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How Studying Spanish Led to a Career in Wine — This Vineyard Guru Loves Birth Year Wines, Cabs and Unusual Paths

Wine Talk With Aron Weinkauf

BY // 11.18.20

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 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. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put me behind in meeting new people in person. Fellow writers, cooks and chefs, sommeliers and, of course, winemakers. Aron Weinkauf (oh yes, he definitely has an appropriate family name!) is one of the individuals I look forward to meeting when next we are in Napa, and he’s the star of the latest Wine Talk.

Weinkauf is both vineyard manager and winemaker at the storied Spottswoode estate, whose team he joined in 2006 (as assistant winemaker). He is only the fifth head winemaker in Spottswoode’s history.

Weinkauf grew up in Nevada, where his family tended a vegetable garden (organic at that) and raised a variety of animals, including pigs, chickens and horses. He went to school at Berry College, where he studied Spanish, a major put him on the road a career in wine. Though, he didn’t know that at the time.

During his junior and senior years at Berry, Weinkauf studied in Spain, where he learned to appreciate a glass of wine at meals. While working as a teacher after college, he volunteered at a winery in Nevada, and fell in love with the processes of growing grapes and making wine. Fresno State University was his next stop.

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At the California school, Weinkauf, who was born in 1976, studied viticulture and enology, and he worked as an assistant winemaker at Ficklin Vineyards (which happens to be America’s oldest port winery) while attending Fresno State. A stint at Paul Hobbs Winery was next.

And then came Spottswoode. Weinkauf oversees the estate’s 24 blocks, making some excellent cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc — if you have not had the pleasure of tasting these wines, do something to change that. He also makes a syrah from Sonoma County fruit.

Let’s see what Weinkauf has to say:

Aron Weinkauf with Panda and Cachou: Every estate needs a dog or two.

James Brock: 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?

Aron Weinkauf: First, if you can still find a 2012 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc, try it. One doesn’t age sauvignon blanc that often, but I really love ours with a little age on it. They can be so nuanced and yet still so fresh and youthful. You can get current vintages and try them young and try and age one if you can. My wife makes a salad with grapefruit, lettuce, shallots, a mustard dressing, and then crab or abalone (or any fish/shellfish), that is pretty awesome with it.

Next, a Keller or Emmerich Knoll riesling (Trocken) with some Thai or southeast-Asian stir-fry.

Drink this wine, says Weinkauf: Good things come from Weingut Knoll. (Courtesy The Source)

You can get the above bottles online, or ask at your wine shop; the Spottswoode can be ordered directly from us.

I am very anxious to try a few more Priorat wines, too. I just had one and was amazed. The overripe, jammy versions of the ’90s seem to have made way for some really beautiful, balanced styles now. I want to see if that is true.

Finally, I would also get a bottle of the Spottswoode’s 2016 or 2014 Estate cab. Both are exceptional vintages and in very good shape, in youthful places. The 2017 is also great, yet one is rewarded by drinking cabernets with a little more age on them.

Weinkauf likes birth-year wines, and this one, from Heitz Cellar (1976), is on his list.

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

AW: I’m a big fan of birth-year wines. It’s so special to open up those bottles to celebrate with friends and loved ones. For myself, a ’76 Heitz Martha’s or Fay. 1977 Taylor’s port for my wife. My brother’s and sister’s years are still around, too.  I guess I’m lucky in that most are not considered amazing vintages in general, so hunting them can be more affordable.

Aron Weinkauf wants you to know the stories behind the wines you buy and drink, including those of the people who make it and the places from which it comes. (Courtesy Spottswoode)

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

AW: I would say cabernet sauvignon. I work with it, always getting to know it more, and love how it grows in the vineyard. It has a health, structure, and balance in the vineyard, and I see so many of its physical traits in the wines it becomes. We don’t always see how dynamic it can be, but it can be very much so, though always with a more tannic edge.

JB: 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? 

AW: Without a doubt I have to say Spottswoode Estate cab. It’s from a special place, will age beautifully, and I’m proud of what we make.

Buy this, age some, drink some now.

 

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside your home and workplace)?

AW: At one point in time I would have told you Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. It burned in the Tubbs Fire of 2017, and I now have two young kids, so if not work or home, going out is probably only going to happen with family or at a friend’s. . . and now socially distanced. (Note: Willi’s Wine Bar reopened, in a new location, in 2019.)

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

AW: Now more than ever, I wish people would know the story behind anything they purchase. Who owns it, how it’s made, farming practices, the effort, labor, and passion that has or has not gone into what you’re buying. There are real people behind each — where we choose to spend our money is how we pick whom we are supporting.

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

AW: I was lucky enough to have studied in Spain. It was my first introduction to wine at the dinner table, and I loved it. I was lucky, too, that Spain makes some great wines and the people I was with would open good ones. Nothing collectible, just good table wine.

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

AW: The making of the 2017 vintage wines. The heat spikes of 2017 were so extreme — we hadn’t seen anything like it, and every day brought something new and peculiar. And then to have the vintage punctuated by all of the fires. . . It was a wild ride for sure.

Jawohl, Herr Goethe, life is too short to drink bad wine. (Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in der roemischen Campagna)

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

AW: There is a quote that I think Tony Soter mentioned to me, but many have heard it: “In winemaking we are all interventionalists, otherwise we’d be making vinegar.”

On a truer literary basis, I must admit, an immediate reference did not come to mind.  So I looked up a few things and followed those wormholes a bit.

From Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen: “Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues. ”

And from Groucho Marx: “I shall drink no wine before its time! OK, it’s time!” (I know, a little cliché, but I did have to look this up quickly. )

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out Mise en Place.

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