Growing up on a 15-acre ranch just outside Fresno’s city limits provided Joel Aiken with a connection to the earth.
In the summer, the 10-year-old picked peaches off the 30 fruit trees in the orchard behind the family home. He loaded up his old wooden wagon with the ripe peaches and parked it out on Highway 168 where he offered the fresh fruit for 10 cents a pound.
“I usually made about 20 bucks a day, but one time I made $60,” Aiken recalls. “My brother was really jealous.”
When it came time to sign up for college, rather than follow school chums to Fresno State, Aiken followed his mother’s advice, enrolling at UC Davis to pursue a bachelor of science degree in biology.
After visiting Napa Valley wine operations while a student and finding himself drawn to the winemaking and viticulture programs at UC Davis, Aiken set his sights on a winemaking career.
With more than three decades of winemaking behind him — most of which he spent as winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyard — Aiken is busier than ever, promoting his own relatively new wine brand, making wine for a new partnership venture and consulting on a number of area winemaking ventures, including one with his wife, Amy, a winemaker with her own brand.
After wrapping up university studies, Aiken worked his first harvest in 1980 at Inglenook Vineyards. Once the wine was in the cellar, he returned to UC Davis to get his master’s degree. Two years later — while finishing his master’s thesis comparing French and American oak barrels for the aging of cabernet sauvignon — Aiken joined the Beaulieu Vineyard winemaking team as enologist.
“I spent half my life at BV,” Aiken said recently at Amici Cellars. During that time at BV, Aiken worked with three of the most respected men in the industry, Andre Tchelistcheff, Legh Knowles and Tom Selfridge.
Aiken’s talents were recognized right off the bat at BV. He’d been there but three years when in 1985 he was promoted to winemaker at age 28, making him the youngest winemaker in BV’s history. His winemaking expertise and leadership skills subsequently led to a 27-year career at the winery, where he oversaw multiple wine programs both there and at BV’s sister brands.
Over the years, Aiken implemented innovative winemaking techniques for the production of chardonnay and conducted an extensive pinot noir clonal research project in the winery’s Carneros vineyards.
He also directed the replanting of BV’s historic vineyards in Rutherford to preferred cabernet sauvignon clones, designed and oversaw construction of a state of the art facility for the production of BV’s iconic Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and worked closely with consultant Michel Rolland to evolve the style of that wine, resulting in acclaim from consumers and critics alike.
Aiken has many tales to tell about working with the legendary André Tchelistcheff, who — having left BV in 1974 after a 36-year career there — returned to consult in 1990. Working together for several years, they shaped BV’s future with new blends such as Tapestry, a blend of red Bordeaux varietals, and by adding the influence of both merlot and French oak barrel aging to the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon program.
“What was amazing about André was that even at the age of 89, he was such a breath of fresh air,” Aiken recalls. “He was so modest and humble, such a good person. But he was also a great teacher; he was never satisfied with what he’d done in the past. He was always pushing for something new and better.”
No doubt it was Tchelistcheff’s striving for better and better wine that contributes to Aiken’s quest for the best vineyards, the best fruit, the best wines.
That’s evident in tasting any of the wines he produces. He launched Aiken wines in 2009, working with great vineyard tracts and growers who share his quest for perfection.
“More than anything my winemaking inspiration comes from the vineyards, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best,” Aiken informs consumers on his winery web site. “I look for sites that inspire the ‘aha’ moment — where you say, ‘Yes, this is the place, these are the grapes. These are the wines I want to make.’
“Doing my own brand was something I’d been dreaming about,” Aiken adds. “It was a good time to move on,” he says of his decision to leave BV a few years ago.
For his own Aiken Wines, he produces small lots of site-specific cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir from Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
In addition to Aiken Wines, the veteran winemaker heads up Aiken Wine Consulting, producing wines for a number of clients including Amici Cellars, Rare Cat Wines and Chase Cellars. He is married to Amy Aiken, winemaker and proprietor of Meander Wines and Conspire Wines. They are partners in Palisades Wine Company in Calistoga where they make their wines.
About the same time that he was launching his own wine brand, Aiken teamed up with a group of wine aficionados — Robert and Celia Shepard, John Harris and Bart Woytowicz — to expand the operation of Amici Cellars.
Two years ago, the brands, winemaker and partners moved into a new home. They took over the custom crush facility built by T-Vine’s Greg Brown, located outside Calistoga in the Mount St. Helena foothills, a rustic setting where mountain lions, black bear, foxes, coyotes and bobcats roam.
