Zeitgeist is a German word that roughly translates to “the spirit of the times,” an attempt to capture the mood of an era through the lens of cultural, ethical and spiritual practices. For the last 14 years, Napa Valley’s Zeitgeist Cellars has been on a mission to capture the spirit of both the land and the times.
Founded in 2005 by winemaker Mark Porembski, who was joined shortly after by his wife, winemaker Jennifer Williams, Zeitgeist Cellars makes only 1,000 cases of wine per year. As is the case with many small wineries, the couple does nearly all of their own work — from processing the grapes and making the wine to blending and bottling — while they each hold down additional winemaking jobs at other wineries and share the duties of caring for their three young daughters.
To better understand the Zeitgeist of the present wine culture in the Napa Valley, it’s helpful to look at the history of winemaking over the last century and a half.
Waves of Napa Valley winemakers
The first wave of winemakers arrived in 1854, when John Patchett, Hamilton Walker Crabb and Joseph Osborne first introduced Vitis vinifera grapes to the Napa Valley. Patchett and his winemaker, Charles Krug, established the first commercial winery in 1861. In a review of Krug’s first wines, the California Farmer Magazine wrote that “The white wine was light, clear and brilliant and very superior indeed; his red wine was excellent; we saw superior brandy, too.”
By 1889, fueled by early successes and a growing public interest in wine, a mass influx of immigrants to the area and new money flowing in from the Gold Rush, nearly 200 wineries and 18,000 planted acres of wine grapes carpeted the valley floor.
Today in the Napa Valley, there are 46,000 acres of planted grapes and well over 500 physical wineries (more than 1,600 if you include “virtual” wineries). However, by the end of the 1800s, a series of financial downturns coupled with a shift of consumer preferences away from alcohol stunted the growing industry. Soon after, a tiny root louse called phylloxera — originally transported on cuttings from the east coast of the United States to Europe and decimating vineyards in France, Germany and Italy before traversing the country to haunt California — left many vineyards withered and the majority of wineries abandoned. By 1905, only a handful of functioning wineries and only 2,000 planted acres of wine grapes remained.
The second wave
By the 1960s, the Napa Valley was again poised to become a wine-focused region. By then a slow trickle of adventurous vintners had begun to reinvigorate the wine scene. Setting for another “Gold Rush,” this time for wine. In 1970, an influential article by Bank of America economist John Knechel appeared in the September issue of Wines and Vines. Knechel claimed that, “Over the next 10 years, California vintners will enjoy a period of the strongest growth in wine markets ever recorded.”
That article was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal and across the broader popular press. The idea of California becoming the hub for fine wine production was eagerly embraced by a public desperate for distraction from the Vietnam War and political discontent. The result was a second wave of young people seeking a bohemian lifestyle as vintners. Like the first, their desire was eagerly funded by wealthy families and businesses that saw the wine business as both culturally attractive and a lucrative investment. The result was that by the mid-1970s there were nearly 300 wineries and more than 24,000 planted acres of vines in the valley.
In 1976, Napa Valley wines received top prize at the “Judgment of Paris,” and by the mid-1990s, wine critics were giving Napa Valley wines high scores, all of which provided validation and further investment momentum. Meanwhile, restaurants around the country began hiring more dedicated sommeliers to service wealthy and sophisticated patrons, many in search of Napa Valley’s newest “cult wines.” Popular culture followed suit, releasing an ever-increasing number of movies, books and TV shows that romanticized wine, be it lifestyle or livelihood.
It was within this near frenetic wine craze of the late 1990s that a new class of winemakers entered the Napa Valley scene. Drawn for a host of reasons, those coming to the valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s often found a world of extremes. While there was a growing collection of superficial wines that sought to either cash in on the frenzy or gain the ego-boosting status of becoming the next cult wine, there was also another less vocal cohort that was attempting to maintain and expand the art of winemaking.
The third wave of winemakers
Like all of the waves before them, the third wave of winemakers sought to make their mark. Many had not attended formal winemaking school but instead found mentors who enabled them to learn the craft, often while working on multiple projects at a time, sometimes including their own wine brands.
A few winemakers in this class, such as Dave Phinney, found great market success. Phinney made delicious consumer-friendly wines and sold his first wine brand (the Prisoner) for $40 million in 2010, having launched the brand only in 2000, three years after arriving to the valley after college. Other third-wavers focused less on broad market appeal and turned their attention toward crafting wines that represented a return to the basics and used only biodynamic or organic grapes, sourced obscure varietals or made natural wines.
It is within this third-wave cohort that we are now finding some of the finest wines ever produced in the United States. Winemakers such as Helen Keplinger, Jeff Ames, Victoria Coleman, Mike Hirby, Thomas Brown, Julien Fayard, Bibiana González Rave, Dan Petroski, Steve Matthiasson, Mark Porembski, Jennifer Williams, and many others have transformed and advanced the level of quality and consistency of wine. At the same time, they have advanced such important causes as sustainable/organic farming, fair pricing, climate-healing practices and the exploration of varieties beyond Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Representing a near-perfect example of the third-wave ethos is Zeitgeist Cellars.
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Porembski and Williams married in 2007 after meeting when they worked in the cellar at Trefethen Family Vineyards years earlier.
