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The art of winemaking on the cheap
HOW do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start out with a big one.
Yes, it's an old joke, but that does not diminish its essential truth. To live the mythical good life as a wine producer is excruciatingly difficult, unless you start out with a lot of money, inherited vineyards or both. Particularly in California. Especially in Napa Valley.
Even so, a number of young, intrepid winemakers are demonstrating that it can be done, by working around the edges, going where few have gone before and putting in plenty of sweat equity. Some are making great wines, too.
John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co is one of those dedicated few, finding ways to make a small amount of captivating wine in the Napa Valley area without much money and with no vineyard holdings. While many winemakers in similar positions work day jobs to support their own labels as side projects, Mr Lockwood, 38, has gone all-in at Enfield.
He is based in the city of Napa, but few of his wines are entitled to the Napa Valley appellation. Until recently, he never made a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, the wine for which Napa is most famous. He could not afford to buy the grapes, which he said sold last year for an average of US$7,500 a tonne.
Instead, he patrols the fringes, buying chardonnay grown in the Heron Lake Vineyard, just over the border from Napa County in Solano County - the wrong side of the tracks. Consequently, the grapes are much less expensive than Napa fruit, and their appellation, Wild Horse Valley, has none of the built-in selling power that comes with being able to put Napa Valley on the label.
Nonetheless, Heron Lake, on a stony hillside of shallow volcanic soil, produces excellent fruit that dovetails with Mr Lockwood's taste for fresh, intense, textured wines that are expressive at low levels of alcohol - generally under 14 per cent and frequently under 13 per cent.
His 2014 Heron Lake chardonnay is pure and deep, with rich herbal and mineral flavors. A 2016 Heron Lake pinot noir is pale and alive in the glass, full of gorgeous stony flavours and a sort of restlessness that will require a couple of years to calm down.
In 2017, Mr Lockwood also made a pinot noir rosé from the vineyard, which was wonderful but did not conform to any of the popular notions of rosé. In colour, it was more of a light maraschino than a pale salmon. On the palate, it expressed itself more through texture and subtle rocky flavours than fruit.
Aside from Heron Lake, Mr Lockwood also buys chardonnay from Calaveras County, tempranillo from Amador County, cabernet sauvignon from Fort Ross-Seaview on the Sonoma Coast (an area widely thought to be too chilly for cabernet) and small amounts of syrah and chardonnay from the Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville, in the south-eastern corner of Napa Valley.
Casting such a wide net for grapes is not unusual for a producer in Mr Lockwood's position. "It's challenging in California, but also sort of the norm among my peers," he said, as we sampled a few wines in the dining room of his house in the suburban Alta Heights section of Napa, which also doubles as his tasting room. As we drank, Amy Lockwood, his wife, showed him a mock-up of a possible wine label that she was designing before darting off to pick up London, their five-year-old daughter.
I first became aware of Enfield when a bottle of its 2011 Haynes Vineyard syrah found its way into a 2014 tasting of California syrah. I liked it so much that I tried to track down other bottles of Enfield.
The 2015 Haynes syrah is wonderfully savoury - both salty and peppery, tasting of olives and smoked meats - yet graceful rather than fierce.
The 2011 Haynes was just Mr Lockwood's second vintage. Back then, he was working full-time at Failla doing a little bit of everything but specialising in vineyard management. The first three tiny vintages were produced at Failla, but in 2013, when his daughter was born, he decided to focus on Enfield, which permitted him to spend more time at home as a parent and allowed his wife to continue to work at her job, at the St Helena Chamber of Commerce.
In his last vintage while at Failla, he produced 400 cases. This year, he expects to have 2,400 cases, which may be the limit of what Enfield can do under its current configuration.
In 2017, Mr Lockwood for the first time drew a full salary from Enfield. Mrs Lockwood left the chamber and is now helping with the wine company.
"I have to decide whether I want to stay small and keep it a one-man show or grow it into a proper business and hire an employee or two," Mr Lockwood said. He is conscious, however, that the more he grows, the more administrative work may intrude on what he loves to do: work in the vineyards and the cellar.
"I enjoy the physical work," he said. "I got into the work because I didn't want a desk job." Complicating his decision is the fact that this year, he took charge of farming the 10-acre Heron Lake Vineyard. The owners were otherwise planning to sell it, and taking responsibility for the vineyard was the only way to ensure a supply of fruit. He has also taken charge of a one-acre, dry-farmed, organic cabernet sauvignon vineyard on Hennessey Ridge in the Vaca Mountains on the east side of Napa Valley, and finally has had the chance to make Napa cabernet. "The whole point is to learn," he said.
The two cabernets that he makes are similar in spirit yet entirely different. The 2015 Sonoma Coast cabernet, from the Waterhorse Ridge Vineyard, just 11 km from the Pacific, is lean and refreshing, with aromas of flowers and herbs. It is a tribute to the freshness of classic Bordeaux, with none of the lush flavours associated with California cabernet. It will be released in September.
I tasted a barrel sample of the 2017 Hennessey Ridge cabernet. It was just 12.2 per cent alcohol, but had none of the herbal flavours of its Sonoma Coast sibling. That wine was similarly energetic, but the flavours were red fruit and flowers, a Napa cabernet with finesse.
Mr Lockwood grew up far from vineyards, in Washington, DC, where his father was a lawyer and his mother a speechwriter. In high school, he was more interested in hot sauces and the nuances of their flavours than wine. But he gained a taste for wine as a student at Bowdoin College in Maine, and fell in love with it on a trip to the Bay Area.
Simultaneously, he was developing an interest in woodworking. After college, he moved to Taos, New Mexico, to work in a furniture shop. A co-worker was constructing his own mandolin and, Mr Lockwood said, he became obsessed with building instruments. From there he got a job in San Francisco with Ervin Somogyi, a guitar-maker. "I thought it was the gig," he said.
But one day a winemaker, David Mahaffey, came in the shop. He was an amateur woodworker who was building himself a guitar and wanted to trade wine for woodworking tips. Mr Lockwood was intrigued. He asked Mr Mahaffey if he could help with the harvest, and went up to wine country on weekends. It proved fortuitous as Mr Mahaffey's small label, Miss Olivia Brion, was based at Heron Lake Vineyard.
From there, Mr Lockwood was hooked. He left guitar-making after three-and-a-half years, worked the harvest at Littorai Wines in 2007, spent a year in Argentina, then joined Failla in 2008.
While Mr Lockwood is gratified at the reception that the Enfield wines have received, he fears that he will never have the opportunity to own a vineyard himself, and wonders about his future.
"Is the goal to grow and then to sell out? I don't love that," he said. "Or is the goal to do the best you can and make the best wine? Maybe that's enough.
"Honestly, I spend so much time trying to make this thing a business that I don't have a lot of time to think about it," he said. "It's the nature of the wine industry: We're all kind of maxed out." NYTIMES