The hunt Jesse Katz is on started at an early age.
When his father, photographer Andy Katz, traveled the world to capture vineyards through his lens, Jesse would tag along. Today, it’s Jesse who has captured all a vineyard has to offer, but he does it in a wine cellar, and the impressive list of wines he’s crafted in a short period of time is enough to fill a lifetime resume.
For Aperture Cellars, created in partnership with his father, Jesse’s muse is Sonoma County, and the wines are a great addition to his already impressive portfolio. While he’s hopped continents to work over 15 harvests, made every 30 under 30 and, now, 40 under 40 list imaginable, and produced epic, cult wines that rise to mythic proportions for the price tag they command at the auction house, it’s a deep cut that thrills him most.
“I like to showcase the best of an area,” Jesse said. “It’s really hard to do that in Napa. There are barriers to enter. As a young winemaker, the cost per ton is ridiculously high, you almost have to be born into money – which pushes out young talent which is going to Sonoma or Paso Robles. The level of discovery in finding new areas or gems, that’s really exciting.”
The Aperture partnership started in 2009, but it’s been going for years, as 12 of Andy’s 17 books have featured wine, and together the duo visited more than 80 countries. Despite his travel experience, when he entered college, Jesse wasn’t bound for the wine industry. He was a business school intern at Fess Parker Winery in Santa Barbara when he got the itch to study wine and enrolled at Fresno State.
From there the blitz was on, he’d work two harvests per year and go from country to country and continent to continent working with some of the top winemakers in the world.
Katz rattled off several historic Napa vineyards, but he hit his groove when on a treasure hunt.
“Go to Rockpile Ridge above Lake Sonoma and find little gems with a different profile,” Jesse said. “The level of excitement in finding them, that’s fun as a winemaker and consumer.”
The Aperture Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($40) was influenced by the time that Jesse spent in Bordeaux. While he studied on its Right Bank, the attention to detail that the Left Bank’s First Growth Chateau Haut-Brion paid to its Bordeaux Blanc, a semillon and sauvignon blanc, left an impression.
“I wanted to get past the green grass flavors and develop white peach, apricot and fig,” Jesse said.
The Aperture Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($77) was rich, elegant and had flavors of juicy blackberry and milk chocolate shavings. Stressed out vines struggle during the growing season in the red and white chalky, volcanic soils on the eastern hillside of Alexander Valley. The result is small berries with an increased skin-to-juice contact ratio.
“The highlight is the minerality and nuance,” Jesse said. “There’s dark blue and black fruits, but also spice and minerality, there’s a level of freshness and elegance not always found in Mediterranean-climate cabernet.”
With the Aperture Red Blend 2017 ($55), there were lead pencil shaving, creosote, dark chocolate and blueberry flavors. There was a meaty nose that offered a whiff of fresh-cut steak, fruit and bay leaf.
The different parts of the wine complemented each other yet were in a standoff in the glass – each vying for attention, which only strengthened the experience.
“Tension in wine is another element I am in love with,” Jesse said. “For our cabs, that green element people used to run from; it was a taboo word. People are now embracing it. It’s a natural element in all great cabs outside of California. We can ripen and get past that in California. But the bay leaf and dried spice aid in freshness of wine. We try to get the vineyard in balance and the site in balance and get it nice and ripe, but not get it over-ripe and lose those subtle characteristics.”
Even though Jesse has carved his own path as winemaker, he still needs dad’s approval. Andy’s artwork adorns each label, and he’s got final cut in the cellar, too.
“Dad won’t let me use a photo before he tastes the vintage,” Jesse said. “It’s so much fun to work with him. I got into wine through father’s artwork. We have a new state-of-the-art winery. My father knows a ton about wine. But to taste as they are fermenting and have him come out here is a dream come true.”
Winemaker Jesse Katz shares some of the gems discovered on his road less traveled.
• Rockpile AVA: One of the smallest AVAs in the country and where Jesse Katz sourced the malbec for his Devil Proof label. The malbec is from a single vineyard, a dry-farmed site that is 1,380 feet above sea level. “It’s a steep hillside with a southwest exposure and incredibly rocky soils, true to its name, that creates a decadent yet elegant style of the varietal,” he said. “Twice since 2015, this has been the highest-rated malbec in the world.”
• Pocket Peak: Under consideration in Alexander Valley as a new AVA because there are “substantial climatic differences between Pocket Peak and the valley floor of Alexander Valley.” Jesse has worked in the elevated sites at the east side of Alexander Valley, and it’s the location of Devil Proof’s first vineyard, Farrow Ranch.
• Bennett Valley AVA: “The coolest AVA, and [the] site I work with is Dry Stack Vineyard in Bennett Valley,” Jesse said. “Because of the massive coastal influence, the sauvignon blanc from this vineyard is usually harvested three to four weeks after any other I work with. In the weird 2020 vintage, it was my last pick of the vintage. The wines have incredible acid but a decadence due to the long hang time and cool nights.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.