Porembski grew up in New England and went to college in Texas, where he studied poetry, gained an interest in wine and also met two friends, both of whom grew up in St. Helena. He had heard of the beauty and idyllic lifestyle in the Napa Valley throughout college, so when he graduated in 2000 he packed his car with all his belongings and moved sight-unseen to Yountville. The day he arrived, he interviewed at Domain Chandon, and 20 minutes later he found himself washing out barrels in the cellar.
By 2003, he was working for one of the master mentors of the third wave, Les Behrens (Behrens and Hitchcock, now Behrens Family Winery), and by 2005 he’d become the winemaker at Anomaly Vineyards. That same year, he launched his own brand.
Williams grew up in California and went to Cal Poly with the intention of either becoming a veterinarian or going into some sort of agriculture. A friend in college — Josh Clark, son of second-wavers Tom Clark and Laurie Claudon, owners of Clark-Claudon winery and vineyard — invited her to visit the Napa Valley during the summer. When she did, she “fell in love” with the valley and decided to dedicate her life to wine-grape growing and making. She spent each summer interning at various wineries from 1996 until she graduated and then moved to the Napa Valley full time. By 2006, she was the winemaker at Spottswoode.
Today, the couple makes roughly 1,000 cases of Zeitgeist wine each year, and many of the grapes come from either obscure smaller vineyards or sections of larger well-known vineyards that they’ve been able to procure through their deep network of connections. The wines are consistently very good to excellent with an intensity and precision that speaks to their approach.
“Les Behrens originally suggested the name Zeitgeist, and we felt it was so apropos for a new generation of smaller producers,” Porembski said. “We wanted to share the variety of exceptional [grapes] that are being grown around the valley but that sometimes get overlooked.”
“A bottle of wine encapsulates an entire vintage, and that’s really the spirit of a place at a particular time,” Williams said. “The other part of the story is that when you open a bottle around the table with friends or loved ones there’s a spirit of that night, too. The combination of capturing and sharing these moments in time are exactly why we feel the name Zeitgeist is perfect.”
We tasted four of the current released wines: the 2018 Chenin Blanc St. Helena, Napa Valley (98 cases made, $32 per bottle); the 2018 Trousseau Gris, Russian River Valley (350 cases made, $26 per bottle) the 2015 The Grove Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena, Napa Valley (26 cases made, $150 per bottle); and the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (396 cases made, $85 per bottle).
Tasting the Zeitgeist Chenin Blanc is a bittersweet experience. First, this is a wonderful example of what this varietal can achieve. The color is straw-gold in the glass with aromas of quince, lemon verbena and citrus blossom. A luscious but balanced mouthfeel accompanies flavors of marzipan, pear and ginger that made me think how well this wine would go with baked halibut and a simple butter sauce made with a dash of preserved lemon. The bitter part of tasting this wine comes when one realizes that, whereas there were 2,000 acres of Chenin Blanc planted in Napa Valley in the 1980s, there are now only 16 acres remaining.
Like Chenin Blanc, Trousseau Gris (Grey Riesling) was once widely planted in the region, but because growers can make more money from growing more popular varieties it has become rare. This is a crisp, minerally wine that is full of lime zest, golden apple, Mandarin orange and a hint of jasmine. Perfect pairing: oysters or grilled leeks with Chermoula sauce or local crab made in the Singapore black -pepper-crab style.
With only 26 cases made, it’s unlikely that much of the 2015 Grove Cabernet Sauvignon will be available. But given the quality and limited quantity, it’s a must for any collector’s list. Dark and rich, this wine speaks to the quality, concentration and complexity that can come from Cabernet made using grapes grown with care at the Lewelling vineyard in St. Helena. Full of blueberry, dark cherry, lavender and chocolate-covered raspberries, this wine also has complex earthen aromas of fern-forest floor, nutmeg and duck confit. It would pair perfectly with grilled pork loin with Uzbekistan-pickled cherries.
With nearly 400 cases made, Zeitgeist Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is still rare but more widely available. A blend of some of the most sought-after vineyards in the valley, this opaque and brooding wine is full of aromas of dark espresso, Nutella, dried currants, cedar and cinnamon and seems to scream for a pairing with a roasted leg of lamb with rosemary and turnips.
Zeitgeist wines can be ordered at zeitgeistcellars.com or found at local wine retail shops: Sunshine Market, 750 Wines, Compline, Gary’s, the K. Laz Collection and ACME Fine Wines or at local restaurants: The French Laundry, Press, Acacia House, Goose & Gander Pizzeria Azzurro, Mustard’s and Farmstead.
As of Nov. 22, Zeitgeist is also being offered at the newly opened Heron House in Yountville. This “co-op” wine- tasting space was the brainchild of Napa Valley native Allison Steltzner. In a nod to the current nature of wine- tastings, the new tasting room/retail shop offers wines from different local producers. In addition to Zeitgeist and Steltzner’s own wines — Steltzner Vineyards and Bench Vineyards — there are also wines from Eponymous Wines, Hobel Cellars, Lindstrom Wines, Myriad Cellars and Switchback Ridge.
The Heron House Yountville is open Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and there are four curated wine-tasting flights from which to choose, five wines in each flight ($85 to $125). Appointments are recommended and can be booked at www.heronhouseyountville.com.