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Keeping it Real in Napa Valley
By Tina Caputo
Jun 8, 2010
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A press release appeared in my electronic in-box a couple months ago, announcing the opening of a new Napa Valley winery.  The owner made a big ol’ pile of money in the video game industry, and used it to buy a few thousand acres of Napa Valley hillside.  Like many deep-pocketed newcomers to the scene, he recruited an all-star team to make his high-end Bordeaux-style wines.  He even went one better and hired the Valley’s most famous chef, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, to do the winery’s food pairings. 

While I’ve no doubt that this new winery is impressive, from its landscaping to its tasting room to its wines, I feel there’s something missing: a real story.  You could drop in the name of a half-dozen high-end Napa Valley Cab producers, and the scenario -- down to the names of the winemaking and vineyard consultants -- would be exactly the same.  Glitzy: yes.  Distinctive: not really.    

I’m much more interested in vintners who carve out their own paths. 

Amy Aiken of Meander and Conspire wines is a great example.  This driven, down-to-earth Napa Valley winemaker doesn’t own a winemaking facility, or even a vineyard.  An old barn on the property where she lives serves as her tasting room.  Not only does Aiken make her own wines, she does the marketing, too. 

Aiken’s first job as a teenager in Milwaukee, Wis., was at a plant nursery.  She liked the work, but when it came time to go to college, Aiken pursued a degree in engineering.  She didn’t exactly love it.  “I was bored to tears,” she said, “so my dad suggested that I study plants instead.” Aiken took her dad’s advice, and went on to earn a master’s degree in plant pathology at the University of California at Davis, which happens to be one of the world’s best schools for viticulture and winemaking studies. 

It was there that she met her future husband, Joel Aiken, who went off to work at Beaulieu Vineyards in the Napa Valley after earning his degree in enology.  Not about to let him get away, Amy headed Napa-ward in 1989 and landed a job in the lab at Joseph Phelps Vineyards.  While working with such legendary wines as Backus, Eisele and Insignia, Aiken discovered that she really liked the winemaking process -- and especially Napa Valley Cabernet.  She went on to further develop her skills at Oakville Ranch, Viader Vineyards and Anomaly Vineyards.

In 2000 Aiken decided that it was time to create a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon of her own: Meander.  It took her three years of hounding the growers at Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford and at Lewelling Vineyards in St. Helena to get the fruit she wanted -- but she got it.  Since its first vintage in 2003, Meander has been a 50-50 blend of grapes from the two vineyards.  She made just 570 cases of the 2006 vintage, a beautifully structured Cab with black fruit flavors and great balance.  (And unlike many of those trophy Cabs made by Napa newcomers, this one is sanely priced at $65 per bottle.)  She also makes a more up-market vineyard-designated Cab from Morisoli Vineyard that sells for $120. 

Conspiring for Variety

Because Aiken has a taste for adventure, she recently created a second brand -- Conspire -- that allows her to play with other varieties.  Her first vintage of Conspire was 2008 and so far, the line includes a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc from Rutherford (under 600 cases total).   

“Conspire started as a lark,” Aiken explained.  Great fruit became available, and she pounced on it.  The Sauvignon Blanc was born when a grower she’d been pursuing offered her some incredible fruit.  The catch?  She had to pick it up within 24 hours.  Aiken’s natural tenacity kicked in, and within a day, she’d found a truck to pick up the grapes and scrounged up the necessary fermentation tanks.  While this experience would leave some people frazzled, Aiken found it thrilling. 

Fittingly, the name “Conspire” refers to the plotting and scrambling that goes on behind the scenes between growers and winemakers. 

Despite being married to one of the Napa Valley’s most respected winemakers -- Joel resigned as Beaulieu’s VP of winemaking in 2009, after more than 25 years at the winery -- Aiken is fully confident in doing her own thing. 

“People sometimes ask me if my husband makes my wines,” she said.  “But we both know our stuff and we learn from each other.”  Amy and Joel often exchange tasting feedback or check each other’s fermentation temperatures, she said, but the wines are truly their own.  

To get your hands on some of Aiken’s terrific wines, you can join the mailing list at the Meander Wines website, or contact her through the site to arrange a tasting visit.  But don’t expect to find a glamorous showplace, or overpriced trophy wines -- you’ll find those at the new winery with the superstar consultants, just over the hill.