Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Joel Aiken, the winemaker at Amici Cellars in Calistoga, California.
Amici Cellars was launched in the early 1990s by a group of friends who sought nothing more than to create great wine for their personal cellars. Indeed, “amici” means “friends” in Italian.
The wine quickly gained a reputation, so they began sharing it with the public. And today, November 9, Amici opened its winery and tasting room – both of which are open to the public, by appointment.
Joel, a California native, has been making wine in Napa for more than 30 years.
After graduating from U.C. Davis in 1980, Joel worked harvest at Inglenook – and then returned to Davis to pursue a Master’s degree, assuming he’d travel the world after graduation. While finishing his thesis in 1982, however, his professor introduced him to the winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. Joel then joined the BV team – and spent the next 27 years there!
Check out our interview with Joel below the fold.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I like to produce wines that showcase a vineyard’s or appellations unique character and at the same time make the wine balanced and enjoyable. I want my winemaking to nudge the wine’s style rather than beat it over the head with a 2 by 4.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
2009 Meander Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife makes it and it was great with the lamb we cooked.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Andre Tchelistcheff since he was so influential in California and I got to work with him for 5 years. Some of the wines he made at Beaulieu in the 40s and 50s are still amazing today. As knowledgeable as he was, he always considered himself a student and was constantly asking questions and learning.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
I have to say it would be a whole group of winemakers pioneering new areas in Sonoma and other coastal counties making world class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are age worthy and buck the high alcohol trend.
How do you spend your days off?
I love to work in our garden and make something exciting for dinner. I enjoy cooking and trying out new recipes.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
The best wine I’ve tasted is a 1964 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I had it about 20 years ago and even though it was after way too many bottles of Champagne and other Burgundies, it stood out like no other wine I have ever had.
As for the most interesting, I forget the vintage, but it was a well-aged Château Haut-Brion Blanc. When it was first opened we all thought it was corky and funky in many ways. But as the evening went on, it went from being okay to evolving into an amazing wine with incredible texture and richness and many years or decades of greatness ahead.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest bottle is a 1951 BV Chardonnay. I doubt that it is worth drinking but it is a great conversation piece. Not many Chardonnays were bottled in California back then.
I don’t know what the most expensive bottle is. When I figure it out I will probably give it to an auction!
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
I guess I would go with that 1964 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the Haut Brion Blanc!
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Trying to get people to appreciate well-balanced, terroir-driven wines that might need some bottle age to reach their peak. It is easy to make a 16% alcohol, low acid wine that people like with the first sip, but these wines are boring to me and lose their appeal after about half a glass. The best wines I have experienced all needed some time in the bottle and glass to show their greatness.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
I will go with the Rhone. There is a great diversity of wine styles and world-class wines as well as some of the best bargains in the world. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a staple in our house.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes. Most any afternoon during harvest!
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I don’t know, maybe that I really enjoyed my childhood in Fresno, California.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I would love to be an architect.
How do you define success?
Being happy in your life.