Fall /Winter 2008
Three to Watch
Keeping their day jobs hasn't stopped these winemakers from realizing their dreams.
By Linda Murphy
What hose-dragging cellar rat doesn't fantasize about having his or her own winery? Yet the costs of starting a brand are huge, and those who aren't already wealthy often work two jobs to make their vintner dreams come true. The day shift pays the bills, and nights and weekends provide the thrills of being able to say, "This wine is mine." Meet three small (1,500-case) producers who can do just that.
By day, David Low is the assistant winemaker at Papapietro Perry Winery in Dry Creek Valley. Webster Marquez has a similar position at C. Donatiello Winery in Russian River Valley, and Anthony Filiberti works for the Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma. By night, the three produce six Pinot Noirs and one Syrah for their Anthill Farms label, using grapes grown in the chilly reaches of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
The wines are made under Low's watchful eye at Papapietro Perry, yet the partners take turns working in all phases of the business, from pruning to bottling and sales. "It's exactly what the three of us want to do, and we started while we still had the energy and time to do it," Marquez says. "What's unusual about us is that none of us is 'the' winemaker. No person does just one thing."
The trio met in 2003 while working at Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg. In 2004, each partner threw in $4,000 to buy their first load of grapes and a few barrels. Now in their fifth vintage, their Pinots are refined and supple, with mouthwatering acidity and relatively low alcohol levels. Would they like to devote all their time to Anthill? "Of course," Filiberti says, "but at just 1,500 cases a year, split three ways, it's going to take awhile."
After two harvests in his native North Carolina-where hurricanes can rip vines from the ground-Kenneth Juhasz jumped at the chance in 2002 to move to Sonoma and make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Donum Estate/Robert Stemmler Winery. And in 2003, when he and his wife, Laura, decided to launch their own label, Auteur Wines, Donum graciously allowed him to make all three brands at the same Santa Rosa custom crush winery. "I'm fortunate to have all the wines in one place and to have a great relationship with Donum," Juhasz says.
Juhasz looks to cool-climate vineyards for his grape sources-Hyde in Carneros, Sonoma Stage in Sonoma Coast, Manchester Ridge in Mendocino Ridge, and two in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Auteur Chardonnays tend to have a crisp, minerally character and very subtle oak; the five Pinot Noirs, though they come from different sites, share perfumed aromas, firm structure, and a knack for improving with age. "I'm East Coast, so I started with an old-world winemaking mentality," Juhasz says. "I don't want overripe fruit, I do want acidity, and I want some earthy character. Pinot doesn't have to be big to be good."
Without their day jobs, the Relic Wines business of Mike Hirby and Schatzi Throckmorton would have been wiped out by a 2005 warehouse fire at Mare Island that destroyed most of their inventory. But Throckmorton, the general manager at Behrens & Hitchcock Winery/Erna Schein on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, and Hirby, a consulting winemaker with clients that include Realm Cellars, Rockledge Vineyards, and Sherwin Family Vineyards, had steady paychecks to see them through as they rebuilt Relic, "With no banks, no lines of credit, no sugar daddy," Hirby says with some pride.
The two met at Behrens & Hitchcock, where Hirby was the assistant winemaker until 2002, and married four years ago. Their love of the red wines of France's Rhône Valley led them to create full-bodied, meaty Syrahs for Relic from the Richard Perry and Alder Springs vineyards in Napa and Mendocino, respectively. They also produce a smoky, spicy Alder Springs Pinot Noir. Relic refers to what Hirby and Throckmorton describe as "modern wines the old way," a method that includes foot stomping of the grapes and an antique letterpress label. "We really like the balance of labor we have," says the always-on-the-go Hirby, who lets Throckmorton tend to the managerial duties. "And there is a greater sense of accomplishment in working with small brands." Particularly one's own.