Amici grew slowly from its humble beginnings in the early ‘90s, from an initial production of 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah to today’s approximate 40,000 case output of several related brands. The new winery has a 100-ton capacity, with last year’s crush totaling 81 tons.
The Olema brand chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon account for the lion’s share of annual production at the partners’ new facility. Current releases are the 2012 Sonoma County chardonnay ($15, 20,000 cases) and 2010 Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon ($22.50, 10,000 cases.
Production of the Amici Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is at present 4,200 cases, with 3,000 cases of the Amici sauvignon blanc available for the marketplace. From there, production drops significantly — 700 cases of pinot noir, 400 cases of reserve cabernet sauvignon, 100 cases of a Morisoli Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and 200 cases of a Spring Mountain Vineyard cabernet sauvignon.
Assisting Aiken with winemaking duties is Bobby Donnell. “He keeps the place together,” says partner John Harris. Donnell maintains that’s because he knows how to make the best use of duct tape.
The launch of Amici Cellars can be credited to friendship, notes Harris. “It all got started because we wanted to make a wine that we could sit around and share with our friends and be proud of.” And so the Italian word for friends was adopted for their company.
“This is wine created by friends for friends,” added Bob Shepard. He points out that he and Harris are the company’s “chief bottlewashers,” a euphemism chosen to supplant their real roles — that of the guys who market the wines.
“We intend to crack the New York market,” Harris declares with a note of determination. “Right now, we have distribution in California, Texas and Florida — and up the coast a bit — along with Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.”
With the new winery up and running, the partners can now welcome visitors by appointment to the Old Lawley Toll Road facility.
For additional information about the Amici operation or to make a visitor request, contact Celia Shepard at 707-967-9560 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tasting the wines
Tasting through wines offered by Aiken’s winemaking team and the Amici partnership produced the following impressions:
• 2012 Amici Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, $25 — Made from warm climate fruit that offers both richness and complexity, the sauvignon musqué spent most of its time in stainless steel, although some of it saw some oak and a percentage also underwent malolactic fermentation. It has a grassy nose and treats the drinker to lovely lemon zest and stone fruit on the lengthy finish.
• 2010 Amici Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $45 — If anyone knows how to treat Rutherford Bench fruit, it’s Joel Aiken. Here’s a wine you can enjoy now or lay down for up to 10 years. After impressing with a gorgeous perfumy nose, the wine displays layers of fruit on the palate, most notably plums and black cherries. It’s still a baby and a real bargain for Napa Valley cab.
• 2010 Amici Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $80 on September release — The majority of the fruit for this exceptional blend came from Rutherford, with a bit of spice and backbone credited to grapes harvested up on Spring Mountain. With layers and layers of flavor and the finesse that a seasoned winemaker can coax out of a harvest, this reserve has a lot to offer, from mocha to intense flavors of black cherries and blackberries.
• 2009 Amici Cellars Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $125 — This has both length and depth, a 100 percent cabernet from the dust of the Morisoli tract in Rutherford. It’s the most intense of the cabs tasted from this brand, having spent two years to date in bottle. It should age well for a couple of decades. There’s a gorgeous nose of black fruit, followed by a full mouth of black fruit and black olives —an earthy, well-rounded cab for the aficionados.
• 2010 Aiken Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir, 149 cases, $55 — Fruit from the 1,000 foot elevation of the Silver Pines Vineyard, this is a rich, round, fleshy pinot with a silky mouthfeel. It’s a powerful wine that a local somm and I feel is made in the style of a cabernet sauvignon. That’s not a condemnation, just something to bolster the feeling that this is a wine to be enjoyed with food.
• 2010 Aiken Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, 76 cases, $135 — A powerful wine from organically farmed Oakville Ranch Vineyard with the silky tannins you find just to the south in Stags Leap District cabs. There’s a lovely blackberry nose and the wine, with cassis and blackberry flavors filling the mouth, rests lightly on the tongue. This is not a heavyweight, rather supple and easy to enjoy on its own or with a roasted meat or a slow, savory braise. I loved the bright fruit and the elegance of the long, long finish. Another winner from a winemaker with street cred.
• 2011 No Curfew, $20 — This is a wine the Amici partners are having fun with. It’s a blend of zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah, lighter and less serious than cabernet. It’s a wine meant to be shared, and that we did at Il Posto where we and staffers finished the bottle without any problem. It’s a fun red to go with the chef’s saffron casarecce with braised oxtail ragu or savory spaghetti and meatballs. Who knows, it might show up on Il Posto’s wine list if the stars are in alignment.