The motto she adopted for her wine brand belies Amy Aiken’s grit.
“Life’s a journey … meander more” just doesn’t sound like the appropriate mantra for this strong-willed woman now making her mark as one of the valley’s choice small producers of handcrafted wines.
Looking back at her college years, for example, once she set her cap for a fellow UC Davis student, there was no stopping Amy Aiken from getting her man.
And the fact that husband Joel Aiken is a renowned winemaker for a large wine company with a four-decade pedigree in no way intimidated this Midwest native from doing her own thing in wine country.
On top of that, Aiken not only markets her own wines but she runs a St. Helena household that includes two sons, Mitchell, 12, and Andrew, 9.
Aiken didn’t intend to spend a career in the wine cellar when she enrolled at UC Davis. She came by wine because of the pursuits of the man she loved.
Before she earned her master’s degree in plant pathology, she met Joel Aiken on a date. No, he was not her date. She was dating his roommate. But once she latched onto Aiken’s business card, she set about winning his heart.
“He finished his studies before I did,” Aiken said the other day as we tasted through current and future wine releases. “I finished my master’s in 1988 … (and) it took me two years to convince him to marry me.”
By then, Joel Aiken had been hired on as assistant winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards.
Living in the Napa Valley meant working here for both Amy and Joel, she says. With her background, Amy was able to take a “crush position in the lab at Joseph Phelps Winery. That’s when I discovered that I really enjoyed learning how to make wine.
“I learned a lot about the various grapegrowing regions within Napa Valley, and the distinction between hillside fruit and valley floor fruit. I eventually became involved in tastings, and then with the tasting of blends for Insignia (Phelps’ acclaimed reserve wine).”
Amy Aiken left Phelps for a job at Domaine Carneros where “we were creating cuvées. It was here that I continued to learn how important the parts of the blend are and how they can create a better wine.”
Her career grew into a lab position at Oakville Ranch (now Miner Family Vineyards). It was here that Aiken’s confidence in winemaking strengthened — “just knowing what to do to produce an outstanding wine.”
A wine of her own
Aiken put out the word that she was looking for superior fruit in order to launch her own wine brand. For a couple of harvests, all she heard from several prime growers was “you’re on the list.”
Then, in 2003, she was able to secure enough grapes to make eight barrels of wine. The grapes came from Lewelling Vineyard in St. Helena and Gary Morisoli’s vineyard in Rutherford.
“My first release was 200 cases of 2003 Meander cabernet sauvignon, a 50/50 blend of Lewelling and Morisoli fruit — and it will continue to be that way,” Aiken said. Just released was the 2004, with production totaling 350 cases.
The 2005 harvest proved a bit more generous. Meander cabernet production totaled 500 cases. On top of that, Aiken produced 50 cases of a vineyard-designated cab from the Morisoli vineyard.
Aiken is custom crushing fruit at Alpha Omega winery and intends to relocate that operation to Deer Park in 2008.
Aiken’s quite pleased that “Meander now pays for itself. It’s a nice feeling not having to call Charles Schwab to cash in our savings.” Of course, the continued low overhead means Aiken has to spend more time on the road, delivering her highly praised wines in a restored 1958 Morris Minor truck she’s dubbed the Meandermobile.
Asked about her decision to specialize in cabernet sauvignon, Aiken says the variety is one she really enjoys. “I think it’s a variety that does best here and this is where I live. (The winemaking team at) Joseph Phelps convinced me of cabernet sauvignon’s viability and durability in the Napa Valley.
“And cabernet works really well with my kids. When cabernet’s ready to be picked, the kids are back in school.”
Speaking of the kids, Aiken says the name for the brand, Meander, is an atypical combination of her sons’ names. “Plus I like the word, meander, as in a river, or meanderings. It’s now my ID, my marketing tool.”
Does she seek her husband’s advice in making her wine. “I let him taste,” she replied with a broad grin. “You’d be surprised how many times I don’t take his advice. But it sure is nice to have a good tasting buddy.
“But I make just a few hundred cases of wine. Joel’s making hundreds of thousands of cases, so he’s blending dozens of lots for any one particular wine. I’m blending fruit from two outstanding vineyards.”
In tasting the current release and the two offerings from 2005, we found:
Meander 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65): The current release is a well-balanced cab with juicy, ripe fruit. A classic cabernet nose incorporates black fruit, spice and herbal notes. There’s the taste of blackberries and currants on the palate, with creme anglaise on the finish. It’s a lovely, elegant food wine, but one that works well on its own. It would be easy to sit down and drink a bottle with friends.
Meander 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (N/A): A beautiful nose, perfumy, fruity, lively. Plenty of blackberry on the entry, then filling the mid-palate and finally, with the addition of cassis and licorice, all combine for a seductive finish. The forward fruit comes from the Lewelling vineyard, the winemaker says.
Meander 2005 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (N/A): Not as giving as its vintage counterpart, yet this is a much bigger wine. A bit of pepper mixes with fruit in the aroma, this masculine red shows its dusty tannin pedigree with cherries on the entry, followed by lush, silky cassis on the lingering vanilla finish. This one’s packed with fruit.
In addition to making the wine, Aiken manages the brand. She communicates with all on the Meander mailing list and runs wine transactions. She also does quite a bit of traveling in support of the brand. While she has some help in the cellar, Aiken said she enjoys “getting to know all aspects of this business.”
Wines can be ordered at www.meanderwines.com. Retail outlets for Meander include Back Door Wines in Napa as well as Dean & DeLuca and Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena. Meander can be found on the lists at Brix in Yountville and, in San Francisco, at Gary Danko, Fleur de Lys and Boulevard.