A Walking Wine Encyclopedia — Inside the Head of Joel Aiken

This Winemaker's Winemaker Talks Dream Bottles, Earthquake Wine and Napa Hideaways

BY // 03.31.20

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to some of my friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

My two final pre-COVID-19 restaurant meals, a lunch and dinner on the same day, were shared with Joel Aiken. He was in Los Angeles several weeks ago, meeting with wine media and pouring Scattered Peaks, the label under which he is making two wines with Derek Benham. At lunch, we sampled the Scattered Peaks 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2017 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (look for reviews of both in PaperCity’s The Pour series soon) — he also came bearing a delicious 2009 Beaulieu Vineyards Maestro Collection Ranch No. 2 .

Aiken is a winemaker’s winemaker — he’s been at it for more than three decades. In 1982, he was hired by Beaulieu Vineyards as an enologist, and in 1985 was promoted to winemaker at the legendary name, becoming the youngest winemaker ever at the estate. He was winemaker at Amici Cellars from 2009 to 2015, and founded Aiken Wine Consulting in 2009. He has also held positions with Provenance, Acacia and Glen Ellen in California — and Navarro Correas in Argentina.

I met Aiken and Rusty Eddy, co-owner of Wine & Spirits Spoken Here, the firm that handles PR for Scattered Peaks, for lunch that day in early March at NoMad Los Angeles — the restaurant has an incredible selection of Rieslings, by the way — and we greeted without shaking hands.

Aiken, who was born in Fresno, California, speaks thoughtfully and he’s observant. The fruit in the BV we drank at lunch reminded me of a Rioja Crianza I had tasted the day before, and when I told him that, he pondered for a moment or so before telling me, in an introspective tone, “You know what, I’ve never noticed that before, but you’re right.”

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Joel Aiken, who has worked with Andre Tchelistcheff and Michel Rolland, among other greats, is a walking winemaking encyclopedia.

He has a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s degree in enology, both from UC Davis. His dissertation compared the aging of Cabernet Sauvignon in French and American oak. The man has worked with Andre Tchelistcheff and Michel Rolland, and he is a past president of the Napa Valley Vinters. Sharing a table with him is to wander through winemaking history. He has worked with more than 50 wineries thus far in his career.

At lunch, we discovered we had a good number of friends and acquaintances in common, individuals whom I respect for their passion about wine, including Charles and Lili Thomas. Makes sense he would travel in that crowd. After the COVID-19 lockdown is behind us, I look forward to sharing a table with Aiken again.

PaperCity: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

Joel Aiken: To begin, the 2016 G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba Superiore. I have been on a Barbera binge lately. I love great, well-aged Barolos and Barbarescos, but younger Barbera from Piedmont is so juicy and food friendly you can enjoy it any day of the week. G.D. Vajra is a great producer, and their wines are reasonably priced. I would pair this with grilled rack of lamb and some grilled veggies. This bottle can be found for around $40.

Next, the 2017 Raeburn Russian River Valley Chardonnay. I am not a fan of big California Chardonnays. Raeburn strikes a beautiful balance between ripeness and restraint. It displays beautiful peach and pear fruit with vibrant acidity, minerality and a long finish. I have a great risotto recipe with scallops that I would pair this with. This is a steal at $17.

To end, a 2016 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges DeLatour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 2016 is the 80th vintage of this iconic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is spectacular. Although it will age for decades, it is drinking beautifully now. The wine displays cassis, black cherry and mocha, and has an incredibly long finish with firm but appropriate tannins. I would definitely serve this with a grilled ribeye steak.

PC: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why?

JA: With no hesitation, a 2005 Domaine de la Románee-Conti Románee-Conti. The most impressive wine I have had in my life was a 1969 Románee-Conti. I have never tasted anything like it. It truly changed my idea of what a wine is capable of. With nearly 15 years of aging, the 2005 vintage should be just starting to show its amazing potential.

PC: What is your favorite grape, and why?

JA: I would say Pinot Noir is my favorite, with Grenache a close second. I love Pinot Noir because it is so versatile and can pair with many different dishes. Also, Pinot Noirs from different regions display an amazing array of flavors that I never tire of, and many of them can age beautifully for decades.

PC: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day?

JA: The 2017 Scattered Peaks Small Lot Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a beautiful and powerful wine that will age beautifully for well over 10 years. The grapes for this wine came from two spectacular vineyards: Morisoli Vineyard on the best part of the Rutherford Bench, and Sage Ridge Vineyard at an elevation of 1,500 feet in Sage Canyon east of St. Helena. It retails for $125.

The man and a few bottles: Joel Aiken can teach one a lot about winemaking.

PC: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?

JA: I live in the city of Napa, and I love having a glass or two of wine at Compline. It is a restaurant, bar, lounge, and retail shop all in one. I love to sit at the bar and try their selection of wine from around the world. After tasting Napa wines for work day in and day out, their selection of eclectic wines is a wonderful change of pace.

PC: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

JA: I would like people to slow down and enjoy it for what it is. It is a unique beverage that comes from grapes harvested in many different regions of the world. Every variety, region, and vintage is different, giving each wine a distinct personality. It is a special beverage.

PC: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

JA: For me, it was coming to the Napa Valley as a college student and tasting Cabernet Sauvignon and being amazed at the wonderful and complex flavors and textures a glass of wine could possess.

PC: What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

JA: Hmm… that’s a tough one. It was probably visiting and old Almaden winery in San Benito County and seeing that, unfortunately, the winery was built directly over the San Andreas fault. One wall had sheared apart and moved over a foot in different directions on either side of the fault. During one earthquake they lost a 40,000-gallon tank of wine.

PC: What is your favorite wine reference in a work of literature or film?

JA: Probably Miles drinking his 1961 Château Cheval Blanc out of a Styrofoam cup in the movie Sideways.

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