Welcome to the cult of Jesse Katz.
What does it mean to be “cult?” “A cult wine is unlike any other wine and has a unique charter expression and story to go along with it. There are no substitutes.” says the wunderkind winemaker, who specializes in wine varieties grown in Alexander Valley, California, and is founder of the two labels Devil Proof and Aperture.
“Cult wines are created when you have a large group of enthusiastic followers and your production level is small, never being able to satisfy everyone’s appetite. To create that cult-like following, though, the quality needs to be there first.”
When you’ve barely hit 30, and you’ve traveled the world with your famous photographer dad, and you’ve already spent time learning how to make wine at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux—and when you made it onto the record books at the age of 24 as the youngest head winemaker in the U.S. when the critically-acclaimed Alexander Valley winery Lancaster Estate hired you—and, yes, when you’re personally asked to make a custom wine for Jessica Biel’s and Justin Timberlake’s wedding (“They’re a fantastic couple and it was so much fun making that special wine with them.” says Jesse)—all of this makes you pretty special. And so are Jesse Katz’s limited-availability wines, which sell out within days. His flagship wine?—it’s a cult Malbec, perhaps California’s finest Malbec, called Devil Proof. This is not someone taking a straightforward and predictable path to success and acclaim.
Operations for Jesse’s wine brands take place out of a high-end gallery located in the chic environs of downtown Healdsburg, Sonoma. The gallery showcases the work of his photographer father, Andy Katz, and that’s also where Jesse Katz’s wines are showcased in private tastings for their clientele—it’s a perfect locale to experience a synergy of art and wine. Andy’s art is a huge part of Jesse’s wine labels and those selected images for the labels capture an essence of the expression behind each wine. There’s one other location where the company holds private meetings and events as well, and that’s on a boat on Lake Sonoma. It’s clear from the outset that this winemaker who doesn’t fit into a typical mold also does business outside the box.
AN UNLIKELY PAIRING
I meet with Jesse at a winemaking facility in the heart of Alexander Valley, where he is in the middle of testing barrel samples with Ken Forrester, a celebrated winemaker of South Africa. They are collaborators on a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon called “The Bridge,” from Farrow Ranch. Ken, as Jesse indicates right off the bat, has been making wines for 23 years in his homeland. Why the interest in working with a millennial winemaker?
KEN FORRESTER: It’s Jesse’s knowledge of California, his energy, that youthful exuberance, the kind of intensity and what he’s putting into the winemaking process.
I taste a non-final blend of The Bridge Cab out of the barrel with the two winemakers and, indeed, there is a melding of the Old and New in its fresh vitality but also beautiful classicism (I rate the barrel sample 94 pts). The singular Cabernet Sauvignon is a wonderful expression of Alexander Valley—the soft, fine tannins, the ripe and powerful richness of black and blue fruit notes, the elegant structure, the easy drinkability and approachability, the freshness and balance on the palate.
JESSE KATZ: It’s fun for me because Bordeaux varietals is where I’ve focused all my time and focus for most of my career … Our mindset of how to make wine is very similar, but our experiences bring a lot of different things to the table towards the end product. It’s been fun because I’ve been able to bounce ideas and experiments off of Ken and vice versa.
KF: I throw everything at it, and he makes me look at the subtleties.
THE DEVIL CAN’T GET YOU
Take a look at the photograph in the wine label of the cult wine that is the Devil Proof Malbec, and it’s unforgettable. Taken by Andy Katz in Cuba in the early 90s, it’s one of Jesse’s father’s favorite photographs. The expression of the Cuban woman joyfully holding a Cuban cigar in hand says what you need to know about the wine. For his first wine under his first label, Jesse wanted to make a wine that pushed the boundaries. He didn’t want to take the easy road. So, he decided to take a grape varietal that’s not commonly made in California (and when it is made, it’s generally not well-made), stuck to his guns and made a great Malbec. It’s a grape native to western France and usually used as a blending grape . . . that is, until Argentina came along and blew it up and made it the country’s iconic wine variety.
Jesse has spent considerable time in South America—he’s worked with notable winemaker Paul Hobbs and his offshoot winery Viña Cobos in Mendoza, Argentina, and also in Patagonia, at Bodega Noemía, a joint project between Sassicaia and Argiano—so Jesse knows his Malbec. We discuss the fact that Malbec is no longer such an esoteric grape, thanks to what Argentina has established for the varietal.
JK: Argentina did great things for Malbec … and horrible things for Malbec. Most of what people were seeing is $7-15 esoteric, random red wines. The problem with Malbec growing on the wrong site or overcropped or not carefully managed is you can have jam and stem at the same time—so you can have green and cooked jammy wine, which is not a good combo.
My reference points for high-end Malbec are the historically-significant wines of Catena Zapata and Achaval Ferrer. The Devil Proof has all the elegance, texture and finesse of its Argentinean counterparts, but the richness and ripeness of Jesse’s wine is all-American.
