The Scene

Uncorked: Generational winemakers create cabernet standouts

Eleven Eleven Winery Uncorked column 0405/2024

Kirk Venge mapped out his career in a middle school assignment.

From the moment he was strong enough to handle a hose, he rinsed out barrels. By the time he was 8 years old, he worked the bottling line. There was the occasional mischief he’d get into on a rogue tractor ride through the vineyard.

Kirk Venge - Eleven Eleven Winery Uncorked column 0405/2024

This second-generation Napa Valley winemaker and third-generation wine business participant always knew what he wanted to do. Like many of his colleagues, Venge seemed destined to be a winemaker. As his generation comes of age, there’s no better time to be a fan of California cabernet sauvignon. Whether it’s Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara, the state is flush with myriad delicious options.

By the time Venge made it to the University of California, Davis to study wine, he’d already worked 14 harvests. He chuckled that he never made it to one practical winemaking class, but “aced all the tests.”

“I always knew I was going to be a winemaker,” said Venge, who made a classically styled Napa Valley cabernet for Eleven Eleven Wines [see tasting notes]. “I wrote an essay when I was probably 10 years old on how I wanted to be a winemaker.”

At around age 10, Kirk Venge wrote a school essay about how he wanted to be a winemaker. Uncorked column 4-11-24
At around age 10, Kirk Venge wrote a school essay about how he wanted to be a winemaker. Uncorked column 4-11-24

At Charles Krug as consulting winemaker and fourth-generation family member at Napa Valley’s oldest winery established in 1861, Angelina Mondavi has roots that run deep in the California wine industry. Charles Krug has been owned and operated by the Peter Mondavi Sr. family since 1946.

Its properties yield brilliant cabernet sauvignon and open up their grounds to summer culinary festivals and concerts.

“We’re thrilled about all the activities because, as a family, we’re passionate about backing the arts, culture and music scene, which perfectly aligns with our love for good food and wine,” Mondavi said. “It’s what the Peter Mondavi Sr. family is all about. We want our guests to cherish those moments when they’re experiencing something like Andrea Bocelli belting out tunes alongside Songwriters in Paradise [music festivals], or when you’re enjoying an orchestra performance or poetry reading at Festival Napa Valley on our sprawling estate lawns.”

At Trefethen, Hailey Trefethen always knew she would return to the family business. She’s a third-generation vintner, but was studying abroad in Argentina and wasn’t sure when she would return.

“It wasn’t just I miss mom, dad and (my brother Lorenzo),” Hailey Trefethen said about calls home. “It was, ‘How is this person in the vineyard doing?’ I started asking about people and things, and realized how much a part of my life this place is. It wasn’t something my parents did, it was my life and I cared about it and loved it. Being away gave me that realization [I] wanted to be back at the winery and be a part of that. That’s when it became a when, not an if.”

It was a call from her mother, Janet Trefethen. The family was asked to chair the Napa Valley wine auction, and Hailey Trefethen’s expertise was needed to pull off the massive event. She only missed one harvest, and has been back at the winery since fall 2008.

Another kind of family business has emerged at Skipstone in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley AVA. Husband-and-wife team Brian Ball and Laura Jones, the estate’s general manager and winemaker, respectively, have a dynamic property that made two of the tastiest wines in this column’s notes.

They met on the first day of grad school at UC Davis in 2012, and have been married nine years. The wines they made are among the best tasted this year. Skipstone Preface Proprietary Red, a blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon, is a monolithic achievement. Oliver’s Blend is a cabernet from hillside vineyards that make up the amphitheater-like bowl that sprawled out behind the couple on a Zoom interview.

They work together to dial in the final blends for a wine. Recently, there were six versions of Oliver’s Blend from the 2022 vintage.

“We spend a lot of time blending,” Ball said. “We go down barrel by barrel for blends. It’s something we are very meticulous about.”

“With blending, sometimes 2 plus 2 equals 5,” Jones said. “We taste every lot by itself, and take a lot of notes. We brainstorm what could work together, and look at blends from previous years. But in the end, the right one jumped out at us, and it was an obvious choice.”

When it comes to the last five years in California cabernet sauvignon, there are plenty of great choices available.

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


Wine Market: California Cabernet Sauvignon

Eleven Eleven, Destin Vineyards XI, Oak Knoll District Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($90): Classically structured with well-integrated, smooth tannins with flavors of blackberry, currant, tobacco and an extensive finish.

Ettore, Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($52): Currant, tobacco and a touch of loamy earth on the nose. Currant, black cherry, thyme, dusty cocoa and sweet tobacco flavors hang on well-integrated tannins.

Foxen, Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($64): Currant, black cherry, tobacco, sage and scrubby mountain vegetation with hints of menthol. Medium-bodied and classically styled.

Goosecross, Napa Valley, State Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($49): A hearty cab with pronounced dark fruit that’s been fully extracted. It’s a pleasure-seekers’ cab for its full-bodied nature and tannins.

Hamel Family Wines, Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon “Isthmus” 2019 ($90): A melange of blackberry and blueberry mixed with a soy and scrubby underbrush character on top of Old World-styled dusty warm rock and loamy earth on the finish.

Charles Krug Napa Valley “Generations” 2019 ($85): Aromas and flavors of cigar wrapper and black cherry. There’s also vanilla and thyme notes on a silky smooth cabernet blend that is a great preview of what’s in store for anyone wanting to move up to their single vineyard offerings.

Oberon, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($24): A black cherry, plum fruit collection with a robust fruit center defined by its juicy nature.

Skipstone Oliver’s Blend 2019 ($175): A plush mouthfeel with juicy blackberry, exotic spice, dusty dark chocolate and well-integrated tannins.

Skipstone Proprietary Red, “Preface” 2019 ($85): Brilliant with a core of dense red fruits, cacao, rosemary, sweet tobacco and well-integrated tannins. A monolithic achievement from Alexander Valley.

“This is the introduction to the Skipstone lineup,” Jones said. “It’s more approachable in its early years, and is a blend of all the red Bordeaux grapes. It’s a fun blend to put together. We try to find balance with structure and freshness.”

And it could be the best wine tasted for this report. That’s quite an introduction.

Trefethen 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley ($75): A replanting in the early 2000s paid off for the family with a fresh, juicy, fruit-focused cabernet. There’s blackberry, currant, plum sauce and touches of loamy earth.

“We turned our focus to the vineyard,” Hailey Trefethen said. “We made a conscious decision to make better cabernet, and ended up replanting and spacing things out differently. I think it’s incredible what we’ve accomplished.”