Winemaking: February 2006 Archives

Respect for Tradition

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The winemaker at Kelham Vineyards in Napa Valley was taking me into a back room for some wine samples because I couldn’t stay to taste. It was a fairly typical moment considering how many wineries I visit, but this time I spotted something completely unexpected. It was a handmade jig for aligning labels on wine bottles.

The tool was obviously designed and built by a craftsman to improve the speed and accuracy of his own work. If you do any kind of wordworking, ceramics or craft of your own, you know what I mean. The tool had a beauty all its own, combining simplicity, functionality and humanity -- you could see that from the unmistakable patina on the wood, evidence of use by human hands.

I turned to the winemaker, Hamilton Nicholsen, and asked “Are you guys labeling your own bottles here?” It seemed impossible that the owners of a Napa Valley estate winery were hand-labeling bottles in a store-room, but tools don’t lie.

He shrugged and said “We do everything here.”

I started to test the meaning of “everything,” and it turned out Nicholsen wasn’t kidding. He and his brother Ron not only handle responsibilities in the vineyards and winery, they had remodeled their house into a family-style tasting room -- where their mother was pouring wine for visitors at that very moment. Their father had been growing grapes in Napa for a long time and was still at it, now that the family was making its own wine. When I asked about the odd color of the impressive new winery building across the way, Nicholsen apologized. “That’s the primer coat,” he said. “I just haven’t had time to finish painting it.”

It occurred to me that he had probably made that labeling jig in the store-room, too. Or his father had. Or his brother. Or his mother.

When I looked at the wine samples, I noticed that the Cabernet Sauvignon was from 2001, the Sauvignon Blanc from 2003. Both, in other words, had been given a year or two more barrel age than most wines, even from Napa Valley. Nicholsen explained why.

“We make our Sauvignon Blanc to peak between six to ten years of age, and our Cabernet is made to be at its best from ten years to fifty years. That’s what André Tchelistcheff said Napa Valley should do, and we respect that.”

To hear these words coming out of the mouth of a young winemaker made my heart glad. I meet so many who are looking to break the mold before they understand it. They don’t have to care about tradition because the barriers to entry in the wine business are shockingly low these days. A good score from the right critic and you’re set, regardless of where the wine came from or what it represents. For these winemakers, the legendary Tchelistcheff is the answer to an exam question, not an inspiration to exemplary enology.

So I asked Nicholsen where he went to school to study winemaking. "Here in the valley," he said. "I learned from other winemakers." I should have seen that answer coming.

At Kelham Vineyards, the traditions most of us long to find honored in the wine business are in fine shape. A hard-working family with roots in the region, mature vineyards that produce estate wines, and winemaking that aims at Napa Valley’s highest standards.

Plus some crafty tools in the back room.

- Thom Elkjer
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