JK: California gets very warm, so we can get that richness, but still keep that fine tannin.
We taste the barrel sample of his 2014 vintage of Devil Proof, and man, it’s killer. “Look at that color,” marvels Jesse. I happily imbibe the layers and layers of richness—and talk about fine tannins! (I rate the non-final, barrel sample blend 97 pts.) On the palate, the balance, freshness and texture is just gorgeous. Drinkability is outrageously good and it’s just a damn beautiful wine, pushing the boundaries of what you think you know about California wine. Available primarily to mailing list members, it’s no wonder the wine sells out within 2-3 days of release. The rest of the allocation goes to high-end restaurants and a little bit gets distributed in Colorado because that where Jesse’s mom lives. Currently, there’s a two-year wait list for the Devil Proof.
One thinks of that great scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty, who plays the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, stands on a hill and looks out onto a vast open desert in Nevada and gets hit with a lightning-bolt moment of inspiration: “Las Vegas!” It was a similar kind of thing for Jesse when he first came across the Farrow Ranch Vineyard, the single source for his Malbec that goes into the Devil Proof. He already recognized that Alexander Valley had the terroir and soils for killer Malbec, so when he started tasting the berries of the vineyard prior to harvest in 2010, he just knew.
JK: One berry turned my mouth black. Instantly, I said I need to see what I can do with this.
In 2011, Jesse took over the vineyard maintenance, and within two years changed the approach to completely dry farming (meaning, no irrigation system and whatever rainfall mother nature gives you is what you’ve got).
JK: It can be a very vigorous site. The roots are so deep, planted in 1988—they’re completely on their own schedule. It sets like shit, and you’re always going to get a low crop; average yield is two tons per acre, but what it makes is very powerful and concentrated—layers upon layers upon layers.
He discusses some of the winegrowing philosophy he applies to this special site, which contains some of the oldest Malbec vines in California.
JK: The vines come to a near-death experience, just before veraison. You have to get them to shift to the maturing process. So, you want to stress the vines at this point with pre-veraison hydric stress and get them into a reproductive/maturity mindset … It’s a very unique site that allows water to come up through the clay soils though capillary raise throughout the long season—it becomes a reservoir that the vines are able to pull from all year. Malbec thrives in that sun … Malbec is a different animal than Cab—Cab starts out of the gate with concentrated flavors, smaller berries. With Malbec, the berries are bigger, we’re trying to shrink those berries as small as possible, for concentration. The tannin structure is very different—mature tannins add width to the palate versus Cab tannins which can be gritty if not ripe; Malbec tannins are so fine, it’s hard to get gritty tannins. This is why I push the maceration time to the limit.
So, how did this Malbec achieve cult status anyway? Well, that has to do with a certain wine critic named Robert Parker who tasted the 2012 Devil Proof in barrel and then later tweeted that it was the best Malbec he’s ever tasted in California, and it rivals the best in the world. Jesse was still working full-time for another winery at that point and everything changed overnight.
And what’s with the name “Devil Proof” anyway? Well, see that woman in the photograph?—the one on the wine label—she was asked what the secret to her happiness is. And she’s credited with saying the following: “I have a shot of rum in the morning, smoke my cigar in the afternoon. If you live well and you drink well, the Devil can’t get you.”
While Jesse is recognized in the industry for his broad winemaking expertise in California wine regions—not only Alexander Valley but also Napa Valley, Rockpile and Russian River—and beyond California, the Aperture Cellars brand is focused on Alexander Valley terroir-specific, Bordeaux-influenced wines. The Alexander Valley is a north-south stretch of 25 miles in the northwest part of Sonoma County, above Healdsburg. The Russian River runs through it, and it’s also located above the Calistoga region of Napa Valley. What has the greatest effect on the grapes grown here is the cooling effects of air that moves in from the Pacific Ocean that travels up from the south, from the Petaluma Gap and up along the Russian River.
JK: We have a unique style within Alexander Valley. We can certainly have the powerful, rich fruit characteristics that people associate with Napa. But then, there’s the very, very fine tannin, the elegance of a bit higher acidity and lower alcohol.
The signature wine of Aperture is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is all sourced from a few eastern hillside vineyards which Jesse calls “gems.” No question, it’s a quintessential Alexander Valley Cab while bearing the hallmarks of Jesse’s style—an exquisite sense of palate: richness, freshness, so much balance, elegance and harmony.
JK: These are powerful wines but you’ll never find them overpowered by alcohol. There’s always a symbiotic balance and how that showcases in the glass—it’s so important to me … There’s power but then you’re left with freshness. It’s not heavy or weighty, you don’t have this jamminess and then it dies off. It’s fruit building on fruit building on texture.
Jesse also makes a Red Blend, his take on a Right Bank Bordeaux blend comprised of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. They say Merlot doesn’t get anyone excited anymore, but this wine sold out within 24 hours in its first vintage (2013). Merlot is very personal to Jesse. Asked what single wine had the greatest effect on him, and his answer is Masseto, one of Italy’s greatest Merlots.
