Precise farming and cellar techniques yield fantastic wines at Jesse Katz’s boutique Sonoma winery.
Sneaking a glass of Chenin Blanc before a April 2020 virtual tasting of Aperture Cellars wines, I found myself humming Peggy Lee’s “I Know a Little Bit About a Lot of Things,” particularly the line “but I don’t know enough about you.” Clean on the palate and simply refreshing, this wine, to stick with the musical metaphor, instantly struck a chord. The tasting notes mentioned old vines whose maturity I assumed played a part in the wine’s underlying complexity, but I wanted to know more about why it pleased so much on so many levels.
As the other virtual tasters and I learned from founder and winemaker Jesse Katz, the Chenin grapes hail from the Clarksburg area a little south of Sacramento. This area has become known for the varietal, but I’ve tasted enough middling exemplars to be skeptical. Katz, who was asked by a restaurateur friend to create an aromatic low-alcohol wine to accompany oysters, found a special site he farms so precisely that, for instance, throughout the growing season he trims the canopy (the leaves) based on where and when the sun hits the grapes. With head-trained vines (think of bushy standalone vines rather than trellised ones), this is labor-intensive, but the effort shows in the wine.
In the cellar, Katz believes in barrel fermenting, in this case half in stainless barrels and half in once-used French oak. He keeps the temperature low to slow fermentation because this preserves freshness and enhances the aromatics.
This Chenin Blanc is the least expensive wine in Aperture’s portfolio but clearly received the same level of care and expertise as the single-vineyard Cabernets that have made the winery’s reputation. To rephrase Ms. Lee, Katz, whose experience includes stints at world-renowned wineries in California and beyond, knows a lot about the little things that make wines fantastic.
2018 Aperture Chenin Blanc. See above. It’s been a while since I’ve fallen in love with a Chenin Blanc from the Golden State, but this one is terrific. Bright and full-flavored, it’s Californian (as in not trying to be French) to its bones and proud of it.
2018 Aperture Cellars Sauvignon Blanc. For a wine fermented partly in neutral (previously used) barrels and with a kiss of new French oak to boot, this Sauvignon Blanc is notably clean and straightforward on the palate. As with the 2018 Chenin Blanc, Katz’s focus on the little things, starting with a vineyard in the relatively cool Bennett Valley appellation, makes the difference. In other winemakers’ hands, that new French oak’s influence on flavor and mouthfeel might call attention to itself, but with the 2018 no element outshines another, further elevating the wine.
2017 Aperture Cellars Right Bank Red Blend. Unable to use Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage of his accessible Bordeaux red because of the Wine Country fires (the varietal hadn’t been harvested yet), Katz improvised and created this soulful blend of Merlot (52%) and Malbec (48%). The vibrant red fruit of the former and bluer fruit and slightly grippy tannins of the latter make for a harmonious ensemble.
2016 Aperture Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. This splendid blend of Alexander Valley grapes (93% Cab, 7% Merlot) packs a subtle but powerful punch. One gets the feeling that the goal in the farming and winemaking was to extract as much concentrated flavor as possible without going overboard. Mission accomplished. With its marvelous mouthfeel and ultra-long finish, this wine would blind taste well against Napa Cabs at twice the price or more.
2016 Aperture Del Rio Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The mild surprise here isn’t that this supple wine is so rich and well-rounded but rather that it’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Katz could have blended anything he wanted into this wine; the fact that he didn’t tells you how good the grapes – and his winemaking – are. For our virtual tasting it was suggested we open the bottles two hours ahead. Good at that point, the 2016, decanted, was even better at six and, frankly, the next day.
Aperture’s hospitality center is open by appointment only. Andy Katz also shot this story’s lead photo.