos on a great first step. Articles like this might very well be the change in perspective that folks need about Napa. Less linen and more burlap, perhaps? Well done.

Best of luck!


Tom Riley
The Grape Belt
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 29, 2012 5:02pm ET
Welcome aboard, Talia. Indeed, genNext is taking hold in a very positive, energetic way.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 29, 2012 5:21pm ET
Someone ought to email the "linen-wearing set" to let them know how uncool they are, I guess. I think your points about excitement/homogeneity of style could be made without that kind of slight.
Kimberly Charles
San Francisco, CA, USA —  October 29, 2012 6:30pm ET
Brava on a piece with great insights and a refreshing angle. Looking forward to more. Love the series title too, a great whetting of the appetite.

Leonard Cupo M D
Honolulu, Hawaii —  October 29, 2012 11:22pm ET
It's all about diversity of styles and varietals--and the courage to experiment. As soon as things seem stale and static, entrepeneurs emerge and expand winemaking horizons. Napa did it to Bordeaux. Now Napa is doing it to Napa.
Let's not forget that many of the present "linen-wearers" wore and still wear denim and aloha shirts.
The multiple offerings of Ridge and Chappellet come to mind.
Talia Baiocchi
Brooklyn, NY —  October 30, 2012 10:27am ET
@Leonard Totally agree. And please do not take my "linen-wearing" comment as a general statement about *all* of Napa. It's a comment about the image of Napa that was sold hard to the public during my more formative years. Beyond the courage to experiment that some of the next generation represents, I'm also inspired by the people that came to Napa early, denim-clad, and never wavered in their point of view (or lost that pioneering spirit). I also think it's important to acknowledge - and I should've made this point - that if it weren't for the "linen-wearing" set, this new generation wouldn't have this opportunity to experiment. So, it's not a condemnation, it's a comment on the image of Napa as I saw it early on. The point is that Napa, as I argue in this piece, is so much more than that. And I think the new generation will be responsible for sending *that* message.

@Karen, Thomas, James, Kimberly, et al. Thanks so much for the warm welcome. Look forward to seeing you guys in the comments section.
Jessica Palmer
Denver, CO —  October 30, 2012 11:22am ET
Welcome Talia, I love the fresh take and the coverage of the 'new' pioneers of Napa. I think some of the genNext'ers, who missed the spirit of the 1960's and 70's Napa founders, will be energized by this emerging group of winemakers in the Valley and understand the values that the area was founded on.

Looking forward to more posts!
Carole Meredith
Napa, CA —  October 30, 2012 12:07pm ET
Thanks for helping to dispel the stereotype of Napa wine producers. It's something we face every day. There are lots of small producers in Napa, especially in the mountains, who live in jeans and t-shirts and work their land themselves. And when they do sit on the porch at the end of the day, they're usually sipping a savory Zin instead of an oaky Chard.

Carole Meredith
Lagier Meredith Vineyard
Mount Veeder, Napa
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 30, 2012 2:54pm ET
I find that those who can't afford to wear linens are usually the ones who are a little jealous of those who can.It is Ok to be different, like Carol said, some wear jeans and t-shirts as well as their pressed linens.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  October 30, 2012 8:02pm ET
Bold piece. Hey, I wouldn't take any offense where none was obviously intended even if you'd said perhaps the more egregious Tommy Bahama set. I think if you're gonna dig into the new wave trends in Napa you have to spill some of that oaky Chardonnay and probably stain some linen.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  October 30, 2012 10:59pm ET
Grow the grapes you want and make the wines that you have a passion for, all of this without worrying about what everyone else is doing, wearing or marketing. Be unique.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 31, 2012 12:14pm ET

Congratulations on the new gig....nice blog.

If you ever get a chance, pick up a copy of "Great Winemakers of California" by Robert Benson. It is out of print, but you can find it on Amazon for $1.01. Really neat to read conversations with Napa (and other parts of CA) winemakers from the 1970s and see what their vision, passion and spirit truly entailed and how they described what they were trying to do. It is enlightening.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Philip Mccarthy
MA —  October 31, 2012 2:57pm ET
Welcome and best wishes. It will be interesting to observe what changes and impact this generation of "pioneers" has on Napa flavor trends and business models. Can we really expect another "french revolution" or just an imitation of the past?

The mention of "linen wearers" is ironic. As an East Coaster, I'll equally generalize, by mentioning Cali "F" bomb throwing transcendentalists, as not quite being expected to create profitable businesses or enduring "communes", with all due respect to their enthusiasm and passion!