JK: One of the reasons that I was determined to spend some time at Pétrus is because that is one of the great wines I’ve ever had in my life. Most of the great wines I’ve had in my life have been Merlot-based. The Masseto is one of the aha moments that I’ll always remember.
In the spring of 2017, Aperture introduces three brand-new wines to its lineup: their very first 1) Sauvignon Blanc, 2) Cabernet Franc and 3) single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (see reviews of these brand-new wines below). The long-term vision of Jesse Katz is only in the early building stages, which is kind of scary considering how strong the cult already is around the wines of this young, millennial winemaker. While we’re following the path of this extraordinary artist to see how far he’ll take his uncommon vision, we’ll take a cue from the Cuban lady in the wine label—live well and drink well, and hope the Devil can’t get you.
DEVIL PROOF MALBEC 2014
Around $150 | 97 pts
Stylish and sexy, this is as modern and right-now a Malbec as can be—full-throttle juicy, lush, exotically complex and fresh, with an air of mystery. The intensity of gorgeous fruit character drives forward with elegant finesse, and luscious blueberry, dark cherry and black plum flavors sensuously coat the mouth. It’s all held together by great structure—crystalline and tall—exhibiting strength but suggesting fragility at the same time. Makes one think of a tall, exotic, dark-haired runway model. Bella Hadid? Yes, please. Pass the bottle so I can have some more. Why question if this is California’s greatest, and most gorgeous, Malbec? The Devil Proof is the G.O.A.T. until proven wrong—and what a great day that will be when, and if, proven wrong.
APERTURE SAUVIGNON BLANC 2016
Around $35 | 93 pts
After a sumptuous nose of peach, tropical fruit, vanilla, and lemongrass, the palate will find it hard to not love the cottony soft mouthfeel of rich, buttery, and unmistakably Californian Sauvignon Blanc. The quality of fruit is special—sunny, super-fresh and glowing with optimism. There’s no way this wine won’t make you smile, at least on the inside. Very lengthy and luxurious, there’s herbaceous notes that make an appearance along with honeysuckle sweetness as the wine lingers. Classy and fashionable, let alone beautiful.
APERTURE NOMAD CABERNET FRANC 2014
Around $95 | 97–99 pts
California Cab Franc is considered an aficionado’s red wine, but it’s time to tear down that wall. The Nomad is inarguably one of the finest examples of California Cab Franc and perhaps winemaker Jesse Katz’s finest work to date. The brambly nose of wild berries, black, purple and red, is an inviting introduction to a wine of immense personality and ethereal beauty. Texture is so silky smooth and seamless, with super-fine tannins caressing the palate the entire way. Fruit character is richly expressive and vibrant—the juicy acidity of the wine incredulously delicious and addictive—but it’s never weighty … almost as if it constantly wants to lift itself above ground. Lyrics from a Talking Heads song, “And She Was,” describe this Nomad the best: “And she was moving very slowly / Rising up above the earth / Moving into the universe and she’s drifting this way and that / Not touching the ground at all … The world was moving, she was right there with it and she was.”
APERTURE OLIVER’S VINEYARD CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
Around $85 | 95 pts
This Cab is bringing sexy back. It’s bursting at the seams to show off its natural beauty, but wait until 2020 if you can. There’s lovely balance already: an alluring nose of young blackberry and blackcurrant with hints of strawberry and raspberry; ripe, supple flavors and feminine curves of velvety soft tannins; elegance of structure; and refreshing acidity that invites you to come back. But be patient—this kind of beauty is the kind that comes from within. It’s not shy, but give it time to step out. The wine’s going to be insanely attractive, and you won’t stop ‘til you get enough.
APERTURE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
Around $62 | 94 pts
No-holds-barred deliciousness. So viscous—deeply concentrated yet so silky. A combination of power and freshness. The wine’s color is inky, deep purple, creating long tears in the glass. Wine is emotion, and the depth of expressiveness, flavor and aromas—dark plum, violets, boysenberry preserves, rich Belgian chocolate—of this beautifully crafted Cabernet Sauvignon will stir emotions … A quintessential Alexander Valley red to love.
THE BRIDGE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
Around $100 | 94 pts
When you decide to make 100% Cabernet Sauvignon in the bottle, there’s no place to hide. Can’t add a bit of this and that to create the special effects you’re looking for as a producer (of wine). What you are making must be naked and not afraid. The Bridge is a terrific expression of vineyard and terroir, showcasing the artistry of two master winemakers of different generations and different nationalities. The wine is a fascinating look into the interplay of Old World and New World qualities—there’s classic Bordeaux structure, striking acidity and earthiness, and there’s very clean, forward-driving fruit intensity and ripeness. The wine is both racy and tense. Worldly and well-traveled while youthful in energy. The most fascinating characters in books, movies or shows that stick in the memory are those who are a complex makeup of dualities and contradictions. This is a Cabernet to lay down for a while and savor what surprises may be revealed over time.