Next Gen Napa Vintners & Winemakers 8 min read
There is a new generation of winemakers in Napa, and they just might surprise you. They are the children of viticulturalists, vintners and winemakers who grew up in this internationally celebrated wine mecca. Their parents moved to the wine country in pursuit of work, second careers, or a desire for lifestyle change.
For their kids, Napa is their home—the only one they have ever known. They are here to stay, but they also strive to seek their own path.
They are young, driven, savvy and wildly creative. They are willing to explore off-the-beaten path vineyards and affordable price points. They know the value of hard work, and refuse to ride on their parent’s glory. Some are heirs to family fortunes and some are generational trailblazers, determined to advance and make their family proud. Their quest is authentic. They seek to find their voice in the wine world.
They even formed an organization. The Next Generation in Wine (NG) was founded in 2007 by Chris Hall, whose parents launched Long Meadow Ranch. Membership is restricted to those that are second generation vintners. Members have varied roles in the wineries, including management, winemaking, viticulture and hospitality. NG is a place for camaraderie, commiseration and an occasional post deer-hunting feast. The “dead deer dinners” are supplemented by many bottles of wine and lively ensuing discussions.
It’s not all friendships and entertainment, though. They feel the weight of family traditions, challenges of wealth transfer, land ownership and staff supervision. The group strives to educate themselves on marketing, social media and financial management.
Here are some prominent next geners:
Lisa Augustine, the Chairwoman of Marketing for Broman Cellars, holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Napa Valley College. Unlike many of her peers, she wasn’t keen on learning winemaking, she prefers the marketing side of the business. Broman Cellars started in 1994 with two barrels of wine; today they produce a total of 1,300 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Red blend and Sauvignon Blanc. Using her intimate knowledge of the family winery and extraordinary business savvy, she grew their customer base many times over.
Garrett is the CEO of the winery, which was started by his parents. He took over in 2010 and grew the brand exponentially. Working in close partnership with winemaker Kevin Mills, Garrett expanded Trinitas portfolio to include special single vineyard micro-production bottlings, along with the staples and consumer favorites, such as Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The brand produces roughly 20,000 cases a year, comprised of 24 different varietals, with fruit sourced from hand-selected Napa Valley growers. The most popular are Chardonnay, Meritage, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc. Some are modestly priced, some are more exclusive, such as their $135, 100-case, Amarone della Valpolicella which is bottled and produced in Italy utilizing dried grapes.
I interviewed Garrett Busch in my “Wednesdays with Winemakers” series! Read it here.
Dalia Ceja made the momentous decision to carve her own path, despite being a part of one of Napa’s most prominent families. Showing her independent streak, she sought Angel funding to launch her wine label. She set out to conquer social media in order to actively engage millennials. She is passionate about educating consumers on how to pair wine with Mexican cuisine. She’s produced popular YouTube videos showcasing her culinary and wine pairing prowess. Additionally, she writes a wildly popular wine blog. Her wine has been featured on the Today Show and it subsequently earned a cult following.
Her own wine: La Tapatia Pinot Noir.
Being the heir apparent to the greatest Bordeaux blend this side of the pond could not have been easy. After visiting Bordeaux with Robert Mondavi in 1980, his father, Bill Harlan, set out to create a California version of first-growth Bordeaux. Thirty-five years later, Harlan Estate enjoys a cult following and a hefty price tag.
After graduating from Duke University, Will a worked for a telecom company. However, the lure of the wine business was too strong. Upon his return, he started a wine brand called Mascot. The grapes come from the younger vines on Harlan Estate vineyards. The winemaking team is led by Cory Empting. The wine is opulent, full-bodied and approachable; yet has plenty of structure to improve with cellaring.
His own wine: Mascot.
Sisters Ariana and Lisa Peju were raised on one of Napa’s most iconic estates. They founded Tess Winery in 2012, as an homage to their childhood memories of family winemaking. Their fruit comes from Persephone mountain vineyard. Diurnal temperature shifts produce fruit with intense flavors. They make a unique Red and White Blend, fashioned by their distinguished winemaker Sarah Fowler. The blend includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. Counterintuitive—sure, yet somehow it works! Consumers no longer have to choose between red and white wine. Crisp and refreshing, it is also fruity, herbaceous and substantial.
Their own wine: Tess.
Life-long friends, Josh Phelps and Carlo Trinchero, founded the Taken Wine Company in 2007. The project was a realization of their dreams to start their own wine label. Josh and Carlo grew up together in the heart of Napa Valley, having been surrounded by wine all of their lives.
Postmodern winemaking and intense millennial brand appeal made for a runaway success story. They named their wines with social media and generational allure in mind. The national media went crazy for their wine.
Trefethen’s grandparents bought their winery property as a country home in 1968. They eventually started making wine in the ’80s. John and Janet Trefethen built the brand from the ground up. Sisters, Loren and Hailey are acutely aware of their parents’ success, yet don’t want to be defined by it.
These days, their parents pursue other hobbies in addition to winemaking. Janet is an equestrian, John racing Porsches. Loren and Hailey run daily operations at the family vineyard, in addition to crafting and marketing their own brand.
Christina grew up in the household of one of the worlds’ most coveted Zinfandel producers. Post-college, she worked as a Sommelier at Momofuku, later becoming the head of the sales and marketing at the winery started by her father, Larry Turley. Her quest for independence and genuineness has brought about a different way of thinking. She believes that people should connect with wine as an agrarian product, not treat it as extravagance. She aims to transform the estate into a sustainable farm, growing multiple crops, raising animals and welcoming visitors for an interactive, hands-on experience.
Her own wine: The Label (Cabernet).
Heir to Caymus Vineyards, Joe wasted no time creating his own brand, Meiomi, while working as a winemaker at his family’s winery.
Last June, Constellation Brands paid $315 million to buy Meiomi, his Pinot Noir label. The astonishing part was that they only bought the brand; no vineyards or other assets were included. Post-Sideways, many were aware of the thirst for low-cost, delicious Pinot Noir, but Joe Wagner actually produced wine to fill this niche. His marketing, as well as winemaking savvy, paid off.
Wagner agreed to stay on as a consulting winemaker for Constellation for two years. However, it didn’t stop him from forming yet another wine company. He founded Copper Cane Wines & Provisions and is making Beran Zinfandels, Carne Humana (a joint venture with his cousin and winemaker Derek Bietler) red and white blends using fruit sourced from Napa Valley and Elouan Pinot Noir from Oregon.
His own company: Copper Cane Wines & Provisions.
Alejandro Llamas’ family came from Jalisco, Mexico in search of harvest jobs. He was born in the Coachella Valley, and moved north, following the fruit harvests. Eventually, his grandfather found full-time work in Napa Valley. The fruit for his own label is sourced strictly from vineyards farmed by his family. Select rows, as few as a dozen, go into his wine production.
Alex aims to bring full circle multi-generational family sacrifices, their sole goal was to give future generations an opportunity. He wants to make them proud.
I came to love Napa wines through the efforts of these vintners’ parents. The next generation has fueled Napa’s continuing dynamism through determination and unrelenting commitment to excellence. Their commitment is resolute; some of their passions prevail over practicality, others personify pragmatism itself. They are as diverse as their wines. Their inspiration comes in many forms. They are about shedding the preconceived notions and finding their version of terroir, perhaps most importantly the human kind, and express it in their own unique voice.