August 13, 2022

McHenry family makes notable wines in Napa

Building is something Brian Cunat has done his entire career.

He’s the president of Cunat Inc., a residential management and property development company in McHenry. When he wanted to venture into wine, he found interchangeable skills between each business. He wanted the winery built for Materra – Cunat Family Vineyards to meet a winemaker’s needs with the latest technology and most efficient design to streamline the process.

A builder's attention to detail is something winemaker Chelsea Barrett has relished. It’s also something her grandfather, Jim Barrett, who owned Chateau Montelena when its 1973 chardonnay won the Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting that entered Napa Valley as a player on the world wine stage and was featured in the film "Bottle Shock," didn’t always have. She can recall things being pieced together to make ends meet in the cellar. Her father, Bo Barrett, is the Chateau Montelena CEO and her mother, Heidi Barrett, has made some of the most sought-after wines in Napa.

Materra General Manager Harry Heitz’s family founded Heitz Cellar in 1961 and owned it until it was sold to another family in 2018. Cunat built the best possible winery and found talented individuals who grew up in vineyards and cellars.

In a Zoom interview that was very 2020, Cunat was reached on a rainy day in his McHenry office, while Barrett and Heitz joined from California.

“To put out high quality wines that are competitive in the market, I think we have to have young talent,” Cunat said. “That takes us to that next level.”

But pedigree only takes an employee so far, and Cunat wanted a team well versed in the latest techniques, hungry to make their imprint on the business.

In order to stay at the next level, Barrett knows results are still what counts. Most of her daily encounters are with the production team; to them she’s calling the shots and pointing the wines in the right direction.

“People get excited about it,” Barrett said when asked if it’s hard to live up to her last name. “But production is a more solitary life, day to day. The people I interact with know me well. But I’m not so out and about that I am confronted with it day to day. My sister is in marketing, so she’ll see it more. Pedigree and family name only go so far. Once through the door, I’m responsible for keeping myself there and doing all the work.”

The Materra – Cunat Family Winery Viognier 2019 ($30) had fleshy pear and peach on the nose. There were flavors of frangipani with tropical star fruit, lime zest and hints of sage. It was a masterpiece interpretation of a varietal that only has 2,600 acres planted in the entire state.

“I have a soft spot for viognier,” Barrett said. “I’ll evangelize about it; I love it. Condrieu wines are some of my favorites. It can go a waxy over-ripe melon, I do think there’s such a thing as too much with ripeness, and I like a more moderate approach. I don’t go over-ripe or wait for maximum aromatics, because it’s too much. I like to treat it like chardonnay, where it still has beautiful acid but not too much alcohol.”

There’s not much viognier in Napa Valley, since it’s too hot to ripen properly. But because of its proximity to San Pablo Bay, viognier has found a niche growing location in Oak Knoll. There’s about 4,200 acres of vines in Oak Knoll, and less than 100 are planted to viognier.

“Oak Knoll is a sweet spot for viognier,” Barrett said. “We still have a lot of fog that keeps temperatures moderate, and it doesn’t get blindingly hot. We have cool nights and get nice even ripening.”

The Materra Chardonnay 2019 ($36) had lemon zest, vanilla and hints of toasty oak, but the minerality of water in a creek during springtime made for a crisp, fresh wine.

Unlike viognier, cabernet sauvignon is planted all across California. When asked how he avoided blending in with all the others and becoming white noise, Cunat turned to his own personal tastes. He’s enjoyed wines from Howell Mountain AVA, Diamond Mountain AVA and now the Oak Knoll AVA more than the Valley Floor and thinks the distinction shows in the wines.

Even though it has much of the cachet, Napa Valley cabernet only accounts for about 4% of all California wines, and Barrett liked the chance to capture the slight differences between each AVA. The Materra – Cunat Family Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($55) had cedar and cigar wrapper on the nose with plum and pomegranate flavors.

While so much of winemaking is capturing the nuanced, delicate flavors of a varietal, Barrett relished the chance to work with petite sirah, which has all the elegance of a monster truck. With hearty skins and large crop, it’s an indulgent trip through bold flavors and extraction.

Barrett said petite sirah is “a cool piece of California history as one of few pre-Prohibition era grapes” that has survived.

The Materra – Cunat Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2016 ($49) is inky dark in the glass and has dark chocolate and ripe plums on the nose. There's a big, round mouthfeel and flavors of blueberry pie and dark chocolate. Pair it with smoked meats, steak or bacon cheeseburgers. It's a sturdy wine with grippy tannins.

“It’s from a head-trained, dry-farmed, old-school, rustic-looking vineyard,” Barrett said. “It’s bold, juicy and exciting. I still take a lighter hand than many people do, I don’t want it to be so big and tannic that people have to wait 10 years to have a glass.”

Given his experience, it’s no surprise Cunat has built an impressive portfolio of wines.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at