Winemaking: the Next Generation
How the younger set of family winemakers takes up the mantle.
The wine business is what it is today thanks to the legacy of family winemakers. All over the world, they’ve identified wild, tangled plots of land to farm and cultivate grapes, and methods of turning their juices into that special nectar we’ve come to cherish, passing these skills through members of their families. We have a wealth of wine choices from all over the world, some from places that weren’t even known for making wine as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, all because of the intuition, knowledge and skills of past generations. While the wine business has always been challenging, new generations of winemakers face new sets of challenges their parents and older winemaking relatives didn’t have to contend with--things like how to stay relevant using social media, effects of climate change, and connectivity with modern consumers who have higher expectations and don’t necessarily choose wine by regional or brand reputation alone. Are sweeping changes at the house always necessary, or can next generation winemakers take on the business with simple tweaks? Here are six winemakers who’ve continued a family legacy, and how they operate in a very different modern world.
Napa (and beyond) for all
Josh Phelps, whose father Chris Phelps worked for prestigious Napa wineries Caymus, Dominus Estate and Inglenook, certainly didn’t grow up drinking plonk at the dinner table. However, when he went off to college, his inner circle was not as used to casually drinking such high end bottles for dorm room pizza parties. “Napa can be so polarizing,” Phelps explains. “It’s home to some of my favorite wines in the world, but I get that these are wines [because of the reputation and price point] that the average person doesn’t drink… I wanted to make wines that touch more people,” he says. “You can make great wine that’s not expensive.” With Grounded Wine Company, which he co-founded with his father, Josh Phelps showcases quality wine from his home state of California (from Paso Robles and Napa), but also Washington State, with plans to work within other west coast regions. His goal is to bottle “the best possible expression of these wines at the most accessible cost.”
The name of the company reflects the down-to-earth aesthetic of the wines, as well as a nod to the selected terroirs from which they are made. They’re aimed at conscientious consumers, with names like Public Radio, Space Age and Steady State. There is also a Collusion wine, although the political reference is merely a coincidence, as it was first produced to celebrate the blending of its Columbia Valley Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills AVA pedigree.
Lodi: it’s no longer dessert, it’s what’s for dinner
Old vine zinfandel has always been a signature of California’s Lodi AVA, but, like much of the Central Valley, it’s now trying to shake its 1970s and ‘80s reputation for alcoholic, sweet, extracted zins and tokay dessert wines. A new generation of family vintners works with the landscape, which benefits from cool breezes coming off the San Joaquin/Sacramento River delta and mineral-rich soils, making the area capable of producing wines from a diverse range of varietals in elegant, food-friendly styles. “Our winery was built on zinfandel,” says Farrah Felten of Klinker Brick Winery, which was founded by her parents Steve and Lori. They are among a large collective of family wine producers in the region with next generation vintners, such as Langetwins, Mettler, St. Amant, Oak Farm and Michael David.
Like many of these wineries Klinker Brick’s younger generation is giving the business a bit of a polish. “In the past five years, we have started adding varietals that are the opposite of zin and very unique,” says Felten. “Lodi as an AVA is producing over 100 different varietals and we are changing the perspective that Lodi is only known for zin. We are currently producing an albarino, grenache blanc, and carignan which have been doing really well for us. We are also working on getting certified green on some of our vineyards.” This doesn’t mean everything from the past has to be chucked or entirely overhauled—these are heirloom vines. “I feel keeping the vineyards in the family is very important and to have that heritage of 6th generations of land my family has been farming in Lodi,” says Felton.
For some, change is more gradual
There’s something to be said about tradition, and not everyone feels the need for a drastic makeover. “I really believe that it’s a mistake for wineries to chase around a moving audience,” says Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. He has helmed the family business for 17 years. “Do what you do as well as you possibly can, make incremental improvements each year, and work as hard as you can to make sure that you get in front of the type of people who might like your wine. Chasing trends and changing radically either what you make or how you make it seems to me like a recipe for losing the customers you’ve worked so hard to get over the years. We’ve been a Rhone-focused winery since the beginning, and that hasn’t (and won’t) change.”
