Wednesdays with Winemakers – Alejandro Llamas
Alex Llamas grew up in the vineyards…sort of. His family came from Jalisco, Mexico in search of harvest jobs. Alex was born in Coachella Valley, and moved north following fruit harvests, from Fairfield, to Portland, to Corning. His family always returned to Mexico; until 23 years ago, when his Granddad found full-time work in Napa Valley. Alex spent his childhood in the orchards next to his parents, learning agriculture from the round-up.
Growing up in Napa, surrounded by legendary cuisine and fine wines, he soon found himself working as a busboy at Mustard’s Grill. That was a pivotal point for Alex, who fell in love with cooking and wine culture. After stints at Domaine Chandon, French Laundry and Per Se, he returned to Napa, working alongside his family in the vineyards. He did it all: removing vegetation, tying shoots, planting and crop thinning. He witnessed tiny shrubs evolve into gorgeous vines, cultivated by human hand.
It’s the hands and minds of his family members, who touch every vine, that inspire him each and every day. The fruit for his own label is sourced from the vineyards farmed by his family. Select rows, as few as a dozen, go into his wine production. His Cabernet comes from the Stagecoach vineyard, meticulously tended by his relatives. His Chardonnay is from Carneros, where his Mom has been a consulting viticulturist for twenty years. The family name gracing the label represents impeccable quality, nothing more, nothing less.
This phenomena of insiders taking care of his grapes gives Alex a rare edge, and access to enviable fruit sources.
His partners, an aunt, his uncle and his fiancé, Michelle Fishering, who worked at Araujo, all pitch in. The wine is made at Mauritson Vineyard’s facility.
Alex is a jack of all trades, from winemaking duties to marketing and hospitality. Self-taught, with a voracious appetite for all things wine, he worked at Luna Vineyards and Jarvis.
He believes that good wine is driven by fruit quality, supplemented by a stylistic ideal and a leap of faith by the winemaker. A capable support team makes a huge logistical and physiological difference as does being honest with yourself. The defining factor of a great wines isn’t variety, or price point; it’s intangibles—quality of aromatics, tannins, texture, mouth-feel, and complexity—the inexplicable joy one feels when tasting greatness.
His drive to succeed is fueled by his desire to bring full circle the multi-generational family sacrifices which provided him his opportunities. He strives to make his parents and future generations proud.
His wines are currently featured on Celadon, Cindy’s, Mustard’s and Morimoto’s wine lists. You can also purchase them directly at llamasfamilywines.com.
“The American Dream is alive for those who have fortitude to persevere,” he says. I’ll drink to that!
Why did you become a winemaker?
I became a winemaker because I fell in love with wines inexplicable ability to tap into who I am, and because I wanted to make my Father and Mother proud by honoring my family’s history in agriculture.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
If I wasn’t a winemaker I would be a chef for the same inexplicable ability that food has to tap into who I am, and I would be motivated to honor my mother’s and grandmother’s amazing abilities in the kitchen.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
My lack of formal training. I know no trends, I have no limiting parameters. I make wine with my senses.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
My lack of formal training.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
I once forgot to label wines for a cooperage trial so when I got to taste through them, all I knew is that they were the same wine in different coopers.
What is your proudest achievement?
Working with friends and family to create Llamas Family Wines.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
In 2013 we tried to make some Pinot Noir and a delay in harvest resulted in susceptibility to mildew. By the time we picked the fruit, about 20-30% of the crop was compromised. Despite intense sorting ,we got some bad aromatics coming from the ferment and had to press off and fine with copper. Thankfully we were able to salvage the wine and it sold successfully on the bulk market.
What is your favorite word?
What is your most prized possession?
My turntables. I like to play all kinds of vinyl records.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
My favorite thing is Menudo (beef intestine and tripe soup).
What song best sums you up?
Violin Huapango (an amazing Mariachi song that highlights every instrument in compressed solos).
What is your favorite memory?
Herding my family’s cattle as a child. I felt so grown up and responsible commanding a herd of these large animals from their hillside enclosures down to grandfather’s corral so they could be fed and milked.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
What is your biggest motivation?
To create a better future for my friends, family and community.
Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Domaine Ravaneau, Les Blanchot, it would go great with all of the seafood I’d be catching.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
A good wine is a wine well made. A great wine is a great moment that never leaves your memories.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with.
My mother, my father and my fiancee…it would not hurt if Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Nikola Tesla & Michelangelo could be my second round of three?
Who is your wine-making hero?
Michael Silacci, he’s made so many great wines at so many great facilities throughout the years. He is one of the most grounded and insightful people I have ever met in the wine industry.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
A grape harvested at the precise moment and vinified in such a way that the moment is captured; not lost in the wine-making.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
The story of my Family’s mark on this wine through farming and wine-making.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
Trade: “I love your story, I love your wine.” – Chris Sawyer, The Sommelier Files