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Q & A: Mark McWilliams of Arista Winery
By Tina Caputo
Jul 3, 2012
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People who live in other parts of the country often tell me how lucky I am to live in Northern California wine country, with its gorgeous vineyards, fantastic wines and sunny skies.  As much as I love it here, I tell them, it has nothing to do luck.  I was born and raised in suburban Michigan, but I decided soon after college graduation head West and make my own luck.  

Such was also the case with the McWilliams family of Texarkana, Texas, owners of Arista Winery in the Russian River Valley.  In the mid-1990s, after years of vacationing in Sonoma with his wife Janis and dreaming of a life among the vines, orthodontist Al McWilliams pitched in with his brother-in-law to buy a family vineyard estate in Cloverdale, in northern Sonoma County.  They planted grapes and became grape growers.

In 2002 they took the leap into winemaking with the launch of Arista Winery, a boutique winery devoted to Russian River Pinot.  Two years later, Al and Janis bought 36 acres of prime agricultural benchland on Westside Road in Healdsburg.

Today the family produces about 6,000 cases of wine each year, consisting mainly of Pinot, but also including Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer.  Running the winery is a family undertaking, with sons Mark and Ben now handling Arista’s day-to-day operations.

Although the McWilliamses are firmly rooted in Northern California now, they maintain a wonderful Texan sense of hospitality. 

I recently had the pleasure of joining Mark, along with his parents, for dinner at the winery, where we tasted through Arista’s current releases.  The Pinots range in style from light and elegant, with red fruit character, to rich and ripe, with lots of black fruit -- and the wines we tasted with dinner were just beautiful.  Arista’s 2010 Bacigalupi Pinot Noir stands out as one of the best California Pinots I’ve ever tasted.  (It quickly sold out at the winery, but you might be lucky enough to find a bottle online.  If you do, grab it!)

Even more memorable, I think, was the warm, welcoming demeanor of the McWilliams family. 

I checked in with Mark to find out more about Arista, and the ins and outs of running a small family winery. 
Wine Review Online (WRO):  How did you find out that your Texan family was getting into the California wine business?

Mark McWilliams (MM):  In 1994 my parents returned from a trip to Sonoma County and announced to us -- my siblings and I -- that they had found a piece of property in the Alexander Valley that they were going to purchase and plant to grapes.  It was a huge announcement for all of us.  I honestly don’t think any of us fully understood what we were getting into as a family! 

WRO:  What did they plant on that site?

MM:  The initial vineyard property was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but our true love was Pinot Noir.  So the decision was made to launch a brand focused on Pinot.  We made 500 cases of wine that year, and 10 years later we’ve grown to 6,000 cases and have added 30 acres of estate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.

WRO:  I understand you graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in corporate communications.  How did you learn about grape growing and winemaking?

MM:  My first job out of college was a summer vineyard position with Kendall Jackson in Sonoma County.  I had no clue what I was doing, but knew that I absolutely loved wine and wanted to pursue grape growing and winemaking as my career.  I think my first boss saw my genuine passion and enthusiasm and was willing to overlook my lack of knowledge early on.  I ended up spending four years working for K-J.  I’d spend spring and summer in the vineyards and then fall through winter in the cellar.

WRO:  What roles do you and the other members of your family play at the winery?

MM:  We’re a close family and share in many of the responsibilities of the business.  At this point, my parents have turned the daily operations over to me and my brother, Ben.  He and I have tried to divide out the business into areas we feel match our strengths and interests.  He’s responsible for overseeing the estate and running much of the operations, tasting room and staffing.  I oversee sales, marketing and vineyard relations with our growers.  I also assist with the winemaking.  But, as a small business we really overlap a lot in our responsibilities.  One day he could be out with our growers and I’m behind the bar in the tasting room. 

WRO:  Do you ever find it challenging to work with your family?

MM:  That’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job.  We occasionally have our little run-ins, but at the end of the day I know that my brother has our best interests in mind and he feels the same about me. 

WRO:  With such a small production, why does Arista make 14 different Pinot Noirs?

