Six super-Cali winemakers to know
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Wine news every morning.
A good working knowledge of American punk rock isn’t something you usually need when you’re talking to a winemaker, but an hour into conversation with Kashy Khaledi, proprietor of the new-wave Napa winery Ashes & Diamonds, I find myself wishing I’d boned up.
“Sometimes we’ll be like: is this Cabernet Redd Kross or is it more Black Flag circa 1985?” he says. “I think our approach is definitely more Minor Threat than Blink-182.”
Khaledi’s T-shirt says: “Corporate rock still sucks”. But there was a time, not long ago, when the self-confessed “angsty Gen X-er” was very much part of the machine. Having started out as a music journalist – first on the Beastie Boys’ era-defining Grand Royal magazine and later as editor-in-chief of Filter – he spent nearly a decade working as a creative director and executive for media giants including MTV and Capitol Records.
But then, in 2013, something snapped. “It was an age when streaming was in its infancy and I just saw doom in that model,” he says. “I wanted to throw myself into a world that was tangible, that was real.”
The result was Ashes & Diamonds, which is seducing a new generation of wine-lovers turned off by bombastic Napa Cabernets. A gleaming, glass-walled complex at the foot of Highway 29, it pays homage to the Napa Valley of the 1960s – an era when the prevailing style was less oaky, lower alcohol and characterised by more restraint. “Expressive, living wines,” says Khaledi. “Wines with personality, that were honest about what they were.”
To help transform his vision, Khaledi hired two Californian winemakers renowned for their thoughtful, terroir-focused approach: the influential new-waver Steve Matthiasson and Diana Snowden Seysses, oenologist at Burgundy’s illustrious Domaine Dujac. He also cornered some excellent fruit. Ashes & Diamonds Vineyard I Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (£145 from nekterwines.com) is made from the same Rutherford vineyard as the fêted 1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – a wine that was instrumental in putting Napa on the map. Part modernist fruity crunch, part sensual Margaux perfume, it’s a wine that hovers bewitchingly between Old and New World.
Make every moment matter with
How To Spend It - your essential guide to getting the best out of life. Sign up here.
But Ashes & Diamonds has style as well as substance. The monochrome labels are the work of Brian Roettinger, the designer for Jay-Z’s album Magna Carta Holy Grail. The winery is by LA architect Barbara Bestor, go-to restorer of Californian midcentury classics and designer of the Los Angeles HQ for Beats by Dr Dre.
“The idea was to create a utopia of sorts,” says Khaledi. “A postcard fantasy of the Californian dream.” Lately, of course, things have been far from dreamy. When we speak, the Ashes & Diamonds tasting room has only just reopened after weeks in lockdown, and Khaledi’s LA neighbourhood is in the midst of the BLM protests.
“We opened with the California fires in 2017. Napa literally burned down while we were under construction, and in a way it’s been burning ever since,” says Khaledi, wryly. “I don’t know yet how we’ll look back on 2020, but either way it’s going to be a very memorable vintage.”
As head winemaker at Kitá Wines – a Santa Barbara winery owned and run by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians – Gomez has helped pave the way for a new generation of Native American-owned wineries and vineyards. Sustainability, she says, is at the heart of the Chumash way. “It is about finding that connection to the land, soil and climate.”
As vineyard manager for E & J Gallo’s 575-acre Monte Rosso Vineyard in the eastern hills of Sonoma Valley, the 30-year-old is guardian of one of the oldest and most prized winegrowing sites in California. “It’s difficult and complex. Our vines range from four months old to over 130 years old, so it’s a lot to take on,” she says, “but I love it.”
Flautist-turned-winemaker Sekhar is known for her expressive Pinot Noir, which she makes for name-drop boutique wineries. A campaigner for greater diversity in the wine scene, she says: “The conversation is finally out in the open and we need to effect some real change. I would love to see marketing of wine include a more diverse group of faces, to start.”
A protégée of Sonoma’s pioneering Wind Gap/Pax Cellars, 36-year-old Motley is currently one of the hottest names in California’s low-intervention wine scene. Very limited production, unusual grape varieties (try her signature Mondeuse “Argillet”) and a focus on showcasing a variety of different terroirs make her wines fresh, exciting and completely unique.
The Broc Cellars founder has overturned the idea of “typical California” by making natural wine in a Berkeley warehouse, using grapes sourced from appellations hundreds of miles apart. Sangiovese aged in sandstone, sparkling Chenin, Carignan from 130-year-old vines – what unites these wines is a sense of curiosity, style and fun.