They'll be the beneficiaries of the giants that came before them and think they've re-created the wheel. If prices for land continue to rise. I imagine they'll be purchasing their grapes from those giants or producing very small lots which I'll never have the chance to taste. So how then do they stay in business? And what's wrong with a fruit bomb??!! lol
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 31, 2012 3:32pm ET
Now that I have discovered you are in your late 20's your comments make sense to me. Keep this article to read later in life so you can reflect on how much you have grown. Didn't we all think we were going to change the world in our 20's? There is a lot to learn in life, remember, just because the computer has made it easy for everyone to print and distribute their thoughts doesn't make them correct.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 31, 2012 8:14pm ET
In my opinion, the true test of a good piece of journalism lies within the volatility of responses it produces. On that basis I would say your first post here is a smashing success, Ms. Baiocchi. I look forward to many more. Much success to you!
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  November 1, 2012 11:16am ET
My, I didn't realize what a sensitive subject linen has become! :D ;) Ironic that folks have latched onto that, as opposed middle-agedness or love of verandas! :D It was just an image, folks; 'no reason to take it personally. :)

Seriously though, welcome, and congratulations. I enjoyed your piece, and I hope the pioneering independence you've drawn attention to gets a foot-hold and grows. Whatever it may be called or whatever images (or language) it may evoke, greater diversity and authenticity sound attractive to me!
Jason Drew
Elk, CA —  November 1, 2012 11:18am ET

This is a refreshing take on the younger generation of Vintners. Reaching into the past and learning to create via personal freedom can be liberating and inspirational. Great Post!
Frank Celico
Westerly, ri —  November 1, 2012 12:00pm ET
It was good to read about the new passions in Napa. I have often pictured myself in Ketans idealic life.

However, I also agree with Philips assessment on creating a realistic business model. Its very warm and fuzzy to introduce a someones passion and unique offerings based on what only they want. This alone unfortunately doesnt create financial suscess. Modys statement on this matter is probably the worse business plan I can think of. The reason Napa valley property is so expensive, is becuase if done correctly the owner of that vineyard can make many times the value of the property. Just ask denim wearing Tim Mondavi, Bill Harlan and Charlie Wagner.
Kerry Winslow
San Francisco, California, USA —  November 1, 2012 1:42pm ET
Nice refreshing piece! Cheers!
Jessica R Hereth
Oregon —  November 1, 2012 10:23pm ET
It's nice to have a fresh voice here. And I love that "dissing" linen is more controversial than addressing the move towards low alcohol wine. Progress in the making.
Cary Cheifetz
Summit, nj —  November 4, 2012 11:38am ET

Long time since IWM. Best of luck at WS.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  November 4, 2012 5:34pm ET
People look at me weirdly when I tell them that Napa Valley is actually a lot like Burgundy as a wine region.

1. The cost of entry is high.
2. The region is actually pretty small.
3. And it is the micro-terroirs that really matter.

Nice article. Welcome aboard.
Talia Baiocchi
Brooklyn, NY —  November 5, 2012 9:17am ET
@Jason Nice to see you here and thanks so much. Hope all is well up on the ridge.

@Adam Thanks a bunch. $1.01? I think I can handle that. Thanks for the tip. I wrote a feature on the Class of '72 for Decanter a couple months ago and it would have been nice to have it. Talking to guys like Bo Barrett, Chuck Wagner, et al. about what they were trying to do back then is not so dissimilar from the goals and sentiment of this generation (hopefully). I just think something (not everything) got lost in between. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and I look forward to seeing you here. And thanks again for the book rec!

@Cary Blast from the past! Hope you're doing well.

@Everyone else. Thank you so much for the warm welcome!
Philip Mccarthy
MA —  November 6, 2012 1:20pm ET
Talia, et al;

I am most assuredly wishing all the best in their ventures. Leaving aside my sarcasm slightly missing the mark, as evinced by some observations, despite the requisite qualification of "irony". I was serious about business models, thank you Frank!

I'm not so far removed from my 20's and trekking the Himalayas, full of idealism, passion and certainty of my future impact on world events!!That I would sneer at those who seek a similar destiny. Success will find some no doubt in one form or another, god speed!But the limitations are real.

While any number of wonderful sounding wines are reviewed at WS. The fact remains, that many of us will never taste or buy any of those small shooting stars, that's got to be a harsh reality for the vintners. So what becomes the failed venture. Hope to be bought out by a BIG GUY, like a techy start-up and carry on there? The "freedom" of your vision remains?

Admittedly I do not know anything about how the wine business works and will be happy to hear any thoughts. So it begs the question of how much impact for change can be effected at present, leaving aside the fact that folks buying wines are the final arbiter.

Tim Bell
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  November 9, 2012 4:16pm ET
As a former wearer of Qiana, I object to wearers of all synthetic fibers being completely left out of this discussion. What's up with that?

Seriously, I look forward to reading more from you, Talia!

Tim Bell
Dry Creek Vineyard
"Welcoming all fibers since 1972."
Nestor Gonzalez
Medellin, Colombia —  November 10, 2012 7:42am ET
Talia, thank you for such a refreshing piece and showing us that there is still a 'sense of discovery and life purpose' in Napa.


I look forward to reading you.

Paul Simpson
Champaign-Urbana, Illinois —  November 13, 2012 7:21pm ET

Enjoyable and enlightening; I look forward to further columns on this particular topic - these folk in particular. Here’s to continuing to find your voice.

Matthew Harrington
PA —  June 5, 2014 9:37am ET
Nice article. In my last few visits out there, I've detected some re-marketing taking place in Napa. In such a competitive climate, there's a mad hustle to identify the future consumer and for me, the very best times are when that identity is ambiguous. Right now, very smart, successful and influential people are gazing all around - it's good. As for fashion, people will wear what makes them feel right. There's an adolescent cruelty in generalizing people based on the fabrics they choose. And it's too late to return my new linen shirts as I've already rocked them a time or two.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts
Jan 7, 2013
A Farewell Blog
Dec 17, 2012
Hello, Loam Baby

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.