Haas prefers the incremental route. “We’ve farmed organically since the beginning, and we continue to push forward with new initiatives, including adding our own flock of sheep in 2010, getting Biodynamic certification in 2016, and working toward the new ‘Regenerative Organic’ certification.” He adds that other consumer-focused changes include the type of modernizations most wineries should be striving for anyway, such as using steel kegs to significantly cut down on waste to “get in front of the customers at the generally progressive restaurants and wine bars that have installed wine tap systems.” In keeping with the times and staying on brand in the Rhone tradition, Tablas Creek has increased rosé production and added more styles both pale and dark. It’s “a refinement, not a change of direction,” notes Haas.
The new face of Alsace
Old World wine regions sometimes struggle to connect with younger generations of wine drinkers, and many wineries find it necessary to increase visibility with a strategic mix of technology and in-person hand selling. Mélanie Pfister of Domaine Pfister seeks to attract modern consumers not only by re-labeling her family winery’s products, but also modernizing viticultural techniques. “I am currently changing the names of the wines, so that each of them has its own name (not just ‘Riesling’ and ‘Pinot Gris’) since they all have their own character. My parents were already practicing sustainability, but I legitimized it by getting the Fair ’N Green certification, and I am now also converting our winery into organic viticulture.” Though Alsace is known mostly for its white wines, Pfister’s father André always had an interest in working with pinot noir, and Mélanie has diligently studied the varietal in Burgundy to take up that mantel and introduce pinot to the family’s wine lineup.
Women-focused wine collectives are also on the rise, and Pfister identified an opportunity to position Alsace in this community and show the world this old school region isn’t as male-dominated as it can be perceived. “In 2011 I created an association of women in wine, diVINes d’Alsace, who aim to promote Alsace wines in a different way. We believe that collectively, we can foster change.”
Keeping the pop in Champagne
With its built in association with luxury and quality, the Champagne business would seem like a no brainer—just make good fizzy wine, right? The struggle for new winemakers joining a family business there is not to necessarily to modernize the operation, but to find a way to control the consistency that appeals to an established audience. “When I joined Champagne Henriot in 2006,” says Champagne Henriot Cellar Master and Director of Wines Laurent Fresnet, “Joseph Henriot asked me to evolve our Champagnes to refine our style, bringing us closer to the original expression of the house—freshness and minerality. Reimagining the house’s Prestige Cuvée was a pivotal piece in that development.”
For Henriot, Fresnet figured out timing really was everything. “The grapes are still produced in the same Grand Cru vineyards—the Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and the Pinot Noir from the north part of Montagne de Reims,” says Fresnet. However changing when they are harvested made a big difference. Picking the grapes earlier restored the minerality and freshness of the Cuvée. He also changed the non-vintage release to a sort of solera concept, with 50% of a previous vintage and the other half selected from wines over five years and the house’s Cuve 38, produced from the estate’s finest reserve blancs de blancs. “Since 2006, our champagnes have gone from autumnal—generous and ample—to fresh spring with brighter, refined and elegant notes. To me, the luminous and harmonious Henriot style is now clearly distinctive and recognizable.”
Oregon wine “cousins” have finally connected
Back in the states in Oregon, the wine boom, based on Burgundy pinot noir, has been in full swing for decades now, and a new generation maintains its success. However there’s a divide between newer urban-based wineries and family-run businesses who own farms and cultivate their own vineyards, and each is struggling for relevance in the land where pinot noir reigns supreme. Maria Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards shares a legacy with other family run businesses in the Willamette Valley who have made wine in the region for the past three or four decades. They share similar struggles, ones that differ from those faced by newer operations. “We’re not asking questions about how to grow grapes or till... It’s more about how are you dealing with supporting your labor, or handling the growth of your company.” She teamed up with next generation members of two other pioneering Oregon wineries, Elk Cove and Sokol Blosser, to create 2GV—a pinot noir project that highlights unique sites, one wine from each next generation winemaker—blended together in a final bottling. It’s a celebration of the roots, literal and figurative, their respective parents established in the 1970s.
For now, the 2GV blend is produced in small quantities with sales going toward various local charities, but the collaboration has brought new appreciation for the work each family has contributed to the region. “The idea is to show everyone who’s drinking modern Oregon wine we’re still here, still viable, it’s inherent in our veins.”
And thanks to these and all the other family-run wineries around the world, it’s still in our glasses too.
