Exploring Secrets Of Success For Winemaker Jesse Katz Of Aperture Cellars

Food & Drink

When Forbes named Jesse Katz to their ’30 under 30’ list in 2013, it was the first time a winemaker had ever made it to that esteemed position. Since that time, he has gone on to achieve eight perfect 100-point scoring wines and broke the world’s record for crafting the highest-priced wine ever sold at auction to date. That winning bid was $1 million for a 6-liter bottle of The Setting Glass Slipper Cabernet Sauvignon.

So how has Jesse Katz become so successful at such a young age, and in such a relatively short time? Curious to know the answer, I recently caught up with him at his newly constructed winery in Sonoma County called Aperture, where we toured the visitor center, vineyard and winery, before settling down to a tasting of some of the most recent Aperture vintages. By the end of our two hours together, I had a clearer idea of some of the factors that helped to propel him to success.

“I didn’t plan to be a winemaker growing up, but my father traveled a lot for his photography business, and was often asked to photograph wineries and vineyards,” said Jesse. “As I got older, he took me with him to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and other places and I became fascinated with wine.”

Jesse’s father is the famous photographer, Andy Katz, and the inspiration for naming his winery, Aperture. Indeed, the winery visitor center is designed to look like the aperture of a camera lens and is filled with Andy’s photos from his world travels. Furthermore, the front label of every wine bottle feature’s one of Andy Katz’s stunning photos.

Factor #1 – Global Winemaking Experience

So once bitten by the wine bug, Jesse decided to leave his hometown of Boulder, Colorado and attend college in California. He eventually selected CSU-Fresno to study winemaking because of its “hands-on winery, which was the only university at the time where you actually got to make wine as part of your studies,” explained Jesse.

Upon graduation he got a winemaking job at Bodega Noemia in Patagonia, Argentina, “where they still made wine in the traditional way and without any technology,” reported Jesse. “There were no destemmers or presses, so we literally destemmed the grape bunches by hand and then we stomped them with our feet.” He said the experience really helped him understand the importance of a quality vineyard, but also the joys of technology.

Other experiences included studying at Pétrus in Bordeaux, spending time on the winemaking team at Screaming Eagle, and then working as winemaker at both Roth Winery and Lancaster Estate in Sonoma County.

“It was at Lancaster and Roth that I had the opportunity to design a winery from the ground-up,” said Jesse. “By that time I knew exactly what I wanted to have in terms of the best winemaking equipment and technology in the cellar.”

Factor #2 – A Blend of Mother Nature and Technology

With some great experience under his belt, Jesse launched Aperture Cellars in 2009, with a focus on selecting grapes from top California vineyards and making the wine in custom crush facilities. Along the way, he also created two other brands: Devil Proof and The Setting.

The resulting wines developed for Aperture and the other brands all received excellent reviews from the critics, almost as soon as they were released. Jesse seemed to have the magic touch of creating wines with a rare mixture of freshness and elegance, but with intense depth, richness, complexity and length.

By 2016, he decided it was time to build his own winery. “I selected Sonoma County because I believe the Alexander Valley AVA has great potential to be one of the top cabernet regions in the world, and already has delivered on that promise to some extent,” he said.

Other famous cabernet-based wine brands such as Vérité, Stonestreet, Jordan, Silver Oak, Lancaster, and others have called the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County home for decades now. Plus it is located just over the hill from Napa Valley, where Jesse also makes wine for his brand called, The Setting.

After taking out a “very large loan from Silicon Valley Bank,” Jesse said, “we were able to purchase a 75 acre vineyard in Alexander Valley and a 40 acre parcel for the winery, visitor center and estate vineyard.”

The new winery complex, located 10 minutes outside of Healdsburg, is an architectural feat of modern design, situated on the edge of the vineyards, and is a feast for the eyes. It was created by architect, Juancarlos Fernandez, but all of the winemaking equipment and technology were carefully selected by Jesse.

“After working in so many wineries over the years, I had a dream of what I wanted the perfect winery to be like, and this is it,” said Jesse, proudly.

And he should be proud, because it is most likely the most sophisticated winery in Sonoma County, and in many other parts of the world. Some of the special features include a very advanced de-stemmer, as well as an optical sorter that takes 1200 photo per second of the grapes, and uses infrared technology to identify if a berry has been sunburned or heat damaged. In this way, only the most perfect grapes make it into the fermentation tanks.

Next a very gentle high-tech pump, that is based on the same technology that gently moves fish from one pond to another in nurseries, is used to softly move the berries to the tanks. The tanks are also state-of-the-art with automated pump-overs, temperature control, and oxygen injection that can be controlled by a laptop or smart phone.

“In order to get the correct color and textural elements for the wine, we sometimes do up to 24 pump-overs per day the first 3 days, before fermentation starts,” explained Jesse.

The special tanks also have a great water saving feature that has allowed Aperture winery to reduce the amount of water they use to clean tanks to 15 gallons compared to the regular 80 gallons that traditional tanks use. In addition, the winery recycles 98% of its water, and then reuses it for irrigation or landscaping.

Associate Winemaker, Hillary Sjolund, is overjoyed to work in such a sophisticated cellar. “All of this technology has given us more artistic freedom as winemakers,” she said.

It has also allowed them to save on labor costs. “Even though the technology was expensive to install, we have already achieved a positive ROI on labor after only 2.5 years, and we have also reduced costs with all of our water saving mechanisms,” reported Jesse.

Factor #3 – Relationships and Incredible Talent

But is seems that great vineyards, technology, and winemaking experience are not enough to propel someone into the limelight at such an early age. Relationships and the magical winemaking talent that Jesse has developed are also important factors.

“One of my good friends is Jessica Biel, and she asked me to make a wine for her wedding with Justin Timberlake,” said Jesse. The amount of publicity this wine brought to Jesse was “very helpful.”

In fact, Jesse is now working on developing a new wine brand with Jessica, Justin, and Chris Jackson called, ‘Profit & Poet,’ which will be release this Spring. “We are trying to showcase how magnificent the wines of Alexander Valley can be,” he said with excitement.

We ended with a tasting of six Aperture wines. Each of the wines was distinctive and delicious with fresh and pure fruit, but also a rare minerality, richness, and complexity that defines the special winemaking talent of Jesse Katz.

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