MM:  Pinot Noir, more than any other grape, is very site-specific and site-reflective.  The beauty of this variety is its ability to show its sense of place.  To me, one of the most exciting and educational things we can do is show that to our consumers.  We’ve really tried to stay focused primarily to Sonoma County and Mendocino County.  Within those appellations we do several site-specific, vineyard-designated wines.  Each one of these wines is unique and possesses individual tastes, textures and aromas.  They have different soil compositions, slope aspects, vine age, clonal differences, etc.  They really are a magnifier for terroir! 

WRO:  How would you describe Arista's winemaking philosophy?

MM:  Our philosophy from day one has been to invest heavily in vineyard sites, whether through purchasing and planting the land or seeking out vineyard partners that are fully committed to growing grapes to make world-class wines.  We believe a wine will only ever be as good as its site. 

WRO:  No special tricks in the cellar?

MM:  I find it funny when winemakers talk about all of the fancy things they do to the fruit once the grapes have been picked.  I always wonder if that’s to compensate for some other problem.  To me, the work should always be done in the vineyard so that when the fruit arrives, it becomes more of a caretaking process. 

WRO:  Tell me about Arista’s estate vineyards and what they mean to your family.

MM:  Driving the road to the property you’re literally passing the who’s who among the great producers and growers of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir:  Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Gary Farrell, Davis Bynum, Bacigalupi, and Allen, to name a few.  The last time anything was planted on our property was over 150 years ago.  This was great because we were starting with a blank canvas. 

We partnered up with a team of soil experts and quickly discovered that three very distinct soil types converged on our property.  So the idea quickly became planting to each site and viewing them as unique vineyards instead of one, large estate vineyard.  Now, fully planted, we have four different estate Pinot Noir vineyards:  Two Birds, Harper’s Rest, Bee Tree (just planted) and one that’s yet to be named.  It’s exciting to already begin to taste the distinct differences in the wines.

WRO:  Why did your family buy the Martinelli Road vineyard, and how will it fit into Arista’s wine program?

MM:  We always have on eyes open for unique opportunities, and began looking at the vineyard seriously last September.  We wanted to add to our estate portfolio, but didn’t want to add a vineyard for the sake of adding a vineyard.  We wanted something with true character, and something with history.  When we walked the Martinelli Road Vineyard for the first time it was obvious this place had both.  The site has been continuously farmed since 1870 and still has 5 acres of Zinfandel that was planted in 1880.  Owning 132 year-old Zinfandel vines that are strong and healthy is a very rare opportunity! We’ll immediately begin producing wines from this site in our estate program. 

WRO:  Who are some of your favorite growers to work with for non-estate fruit?

MM:  Can I say all of them? Honestly, we’re blessed to have each of the families we purchase fruit from as partners in this process.  We’re fortunate enough to work with some of the great names in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay:  Bacigalupi, Martinelli, Ferrington, Bucher, Ritchie, Ulises Valdez, Toboni, Mononi, and Perli.  I genuinely love working with each one of them because, from my perspective, I learn so much from them.  They are each so passionate and committed to their sites that it’s inspiring.  They have so many stories that span decades of farming that I try to absorb as much of their knowledge as I can when I walk their vineyards with them.     

WRO:  On the winemaking side, which California producers do you admire for Pinot and Chardonnay?

MM:  As some of the pioneers I love Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, and Rochioli.  I just recently had a 1975 Swan Chardonnay that blew my socks off.  It was so youthful and firm, it was the most amazing example of old California Chardonnay I’ve ever had.
As far as new-generation producers I love Holdredge, Kosta Browne, Rivers Marie, Siduri, and Ceritas.  They produce Pinot and Chardonnay in an array of styles, but each in their own right beautiful.  I really do appreciate varying styles of wine and try not to get in a rut of drinking one style or just one or two producers. 

WRO:  With the 4th of July coming up, and your family being from Texas, I have to ask about barbecue wines.  Which Arista wines would you recommend, and what will you be grilling?

MM:  The obvious answer is our 2010 Smokey Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel.  The lush, fruit-driven wine goes so well with the smoke of barbecue.  It’s firm enough to balance any sweetness but rich enough to handle spice.  I’ll be smoking several racks of ribs and a pork butt on my Big Green Egg.  We’ll have the Zinfandel with the ribs and our 2010 Mononi Vineyard Pinot Noir with the pork butt.

That being said, I’m still a Texan at heart so I’d be lying if I said there wouldn’t be some cold beer by the grill too!