Next Gen wines to try
Grounded Wine Company Collusion 2016, $22: Phelps does an outstanding job redefining Napa wine for the masses with his Steady State releases. His talents and point of view have transposed to Washington state with this Columbia Valley blend red made from 43% merlot, 34% cabernet, 19% malbec and 4% syrah. There’s no denying this collusion: satisfying, structured, modern elegance that drinks well beyond its price point and relaxes the tight and stuffy west coast Bordeaux blend image.
Grounded Wine Company Space Age Rosé 2017, $20: The wine symbolizes our romanticism with the American space era in a seductive grenache pink from Paso Robles, where Rhone varietals thrive. Enjoying this full-bodied, luscious sipper ain’t rocket science—you can even drink it with a steak.
Pasqua Romeo & Juliet Passione Sentimento Rosso 2017, $16: When Alé and Riccardo Pasqua took over the family business in the Veneto, marketing inspiration came from the Bard. What does everyone associate with Verona? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, of course. The wine is a perfect homage to the rule-breaking couple (introducing merlot along with the region’s indigenous corvina and croatina varietals, for instance), though the final product from partially dried grapes, a local Valpolicella technique, has a far from tragic ending. With luscious dark fruit, bright acidity and a slight smokiness, drinking this wine sure beats a “fume of sighs.” The label features a photo of Juliet’s courtyard in Verona by photographer Giò Martorana.
Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah Lodi 2014, $20: Named for next gen winemaker Farrah Felton, this velvety expression is a perfect transitional wine that can drink with both a hearty winter meal or take a slight chill on warmer days. Firm tannins mixed with dark fruit and spice perfectly exhibit modern Lodi winemaking at its finest.
Langetwins Centennial Zinfandel 2011, $60: This is Lodi old vine zin the new way, made from grapes grown at Lewis Family Vineyard. The family has been sustainably growing grapes in the region for five generations and opened the winery in 2006 to showcase the talents of Randall and Brad Lange. Blackberry and blueberry—both fresh and stewed—mix with baking spices, pinecone and cedar, finishing with a slight mintiness.
Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas 2016, $60: Think of this as an American version of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, made with budwood cuttings of mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise from the Chateau de Beaucastel estate. The wine manages to be richly flavored without feeling too weighty, owing to the earthiness and acidity from the grape blend structure. It’s easily drinkable now, but cellar-worthy for about 8 - 12 years.
Hess Panthera Chardonnay 2016, $45: The Hess family in Mount Veeder has been represented by the Lion emblem for nine generations. Hess Winery founder Donald Hess recently passed ownership down to son-in-law Tim Persson and his wife Sabrina, who have released this wine under the Lion’s Head division, made from 100% Chardonnay sustainably grown in Russian River Valley. This is the first vintage of this wine, which shatters the image of over-oaked Cally chard or ones that go too far in the opposite direction. Subtle maturation in French oak adds body and silky texture, with a pleasant sesame toastiness, allowing fresh, ripe flavors of red apple and pear to emerge on the front palate.
Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir 2015, $43: These days Willamette pinot can be all over the spectrum from bone dry and stately to tasting like fruit flavored chewing gum. This is traditional Willamette at its finest, with bright, fresh berries accented by lavender florals, cool spearmint, a touch of earthiness, zippy spice and a hint of vanilla.
Domaine Pfister Cuvée 8 2016, $34: Mélanie Pfister is the 8th generation winemaker in her family, and this blend of riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat reflects her considerable talents. The percentage of how much of each grape is used depends on their vintage performance, in this instance 50%, 30%, 15% and 5%. This full-bodied white is beautifully balanced between succulent fruit flavors and floral notes, making it the perfect accompaniment for winter vegetable soups, charcuterie, a variety of cheeses or even takeout pizza and curries.
Champagne Henriot Brut Millésimé 2008, $100: This masterful blend is made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes harvested from 10 Premier and Grand Cru villages. This is one of the first vintages under the direction of Laurent Fresnet, and exhibits exquisite balance of toastiness, subtle florals, fresh and tart fruits with a delicate mousse. It’s definitely worth making an excuse to pop this fine bubbly open, even if it’s just to celebrate the end of a tough work week.