Jane Anson meets a hotly tipped young winemaker who has already produced one of the most expensive wines in the world.
In recent years, the world’s most expensive wines have included a bottle of Château Margaux 1787, which you might remember was valued at $225,000 after being spilled by wine merchant William Sokolin at the Four Seasons hotel in New York, a 1947 Cheval Blanc that was auctioned in Geneva for $305,000, and an Imperial (six litres) of 1992 Screaming Eagle that went for $500,000 back in 2008.
In November of last year, a new wine leapt on to this list. Not a Bordeaux First Growth, or a Napa superstar, but a single bottle of an unknown wine from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley – specifically a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend called The Setting, that was sold for $350,000.
It was sold, admittedly, during the Carnivale du Vin’s charity auction (similar to the Screaming Eagle that managed its $500,000 during the Napa Valley Wine Auction), which changes the dynamics of pricing. And no doubt its attraction can be partly explained by the fact that it was donated and signed by Shep Gordon, the ultimate celebrity agent who has been described as Supermensch in Mike Myers’ 2013 documentary, ‘the most famous unfamous man in the world’ by GQ and ‘the godfather of everything’ by Rolling Stone.
But the wine’s success was also, in no small part, due to its winemaker Jesse Katz. He’s not as well known in Europe as in the States, but it’s only a matter of time. Barely into his 30s, Katz was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in 2014, at the age of 29, four years after he became America’s youngest head winemaker (24 at time of hiring) for Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley – ironically after a 16-month stint at Screaming Eagle. This was partly what had got him the Forbes nod, the first winemaker to do so in their Food and Drink awards, because he had managed to grow Lancaster’s Roth brand by over 800 per cent in five years – and also seen the $28 Roth Pinot Noir take first place in a blind tasting of over 80 pinots from Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and California at the annual Pigs & Pinot celebration in Healdsburg.
I first met Katz in Bordeaux back in March 2016, when I was working on a book with his photographer father Andy Katz. He was over here taking a course on terroir and vineyard management with Professor Kees van Leeuwen at Bordeaux university (and had previously done a stint working at Petrus), and we shared a pot of Earl Grey tea at the Grand Hotel. Or maybe I drank tea and he drank cocktails with his dad, that part I don’t quite remember.
What I do remember is getting to taste his Devil Proof Malbec later that week, and thinking he had pretty much nailed what can be an extremely difficult grape to tease elegance out of. And then meeting him again in New York and witnessing the pretty mensch-like reaction that he gets when he walks in a room. The kind of reaction that is accorded to just a few winemakers; I can think of Christophe Salin, for one, Angelo Gaja certainly, Peter Gago… there are others, but you can count them on one hand.
So, the news of his latest success left me wondering if the pressure was going to get too much. Where will he go from creating one of the world’s most expensive wines?
It seems the answer to that lies in finding something that is entirely his own. Until this year, Katz has been making an array of wines (three of his own labels in the shape of Aperture, Devil Proof and The Setting, along with almost a dozen wines for other people, from Shep Gordon to Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel), working across four different locations. In 2019, he will be opening – along with his dad and business partner Andy – Aperture Cellars winery, on 40 acres of land that he purchased two miles outside of Healdsburg, with 32 acres of vines. All of his wines will be made in this one location, where he will also live.
‘The buzz that came with The Setting,’ he says, ‘just proved what I always believed about Sonoma. That it is capable to making some of the truly great wines of the world’.
Living and working in one place – essentially the domaine or chateau model – also takes him back to where wine really began for Katz, which was in Burgundy. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and had apparently visited 80 countries alongside his dad by the time he left school. The first wine trip was to Napa and Sonoma when Andy was writing a book on the then-fledgling regions with Robert Mondavi, but it was in Burgundy on another book trip that he really fell in love with wine.
‘I had become friends with Olivier Leflaive,’ Andy tells me, ‘and he had these two beautiful daughters who were a little older than Jesse, who was maybe 14 at the time. I pretty much didn’t see him for two days, and when he came back he said, ‘dad this wine thing is amazing’.’
‘I had a profound realisation while in Burgundy,’ says Jesse, good-naturedly picking up the story that he has no doubt heard recounted many times, ‘that the same grape and same vintage could have such different expressions according to the village that it came from. I fell in love with the culture of the whole thing’.
‘Today I get that same feeling of diversity in Sonoma. It is such a special place, with masses of options for a winemaker, microclimates ranging from colder-than-Champagne to warmer-than-Bordeaux, with a great diversity of soils. We’re 25 years behind Napa in terms of site selection in Sonoma, which means there is still lots of untapped land and potential – it’s really an evolving art. Pinot producers have seen that, and we are just starting to witness the high-end Cabernet producers moving in also to places like Alexander Valley (where Katz makes Devil Proof at Farrow Ranch), with its well-drained red volcanic soils and low organic matter. We get warm days there but really cool nights with a fog line that has cleared by 8am allowing the days to heat up fast. It gives powerful but fresh wines that I love’.
It’s going to be tough to get Aperture and Devil Proof wines for a while – these are small batch and they sell out quickly (he calls them ‘small brands that work hard’). But they are worth searching out, combining as they do the best of the Old and New World, delivering a powerful punch but well sculpted with natural balance and no acidification or other cellar tricks. The Malbecs are dry-farmed, the Cabernets as close as he can get them, everything bottled unfiltered and unfined.
‘I want to keep showcasing what we can do here, keep pushing the sense of place and the importance of site selection’.
This is a winemaker who’s just getting started.